Sunday, April 26, 2009

Defending the (In?)defensible: The 2009 Detroit Lions Draft

Long time no blog (mainly because I've been using Twitter so much) but sometimes you need more than 140 characters, and if I'm going to defend the 2009 Detroit Lions draft, I may need 10 times that amount.

If newspaper articles, calls to talk radio, reaction at the Lions' own draft party, and comments from friends and family members are any indication, Matt Millen would have had an easier time pleasing the Lions faithful than what new GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz put together. The newspaper columns are brutal, fans booed nearly every pick at Ford Field, I had to talk one friend off the ledge on the phone this afternoon, and another described the draft tonight as "TERRIBLE" (capitals included). Welcome to Detroit Matt Stafford and Jim Schwartz, where Lions fans have been bred to lose the "benefit of the doubt gene."

And there's every reason not to give the Lions the benefit of the doubt. After all, Matt Millen for eight years, produced eight years of wasted drafts. Two of the Lions first round picks of the Millen era (Charles Rogers and Mike Williams) are out of football. Another (Joey Harrington) is hanging on by a thread. Others aren't even with the Lions anymore (Roy Williams and Kevin Jones), and the ones that are (Jeff Backus, Ernie Sims, and Gosder Cherilus) have not lived up to expectations. And those late round gems every other team seems to find? Well, not so much with the Lions. Brian Calhoun has spent the better part of three years on IR though, and we've wasted more second round picks than most teams have had in eight years, so that's something.

All that is said to lay the foundation for this: Lions fans, I understand your frustration, and I understand your pessimism. But, let's also be honest, the Lions draft was far from "terrible" and it was certainly not the epic disaster most are portraying it as. We can disagree about the pick of QB Matt Stafford #1 overall, and had I been running the Lions, I probably would have taken Baylor left tackle Jason Smith (despite my love of Wake Forrest linebacker Aaron Curry, and I think he's going to be a leader in Seattle for the next decade, you can't take a linebacker #1 overall, give him $60 million, and then move him to middle linebacker, a position he's never played before -- you just can't do it), but if the Lions truly believe he can be an elite quarterback, they couldn't pass on him. You can't say "well, it didn't work out with Andre Ware or Joey Harrington or Chuck Long" so Stafford's destined to fail too. And I don't even mind the big contract, because, the Lions had no choice. Once they decided to take a QB #1 overall, the money was going to be outrageous. There was nothing they could do; they were slaves to the out-of-whack NFL rookie salary system.

The big problem Lions fans seem to have is that with both the team's second first round pick #20, and the first pick in the second round, #33, the Lions did not address a glaring need at middle linebacker. And there's no question, the Detroit Lions need a middle linebacker. With last year's starter Paris Lenon unsigned, there isn't one on the roster at the moment. That's a problem. But the Lions have a lot of problems. While we haven't had a Pro Bowl QB since the 1970's, that was also the last time the team had an elite tight end (and please, David Sloan doesn't count -- he was good, but certainly not great). And there's certainly no question the current Lions team also lacks a quality tight end. The team also lacks a play making free safety, in the mold of an Ed Reed or Bob Sanders.

So, with multiple holes, and only a limited number of picks with which to fill them, Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz did what they could. They went with the highest rated player on their board, pretty much regardless of position. And that meant taking tight end Brandon Pettigrew #20 overall, despite the needs on defense. This just infuriated most Lions fans, especially with MLB's Rey Rey Maualuga and James Laurinaitis on the board. But, Pettigrew was ranked as Mel Kiper's #7 overall prospect, was by far the #1 tight end in the draft, and is one of the most complete tight-end prospects in years. Not only does he have soft hands and NFL quality speed (though he's not going to blow by people) but he's a monster blocker thanks to his 6'5", 260-pound frame. So, not only does he give the Lions another weapon to take pressure off of Calvin Johnson, but he instantly makes the running game and the offensive line better because of his elite blocking skills. He can step in and start immediately, and he'll make a huge impact as a rookie.

Of course the Lions needed help on defense, but the fact that no NFL team thought it wise to take Maualuga or Laurinatis in the first round (or even into the second) ought to tell you something. It's easy to fall in love with big name players from big name college programs who we watch every week for years and are on the cover of Sports Illustrated (like Maualuga was the week before the draft) and see them make great plays and big hits, and say "we need that guy." And that's especially true when you are a team like the Lions who lack a defensive identity. But, this is a multi-year rebuilding process for the Lions. We're not going from 0-16 to the playoffs, we're not the next Miami Dolphins or Atlanta Falcons. We can't afford to pass up talent for need. We need players, at every position. We can't afford to be choosy.

The next sin, according to the local media and local fans, was passing up Mauluga nad Laurinatis again at #33 to take Western Michigan safety Louis Delmas. Delmas, though, was the #1 safety in the draft, and safety is becoming an elite, and vital position in the league (maybe even more so than middle linebacker). If Delmas lives up to his potential, Lions fans will be very happy, even if he's not a middle linebacker.

Jim Schwartz said today the Lions were not going to "fit square pegs into round holes" with the linebackers in this draft. Who am I, who didn't watch film on these guys, didn't interview them or see them work out at their pro day or the Combine, to say Schwartz is wrong? I know as Lions fans we have been conditioned to believe our coaches are bafoons, but I liked the hiring of Jim Schwartz. I have to at least give him one draft to get the types of players he thinks will fit best in his scheme.

Now, was I thrilled with all of the Lions picks? No. Day 2, while it obtained some depth at both defensive and offensive tackle, and brought us two potential kick returners (another desperate need), also included two outside linebackers. Maybe they can move inside, but the last thing we needed were more athletic outside linebackrs. And nary a defensive end or cornerback was taken. So, I was a bit less happy with Sunday than I was with Saturday.

So, maybe I'm just a Lions apologist, but I'm not expecting the Lions to rebuild overnight. We need players, everywhere and when you can leave a draft with the top player at three different positions of need (quarterback, tight end, and safety), even if you didn't address your most pressing need (middle linebacker) I can live with that. As Martin Mayhew said before the draft, as much as the draft is about next year, it's really about three, four years down the road. Of course we didn't fill all of our needs this weekend. But, this is a process, and one the Lions have just begun.

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Anonymous said...

Nice to see you blogging (occasionally) again. I enjoy your tweets, but really look forward to the blog posts.

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