Saturday, March 3, 2007

Day I of NFL Free Agency -- Lots of money changing hands but none in Detroit

The first day of NFL Free Agency is always exciting. Free agent visits set up at 12:01 a.m., every fan in every city feverishly checking Pro Football Talk's Rumor Mill to see what the latest news is for their respective favorite team, and millions of dollars changing hands at alarming rates. For many cities in the NFL, this was very true today.

Nate Clemons, for example, became the highest paid defensive player ever today, signing an $80 million contract over 8 years which includes $22 million in guaranteed bonuses. Now, Clemons is a very good cornerback and by far was the best cornerback available, but is he the best defensive player ever? Or, even the best defensive player in the league? No. He isn't even the best cornerback in football. A Pro Bowl player? Yes. Worth $10 million a season? No.

The Detroit Lions, thankfully, were not in the Clemons chase. And given General Manager Matt Millen's history of overpaying players, that may have been a bit of a surprise. But, Millen is learning, so he deserves some credit for that at least. In the past, Millen has tried to hit home runs with big, expensive free agent signings. Most have been disasters. Wide Receivers Az Zahir Hakim, Bill Schroeder, and Corey Bradford were all busts. As were Offensive Guards Brandon Stai, Ross Verba, and Rick Demulling. And Marcus Pollard. And Fernando Bryant. And, well, you get the picture. Lest we forget Damien Woody, who was one of the best offensive lineman in football until he came to the Lions, got millions of dollars, and decided he no longer needed to stay in shape. He's currently at a weight clinic at Duke (I'm not kidding) and he may get cut if he does not shape up (literally). Okay, rant over.

So, this season, the Lions are taking their time in free agency. The only move they made today, other than bringing in Tampa Bay Defensive End DeWayne White for a visit (he'd be a decent addition and has familiarity with the Lions coaching staff and defensive scheme) was trading James Hall to the St. Louis Rams for a 5th Round Draft pick in the upcoming 2007 NFL Draft.
Hall, at least early in his career, was an underrated star for the Lions. He played at the University of Michigan, went undrafted, but proved himself and eventually became a leader on the Lions defense, both as captain, and as a leader in quarterback sacks. He though, like many Lions fans, reportedly has lost confidence in Millen, and thus with the future of the Lions. So, off he went as the Lions picked up their fourth 5th round pick, which gives the team a lot of flexibility to trade up as the draft progresses. And since they were going to release Hall anyway, and get no compensation for him (as they did with Pollard and Marcus Bell, both cut loose today) picking up anything is a bonus.

Over at MLive, Lions guru Tom Kowalski, blogged today that he believes the Lions should draft Joe Thomas in the upcoming draft, despite the trade on Thursday for Denver Offensive Tackle George Foster. As I wrote yesterday, passing on Thomas could be a huge mistake. But, Kowalski also speculated that if the Lions trade down, pass on Thomas, and grab a defensive end like Clemson's Gaines Adams, the team may try to trade back into the first round to grab Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton.

As good as I believe Thomas will be, if the Lions pass on him, draft the top defensive end in the draft in Adams and are able to get Stanton, that may be worth it. I am not surprised that Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn (who at one point was considered the top prospect in the entire draft until people came to their senses) is sliding because as anybody who watched Notre Dame play this season knows, Quinn just isn't that good. Stanton, on the other hand, is a football player with all the intangibles you would want in a franchise quarterback. Maybe I'm biased because I watched Stanton play in high school, and predicted then he'd make it to the NFL (so I want to see myself proven right), but just as Quinn's slide isn't stunning, neither is Stanton's rise. He has a heckuva an arm, is a true leader, and is a football player, which was proven beyond doubt when he tore his ACL early in his college career as the gunner on the Michigan State punt team. Only the most die-hard of football players volunteers for that position, and hardly ever is it given to a quarterback. And despite the knee injury (and various other injuries Stanton suffered at Michigan State) Stanton maintained his athleticism and is very mobile. While Quinn and potential #1 pick JaMarcus Russel get all the publicity, I still think when we look back on the 2007 draft, Stanton will be the best quarterback of the class. Which is why the scenario Kowalski floated is so appealing. I still think Thomas is the pick, but it's nice to have options, and the Lions would do themselves good by maintaining those options as long as possible.

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