So late last week Grantland’s NFL writers Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays did a redraft article covering the 2013 NFL draft. Normally this kind of thing is interesting to me, but doesn’t really stand out. However, something interesting happened this time around. Both guys had all 3 of the Lions’ first 3 picks in the 2013 draft (Ezekiel Ansah – 1st Round, Darius Slay – 2nd Round, Larry Warford – 3rd Round) reclassified as 1st Round Picks. Moreover, every single guy moved UP in their draft position as Ansah (#5 overall in 2013) we selected by both Barnwell and Mays to be the #2 overall player if the draft were redone today.
Now, in its own right I suppose this isn’t a huge thing. Ansah was the most surprising product, in my opinion, to come out of the 2013 draft for the Lions, but I always had faith that under Jim Schwartz’s [part-time defensive line guru and full-time asshole] tutelage his freakish athletic ability could be converted into stellar play, but even that was at risk after the Lions fired Schwartz. Those fears proved to be unfounded as Ansah has not only shown signs of life in his last 3 games but has looked every bit the top 5 pick that he was.
Darius Slay, Detroit’s 2nd Round Cornerback selection was a First Round caliber player coming off a serious injury which forced him to drop into the second round. I knew the guy was talented, but was very skeptical that he could regain his former athleticism, and indeed last year he looked like he would be a bust. This year, however, with Chris Houston cut, Slay has slipped right in as the Lions’ #1 Corner and looked fantastic.
Larry Warford I always knew would be good after watching him at Kentucky, but he damn near barged his way into the Rookie of the Year race last year. This is impressive not just because he’s an offensive lineman, but because he is a Gaurd!! Sometimes you might see a Left Tackle (generally considered the most important player on your O Line) sneak into these discussions but a guard?? Hardly.
So anway, Barnwell and Mays are totally right. Detroit [and GM Martin Mayhew by extension], at this point anyway, appears to have smacked it out of the park on their first three picks from last year. This got me thinking though. Does this mean that the Lions front office is better than I think? In the past I gave most of the credit for successful Lions draft picks to Schwartz. He drafted D Linemen high and developed them into stellar players. I was always reluctant (with good reason) to give any credit to Lions GM Martin Mayhew.
First and foremost this was because I never thought he should have gotten the job after Matt Millen was fired. Mayhew was Millen’s right hand man, and promoting him after firing Millen represented a victory for the Old Regime when, in my opinion, what the franchise needed was a changing of the guard. My thoughts were validated by the fact that Mayhew runs operations very much like Millen did before him (not a surprise since he worked under the guy for a decade).
Recent events, however, have forced me to question this opinion. The Lions current roster is littered with draft day success stories, something which I wasn’t lucky enough to see for the first 20 years of my life. Guys like Suh, Ansah, Fairley, Levy, Slay, Warford, Reiff, Johnson, Stafford… the list goes on… but the point is Detroit used to be a team that either drafted bad players or drafted good players and failed to develop them. They were then forced to wander aimlessly into free agency and overpay inferior, over the hill players to try and stop the bleeding, which never worked. That is not the way to succeed in the NFL. Things appear to have changed for the better and I decided to take a look and test the validity of this assumption. What I found, however, was more in line with my own opinions than this flowery new picture.
First off, I decided to start things off by going back to 2009. This was Mayhew’s first offseason in charge, and also gives us a nice 5 year, half decade window to examine. So lets take a look at the 2009 draft courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.
So first and foremost, everyone from Derrick Williams down is no longer on the team. Not THAT uncommon in the NFL, but still… not a good thing. Brandon Pettigrew is overpaid for what he provides, he’s currently hurt, and the Lions just drafted Eric Ebron in the first round when they already had Joseph Fauria and Pettigrew on the roster anyway so… I’m gonna go ahead and say the TE position is a clusterfuck and I refuse to say Mayhew has handled it correctly. Stafford is what he is. Strong arm QB who locks on to one receiver far too often, but he’s my guy. When you spent the entiretly of your childhood trying to root for Joey Harrington, Mike McMahon, Dan Orlovsky, Past-his-prime Dante Culpepper, and the cavalcade of inferior QBs the Lions had… you tend to be all in on a guy like Stafford, even if he’s not perfect. So I’ll call that a win for Mayhew. Delmas, though injury prone, was consistently the best coverage defensive back on the Lions rosters. However, Mayhew inexplicable cut him this offseason so I really don’t feel like that is a win either. DeAndre Levy, however, is like a ten gold star player. Good job Mayhew. To get a guy like that in the 3rd round who is now one of the best Linebackers in football is outstanding. So in the end Mayhew found 4 starters out of this draft, better than his goal, and the draft itself was a success, even if his player management after the fact was exceedingly poor.
