Katzenstein: Trickle-down from passing on Donald costs Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Eric Ebron

The Lions never should've drafted Eric Ebron.

And I say this as someone who's more bullish on his talent and potential than most people in Metro Detroit. It was pure stupidity to call him a bust as a 21-year-old rookie, especially considering some of the people saying that probably are excited to see Matthew Stafford at age 28. Ebron has played much better this season, so hopefully his trainer doesn't read this to him along with mean tweets.

This has everything to do with Aaron Donald, the supremely talented defensive tackle on the St. Louis Rams. Had the Lions selected Donald with the 10th pick in 2014, there's a chance General Manager Martin Mayhew could've avoided the chain reaction that led to his dismissal last week.

It's no coincidence the two men who most supported the Ebron selection — Mayhew and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi — were among the first men fired after a 1-7 start this season.

Again, Ebron is just 22, so it's tough to project just how good he could be. For all we know, Ebron could develop into a Hall of Famer. But the only way his selection over Donald would've been correct is if Ebron somehow plays a key role in a Super Bowl run, one that Mayhew won't be around to enjoy.

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Less than two years after the draft, it's completely clear that Donald absolutely should've been the Lions' pick and not just because he has 13.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in his first 24 NFL games.

Entering the 2014 season, the Lions knew Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley were pending free agents, and clearly, the hubris of Mayhew and President Tom Lewand with regard to re-signing Suh cost them dearly when he signed with the Dolphins.

But, in addition to softening the loss of Suh, drafting Donald would've prevented the Lions from giving away key assets to fill the defensive tackle spots.

At the start of free agency, the Lions sent their fourth- and fifth-round picks in 2015 to Baltimore for 31-year-old Haloti Ngata. The Lions also received a seventh-round pick, but later traded that and defensive end George Johnson to Tampa Bay to recoup a fifth-round pick, one that became fullback Michael Burton.

After signing Tyrunn Walker in free agency, the Lions had their starting defensive tackle duo, but with Caraun Reid, a fifth-rounder in 2014, the top backup, Mayhew turned to the draft to add another reinforcement.

In the fourth round the Lions took Gabe Wright, but traded a 2016 third-round pick to the Eagles to take him.

Effectively, the Lions gave up four mid-round picks to add two defensive tackles, and with a 1-7 start this season, Philadelphia likely will be picking near the top of the third round. Meanwhile, the prized possession, Ngata, is only under contract this year and has not played up to his $8.5 million price tag.

In theory, the Lions would've seen enough from Donald as a rookie that he would've been the No. 3 guy behind Suh and Fairley or leapfrogged Fairley early. At the very least, Donald would've started in Fairley's place the last eight games of the year after his knee injury.

Then, with Suh and Fairley leaving last March, the Lions could've targeted a couple relatively cheap free agents to play next to Donald, though there would've been another hole because Reid probably wouldn't be on the team.

Aaron Donald

Regardless of the moves that followed, the Lions would've been in a much better position defensively for 2015 with Donald and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah presenting a difficult challenge for opposing offensive lines, and their second-ranked defense in 2014 would've been even better.

Projecting the nine picks ahead of them, the Lions narrowed down their list to three likely targets with the 10th pick — linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Justin Gilbert and Ebron. Gilbert went eighth to the Browns and has been a total disappointment so far; Barr went ninth to the Vikings and has become a diverse playmaker.

Meanwhile, at least a couple scouts loved Odell Beckham Jr., the spectacular wide receiver who went 12th overall to the Giants. The need for Beckham, though, was lessened by the Lions signing wide receiver Golden Tate in the offseason.

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At least a couple coaches loved Donald, who shined at Pittsburgh and absolutely dominated the Senior Bowl before going 13th to the St. Louis Rams.

Mayhew declined to answer a couple weeks ago when asked why Donald wasn't the pick. One common knock against Donald was being slightly shorter than 6-foot-1. But he was a perfect fit for the Lions' attacking style of defensive line play, which requires a quick first step from the players. And Donald's is among the quickest in the NFL.

Around the NFC North

* The Packers (6-2) lost to the Panthers, 37-29. The game wouldn't have been that close if not for an impressive comeback effort by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but Green Bay's 23rd-ranked defense is becoming problematic.

* The Vikings (6-2) beat the Rams, 21-18 in overtime, and the game provided another sign that Mike Zimmer is different than most coaches around the league. He thinks differently — taking the wind in overtime — and talks differently — calling out Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for a cheap shot on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

* The Bears (2-5) play in San Diego Monday night.

Around the NFL

* It's a shame Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will miss more time with a foot injury. Not only is he one of the best signal-callers in the NFL, but without him, it'll be a lot harder for star receiver Antonio Brown to have games with 284 receiving yards, as he did Sunday in a win over the Raiders.

* The Dolphins (3-5) proved Sunday they're just not good, falling to the Bills for the second time this year, allowing an absurd 266 rushing yards.

* The Falcons (6-3) might not be nearly as good as their record indicates as they lost to a 49ers team with Blaine Gabbert playing quarterback.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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