Suh: Saying an Early Goodbye to a Legend

Clevelan Browns v Detroit Lions

Last weekend it leaked that the Lions had lost Ndamukong Suh, a future hall of famer and hands down the best player on their team the last 2 seasons to the Miami Dolphins. Suh would reportedly sign a 6 year, $114 million deal with the Dolphins, and end his time with the Detroit Lions. And by the time the Free Agency window actually opened on Tuesday it was all over.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

This is the lowest I think I’ve ever felt as a Lions fan. I know I know… I watched every game of an 0-16 season, and over a 10 year span I watched them go 39-121. You’d think there were some sadder moments in there. Saying I’m sadder about this moment then any of those makes it sound like I’m not a fan of the team at all, but rather just a fan of 1 player on that team (well… who USED to be on that team…).

But here’s the deal. During that 10 year, 39-121 stretch between 2001 and 2010 everything surrounding the Lions was hopeless. I was certainly sad and despondent, but that was all I knew when it came to the Lions. (Come to think of it I have no idea why I stuck with them through all that?) But that all started to chang in the 2010 draft when the Lions selected Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh with the 2nd overall selection in the draft.

Ndamukong-Suh (1)

With Suh came hope. Everything was different. The Lions certainly began the rebuilding process by adding franchise cornerstones Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford, but nothing really changed until Suh became a part of the team. And then EVERYTHING changed.

ndamukong-suh-aaron-rodgers-nfl-green-bay-packers-detroit-lions1-850x560 otkwiml139 suh-sacks-rodgers

It was a revelation. In 2010 Suh won pretty much every award in front of him (Defensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive Lineman of the Year, and like 4 different Rookie of the Year awards). Moreover, while the Lions only went 6-10 his Rookie year it was a lot better than 2 or 0 (their win totals from the previous 2 seasons). And then it happened. Suddenly the Lions were winning. In Suh’s second season in the NFL the Lions went 10-6, came in second in the NFC North, and made the playoffs for the first time in twelve seasons.

This was completely unheard of. The Lions hadn’t been in the playoffs since the Barry Sanders Era. But what was even more impressive was how much of this credit Suh himself deserved. The Lions secondary was atrocious, their linebacking corps wasn’t quite where it needed to be, but their Defensive Line was the best in football and that was more or less all thanks to Suh. There were certainly other good players on that like (Nick Fairley, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Willie Young) but Suh was the centerpiece. That’s the best thing about his play on the field. He makes EVERYONE around him better, and he was (and is) so dominant that he even made our secondary seem compitent simply because our pass rush was so dominant. All of a sudden, in the Suh Era there was always hope.

The rebuild process started with the drafting of Calvin Johnson. Continued with the firing of Matt Millen, hiring of Jim Schwartz, and drafting of Matthew Stafford, but after none of those moves did the Lions achieve any success. It wasn’t until Suh was with the team that the winning really started. He changed everything and brought hope back to the franchise. However, it wasn’t always a perfectly smooth road.

(Photo Credit: Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit: Andrew Weber, USA Today Sports)

Suh was universally reviled outside of Detroit for his on the field actions. However, I’m not naive enough to think Football is as clean a game as the NFL wants us to believe. Theres dirty play constantly. Just watch any cornerback twist Calvin Johnson’s leg, throw an extra kidney punch at Matthew Stafford, or kick Larry Warford while he’s down. This is the way the game works. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that guys were doing things just as bad to Suh on the field. They just were smart enough not to get caught on camera. And whereas some of these guys make themselves look clean on the field, but are scum off of it, Suh couldn’t have been a better off the field guy.

(Photo Credit: AP)

(Photo Credit: AP)

In 2011 Suh donated some $2.6 million to charity, more than any other athlete that year. In a destitude and struggling city like Detroit a guy like Suh couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only did he give the city of Detroit something to hope for and feel good about on the field, he went out into the community and helped try to rebuild it from the inside. This is a guy who had no ties to the city of Detroit or the State of Michigan before coming to the Lions, but almost immediately after arriving starting working his ass off to help out. If that’s the kind of guy I’m dealing with off the field, rather than someone accused of domestic violence or animal abuse, I don’t particularly care what he does on a football field where violence is accepted.

suh

(Photo Credit: Ndamukong Suh Family Foundation)

I’d much rather have a guy like Suh than someone like Greg Hardy or Ray Rice. No matter what anyone says He gives back to sick kids, donates to the poor, and even sponsors classes at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit. He is EXACTLY the kind of star the Detroit Lions needed, and exactly the kind of person the city of Detroit needed. Perfect in every way and right on time.

But now the team has cut ties with the source of that hope. Why would they let this happen? Someone who was NOTHING but positive for the city of Detroit, and helped transform a moribund franchise into a playoff team. Well… I guess there were 114 million reasons why… Not that the Lions weren’t willing to give up the dollars to Suh. He obviously deserves that money (and then-some) and everybody knows it. But the Lions, unfortunately, could not fit him under their salary cap.