2010, however, wasn’t as great. Suh is obviously a success story, but if these contract talks don’t go well this summer and we lose him it will mean the 2010 draft was an absolute disaster. Jason Fox, Jahvid Best, and Amari Spievey all looked to be adequate NFL players but for one reason or another none of them stayed with the Lions long term. Fox is a backup with the Dolphins now. Spievey, though talented, couldn’t stick around in the NFL. The more important player, however, is Jahvid Best. Best had concussion history in college and it ended his NFL career as well. These are the kind of things you have to be aware of as a GM. Now, Best was a very good player while he was here so I’m not saying Mayhew drafted a bad player BUT he traded up in the draft to grab him. Trading up generally costs you picks elsewhere, so if you’re going to give up 2 potential players for 1 potential player, you better make sure the guy you’re trading up for is healthy and will stick in the league for a long time.
Willie Young also turned out to be a spectacular pick. The guy is a legit starting DE in the NFL and Detroit drafted him and developed him out of the 7th round. However, they lost him in Free Agency this past summer to the Bears, so again, the problem is keeping talent around more than finding it.
2011 was a terrible draft. Mikel Leshoure had a lot of hype around him last year and the year before, but ended up getting cut this offseason. Titus Young had countless off the field issues and washed out of the league. And Nick Fairley was lazy in college and lazy in the NFL. He finally started putting together a good season this year (the last year of his contract with Detroit) but went out injured int he London game so who knows if he’ll be the same player next year, leaving the Lions with an awkward contract issue going into this summer.
2012 looked much better. Bill Bentley (IR this year) still has a little time to develop into starting caliber corner alongside Slay once Rashean Mathis finally retires. However if he doesn’t turn into something in the next year or so its probably time for the Lions to move on. Jonte Green already proved he wasn’t up to this task and was cut this year. Same for Chris Greenwood. Ryan Broyles appears to be a major bust, and the Lions seem to agree. They spent big money bringing in a #2 receiver (Golden Tate) this offseason. Tate now plays the position Broyles was drafted to occupy. Moreover, Broyles doesn’t even get on the field in the slot as that position is occupied by Corey Fuller, and he hasn’t even been able to fight his way into the starting lineup via injury. Calvin Johnson has been injured all year, but its been Jeremy Ross who plays over Broyles. Travis Lewis is on IR right now but I doubt he’ll ever be anything more than a Special Teams player (which ultimately is fine for a 7th rounder). Ronnell Lewis is long gone and out of the NFL. So really, the only 2 bright spots out of this draft are Riley Reiff and Tahir Whitehead. Whitehead is a great guy to have as second string in your linebacking corps, and with Stephen Tulloch out of the year he’s filled in more than adequately at outside linebacker after Levy was moved to the inside to replace Tulloch. Reiff, I think, has a lot of potential and should stick around in the league. The only problem is that I think he’s an above average starter at Right Tackle, but the Lions, because of their talent deficiency, have been playing him at Left Tackle. I worry that he’s not up to the task and will lose confidence on the left side if left there for too long, but that remains to be seen. In any event the 2012 draft doesn’t look too great. You have 2 guys in Whitehead and Reiff who I think belong in the NFL. One as a backup and part time starter, one as a full time starter at a position where he currently isn’t playing. And 1 guy who might make it in Bentley, but the rest is a wash.
The 2013 draft has already been touched on as a success. In addition to the top 3 guys already mentioned, Corey Fuller plays significant minutes in the slot and Theo Riddick is a very useful pass catching back, albeit injury prone.
