The Detroit Lions Draft Strategy

The draft has come and gone and the Lions front office now has their 4th draft class under their belt. They’ve made picks with everything from the worst roster in football history to a young, talented, playoff-caliber team. They’ve picked just about every position on the field and they’ve made picks from #1 overall to Mr. Irrelevant (the last pick in the draft). From this wealth of information, I feel comfortable pinpointing the Lions draft strategy. Pride of Detroit posted transcripts of the Schwartz and Mayhew press conferences after each of the picks, so I’ll be using quotes from those to back up my points.

Talent Rules the Board

First of all, the Lions don’t draft for need. They have stated this and their picks reflect that strategy as much as any team in the draft the past few years. You would be hard pressed to argue that Nick Fairley and Ryan Broyles were need picks. Both of those units were 3 players deep when those picks were made. In the press conference following the Broyles pick, Jim Schwartz had the following comment:

On how difficult it is to balance between taking the best player available if he’s your fourth-best receiver when there are players available that will have more opportunity to contribute: “Good players play. You don’t solve needs by drafting poor players. We said that last year when we were picking guys and we’ll keep on saying it. There’s discipline that goes in to it and you have to be able to stick with that philosophy. The philosophy is: talent rules the board. He’s a talented receiver that we have a good plan for that fits our offense and can do a lot of things for us.”

Clearly, this pick was based on talent rather than need. No team has a “need” for a 4th receiver, but the powerful offenses can certainly find a use for one. And later in the same press conference, he made this comment:

On whether he’s confident that there will be enough defensive help later in the draft to fill some of the needs they have on defense: “We’ll see. I think if you chase need you’re chasing a moving target. What looks like a need one day might not be a need another day. If you have the discipline to say, ‘Hey look, let’s get good football players that fit a philosophy that we have a plan for, that continue to be the highest rated guys on your board, then you’re going to be successful over the long run.’

In that quote, he talks about getting guys they have a plan for. He mentioned it again after the Lewis (the Greater), Whitehead, and Greenwood picks.

On whether they’re consciously focusing on defense today: “You’re reading too much into it to say that we’re focusing on it.

“Just get good players that you have a role for that fit your philosophy. That’s the focus. It’s not defense, or offense or any particular position. It’s having the opportunity to get those guys and taking them where they make the most sense on the board and sticking to the discipline of keep trying to get talent.”

So while they draft for need, they also draft guys that fit their philosophy (obviously) and guys that they have specific roles for. We’ve seen that with guys like Mikel Leshoure and Titus Young. Leshoure wasn’t just a talented back that could take the load off of Best and catch the ball (a necessity in Linehan’s offense). He’s a big back that gives you an inside power run game as a perfect complement to Jahvid Best’s speed.

Titus filled the #2 WR role for Linehan. He uses his quickness to create separation and his speed to stretch the field. He’s not a clone of CJ or Burleson, but he fills a different spot. These guys have clearly defined roles and that’s why they were picked. I also believe this to be one of the main reasons they didn’t draft a running back this year (along with the fact that the board just didn’t fall that way. after all, talent rules the board). They already have their running back roles filled. They have a speedy, pass-catching back that is deadly in the screen game and a power runner with quick feet between the tackles. Everyone agrees that if healthy, this group is solid. The only reason fans were clamoring for a new RB was because they were afraid of the health issue. Which brings me to my next point…

The Lions Don’t Care About Injuries

That’s right. They don’t worry about injuries. Everyone gets them. Injuries are so much more prevalent than most people realize that they constantly overestimate their effect. Injuries are the reason Brett Favre’s streak is amazing. Injuries are the reason for the “Madden curse” having any sort of legitimate argument (If you took any random sample of healthy and productive players, they’d tend to be injured the next year). The Lions use this fact to extract value from the draft. They knew that Best had special value on the field. When he fell because of his concussion history, the Lions made the value pick and took him.

This year, they got the NCAA all time leading receiver at the back of the 2nd round because of a common injury that will be completely healed by some point in training camp. Of course, there’s a limit to this. NFL Draft Scout rated Chris Polk as a 2nd round running back, but he went undrafted due to concerns about chronic shoulder and hip injuries. So while the Lions use injury history to their advantage in finding value, they also shy away when that injury history seriously affects the player’s future. However, injury isn’t the only way the Lions find value in the draft…

The Lions Don’t Care About Character

Every year, players drop for perceived character issues or intelligence problems. Last year, Nick Fairley was a top 5 talent who the Lions stole at #11 because of perceived character issues. This year, part of the reason that Ronnell Lewis (Lewis the Greater) was available where the Lions got him was some concern over his intelligence. Schwartz had the following to say:

On Lewis having been academically ineligible for the Insight.com Bowl: “He self-admittedly is not a real good student. It’s a good thing we don’t have any classes here. It was something that came up; it’s part of his resume so to speak. But we felt we had a good role for him; we felt he could fit that role and we were excited to get him.”

