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Lions' injured 2014 picks are 'rookies' but also a year behind

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

In the 1993 NFL draft, Nebraska guard Will Shields kept falling. Former Washington general manager Charley Casserly said his staff had Shields rated in the middle of the first round, but with a third-round pick, the team selected Central Florida linebacker Rick Hamilton instead because it had other young offensive linemen on the roster.

Shields, of course, went three picks later to Kansas City, made the Pro Bowl 12 times and earned induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year. Hamilton was on a different team by 1994 and out of the league after the 1996 season.

"We figured, 'Well we've got these young linemen, they'll come along,' so we took other positions," said Casserly, now an NFL Network analyst. "And it was a major mistake, and I learned from it. After that, it didn't make any difference who we had. If he was the best player of the board, we took him."

In many ways, the Lions will be dealing with similar scenarios in the 2015 draft. Their 2014 class was mostly unproductive as injuries shortened the season of many of the picks, but the Lions will rely on some of those players to play an integral role next season unless they find upgrades in the draft.

At some point this offseason, someone — be it a player, coach or general manager Martin Mayhew — might say the limited playing time of the 2014 class effectively gives the Lions two rookie groups next year, but it's always perilous to rely on more unproven players.

"General managers will always say that publicly because it makes them look better, but (those players are) also a year behind really," NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein said.

Casserly, the GM in Washington from 1989-99 and Houston from 2002-06, said executives "absolutely" look at a situation like the Lions' as an opportunity to have two rookie classes, but said untested players shouldn't impact how a team drafts. Mayhew said last week his staff evaluates its draft process each year and tries to make it better, but the 2014 class initially appeared to be a step back from the 2013 haul.

First-round tight end Eric Ebron played the most of the group, but in 13 games, he had just 25 catches for 248 yards and one touchdown. Still, many analysts think he should take a significant step forward next season. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein said Ebron could be better by "leaps and bounds" because he now understands what it takes to play in the NFL.

"Last year when I watched the Lions, I expected more out of Ebron," Zierlein said. "It was just clear that he looked like a rookie. He didn't look like the guy that I saw at North Carolina, and I know that that's the norm for rookie tight ends because they have to get used to facing bigger and more physical players. They have to get used to better athletes covering them in the slot."

Behind Ebron, second-round outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy missed the first eight games after undergoing core muscle surgery and played just 54 defensive snaps. Next season, he'll compete for the starting strong-side linebacker spot with Tahir Whitehead and Josh Bynes.

Third-round offensive lineman Travis Swanson appeared in all 16 games, but played significantly on the line in just five games, four at right guard and one at center. The Lions expect him to be the starting center, but if they draft a better center, he could move to left guard.

The first of the Lions' fourth-round picks, cornerback Nevin Lawson, played 61 defensive snaps in two games before a foot injury put him on injured reserve. The second fourth-rounder, defensive end Larry Webster, didn't appear in any games.

Fifth-round defensive tackle Caraun Reid made 12 appearances, but played just 112 snaps. Sixth-round receiver TJ Jones (shoulder) missed the entire season on the physically unable to perform list. And seventh-round kicker Nate Freese was cut after three games.

"Now, part of the uncertainty is because you haven't seen those players much, what do you have in them?" Casserly said, speaking generally not just on the Lions. "But unless a guy's really proven he can do it, you can't count on him yet. So, I don't think it affects your draft planning, but from the point of view of your team, it's like having two drafts because you've got these players that can help you who you were counting on last year that didn't help you."

Casserly showed he learned from passing on Shields when Washington took running back Stephen Davis in the fourth round 1996 despite having Terry Allen. Once Allen left in 1999, Davis had three consecutive 1,300-yard rushing seasons.

With so little experience, the Lions' draft class last year is currently viewed as poor, though it normally takes three years to evaluate a draft. Whether the players live up to the billing is anyone's guess, but "you also can't write those guys off because you just don't know what they're going to do," Zierlein said.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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