Allen Park — It's too early to tell if the Lions are playing it smart in this draft, but they sure aren't playing it safe. With their first three picks, they grabbed one of the riskiest players, then followed with one of the fastest and one of the biggest.
More important than that, the Lions seem to be subtly shading their philosophy, taking players at positions of enormous need. For instance, on the defense, and on the offensive line, and on the big-play scale. This looks more like the best-player-available-who-might-fill-a-gaping-hole approach, and it's what teams must do when urgency rises.
Martin Mayhew selected swift Mississippi State cornerback Darius Slay in the second round Friday night, then landed (figuratively) 333-pound Kentucky offensive guard Larry Warford in the third. Along with first-round defensive end Ziggy Ansah, the Lions are betting on upsides, which does have a downside. But when you're coming off a 4-12 season and have a defense that can go entire months without making a big play, you give it a shot.
It's impossible to unequivocally applaud the Ansah and Slay picks because of the risks, but it's equally impossible to overlook the enticing possibilities. Both need to make an immediate impact, even if Ansah is a fast-developing project. He didn't start playing football until three years ago and started only nine games at BYU, but is considered one of the NFL draft's all-time physical freaks. Mel Kiper Jr. said no player in his 35 years of analysis has had a more meteoric rise than Ansah.
That gets Lions fans gurgling with excitement, even if meteors generally suffer the same unfortunate, fiery fate. Not to go all astronomy on you, but the Lions are way overdue to spot a rare one. That's also what they're looking for from Slay, who ran the fastest 40 time (4.36) for cornerbacks at the NFL combine and has good size (6-foot, 192 pounds). But he recently was discovered to have a torn meniscus in the knee that he said won't require surgery.
Bigger and faster
The Lions insist they're "comfortable" with the prognosis, and I'll loosely translate that for you: We don't care if his knee operates on a rusty hinge, we need some fast guys, any fast guys, to make plays on defense.
"We came into this draft with an objective — we wanted to get bigger, we wanted to get faster and we wanted to get more athletic," Mayhew said. "A guy like Ziggy Ansah, the athlete that he is, the size that he brings to the defensive end position, and Darius Slay, the size he brings to it. Our division is very physical, and we've got to be able to physically match up with these guys."
Mayhew said this even before the Lions took the mammoth Warford, who addresses the interior of the wobbly offensive line. Schwartz has lamented defenses' ability to bring inside pressure on Matthew Stafford, so you knew a big lineman was on the shopping list. It also wouldn't be bad to see the Lions convert a third-and-short with a power run every now and then.
This likely cements Riley Reiff, last year's first-rounder, as the left tackle. Reiff was a safe pick then and a safe player now. Partly out of happenstance — the nature of this draft class coinciding with the team's gnawing needs — the Lions have taken a few more leaps of faith.
If Ansah is as classic a boom-or-bust prospect as you can imagine, Slay and Warford qualify to a lesser degree. Slay was considered a first-rounder by many and definitely was worth the risk. Now the Lions have a batch of young cornerbacks vying to turn the secondary from awful to adequate, and I bet Slay pushes last year's third-rounder, Bill Bentley, to start opposite Chris Houston.
Not stretching it
Mayhew and Schwartz say they mostly followed their draft board and didn't reach for need, and perhaps that's accurate. But at least they seem more cognizant of the intersection between availability and necessity.
"We certainly have been fortunate that way," Schwartz said. "We obviously had a big hole at defensive end and we had the opportunity to draft a really good player there. One of the positions we had an area of need was corner and we were able to get a guy that we felt very strong at there. … I can honestly say we have not stretched our board for need."
The Lions have four more rounds Saturday to hunt for help, and they still need plenty — offensive tackle, wide receiver, defensive end. But just beneath the stench of a 4-12 team are key remnants of a 10-6 playoff team. With an improved offensive line, a quicker secondary and, possibly, a pass-rushing demon, the Lions believe they could leap back up.
They might be wishing on the bright tail of a meteor, but hey, extreme times call for finding players capable of extreme measures.