Of course, this also has a limit. As you may know (and may have clamored for), Janoris Jenkins was among the most talented cornerbacks available in this year’s draft, but fell to the 2nd round due to huge character concerns (3 arrests, 4 children with 3 different women, and a partidge in a pear tree). Because of all of those concerns, the Lions decided to pass on him in favor of a guy that spent the draft chilling in a barn. There are a lot of reasons that a pick can turn out to be a good value. Another that the Lions have exploited multiple times is…

The Lions Draft Freak Athletes From Small Schools

In 2009, the Lions spent a 4th round pick on a small school defensive tackle named Sammie Lee Hill. He was a man amongst boys in Divison II football at Stillman College (what? you’ve never heard of it?) and had both immense size (6’4″, 330lbs) and incredible quickness.

The only thing holding him back from a high draft pick status was the level of competition. He has developed into a solid rotational DT and would probably be contributing more if not for 2 top 11 draft picks and another Mayhew trade gem taking snaps from him. Again this year, the Lions utilized the same strategy in selecting Chris Greenwood out of Division III (yes, 3) Albion College (sudden interest generated from the Lions draft pick crashed Albion College’s website). He became the first played drafted from the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association since 1967. He’s 6’2″, 193lbs (great size for a cornerback) and he ran a sub-4.4 40 yard dash (great speed for a corner) with a 43″ vertical leap (great jumping for a corner). So he’s big enough to be physical with a WR, fast enough to stay with them, and can jump high enough to defend the passes thrown to them. So that’s all well and good for a developmental corner, but I saw one thing while working on this post that makes me even more excited. This is an excerpt from a interview with Martin Mayhew on Fox 2 Detroit:

On cornerback Chris Greenwood:
“He’s a guy who has been on our radar for a long time. He’s very gifted athletically — has size, speed, athleticism. We think he’s a real good press corner right now. His game will develop with time, but he’s a really talented guy.”

A good press corner right now? You mean not developmental? So we’re talking about a good press cover corner with enough size, speed, and athleticism to match up with any WR in football for a 5th round draft pick? Sounds like good value to me.

And now, the discussion…

So that’s it for the big bullet points. The Lions draft the best players that fit their schemes and that they have a role for. In a future post, I hope to look into what those specific roles are (Hoorayyyy, teaser).

For now, I’d like to discuss the implications of this approach. Essentially, when you disagree with a draft pick under this philosophy, you’re either disagreeing with the philosophy as a whole or you don’t trust the Lions’ scouting department. Considering the Lions have devoted more resources to scouting than anyone other than maybe the 31 other teams in the league and they’ve been largely successful, I’m going to go ahead and give them the benefit of the doubt there.

At first, I didn’t like this draft. I couldn’t believe the Lions spent the whole offseason just trying to retain their free agents and ignoring the rest of the field and then had the audacity to pick offensive players in the first 2 rounds. I’ll explain that side of my argument first. If you’re drafting well and trying to retain your players indefinitely, their salaries will continue to rise, year after year. Soon, your talented core will squeeze you up against the cap so that 1/4 of your players take up 3/4 of your cap. So fine, you can focus on retaining those guys  instead of going after big name free agents. I’m fine with that. As an Atlanta Braves fan, I’ve always been a fan of drafting and development. But the problem then comes with filling your needs. If you ignore it in free agency and your draft is a positional dart board, you’re counting on luck to fill your holes. Player for player trades don’t often happen in football, so your can’t trade from a strength to fill a weakness. If you’re weak at corner, you’re going to continue to be weak at corner unless the wheel of fortune spins your way.

For a few days during and after the draft, I spewed this viewpoint to anyone that would listen. It still makes me wonder. I don’t know if there’s a correct answer. But I’m starting to realize that it’s not so black and white. There are other ways to acquire talent. Aaron Berry was an undrafted free agent. Alphonso Smith was acquired in a trade for Dan Gronkowski (7th rounder). And in the later rounds of the draft, talent can even out and needs can be addressed:

On whether drafting six straight defensive players was coincidental: “Pretty much, yeah.”

“What happens is, the further down the draft you get, the more players you get that are at the same level. The higher you go up in the draft, there’s differences between the talent, the farther you get down, but it really didn’t matter. It was opportunity and it was chances to get guys that fit profiles of what we wanted and we had plans for.

“Again, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to draft a guy that you really don’t have a plan for or doesn’t fit what you’re looking for in a position, regardless of how much talent he has. As much as we say, ‘Talent rules the board,’ it’s talent that fits us and we thought all those opportunities were good for us.”

