Lions' late-round picks, undrafted players who paid dividends

By Nolan Bianchi
Special to The Detroit News

The official start of summer is quickly approaching, and you know what that means: Time to talk pro football.

Ah, June.

Running back Zach Zenner signed on as an undrafted free agent in 2015 from South Dakota State.

But hey, the Lions are likely the closest thing to a professional contender this city’s got right now. If nothing else — save Steve Yzerman’s pending vision for the Red Wings — the Lions at least appear have the clearest sense of direction.

That said, the internet is abuzz with some developments that came out of mandatory minicamp, which took place last Tuesday through Thursday in Allen Park. 

But while we know, for example, that first-round pick T.J. Hockenson projects to be in the Lions’ gameday lineup come Week 1, the same guarantee cannot be made for wide receiver Travis Fulgham or running back Ty Johnson, who were taken in the sixth round of April’s draft. What are the chances those guys, or other late-round picks like tight end Isaac Nauta and defensive end P.J. Johnson, make the final 53-man roster? How many of the Lions’ 13 undrafted rookie free agents will be on the sideline in pads on Sept. 8?

Speculation, as they say, is for the birds. Instead, we’re going to take a look at some late-round picks from the last decade that turned out to provide either temporary or long-term solutions.


►OT Tyrell Crosby, 5th round (No. 153 overall)

A Lions offensive line riddled with injuries allowed 2018 fifth-round pick Tyrell Crosby to make his way into the rotation during his rookie year. He picked up starts in Weeks 14 (at Arizona) and 15 (at Buffalo) and performed about as admirably as one might hope for a Day-3 pick in eight other appearances.

It’s still unclear how the Lions’ offensive line will shake out under the oversight of new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. While there’s no guarantee that Crosby will be an impact player in the revamped scheme, a Pro Football Focus rating of 70.0 in a limited rookie campaign is a good sign that Quinn’s fifth-round selection a year ago was a valuable one.

►CB Mike Ford, undrafted

It would have been tough to find anybody in the Lions facility last that wasn’t disappointed with the play of second-year corner Teez Tabor.

The only one who might have been OK with it? Corner Mike Ford, who earned a call-up from the practice squad and started opposite of Darius Slay in Week 11 and played in all six remaining games.

Ford’s play didn’t necessarily blow anybody away, and with the additions of corners Rashaan Melvin, Justin Coleman and fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye, it’s up in the air as to whether he’ll even make the roster this upcoming season. Still, the Lions signed 13 undrafted rookies to contract following April’s draft, and even if they don’t make the 53-man roster for opening day, Ford’s journey to the starting lineup is a great reminder that final cuts aren’t always as final as they seem.

Jamal Agnew


►CB/Returner Jamal Agnew, 5th  (No. 165) 

Alongside cornerback Darius Slay, Agnew in 2017 became the first Lion to receive All-Pro honors since Ndamukong Suh was given consecutive nods in 2013 and '14.

The fifth-rounder out of San Diego torched punt protection units his rookie year, averaging 15.4 yards per return and scoring twice to earn his selection among the NFL’s best. A knee injury cut Agnew’s second-year campaign short, and while he didn’t have the same production when he was healthy, is once again on the shortlist for the most exciting Lions players to watch in 2019.


DT Anthony Zettel, 6th (No. 202)

Zettel didn’t have a long time in Detroit, but he did have a good time. He started every game on Detroit’s subpar defensive line in 2017 and came up with 6½ sacks, 11 tackles-for-loss and 43 tackles as a second-year defender.

Though that mark wasn’t good enough to get him past 2018’s roster cuts with the Lions, Zettel did catch on as a rotation player with Cleveland, where he made 14 tackles — including three for-loss — in 15 games as a backup a season ago. Whether he’ll be able to keep his job with the Browns after another training camp remains to be seen, but if nothing else, Zettel is inching toward the average NFL service time of 3.3 years. Not bad for a sixth-round selection.

