April 29, 2013 at 6:00 pm

John Niyo

Lions rookies had better play right away

The learning curve will be slight for draft picks like DE Ziggy Ansah, here meeting team president Tom Lewand, as they will be expected to contribute immediately. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

Allen Park -- When it comes to the NFL draft, the rush to judgment is inevitable. But for the Lions, the rush to play this year's rookie class might be, too.

And if there's an implicit message delivered along with the nine selections the Lions made over the three-day draft, it's probably this: The fans aren't the only ones expecting more out of this group.

Bigger, stronger, faster? Fine, sounds great. Now let's see it.

After getting precious little help early from his last two rookie classes, and particularly from last year's bunch that did next to nothing for a 4-12 team that did about the same, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew knows there's no time for training wheels anymore in Allen Park.

This draft class, led by an inexperienced pass rusher in BYU's Ziggy Ansah, has to be ready to play — and produce — right away. And that's not just the external view.

"I think that's a fair statement," Mayhew acknowledged Saturday, after he'd wrapped up his fifth draft as GM. "But it's also fair to say we had more holes coming into this draft — or more holes that we knew about — than we did last year."

Not ready for prime time

Fair enough. A year ago, they fooled themselves — and plenty of others — into thinking otherwise. The Lions returned 21 of 22 starters from a team that'd finally made it back to the playoffs in 2011, and instead of drafting like there was no tomorrow last April, Mayhew made his picks as if there were no today.

His first-round pick — Riley Reiff, billed as the team's left tackle of the future — started one game at that position last season. The second-round receiver widely panned as a luxury pick, Ryan Broyles, wasn't ready until midseason, then caught 22 passes before suffering another major knee injury. The three cornerbacks added to a suspect secondary combined for just seven starts and one interception. The two linebackers combined for 14 tackles. The defensive end played just one snap on defense.

This season, it'll be closer to a dozen returning starters for Jim Schwartz and his revamped staff, with a handful of first-timers and at least a few rookies — maybe more — topping the depth chart at a variety of positions.

"We do expect a lot of those guys — especially guys that we took early — to be on the field pretty quickly," Mayhew said.

That's both by necessity and by design, as the Lions began their makeover in free agency and then appeared to make a more concerted effort to match talent with need in the war room.

The team's three biggest needs entering the draft were at defensive end, on the offensive line and at cornerback, probably in that order. The first three draft picks were a defensive end (Ansah), a cornerback (Darius Slay) and a right guard (Larry Warford) who will all be expected to either start or play regularly beginning in Week 1.

Picks fill needs

The rest of the picks also met needs, most notably the additions of defensive end Devin Taylor — another power forward in pads — and tight end Michael Williams, who should fill an overlooked role that Will Heller (and Reiff) shared last season. Even that surprising fifth-round selection of a heavy-footed punter, Appalachian State's Sam Martin, made some sense, albeit not that soon.

Schwartz jokingly downplayed Martin's presumptive starting role — "Let's not turn him into Ray Guy yet," he cautioned — but if he's not flipping the field in the fall for the Lions that'll be a wasted pick.

"There were a couple guys in the mix, especially late, that we felt had a better opportunity to make our team and contribute right away that we targeted instead of some other guys," Mayhew said.

"I think that was a factor, especially late in the process. … There were some guys who we knew if this guy comes in, he's in this role, he makes our team — and that was important to us."

It had to be, whether or not Mayhew and Schwartz want to admit it heading into a prove-it season for both.

A year ago, the Lions' brain trust was counting on continuity. Now they're counting on an equally risky proposition: youth.

You can probably bank on Mayhew adding some more veterans on the offensive and defensive lines via free agency or trades in the next few months. But particularly in the trenches, the Lions are relying on their coaching staff to get production out of these bigger, faster, stronger — and younger — bodies, whether it's Reiff protecting Matthew Stafford's blind side or Ansah and Taylor getting their hands on Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler.

This draft wasn't about roster "maintenance," as some of the NFL's well-heeled franchises like to call it. This was about roster retrofitting, and the chief mechanic better hope these new parts work.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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CB Darius Slay, Mississippi State

Round / pick: 2 / 36
Height / weight: 6-0 / 192
Hometown: Brunswick, Ga.
College: In 13 starts last year, he had 40 tackles, six passes defended, a blocked kick and five interceptions.

G Larry Warford, Kentucky

Round / pick: 3 / 65
Height / weight: 6-3 / 333
Hometown: Richmond, Ky.
College: Warford started 37 games from 2010-12. As a senior, he was named first-team All-SEC and a second-team All-American.

DE Devin Taylor, South Carolina

Round / pick: 4 /132
Height / weight: 6-7 / 276
Hometown: Beaufort, S.C.
College: Taylor started 40 games and finished his career with 161 tackles, 18.5 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss. He also forced two fumbles, recovered five, deflected 16 passes, caught two interceptions and blocked a punt.

P Sam Martin, Appalachian State

Round / pick: 5 / 165
Height/weight: 6-1 / 205
Hometown: Fayetteville, Ga.
College: Martin was third in the FCS in gross punting in 2012, averaging 45.9 yards. He averaged 63.1 yards per kickoff and 45 of his 71 kicks were touchbacks.

WR Corey Fuller, Virginia Tech

Round / pick: 6 / 171
Height / weight: 6-2 / 204
Hometown: Baltimore, Md.
College: Fuller walked on at Virginia Tech in 2010 after transferring from Kansas. He started eight games in 2012, played in all 13 and finished with 43 catches for 834 yards and six TDs.

RB Theo Riddick, Notre Dame

Round / pick: 6 / 199
Height / weight: 5-9 / 200
Hometown: Manville, N.J.
College: During his senior season, Riddick had 917 rushing yards, 370 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns. He eclipsed 400 receiving yards in 2010 and 2011 and averaged 22.95 yards as a kick returner in 2009.

TE Michael Williams, Alabama

Round / pick: 7 / 211
Height / weight: 6-6 / 269
Hometown: Reform, Ala.
College: Williams started 40 games at Alabama and won two national titles. Williams had 21 receptions for 166 yards and three TDs in 2012.

LB Brandon Hepburn, Florida A&M

Round / pick: 7 / 245
Height / weight: 6-2 / 240
Hometown: Pomona, N.Y.
College: As a senior in 2012, Hepburn had 86 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, seven passes defensed and a forced fumble.