Again, they’re still picking the most talented guys. But if it’s all the same, maybe they’ll lean to filling needs. And if you’re good at scouting (the Lions are), you’ll always be stacked with talent with the BPA strategy. What do you think? Need or BPA? Some mix of both? Comment away. I’m sick of having 140 character twitter arguments and as far as I know, the comments on this blog are uncapped for length.

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5 thoughts on “The Detroit Lions Draft Strategy

  1. Jeremy says:

    Since I’ve failed to reply to your comment on my site, I’ll do it here.

    I think my main disagreement with your theory is the notion that the Lions are ignoring need. While its clear they value talent a little more, one thing I noticed in all the quotes of Schwartz is that he kept saying he was drafting players “he had a plan for”. To me, that sounds like they are filling a role that is not currently being met. So whether that “need” is immediately upgrading the defensive backfield or finding Nate Burleson’s eventual replacement and giving Stafford another weapon, it’s still filling a need.

    Maybe they aren’t addressing need in the order of most urgent to least urgent, but like you mentioned, sometimes that boils down to luck and how the draft falls. If the reports are true, and Mayhew tried to both trade up and down in the first round, you can at least take solace in the fact that he tried to take the Lions destiny in his own hands. Maybe the Lions tried to go up and get Barron, but if the price wasn’t right, it wasn’t worth it.

    And in the end, that’s what it boils down to: we don’t really know what the Lions board looked like, and we don’t know what they tried to do and what they avoided. Its why I give Mayhew the benefit of the doubt and why I try not to be too critical in either direction until I see the guys play.

    But I want to thank you for bringing logic and sanity to your viewpoint. There’s not a lot of that going around right now.

    • nwashuta says:

      Good point. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how a team that drafts BPA wound up with 3 corners. I touched on it a little in the running back part that there are only so many roles to fill and the Lions have pretty much filled them all at that position (hence not drafting a RB). So while they have just one role for a 4th receiver, they might have roles available for #1 corner, nickle corner, developmental corner, special teams ace, that lead to a different draft focus.

      • DetFan1979 says:

        What you really need to wrap your mind around is that it is batfan — best available that fills any need. Emphasis on the any. Rather than ignoring need for talent, or talent for need (millen), this approach blends the two together. The rating on the board for the Lions is based on their profiles and needs weighing into how a player grades out on their board. I first coined the phrase a couple of years ago — you can link to here: http://www.detfan1979.blogspot.com/2010/03/fanball-mock-20-lions-take-ndamukong.html I’ll try to find my lengthier explanation (I think eitehr after analyzing the 2009 draft or 2010 draft — can’t recall which).

        • nwashuta says:

          At this point I think we’re just arguing on semantics. I think 4th receiver (Broyles) and rotational tackle (Fairley) aren’t needs of any kind. I think the coaching staff thought these guys were more talented than the other guys available and have a role in mind, so they can find a spot for them. Later in the draft, I think BATFAN becomes a more appropriate explanation. They still base it on talent, but if it’s all the same, needs win out. And in the late stages of the draft, so many guys are even on talent that you’re bound to always be picking someone to fill one of your 2 or 3 biggest needs.

  2. rhoneyman says:

    perhaps i can offer some clarity (or, perhaps not…)

    i think when we hear best available player, we think only in the dimension of talent and skills. but it’s seems clear to me that bap includes intangibles that range from personality to football intelligence to character. it includes a sense of how likely a player can be successful in the schwartz system. it also has to include a discount for need. given the existence of matt stafford, it’s hard to imagine the team not discounting even the top qb in the draft down into the third round or beyond.

    the unfortunate thing about the lions is that, outside of qb and dt, they continue to have needs at every position. with the addition of broyles, that may increase the discount on wr in future drafts but that just means that they’d take an awesome receiver late in the first round only if he’s massively better than all other players available. If his skillset is but a bit better, they’ll take someone else because the discount for wr will push the player further down on their talent assessment list.

    I have a pretty clear understanding of what these guys are doing. what i do not have is any insight into the intangibles that add or subtract from mayhew’s individual rankings. and i think you’re correct, nwashuta, about injuries carrying a much different discount for mayhew than for other teams’ gms. it’s possible that had broyles been completely healthy, he’d have been ranked right around rieff. but on mayhew’s board, he’d have taken rieff because the discounts on broyles (which include a sense of need for the position) were greater than those on rieff.

    think of it this way: rieff and broyles may have been equal across all metrics. but the need for a left tackle is greater than the need for another wr. thus, broyles would rank lower than rieff.

    i’d be very surprised if mayhew does not quantify all the different attributes to come up with some sort of numeric score. the key is that the attributes measured most certainly include things beyond skill and ability. thus far, the brain trust seems to have demonstrated an excellent feel for those other intangibles.

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