Let’s stop there for a second though. This is an excuse that comes up a lot in American sports, and it is always a miserable and miserly answer. Teams imply that its not their fault and that the system is preventing them from doing right by their players and their fans, but in truth teams have only themselves to blame. Everyone could see this disaster coming a mile away. Martin Mayhew has done a miserable job managing Detroit’s cap situation from day 1, just like Matt Millen did before him (oh… jeez… I wonder if we could have predicted this considering MAYHEW WAS MILLENS RIGHT HAND FREAKING MAN). Stafford and Calvin are very important to this team. Don’t get me wrong. But Suh is the single most important player on it. He is either the best or second best defensive player in the NFL (behind JJ Watt in Houston) and is the best player on Detroit’s team. So it only makes sense that the team should have known, as far back as that first playoff run in 2011, that they should do the best they can to lock him up. They did not, and they used the Salary Cap as their excuse. So let’s take a quick look at this upcoming season’s highest plaid Lions.

Lions 2015 cap hits

Image via sportrac.com 

The Lions have already paid Johnson and Stafford boatloads of money. They decided they couldn’t afford a third boatload or the whole ship would go down. They gave out huge dollars to Johnson and Stafford, which, again, I understand and can get behind, but here’s the problem. Suh is very much in his prime, and I’m not even certain that he’s halfway done with his prime yet. While Stafford, though in his prime, has probably peaked, and certainly has quirks that limit the team’s performance (although I have no interest in cutting ties with him) and I’m very worried that Calvin is actually on the back half of his prime.

calvin-record2

Injuries are finally beginning to catch up to him through absolutely no fault of his own. He is far and away the greatest wide receiver to ever play in the NFL. Jerry Rice can shove it. But for his entire career there was absolutely NO way any defender could LEGALLY slow him down or stop him. So what did they do? Twist his ankles. Throw late hits and cheap shots. Basically do anything illegal that the refs would let them get away with. Which as it turns out was A LOT. The NFL created unfair rules to try to limit Calvin’s impact on the game (which came back to bite them this post-season as it screwed over Dez Bryant and the Cowboys) and refs refused to give him the benefit of the doubt EVER as defenders took cheap shots at him constantly.

Well… all these extra hits and extra miles were bound to take their toll, and Calvin has undeniably slowed down this year. He missed large chunks of the season last year, and that wasn’t the only problem. The whole offense was sluggish and disappointing all last year. Detroit was 22nd in scoring in a year where they had Stafford, Johnson, and new high paid receiver option Golden Tate. In only 3 games last year did the Lions exceed 24 points (and half the time the defense was scoring at least 7, but up to 14 of those 24 anyway) and in 10 games they were held to 20 or fewer points. So the first question is, how much could those 3 guys REALLY be worth if for well over half the season they only account for 20 points? And the next question is, how did that team even make the playoffs? The answer to the first question is no and the answer to the second, of course, is Suh.

Mayhew has allocated $43,629,250 of cap space to Johnson, Stafford, and Tate. $38,279,250 to Stafford and Johnson alone, and has therefore decided that he cannot afford another $20,000,000 for Suh. Makes sense if Suh weren’t an all time great, but if my only options were to lose Suh (a surefire Hall of Famer and ALL TIME GREAT at his position who BY ALL ACCOUNTS should have retired with his original team) or overpay all three of them, I’m picking the overpay 1,000 times out of 1,000. It’s too late to take the money away from Johnson, Stafford, and Tate, and in truth I don’t really want to, but off all those guys if I can only have one I pick Suh every. Single. Time. We’re paying 35% of our cap to 3 guys accounting for maaaaaybe 15% of last season’s success and “unable” to pay 15% of the cap to 1 guy who accounts for something like 40% of our wins. Sounds like wise business planning to me. Keep up the good work Mayhew…

No, I'm not quite sure why I got the job either. I'm also not sure why I haven't been fired. Really I just keep cashing checks... (Photo Credit - Daniel Mears)

No, I’m not quite sure why I got the job either. I’m also not sure why I haven’t been fired. Really I just keep cashing checks… (Photo Credit – Daniel Mears)

I’d rather keep Suh at whatever his asking price was and be bad for the rest of his career WITH him than let him go and embrace whatever debacle is about to be inflicted on me for the next 5 years.

And the worst part? Cutting him doesn’t even solve any of Detroit’s cap woes. That money tied up in an under-performing offense is still there. We’re still paying big money to two tight ends, neither of whom are performing at the level we need them to. And the real kicker is this. Check this one out. Bill Barnwell brought this up last week on the Grantland NFL Podcast, and it is a hilariously depressing point. This is a list of the 5 highest paid DTs in the NFL next year based on average salary.

