Monday, April 27, 2009

Cuttin' out the middle man

Since the Lions have never been to the Super Bowl, the NFL Draft has become a surrogate Super Bowl for Detroit Lions spectators. I feel uneasy referring to Lions followers as “fans” because I think, by definition, “liking the team” is a prerequisite for being a fan. Since nobody likes the Lions, I think the word “spectators” is more appropriate. Nonetheless, if Lions spectators were polled about how their team faired in the draft over the weekend, I think most would say that the Lions lost their 20th consecutive Super Bowl. Statistically, the Lions had one of the worst defenses in the history of the NFL last season. On a team with more holes than a Kwame Kilpatrick alibi, the defense especially stood out as a unit in major need of an upgrade. Instead, the Lions opted to use their first two picks on skill positions handing out the richest guaranteed contract in the history of the NFL to a player who hasn’t taken a pro snap in the process.

I wrote last Thursday how ridiculous it is for any team in the NFL to invest a top ten pick on a quarterback given the futile success rate of such a risk. Scores of teams have gone that route and roughly 80% have regretted it big-time. Top-ten offensive tackles, on the other hand, have higher than an 80% success rate. Considering top-ten tackles have four times the success rate as top ten quarterbacks and it would’ve cost the Lions $10-$15 million less to take a tackle, I think the Lions made a major mistake. Spectators are pissed about that and they should be.

Surprisingly, though, it’s something else that the Lions did on Saturday that irritates me even more. I’ve come to terms with the fact that Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz feel lucky enough to go all-in on a 1 in 5 probability. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that they immediately drafted a tight end to help improve those odds. What I cannot understand is the rationale that went into drafting a safety in the second round for the third time in four years instead of a middle-linebacker. I don’t know if Louis Delmas is going to be a bust and, really, it doesn’t matter. Entering the 2008 NFL Draft, the Lions needed a MLB so badly that Rod Marinelli insinuated that he would take Jerod Mayo—the top MLB in the draft—with the 15th pick in the first round. The vast majority of mock drafts had Mayo going in the mid-to-late 20s. That tells me that the Lions were in serious need of help at that position. Unfortunately for Marinelli, New England had few holes to fill and didn’t mind burning a pick on Mayo at #10. Marinelli tried making up for missing out on Mayo by overreaching on another MLB prospect in the second round. Unfortunately, that was Jordan Dizon and well, you know.

Considering the Lions had one of the worst statistical defenses in NFL history last year and the fact that Marinelli badly wanted to take a MLB in the first round of the 2008 draft, I think we’ve established that MLB was a position that needed a major upgrade going into the 2009 draft. The consensus top two middle linebackers in the draft were Rey Maualuga and James Laurinaitis. Many analysts predicted that the Lions would take Maualuga at #20 if he fell that far. The same was predicted for Laurinaitis had he been available for the Lions at pick #33. As it turned out, Maualuga was available at #20 and the Lions opted for a tight end. If the Lions truly believe that Brandon Pettigrew is a game-changing tight end, then I can’t fault picking him at #20. Tight ends can make things much, much easier for a young quarterback. However, when both Maualuga and Laurinaitis fell to #33, and the Lions still passed on both, that’s when idiocy became hilarity. I don’t think anyone can argue that the Lions don’t badly need a major upgrade at MLB. I don’t think anyone can argue that Maualuga and Laurinaitis were certainly worth taking at #33 considering they were the top two MLBs in the draft. If Maualuga or Laurinaitis were there at #33, but not both, then I could possibly understand the Lions passing. There are a bevy of reasons why a team might not like a certain player. That wasn’t the case, though. Both players were there. The Lions had their choice of two premier middle linebackers with very different builds and styles. I cannot imagine that both of them were so flawed that they weren’t good enough to play MLB for the Lions. The Rams and Bengals—both badly in need of an upgrade at MLB—jumped on Laurinaitis and Maualuga within five picks of the Lions passing. I wonder how that’s going to turn out.

To be fair, though, the draft did have its bright spots. For instance, there was the total vindication of the Matt Millen-era. Who knew that the first round trade that Millen made with the Chiefs last year would end up being one of the great ripoffs in NFL draft history. The Lions dropped two spots from 15 to 17 last year and picked up KC’s 3rd and 5th round pick in the process. This year, the Browns dropped back two spots in the first round twice—from 17 to 19 and 19 to 21—and only managed a 6th round pick each time. What Millen got a 3rd and a 5th for last year only went for a 6th this year. I think everyone owes Millen a monumental apology.


Anonymous said...

Jake, The sad thing is had they selected Rey Maualuga at #33 we would all be sitting around talking about how smart they were to wait for him to drop and not take him at #20.

But alas, it's the Lions, intelligence isn't one of the words you'd use to describe their draft philosophy.


Tony said...

I might be in the minority but I actually like how the draft laid out.

When I look at a lot of the past QB's that were taken high and compare them to Stafford, I actually rate him favorably high on the list. No one debates his physical skills. By most accounts he is a very football smart and knowledgable individual. He also had a very weak supporting cast in his three years at Georgia (I know Moreno and Massaquoi were there, but no OL help at all). His accuracy improved each year and he turned 21 after the season. Many QB's red-shirt then sit another year behind a guy but he was starting in the SEC as a true freshman. He may have struggled a bit against some of the elite teams but he has won H.S. State Championships and 3 straight College Bowl games, so he's won on the big stage and in big games. But I'm not saying anything new here, most people have already heard this and it doesn't seem to sway their opinion. I'm not without reservation here, and the one thing I've been saying is that even though I actually think Stafford is going to pan out, it will only happen if they don't rush him. Who's to say he won't be ready by week 4, and if we start 0-9 maybe we go ahead and play him, but if Daunte can play well and by him some time, then I think our patience will pay off.

