ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It takes more than just stars to build a year-in, year-out contender in the NFL.
You also must have those later-round success stories, the overlooked talents who develop into productive role players.
Based on how Willie Young has performed during training camp and early preseason games, many are calling this a breakout year for the third-year defensive end out of North Carolina State.
If he lives up to that billing — and it truly appears that he will — Young will go down as an absolute draft-day steal. He was taken in the seventh round in 2010, the 213th pick overall.
At one point after the draft combine that year, some had Young ranked as high as a potential second-rounder.
But he slid rapidly, all the way down to the 43rd-to-last pick, much to the delight of Lions general manager Martin Mayhew and his scouting staff in the end.
Questions about Young had spread. NFL teams wondered about his lack of bulk and that he was an undersized defensive end because he couldn’t add and maintain weight. There were also concerns that his free-spirit personality led to an on-again, off-again motor and inconsistent effort.
Still, it’s surprising someone didn’t take a shot at him earlier.
Asked why such a seemingly talented player at such an important position could have lasted all the way until the seventh round just two years ago, Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham answered:
“Have you been around here a while? I had Willie sitting in the corner several times during walk-throughs because he would screw up. He was very immature, didn’t handle things well. I’m sure maybe that’s what caused him to not be drafted until the seventh round.
“But we saw the talent. He’s grown immensely in the maturity level. He’s become a pretty good pro. He asks great questions. He’s into the game. He’s a force to be reckoned with. He’s got plenty of athletic skills. He just had to grow up, and he’s done a good job of that.”
Young not only adds another threat to the front four’s potentially dominant rotation, he’s also one of the team’s top special-teams players.
He had a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery all on the same play in the preseason opener against Cleveland. Last week at Baltimore, Young blocked a punt.
After being inactive for 14 of the team’s 16 games his rookie year, Young finished last season with three sacks in 14 games.
The Lions’ defensive line is a tough unit to crack, but Young is expected to make a bigger impact this year. There’s no holding him back anymore.
“I was a late-round pick, but I didn’t allow that to change the way I would approach the game,” Young said. “But I can’t deny it’s not motivation when you really expected to go higher.
“Having the depth on the D-line that we have here, it’s like, man, you’ve got to be patient. When you get your chance, you’ve got to seize every moment.”
Young is taking advantage of those opportunities more often than not these days.
He still makes some mental mistakes, which is why head coach Jim Schwartz has been reluctant to give him too much credit, telling reporters a couple weeks ago, “Let’s not put him in the Hall of Fame yet.”
OK, no trip to Canton, Ohio, but Schwartz is going to put him on the field more this year. He has no choice. Young has earned that much.
He is still the fun-loving, gregarious guy who loves to fish with a passion, but he’s taking his job much more serious these days.
“I take a more professional approach,” Young said when asked what is the biggest difference in him since being drafted so low. “I know how serious it is now, to make sure that you have that consistent trust from your coaches. That goes a long ways.”
As for being such a late pick, Young smiled and said, “I guess some guys didn’t do their film study. A lot of teams didn’t do their film study.
“That’s not my concern now. My concern now is just doing what I do, keep my personality the same and just enjoy every moment of it.”
From early indications, the Lions might have hit paydirt with another seventh-round pick this year when they selected linebacker Travis Lewis, who led Oklahoma in tackles for four straight years.
Lewis didn’t run well at the combine, partly because of a hamstring injury. He ended going to Detroit 10 spots later than Young did a couple years earlier.
In reference to Lewis, Schwartz said, “There’s a lot of guys that don’t run a fast time on the clock, but they play fast.”
Lewis has been hampered by a quadriceps injury this week, but he’s looked the part of another potential seventh-round steal throughout training camp. He should contribute on special teams this year and on defense in the future.
“It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Lewis said of being snubbed for more than six rounds. “I was the 223rd pick in the draft. That fuels me like you wouldn’t believe.”
Anyone can draft Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh with an early pick.
It’s the mid- to late-round strikes that complete rosters, build depth and help make the difference between contenders and pretenders.
Willie Young and Travis Lewis are on a mission to show that a lot of teams made a mistake by not taking them earlier.
The Lions, led by Mayhew, are the opportunistic beneficiaries.
The Lions signed former San Diego receiver Kassim Osgood, who was named to the Pro Bowl as a special-teams standout in 2007, 2009 and 2010. Osgood, an exceptional gunner on punts in the past, could help Detroit’s shaky coverage units.