Top 5 DTs Salarys

Image via sportrac.com

But there is one name missing from this list. Ndamukong Suh. “But wait!” You exclaim. “He’s not missing! He’s right there at the top!” Yes he is friend, but you are forgetting the ghost of Ndamukong Suh. Because of the way the Lions restructured his deal when he was still with the team, Detroit still has exactly $9,737,500 worth of Ndamukong Suh on the books for this coming season. And yes, that means Ndamukong Suh is technically both the highest paid DT in football with his Miami figure as well as the 5th highest paid DT in football with his Detroit figure… If he was going to be eating up $10,000,000 of cap space either way, HOW could you not re-sign him??? The whole excuse was that we needed to move on for cap related purposes!!! Well we moved on and it sure doesn’t look like the cap is fixed!!! Moreover, refer back to that earlier image of the Lions 10 highest paid payers for next season… SUH IS STILL THE THIRD HIGHEST PAID PLAYER ON THE LIONS!!! Add that number to Detroit’s replacement for Suh (Haloti Ngata) and his $8,500,000 figure, and essentially you’re still paying $18,237,500 to your number 1 DT tackle…only $810,000 more than Suh’s figure anyway… so don’t feed me this cap crap Mayhew…

And Mayhew’s plan for replacing Suh? That was a real gem. We brought in Haloti Ngata who is a very good NFL player.

(Photo Credit: Tanya Moutzalias, MLive Detroit)

(Photo Credit: Tanya Moutzalias, MLive Detroit)

Used to be better, but his prime ended a couple years ago so what are you gonna do. He’s still very good, just not at the top of his game like Suh is. But that’s ok. We’ll take him off your hands Baltimore. We’ll give you a 4th and a 5th round pick for him because cap starved teams NEVER rebuild through the draft right? That would be stupid. Teams with cap problems don’t draft rookies on cap controlled deals, they trade those draft picks for old veterans with massive salary cap hits. That’s what smart GMs do, right Martin? Nevermind the fact that Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome is the best GM in football who knows exactly when to cut ties with his own players, and nearly EVERY player Baltimore ever let’s go has a nearly immediate dropoff in production on their new team.

(Photo via NFL.com)

(Photo via NFL.com)

Haloti Ngata is still a very good player. Detroit needed some star power on the defensive line to plug the gap left behind by Suh. And Ngata will do that. For the next year… maybe two… but trading draft picks for him feels horrendously short sighted to me and seems akin to cutting off your right hand, and trying to duct tape it back together… it just isn’t enough.

Ndamukong Suh is one of the greatest defensive tackles to every play football. He’s one of the best players I have ever watched in my entire life. And he was on my team. He was my guy. I didn’t care about all the on field incidents of aggression, mainly because he was such a spectacular guy off the field. He came to Detroit at one of its lowest points in years (and let me tell you, there have been a lot of low points for the city of Detroit this past decade) and he helped put together something to be proud of and something fun to be a part of when the Lions and being a Lions fan has been anything but for for… ohhh… idk… my entire life.

Suh should have been allowed to retire a lion. When you have one of the best to ever play the game. When he is a first round draft pick for your team and turns out to be even more than you ever hoped for. When he is an ambassador and a pillar for your struggling community. When you have a guy like that playing for your franchise you do your best to make sure he becomes a lifelong member of your organization. You make sure he becomes a part of your family and stays a member of your family for life because invariably its those kinds of players who become ambassadors for the sport and your franchise for many years into the future. When Suh came to Detroit it felt like the franchise had FINALLY turned a corner. They finally had pieces in place with Stafford, Johnson, and especially Suh to be winners on and off the field. It felt like they had finally moved on from the Matt Millen debacle era, and learned how a great organization thinks. But clearly this is the same old Detroit with the some old ignorance and losing ways.

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Martin Mayhew and the Barren Cupboards of Detroit

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(Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky, Getty Images)

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.

(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports)

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.

(Photo Credit: DetroitLions.com)

(Photo Credit: DetroitLions.com)

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.

(Photo Credit: Tim Fuller, USA Today Sports)

(Photo Credit: Tim Fuller, USA Today Sports)

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.

(Photo Credit: Daniel Mears, Detroit News)

(Photo Credit: Daniel Mears, Detroit News)

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.

Good lord just look at this picture. Note Joey Harrington's "God save me" eyes and Millen's... oddly lustful eyes as he stares a whole through Harrington with like 6 buttons undone on that shirt.... this, ladies and gentlemen, was the Matt Millen Era.

Good lord just look at this picture. Note Joey Harrington’s “God save me” eyes and Millen’s… oddly lustful eyes as he stares a whole through Harrington with like 6 buttons undone on that shirt…. this, ladies and gentlemen, was the Matt Millen Era.

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).

Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley

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.

2009 draft

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 draft

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 draft

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 draft

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.

2013 draft

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.

2014 draft

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.

My goodness its like staring at the Gates of Heaven... (Photo Credit: Detroit Lions)

My goodness its like staring at the Gates of Heaven… (Photo Credit: Detroit Lions)

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…

(Photo Credit: Paul Sancya, AP)

(Photo Credit: Paul Sancya, AP)