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.