A popular viewpoint seems to be that the Detroit Lions took a “risk” by drafting Brigham Young defensive end Ziggy Ansah with the fifth pick overall because he’s only been playing football for three years.
Here’s a much bigger risk: not having an elite athlete to pressure the quarterback these days in the NFL.
For years, the Lions have been criticized for ignoring obvious needs while stubbornly clinging too much to the “best player available” draft strategy.
This time, they filled a major hole on their roster by taking the top-rated 4-3 defensive end available in the draft.
They did what they had to in an attempt to improve their defense, both short term and long term.
General manager Martin Mayhew has made his share of draft-day mistakes — taking a chance on Jahvid Best’s brain injury, dismissing Titus Young’s character flaws, even giving consideration to picking a receiver in the second round last year — but Ansah wasn’t one of them.
This was their chance to add a pass-rushing threat off the edge. The defense has no chance of moving forward without one.
It was the right choice.
Critics are also shaking their heads over using a fifth-round pick on a punter.
What they’re dismissing is that punter was one of the three biggest areas of need remaining on this team, along with defensive end and a return specialist.
Filling those voids properly is going to give the Lions their best chance at making a turnaround after going from 10-6 in 2011 to 4-12 in 2012.
Whether they chose the right punter remains to be seen.
They could have had UCLA’s Jeff Locke if they’d kept their early fifth-round pick rather than trading back to get Appalachian State’s Sam Martin with the 165th selection overall. Division rival Minnesota took Locke 11 slots earlier.
The fact is that Martin, assuming the Lions made the correct evaluation of him, will have a bigger impact on the 2013 season than any of the Lions’ sixth- or seventh-round picks on the final day of the draft or anyone else they could have gotten at that point.
You need a “live leg” to change field position, especially if you don’t have a high-end defense. Many teams in the league have one of these punting weapons nowadays, but the Lions didn’t.
They absolutely had to find one, and the best option, without overpaying for a free agent this offseason, was going to come out of the draft. The defense will be better for it.
In the end, after nine picks over seven rounds, the Lions appear to have targeted three starters, possibly even four, for this coming season.
Besides Ansah and Martin, Kentucky’s Larry Warford, a third-round pick, is also a likely first-team addition at right guard to replace Stephen Peterman.
Warford’s mobility at 330-some pounds won’t be great, but he should help a running game desperately in need of the massive presence that he provides.
The fourth potential starter is Mississippi State cornerback Darius Slay, taken in the second round.
It’s another example of trying to fill an important need, in their much-criticized secondary. The question, like with the punter, is whether the Lions got the right one.
Slay has been dealing with a torn meniscus in a knee. He downplayed the injury, so did the Lions. Mayhew said he expects Slay to participate in a rookie mini-camp next month.
But there were reports that some teams became concerned whether Slay would even be ready for the start of training camp in late July.
If this knee becomes any type of issue going forward, the Lions will have totally butchered the pick because there were four other cornerbacks taken later in the same round who could have gone to Detroit.
In the draft’s final four rounds held Saturday, the Lions were able to add some depth at defensive end (South Carolina’s Devin Taylor), receiver (Virginia Tech’s Corey Fuller), running back (Notre Dame’s Theo Riddick), tight end (Alabama’s Michael Williams) and linebacker (Florida A&M’s Brandon Hepburn).
The one thing Mayhew has been unable to address so far is the pressing need for a big-play return specialist to replace unproductive Stefan Logan. That should be the No. 1 priority right now.
There are certainly other questions in the wake of this drastic offseason roster makeover, particularly on the revamped offensive line.
With the top three offensive tackles off the board in the draft’s first four picks, the Lions got shut out and apparently will rely on Riley Reiff, last year’s first-round selection, to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford’s blindside.
So the Lions ended up with a guard instead of a tackle in the draft. It could work out just fine, though, as long as Reiff can handle the job at left tackle. That is the key to the season.
From a realistic assessment, Mayhew has done a solid job between free agency (running back Reggie Bush, safety Glover Quin and defensive end Jason Jones) and the draft trying to overhaul this team going into a possible make-or-break season for him and coach Jim Schwartz.
That’s not to say Ansah will be an All-Pro, Slay the much-coveted shutdown corner if healthy, Warford a 10-year vet or Martin the next Ray Guy.
But at least the Lions, for better or worse, finally found a little common ground between the best player available and filling a serious need to become a better team.