Now that the Detroit Lions finally have their new coach in place, things can settle down a bit around Allen Park, and the team and its fans can begin to devote their full attention to the next big goal of the offseason, which is scouting ahead of the 2014 NFL Draft.
That scouting, which has already begun, takes full flight this weekend at the Senior Bowl, where college football's top upperclassmen will do battle. Last season, the Lions unearthed a few gems thanks in-part to their scouting in Mobile, Alabama, discovering both Ziggy Ansah and Larry Warford during the annual game. Who might follow suit and become discovered next? Here's five players to watch from a Detroit perspective this Saturday.
1. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin. The Lions will probably make finding a wide receiver a high priority early in the 2014 draft, meaning plenty of their targets (think Sammy Watkins and Mike Adams) will probably be underclassmen. The pass-catchers aren't as strong from a senior perspective, but if the Lions need help in the middle rounds, Abbrederis could become a Big Ten hidden gem much like Minnesota's Eric Decker has. He's always in the right place at the right time and is the type of heady possession receiver that could help Matthew Stafford. Even if the Lions add one of the bigger names, don't be surprised to see another player join the fray as well. Watch Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) as one of the other top options.
2. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, Brigham Young. Will the Lions need to eventually find some help at the linebacker slot? Probably, considering Ashlee Palmer, while serviceable, isn't exactly starter material. Knowing this, the Lions should keep their eyes on another Brigham Young prospect in Van Noy, who brings plenty of speed and the ability to affect the game in coverage. Van Noy might be more appealing for a 3-4 team meaning a talent like Anthony Barr could certainly be of more interest, but the Lions would be wise to keep their options open and consider a smart player. Like Ansah, Van Noy would bring more immediate, quiet leadership to the defense in a needy spot.
3. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska. At 6-3, Jean-Baptiste will threaten as the biggest cornerback in the class, and with the development of the Chicago Bears' weapons, size is something the Lions need. Certainly, the Lions could use more help at the spot, and considering the absence of Aaron Colvin (Oklahoma) Jean-Baptiste will probably be one of the better defensive backs on the field Saturday. Having been battle tested in the tough Big Ten, Jean-Baptiste could become another version of former teammate Alfonso Dennard, who's carving out an excellent career in New England. He might also draw comparisons to Richard Sherman, which is the player teams will have to hope he becomes in time. Starting with a good week at the Senior Bowl, he might get on his way.
4. Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois. Once upon a time, the Lions scoured the MAC to find Louis Delmas, their current free safety. Might they do the same to find Delmas' eventual successor? Many consider Ward will be one of the better defenders available as the draft progresses, and his speed and ball skills (seven interceptions in 2013) could be exactly what the Lions' defense needs to transform themselves into a big play group. Considering he could be around on day two or three, value might make him a serious option. HaHa Clinton-Dix may get a look at pick 10, but if the Lions decide to fill other needs, safety could be addressed later, putting a player like Ward in play.
5. Chris Boswell, K, Rice. After last season's debacle with David Akers, it's no secret that the Lions need to find a kicker. Though they signed John Potter to a futures deal recently (possibly for camp competitions' sake), they could also look to the draft to fill such a need much like they did last season with punter Sam Martin, who proved to be a breath of fresh air for the special teams. If it's long distance kicks and a strong leg for the future that the Lions crave, then Boswell could be their man, as he's likely the top kicker available this spring. He led the nation in distance kicking, and hit a 56 yard field goal in 2013 against Kansas. Boswell will be kicking for the North team and Cody Parkey (Auburn) will kick for the South. Can either give a reason for the Lions to look their way on draft day? Watch the kicking games closely.
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