May 12, 2014 at 9:49 am

John Niyo

Lions' draft class mirrors last year's haul

Allen Park — Martin Mayhew liked his 2013 draft class so much, he decided to duplicate it.

Or at least that’s how it seemed in hindsight, as the Lions general manager stepped onto the podium one last time Saturday evening and reviewed an eight-player group that’ll get its first on-field work later this week at the team’s rookie minicamp.

The Lions started off the top with a raw, athletic playmaker in Eric Ebron, a pass-catching tight end who’ll be asked to do for the offense what first-round pick Ziggy Ansah was asked to do for the defense a year ago.

And from there, Mayhew followed a similar pattern, adding a likely defensive starter in the second round and an SEC-tested interior lineman in the third, before stocking up on developmental talent to begin Day 3.

Throw in a late-round specialist who’s expected to make the final roster cut — last year it was punter Sam Martin, this year it’s kicker Nate Freese — along with an offensive skill-position standout from Notre Dame (Theo Riddick, TJ Jones) and it’s practically a carbon copy.

There’s even the obligatory intellectual. A year ago, they brought in linebacker Brandon Hepburn, a biochemistry major who studied nanoparticles, and Saturday the Lions drafted Caraun Reid, a defensive tackle out of Princeton who’s also a late-round sleeper.

But when everything was finished this weekend, the question again was about the starters, and whether Mayhew felt he’d followed his own Rule of Thirds. He’d talked earlier in the week about wanting to find three starters, three contributors and three projects in every rookie class.

That’s something the Lions failed to do in 2011 and ’12, and it’s a big reason why they never duplicated that rare playoff showing of a few years ago.

Immediate impact

But last year’s draft produced four immediate starters: Ansah, cornerback Darius Slay, guard Larry Warford and punter Sam Martin, though Slay lost his job to veteran Rashean Mathis after some early struggles.

And while Mayhew wasn’t ready to make any projections about this group — “I mean, these guys haven’t even gotten here yet,” he laughed — the Lions certainly think they found a few rookie starters in Ebron, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and Freese.

“That was our goal going in,” Mayhew said. “We feel good about it. We’ll see how it goes.”

It goes without saying, but the Lions — and their new coaching staff — could use some help getting over the hump, though I do think all the defensive-minded angst from the fans misses the bigger picture.

Help wanted: 'Closers'

The Ebron pick was immediately panned, and I understand that. But just remember, the Lions ranked first in the NFL in both third-down defense and red-zone defense last season.

They were sixth-best in the league against the run, and their defensive passer rating (19th) actually looked a lot like their offensive passer rating (18th), with turnovers playing a critical role.

The Lions were 28th in sacks and 20th in forced turnovers, and when the offense sputtered down the stretch — a mess of fumbles, dropped passes and Matthew Stafford’s interceptions — that all led to a huge missed opportunity. Detroit was tied or held a lead in the fourth quarter in all but one game in 2013, yet somehow managed to finish 7-9.

That’s why you heard Sheldon White, the team’s pro personnel director, telling season-ticket holders at a town-hall meeting last month the Lions were looking for “closers” in the draft. And it’s why you heard Caldwell raving about Van Noy, the versatile linebacker who actually had more sacks (26) than No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney in college.

“Kyle is that kind of player,” Caldwell said. “He’s a closer. He’s a difference-maker.”

Mayhew expects Caldwell and his staff to make a difference, too, obviously. And as the real meat of the offseason draws closer — rookie minicamp this week, full-team OTAs the next — that’ll be where our focus shifts.

But for now, it does seem as if the offseason roster retooling is a bit more focused on some of those self-starter intangibles like accountability and reliability.

“That’s gonna be a big part of what we’re trying to do this year,” Mayhew said. “It’s getting that extra first down. It’s getting that third-down stop when we have to have it. It’s rising up in those pressure situations and making those plays. And that was what really cost us last year.”

And therein lies the problem with draft grades. Finding starters isn’t the hardest part of the job. It’s finding starters who can finish the job.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Lions first-round draft pick Eric Ebron broke out into laughter several times after arriving in Allen Park for his press conference. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
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