Plus, I have less faith in Tebow or Colt developing into a better QB than Stafford. Even though Bradford seems to be more accurate, I'm not even sure Bradford would beat out Stafford next year as top QB if Stafford had returned to school. I don't think Stafford really had anything left to prove in college and I'd rather have him in Detroit for a year learning the playbook and adjusting to the speed now.

But, a lot of this is also because I'm in the minority that thinks Backus is actually a slightly above average LT. I feel the inadequacies of past QBs combined with the lack of a good guard next to him has inflated his "sacks allowed" numbers. To me, Jason Smith was not as strong of a player as Joe Thomas or Jake Long and I'm not sure that Smith is better than Trent Williams or Okung in next years draft.

As for the MLB. I thought for sure we were going to take one of the top two guys this year. But Maualuga fell quite a ways so that shows that a lot of teams had some questions about his ability. I'm also not sold on either being a 3-down type of player. Apparantly Peterson is going to be used as more of a pass-rusher on third downs which would require us to have a MLB with the ability to cover and I don't think Laurinaitis or Maualuga have that ability. (my guess is Peterson stays in some coverage situations and Avril is the pass rusher).

I also really like the Pettigrew pick. I like the Delmas pick as well, even though we keep spending 2nd round picks on safeties. I liked the Bullocks pick, but never felt that Alexander was worth a 2nd rounder and now with his injury status unclear that spot needed addressing. I thought maybe we'd go with a CB and move Henry but Delmas was rated higher than any CB left and Henry still can play. I think people are undervaluing Avril and Fluellen as well. I think both can step up and I think, while still projects, could develop into a nice tandem while Grady can still plug some holes.

This team is far from finished but I don't see the huge clamor in what we didn't draft. Our goal is to get the best team and win championships. It's not to get to 8-8. Maybe we take guys like Smith or Maualuga who are good players but not great and maybe we get to 8-8 a year earlier, but to win a championship you need patience and great players. So you have to take the best guys on your board. Even if we filled LT and MLB we'd still be lacking a TE and a Safety. We need a complete team with the best talent. I like what we have started on offense. Maybe we stop gap the MLB with Foote. I give the draft about a B but I'm liking what I'm seeing .

Jake said...

Hey Tony!

I don’t think the draft was horrible. I agree with some of what you said but I do not agree about next year’s QB class. The difference is substantial in favor of next year’s class. Colt McCoy is going to be a very good pro quarterback. He has everything Stafford had except he has been vastly more productive and more consistent. I’d take McCoy 10 times out of 10 over Stafford. Bradford is going to be good. Jevan Snead is going to be good. I don’t agree with your assertion that Stafford had a very weak supporting class at Georgia. It might not have been spectacular but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near very weak. Moreno went in the first round. Mohamed Massaquoi went in the second round. Snead hardly had that to work with at Mississippi. Snead is probably the most underrated player in college in terms of NFL potential but that won’t last long. Nobody thinks Tebow will pan out but what doesn’t he do well? He’s accurate, mobile, and has a strong arm. I really like Dan LeFevour out of Central. He has it all. Tim Hiller is getting a lot of pub from Western, too. Those guys can play. Pat Devlin and Jimmy Clausen are wild cards. I really have no idea how those guys are going to translate—all I’ve seen out of Clausen is a good deep ball—but that just speaks for the depth of this class. Those guys barely make the top ten. Don’t forget about Zac Robinson. He absolutely lit the Big XII on fire at Oklahoma State. His numbers were sick.

As for judging Maualuga and Laurinaitis’s value by the fact that they didn’t go in the first round, I don’t agree with that. Most teams don’t need MLBs which is why they don’t usually go in the first round. They went 3rd and 6th respectively, in the second round. I think that says something about how good the NFL thinks they are. Good defenses need playmakers at the MLB position. Maualuga and Laurinaitis might not be Ray Lewis but they are most definitely playmakers.

Unfortunately, the draft is over and we really have no choice but to root for Stafford regardless of whether we liked the pick or not. Luckily for you, it doesn’t sound like it’ll be that hard. I’m already thinking about who the Lions will take first overall next season. We’ll be right back in the same discussion about whether or not a safety (T. Mays) should go first overall (i.e. whether or not a MLB/Curry should go first). My very early, very short wishlist for next year is Taylor Mays or Terrance Cody.

Tony said...

I don't feel that next year's QB crop is bad. Another factor to consider is there is a good chance that there will be a new Rookie Cap put in place. That Cap though won't be installed until 2011 at the earliest according to the Commish. If that is the case then you will see a rash of underclassmen next year enter the draft looking for the big buck deals before everyone becomes slotted. Could be a deep draft. As for the QB's I think a lot of them will be solid prospects but I still don't think they are better than Stafford. I like Bradford as an NFL QB and McCoy has a good ceiling though at this stage still raw to me, though I still don't see it as high as Stafford. Tebow is a great college player whose accuracy and QB skills maybe underrated but I still don't think it's good enough in the NFL. I also don't think Moreno is an NFL stud but he was in college though Massaquoi was quite inconsistant. My main beef with Staffords cast was the lack of top level lineman. Even Snead had Oher.

Even with what I view as a successful draft I still recognize that we are likely to be picking in the top 10 again next year. Though without the rookie cap in place I will still find it hard to see Mays going too high, so I could see him there for us if we pick around 5 or so. DT is a very good group. Suh, Cody and McCoy are all potential top 10 talent. If Greg Hardy doesn't have the Michael Johnson affect he could be a top flight DE that might be around for us too. I'd be a bit surprised if we went with a S as much as I think Mays is a stud. I'd have to think we'd go for one of the DT's or Okung/Williams at OT. If we play a bit better maybe we get Spikes to man the MLB spot in the middle of the round.


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