Saturday, April 30, 2011

Thoughts on the Lions Draft

I was as shocked as anybody when the Lions made Nick Fairley the #13 pick on Thursday night. I figured Prince was the sensible pick, but I expected a twist from Lions' management. I was prepared for Robert Quinn, Anthony Castonzo, even Jimmy Smith. But I never saw Nick Fairley coming.

At first, I hated it. But just like the finale of LOST, I am starting to understand and appreciate what happened. Slowly.

There are still parts of the pick that I vehemently disagree with. We'll get to those. But let's take a look at the entire Lions' draft, starting at the back.

In the seventh and fifth rounds today, Detroit took an undersized offensive tackle from South Carolina State and a former-running-back-turned-linebacker from Syracuse. The tackle (Johnny Culbreath) might stick around long enough to make the practice squad; the linebacker (Doug Hogue) will likely make the 53-man roster as a special teams player and 4th string OLB. The Lions had no other picks in the later rounds, because we traded them to Seattle in order to move up and grab Mikel (pronounced Michael) Leshoure, the running back from Illinois.

I love Leshoure as a player. If Jahvid Best gets hurt again, this pick will pay off. Even with Best healthy they will complement each other beautifully. I'm just not sure how I feel about Detroit trading up to grab a running back for the second straight year, given all the other needs and the lack of a free agency period.

Early in the second round, Detroit took Boise State's speedy received Titus Young, which was the biggest head-scratcher of all. I wondered if Matt Millen had somehow infiltrated the war room. Titus is a great talent, like Leshoure. I have no concerns about his ability. But that doesn't change the fact that Young, like Pettigrew two years ago, was a total luxury pick. When we picked Pettigrew, we claimed he was the best player available. The truth was, we just wanted to give Matthew Stafford another weapon. The positions we needed to address then were OLB, LT, and CB. The guys we passed on to pick Pettigrew: Michael Oher, Clay Matthews, and Vontae Davis. All three of these guys are very good pros, and Matthews is arguably the best OLB in the league. They all went within six picks of our tight end.

Luxury picks are great ... when you are the Falcons or the Colts. Not when you are 0-16.

Young just doesn't make sense on Detroit's team, despite the best arguments of Scott Linehan. He's a kick-returning specialist, but we already have Stefan Logan. He's a slot receiver who can run after the catch, but we already have Nate Burleson. Granted, Burleson is 29 and not the healthiest. But still. I fully expect Young to be more the next Derrick Williams: undersized, lousy hands, and not strong enough to get open. His scouting report says: needs to improve route-running. And that's our new slot guy? Really?

Young, like Pettigrew, was "supposedly" the best player available for the Lions at #44. But I believe that about as much as I believe Obama's birth certificate is genuine. I wonder who will be the 'Clay Matthews' that we missed out on this time... maybe Brandon Harris? Or Rahim Moore? The truth to this pick is, we wanted to take some more pressure off Calvin Johnson, because if Calvin keeps putting up great numbers, he'll be happy. And if he stays happy, he might stay on the Lions in 2013. And if he leaves the Lions, we are completely screwed. Thus, I don't completely hate this pick. In theory.

But the theory falls apart if Titus Young doesn't actually perform on the field, and sadly, I don't think he will. Why not? Because we still don't have a quarterback who can go through progressions, read defenses, and control the line of scrimmage. Well, actually we do have such a quarterback, but Shaun Hill remains the backup. As long as Stafford is under center, the offense will struggle to convert third-downs and score points in the two-minute drill.

Both of the Lions' offensive picks (Young and Leshoure) only work under one condition: Matt Stafford takes his head out of his ass and starts playing quarterback. 99.8% of football fans think Stafford is a stud. Every single freaking analyst says "If Stafford stays healthy, Detroit is a playoff team." What the morons don't realize is, Stafford has won less regular season games than Mark Sanchez has won playoff games. They don't realize that if you remove the flukish Cleveland game, Stafford threw 8 TDs and 18 interceptions as a rookie. They don't realize that the OPPOSITE is true: If Matt Stafford gets hurt, Detroit is a playoff team.

Anyway ... that's my thoughts on the 2nd - 7th round picks. It's weird that we took a running back and a receiver when we have such pressing needs at OLB and CB. But rest assured, I've watched every highlight video and read every scouting report on both Titus Young and Mikel Leshoure (and Hogue and Culbreath just for good measure) and the guys look awesome. Young is crazy fast, he can make people miss in the open field, and he's probably an improvement over Burleson. Leshoure has size, strength, and surprising speed. The comparisons to Rashard Mendenhall aren't completely exagerated. He's way better than Maurice Morris and a perfect complement for Jahvid Best.

Between Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, and Titus Young ... let's just say there are no more excuses for Matt Stafford. The dude better produce.

Now, let's talk Nick Fairley.

Less than two months ago, Fairley was considered the favorite to be picked #1 overall. He helped Auburn dominate the BCS championship game, he won the award for best linemen in the country, and he was a physical freak. But then concerns about a bad Combine workout and 'maturity' issues surfaced, and he fell past DT-needing teams like Tennessee and Houston. If Detroit hadn't grabbed him, he might have kept falling into the 20s.

