The NFL draft is this Saturday and the Lions finally have the first overall pick. I don’t know if any team in any sport has ever put together a 25-year run of futility without ever getting the first overall pick in the draft. The Lions have been so abysmal that they couldn’t even “win” in a system explicitly set up to reward the worst team. The Lions organization will finally see its ineptitude payoff this Saturday. It’s been a long time coming and I wish to congratulate William Clay Ford one last time on reaching what had clearly been his goal for many, many years.
It would make sense that in the year the Lions actually end up with the #1 overall pick, there wouldn’t actually be a player worth taking in that spot. Normally, teams that don’t feel there is value with their pick look to trade out of the spot. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine there are teams aiming to move up to the #1 pick in a draft without anyone worthy of the #1 pick. The Lions are stuck. They are in the unenviable position of having to make a selection that they don’t necessarily want to make. Most mock drafts have the Lions taking Matthew Stafford based on “need.” The Lions have needed a franchise quarterback since the 70’s. From an outsider’s perspective, it would make sense that the Lions would take a quarterback. However, few people, if any, have suggested that Stafford will be an elite quarterback. In fact, of all the quarterbacks who have ever been projected to go in the top five, I don’t remember a single one who garnered more lukewarm praise than Stafford. Everyone is suggesting that a). the Lions need a QB and b). Stafford is probably the best QB in this draft. Nobody, however, is suggesting that Stafford is worth the #1 pick.
So, it would seem the Lions are out of luck. Or, are they? It has been reported the Lions have been in negotiations with at least three players for the top pick. I would be surprised if they aren’t considering Jason Smith (OT, Baylor), Eugene Monroe (OT, Virginia), and Aaron Curry (LB, Wake Forest) along with Stafford. Reports have surfaced just in the last few days that the Lions might even be considering Mark Sanchez (QB, USC). Since the Lions don’t have to worry about someone picking their target, they would not be wasting their time negotiating with players who they wouldn’t be happy with. So, I have to conclude that the Lions would be content with at least three players at #1 and possibly up to five. If that’s true, then I don’t think the Lions should pick first in the draft. Just because the Lions won’t likely be able to trade out of the pick doesn’t mean they have to pick first. They can simply choose to not pick until they want to. Cleary, there is a “public relations” aspect to such a maneuver. The Minnesota Vikings were annihilated in the press for failing to submit their pick in time in the 2003 draft. Two teams below them ended up picking before the Vikings finally got their pick in. Mike Tice didn't last long in Minnesota but he still got the player he wanted (DT, Kevin Williams who is one of the premier tackles in the NFL) and got him for less money despite the gaffe. The Lions need more negative publicity like American Idol needs a fourth judge. As a result, it would be imperative that the Lions make it clear that they’re dropping out of the first slot intentionally.
I realize this sounds “crazy” but I assure you it’s not. Let’s consider for a moment how the first eight picks might pan out under a few different scenarios.
If the Lions use the #1 pick, this is how things would likely unfold:
1. Detroit—Matthew Stafford
2. St. Louis—Jason Smith/Eugene Monroe
3. Kansas City—Aaron Curry
4. Seattle—Eugene Monroe
5. Cleveland—Brian Orakpo/Michael Crabtree
6. Cincinnati—Andre Smith/Michael Oher
7. Oakland—Jeremy Maclin
8. Jacksonville—Mark Sanchez
If the Lions decide to pass on the #1 pick, this is how things would likely unfold:
1. St. Louis—Jason Smith/Eugene Monroe
2. Kansas City—Aaron Curry
3. Seattle—Matthew Stafford
4. Cleveland—Brian Orakpo/Michael Crabtree
5. Cincinnati—Eugene Monroe
6. Oakland—Jeremy Maclin
7. Jacksonville—Mark Sanchez
If the Lions like Stafford and Sanchez equally, then it would be a huge mistake for them to take Stafford with the #1 pick. If they like Stafford, Sanchez, Smith, Monroe, and Curry equally, it would be an even bigger mistake. It is guaranteed that one of those players will still be there at pick #5 and it’s likely that two of them could be there. Last year, Matt Ryan was the #3 pick in the draft and received $34 million guaranteed. The Lions would have to pay Stafford even more at #1. Last year, Glen Dorsey was the 5th pick in the draft and he walked away with $23 million guaranteed. It is likely that the Lions would save $15 million by avoiding Stafford with the #1 pick and taking either Monroe or Curry with the 5th pick. They could also save a considerable amount of money by passing on Stafford at #1 and taking Sanchez at #5 or #6. They could even take Stafford at #3 if they wanted to. If the Lions are unsure who to select, I would think that $15 million would be enough to sway their opinion.
Since St. Louis is likely to take Jason Smith or Eugene Monroe, the only way the Lions lose is if they absolutely value Smith or Monroe as the #1 player on their draft board. If they value Smith and Monroe the same--the consensus top two OTs in the draft--then there really isn't a scenario in which the Lions should pick first. By dropping 1 to 4 spots, the Lions would end up getting a player they covet for far less money. Obviously, Jim Scwartz and crew would have to perfect this strategy. They would need to place a representative just off stage with firm instructions on what to do and when to do it. Back in 2003, the Vikings realized they ran out of time and hurried to make their selection but two teams ran up to the podium knowing they were essentially stealing a slot. If the Lions attempt such a maneuver, you can bet that the next few teams in line will try to cut.
In the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t make sense to intentionally drop in the draft. However, that doesn’t mean it never makes sense. The Lions might not be able to find a team to give them value in trade for the #1 pick but the NFL rookie pay scale provides them more than enough incentive to drop in a draft without a true #1 pick available. Schwartz has been praised for being a strategist. In a situation like this, a true strategist would have gone over every scenario and realized that the only situation in which this maneuver wouldn’t payoff is if the Lions feel that Smith is substantially better than Monroe and vice versa. If reports are true and the Lions have 3-5 players that they would be happy with, then they should keep dropping as long as there is a player they considered taking #1 overall left on the board.