Its definitely too early to judge on last year’s draft but so far here’s how I see it. Nate Freese was terrible and was already cut. Eric Ebron was very much the wrong pick (already handed out a big contract to Pettigrew and had Fauria on the roster) but he will probably develop into a valuable weapon eventually. I have a lot of faith that Kyle Van Noy will make some noise when he finally gets healthy and gets on the field. But the rest of those guys I have no idea. If I had to guess I’d say they don’t make it but only time will tell.
So in the end here’s how Mayhew’s drafting tenure looks to me. He’s drafted 46 guys in his 6 drafts. Let’s toss out last year because its too early to tell. That leaves us with 38 guys in 5 drafts. He found 15 NFL caliber players. However, of those 15 1 was forced into retirement due to an injury history that we knew about at the time (Best) and 3 are good players but not every down starters (Fuller, Whitehead, and Riddick). That leaves us with 11 true NFL starting caliber players. Two of them are no longer with the team, but starting elsewhere (Delmas and Young). Nine of them are still with the team (Suh, Fairley, Slay, Ansah, Warford, Reiff, Stafford, Pettigrew, and Levy) but might not stay that way for long. Suh is in a highly publicized contract dispute and can walk this summer if he wants to (which he very well might which would absolutely destroy this Lions defense which is completely built around him). Fairley is also in the last year of his contract and could leave in free agency. Even if he stays, however, we don’t know if he’ll be even close to the same player once he comes back from this injury. Reiff may wash out of the league if we continue to play him at Left Tackle and he doesn’t develop a feel for the position. Pettigrew was signed to a large contract extension this summer after which the team moronically drafted another first round tight end to replace him so who knows how long he’ll be on the team. The only surefire players the team can count on for the next few years are Levy and his glorious beard (who the team MUST lock up to an extension soon or risk losing him like so many others) Stafford, Warford, Slay, and Ansah. All together not bad, but not as positive a set of results as I was hoping to find. And there’s a bigger issue.
The Lions are a very talented team. The best players on the Lions are as good or better than their equivalents on any team in the NFL. The problem, however, is depth. Depth is an issue most teams address through the draft. The Lions have been great at picking out top level talent in the draft. Acquiring starters. But where the best NFL teams use the draft to add depth (the next generation of starters is always waiting in the wings for an opportunity to step up and displace higher paid starters) Detroit hasn’t been so lucky. When we lose starters to free agency or injury we often struggle to plug the gaps. Mayhew’s purported goal is even always to find 3 starters, 3 contributing players, and 3 developmental players every draft. While it looks like he’s hitting fairly consistently on the first goal (admittedly the hardest to achieve) the other categories aren’t falling in line so nicely. Time and again the Lions have drafted good players but their player and cap management is bad enough that they lose these guys in free agency before they have anyone on the bench ready to replace them. Part of that was the massive talent dearth Millen left us with. Its going to take a full decade or more to rebuild this franchise from the bottom up and for the time being I’m just glad that we at least have starting caliber players actually starting for us, but if you can’t lock those guys up long term (as Detroit didn’t do with Delmas, Cliff Avril, Gosder Cherilus, Willie Young, and many more) then you need to be sure you have the guys in the wings ready to step up and replace them. Detroit has done a good job of this on the Defensive line (VandenBosch is getting old? We’ve got Cliff Avril. Avril goes to the Seahawks? Ok we have Willie Young. Willie Young leaves for Chicago? That’s ok Ziggy Ansah is ready to step up for a bigger role.) but we don’t have the depth yet at other positions to follow this same kind of smooth transition.
Overall this makes me think I’ve been too harsh on Mayhew in the past. He has found talent for us and he has helped build the skeleton of a winning roster in Detroit. However, the issue of depth is an absolute Sword of Damocles, hanging over the Motor City’s head right now. You can get by without depth if your starters stay healthy, resign for reasonable contracts, and play out of their minds. But right now we don’t have health (Tulloch, Fairley, and Johnson are out) we might lose some of our best and key players in the offseason (Suh and Fairley) and the only thing keeping us afloat is how well the players we have left are playing. If we have a mass exodus this summer it will be right back to rebuilding mode again this summer. Only this time hopefully we can build with some Depth instead of the top heavy, redundant roster Mayhew gave us right now. Because we already know what the alternative looks like… and nobody wants that…