Lions cornerback Quandre Diggs


►CB Quandre Diggs, 6th (No. 200)

Probably the most notable name on this list, Diggs enters his fifth year with the Detroit as a cornerstone of Matt Patricia’s defense.

What the former sixth-round pick out of Texas lacks in size, he makes up for with coverage versatility and a knack for causing devastation with his 5-foot-9, 200-pound frame.

Diggs graded out at 72.7 by Pro Football Focus in 2018, good enough for 30th among all safeties, and has room to grow this season with his 27th birthday still a few months away.

RB Zach Zenner, undrafted

Zenner walked into an interesting situation after making the Lions as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2015.

He suffered fractured ribs and a collapsed lung in mid-October, ending his first season just six games in. Meanwhile, Detroit, who opened the season 1-6, fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi midseason and finished dead last in team rushing yards after riding the air assault of Jim Bob Cooter to a 7-9 record.

But Zenner, a perennial 2,000-yard rusher at South Dakota State, managed to stick around. He’s shown flashes of excitement intermittently in three seasons since. He made four starts, scored four touchdowns and averaged 3.8 yards per carry in his sophomore campaign, and while his numbers dropped a bit in 2017, Zenner got back on track in limited action a season ago and signed a one-year extension with the Lions in March.


►WR T.J. Jones, 6th (No. 189)

Jones has bounced in and out of the mix since being selected by the Lions 189th overall in the 2014 draft. He got six starts in 2017 as the fourth wideout behind Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Kenny Golladay, putting up career numbers in yards (399) and receptions (30).

But despite the Lions sending Tate to Philadelphia midseason and losing Jones to a knee injury in early November the following season, Jones struggled in 2018 to match those numbers. He caught just 19 passes for 190 yards.

Jones’ future in Detroit is up in the air after the Lions loaded up with receivers in the draft and free agency — adding another, former Seattle Seahawk Jermaine Kearse, on Thursday — but regardless of whether he’ll play another season in the Motor City, it’s probably safe to say that the Lions got more miles out of Jones than they expected when selecting him out of Notre Dame in the sixth round more than five years ago.

Running back Theo Riddick


►RB Theo Riddick, 6th (No. 199)

Another Notre Dame product taken by Detroit in the sixth round, Riddick made his money during his first few years in the NFL primarily by catching passes out of the backfield.

His production in the Lions’ 2015 air assault — which finished ninth in the league that season — was the highest of his career; Riddick caught 80 passes for 697 yards and three touchdowns before taking over a bigger role in the running game in 2016.

Riddick enters his seventh season in the league as part of a logjam in Detroit’s backfield. Could his time in Detroit come to an end to make room for running back Ty Johnson, a rookie out of Maryland with exceptional breakaway speed and fellow sixth-round selection, on the 53-man roster?


►LB Tahir Whitehead, 5th (No. 138)

Whitehead saw minimal playing time his rookie and sophomore campaigns before earning a starting spot for the Lions in 2014, the year Detroit’s defense finished second in team defense.

He snagged two interceptions and made 91 tackles, and while he took a backseat to Stephen Tulloch at the middle-linebacker position the following season, earned a two-year extension. Whitehead put up career numbers in 2016, making 132 tackles — good enough for ninth in the league.

The former Temple Owl parted ways with Detroit following the end of his extension and made 126 tackles in 2018, his first year with Oakland.  


►DE Willie Young, 7th (No. 213)

It took the only seventh-round pick on this list three years to crack the Lions starting lineup.

When Young finally did in 2013, he set a career-high in tackles (47) and sacks (three) and earned himself a payday elsewhere. He demolished expectations in the first year of a three-year, $9 million deal with Chicago, racking up a whopping 10 sacks.

Young continued to successfully after the quarterback in the two campaigns that followed, averaging seven sacks per, but despite adding two years to his contract after the 2016 season, played just four more games in the NFL. He suffered torn triceps in October 2017, prompting a subsequent release from the Bears at season’s end.  

All things considered? The former 213th-overall pick did pretty well for himself.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.