Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews had 112 catches for 1,477 yards and 7 TDs in 2013. He is expected to be a first-round draft pick. (Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)
Mobile, Ala. — Coaching the Senior Bowl proved to be a fruitful venture for the Lions’ coaching staff last season as the team drafted three participants from the annual all-star game.
Although the Lions won’t be coaching the annual college all-star game this week, Jim Caldwell’s staff and team scouts will have an up-close look at some of the nation’s most talented seniors this week at Ladd Peebles Stadium.
Last year Jim Schwartz and his staff coached the South team and ran pro-style practices all week, and two members of that team — first-round defensive end Ziggy Ansah and third-round offensive guard Larry Warford — had productive rookie seasons in Detroit. The Lions also drafted tight end Michael Williams, another Senior Bowl participant, in the seventh round, but he spent the season on injured reserve after breaking his hand.
Schwartz’s staff also coached the Senior Bowl in 2010 where they saw Wayne State running back Joique Bell. Even though the Lions didn’t draft him, the Benton Harbor native has been productive with the Lions since signing at the end of the 2011 season.
The coaching staffs from the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars will coach the North and South teams, respectively, and even though the Lions have to watch practice from the sideline, they’ll still have an opportunity to interview select players to get a jump on draft preparation.
The Lions could afford to upgrade at several positions in 2014, but looking ahead to May’s draft, wide receiver and cornerback are the most glaring weaknesses on the roster.
Unfortunately for the Lions, two of the top cornerbacks in the draft — Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard and Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert — declined invitations, but there is still plenty of talent in the game.
Here are 10 guys the Lions should be watching as well as four local players participating:
WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: At 6-foot-3 and 206 pounds, Matthews has good size for an outside receiver, which is something the Lions desperately need. Despite SEC defenses focusing on Matthews in 2013, he finished with 112 catches for 1,477 yards and seven touchdowns. That production has many analysts thinking he’ll be a first-round pick.
S Ahmad Dixon, Baylor: Dixon is the third-best safety in the draft, according to ESPN, and could be a good second- or third-round option. Baylor’s defense was much better than expected in 2013 and the 6-foot, 209-pound Dixon was a big reason why.
S Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois: ESPN ranks Ward as the No. 6 safety in the draft, but he was one of the best defensive playmakers in the Mid-American Conference, leading the Huskies with 95 tackles and seven interceptions this year. Last year, Florida International safety John Cyprien impressed in the Senior Bowl enough to be the first pick in the second round (Jacksonville), and Ward could be the small-school player to mirror that rise.
C Travis Swanson, Arkansas: The Lions will probably re-sign Dominic Raiola after his outstanding season, but should start looking to the future at center. Swanson has good size at 6-foot-4 and 304 pounds and is the top center in the draft, according to ESPN, though he’s rated as a mid-round pick.
CB Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma: Colvin is the top cornerback in the Senior Bowl and is the eighth-best cornerback in the draft, according to ESPN. He has good length at 6-foot and is multi-dimensional with five tackles for loss and a sack for the Sooners in 2013.
QB Derek Carr, Fresno State: No, the Lions won’t pick a quarterback early in the draft, but Carr’s performance this week could affect them. If he cements his status as a top-10 pick, the Lions could be in position to trade down from the No. 10 pick. The Lions could also see Carr land in the division with the Vikings, who pick eighth.
WR Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: Abbrederis had a great career for the Badgers with 3,140 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. He isn’t the flashiest receiver, but at 6-foot-2, he’s a solid outside receiver who will likely be selected in the first three rounds.
OLB Kyle Van Noy, BYU: If new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin wants to blitz more next season, the Lions could look for an athletic linebacker early in the draft. Van Noy had 17 tackles for loss, four sacks and two interceptions this year.
DE Kareem Martin, North Carolina: Even though Jason Jones will return in 2014, the Lions could still use more edge rushers after finishing 28th in the NFL with 33 sacks. Martin had 11.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss in 2013 and has great size at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds. He’s the sixth-best defensive end in the draft, according to ESPN.
CB Chris Davis, Auburn: Davis doesn’t have the coverage skills the Lions need in a No. 1 cornerback, but his athleticism is undeniable and could be an asset in the later rounds. He scored the game-winning touchdown in this year’s Iron Bowl, returning a missed Alabama field goal 109 yards.
Players with Michigan ties
S Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State: Lewis played a key role in the Spartans’ magical Rose Bowl-winning season and was a three-year starter in East Lansing. In 2013, Lewis had two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. ESPN ranks him the 10th-best safety in the draft.
OT Michael Schofield, Michigan: At 6-foot-7, 304 pounds, Schofield has the length pro scouts look for in a tackle, but could afford to add a little weight. He started the past two seasons at right tackle and started 10 games at left guard as a sophomore. That versatility will help him. ESPN has him listed as the No. 15 offensive tackle.
WR Jeff Janis, Saginaw Valley State: The Tawas City native had a great college career, which is why he earned an invite as a Division II player. In his senior season at Saginaw Valley, Janis had 83 catches for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns. Though he’ll need to prove himself against FBS talent, Janis’ 6-foot-3, 218-pound frame will help him impress scouts.
TE Jacob Pedersen, Wisconsin: Pedersen is from Menominee, a city in the upper peninsula on the northeast border of Wisconsin. Although the Badgers are a run-first team, Pedersen produced when called upon and finished his career with 17 touchdowns and averaged 13.4 yards per reception. At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Pedersen is more of a pass-catching tight end. ESPN ranks him No. 7 at his position.