But we did take him, and Jim Schwartz couldn't be happier. Of course, Schwartz and Mayhew claim that Detroit stuck to its Big Board and took the best player available. If you believe that, then you also believe that LeBron James has never used steroids.

The only way that's true is if the Lions' Big Board was only comprised of defensive linemen. Because I realized something after this pick ... Detroit was going to take a D-lineman no matter what. That's why the Aldon Smith talk was heating up. That's why Detroit seemed shy on Amukamara. Schwartz made his mind up about this a long time ago. It was just a matter of seeing who fell to #13 between Fairley, Quinn, and Aldon.

Why do I believe this? Well, for a number of reasons, but the main reason is the same reason any of us do anything. Job security. Are you ready for this complicated conspiracy theory? Hold on to your seat.

Jim Schwartz knows his years of coaching the Lions are numbered. He knows the only way he keeps a head-coaching job is if Detroit wins a playoff game in the next few years, and he knows (he HAS to know) that he's hitched his wagon to a worthless QB. In my opinion, he's already planning for his next position.

Which of course will be as a defensive coordinator. So what is he doing? Padding the stats for his resume, of course.

It's no different than a player in a contract year. They know they need to perform in order to get paid, so they rack up the yards, work hard on every play, fight for every yard. Then, they get signed, and convienently get injured.

In aroundabout way, Schwartz is doing the same thing. He may not even know he's doing it; the whole thing might be somewhat subconcious. But by neglecting the offensive line and secondary, and drafting DTs in the first round for two straight years and running backs in the second round, Schwartz is creating a team which will:

A. record a lot of sacks
B. not give up many rushing yards
C. run the ball somewhat well, to control the clock, to limit the other team's offensive production.

Hey, I'm not saying those are bad things. Those are GREAT things. It's just ... we got those things last year with Suh and Best. Did we need to choose players who play those same exact positions again? Don't we have DT covered? I mean, don't we have the best DT in the NFC? Was that really something we needed to focus on?

What about ...

A. pass protection
B. having cornerbacks who can defend the pass
C. linebackers who can tackle
D. pass protection?!?

When the Lions were talking about Aldon Smith, I wrote a post titled "Prepare to be Disappointed." The premise was that Schwartz is obsessed with sacks, he loves the 'sexiness' of sacks, and he would forego more dire needs in order to achieve his goal: get more sacks. Little did I realize how right I was. Even with Aldon Smith off the board, he STILL went for a defensive lineman, even with the guy EVERYONE agreed we should have picked (Prince) amazingly still on the board. Even with the character concerns and general unlikeability of Nick Fairley. Despite legitimate concerns that Fairley is a one-year wonder and a lazy worker. He neglected the secondary and offensive line, just like 2009, and 2010. Anyone else seeing a pattern?

Detroit is trying to sell Fairley and Suh as the best DT combination in the league. I hope they are right. But I for one am going to wait until I see Fairley actually play. Here's what I know:

-Suh played 4 years at Nebraska. He was considered the best DT prospect in decades. Maybe ever.

-Fairley played 1 year at a community college, 1 year on Auburn's bench, and 1 year as a starter. If not for Cam Newton, Auburn wouldn't have won squat.

-Suh is a physical freak: 6'4", 318, and unprecedented explosiveness. His physical tools are off the chart. His vertical jump at the Combine was the best a DT had ever done. But it's not his physical tools that make him the best DT in the NFC. It's his passion for football, his insane work ethic, and most importantly, his unquenchable hatred for quarterbacks. (Just ask Jake Delhomme, Jay Cutler, Blaine Gabbert, Colt McCoy, or Cody Hawkins about that).

Fairley is also a physical beast: 6'3", 290, and a tad bit faster than Suh. He's not as explosive, not as strong, but maybe a bit quicker. But the difference comes off the field. Fairley isn't known as a work-out monster. Quite the opposite. He's knows as a 'Haynesworth,' which is a swear word in NFL locker rooms. He doesn't want to work his way into stardom; he already thinks he's a star. That's not gonna fly as a rookie, or anytime for that matter.

We're all hoping that Suh and VandenBosch will show Fairley what relentless work ethic looks like, and have him prepared for a season in which he isn't allowed to take plays off. We hope that Suh intimidates him and basically gives him no choice but to play his ass off every down. But can you really change a guy like that? I mean, when you give a 20 year old kid a contract for $30+ million, that's got to have some affect on how much he loves playing football, right?

I don't know guys. I think part of this pick was Schwartz being Schwartz, beefing up the defensive line so he can continue to be known as a "defensive genius." I won't be surprised in 4 years when he accepts the defensive coordinator role at Atlanta or San Diego. I also think part of this pick was just the Lions being unhappy with the cornerbacks and offensive linemen who were available, and choosing talent over need. That's part of it, but not all of it. I also think one other factor needs to be mentioned. And that is the all-important free agency period.

Here's where I being to like the Fairley pick, just as I began to slowly like the LOST finale.

The Lions know that they can't build a Super Bowl contender in the first three rounds of the 2011 draft. We could have picked Amukamara and an offensive tackle, but would we be that much better off? Nah, the truth is, to become a truly good team, we need some solid free agents, and we need to be great at something. Now we are. We have a GREAT defensive line. (Again, in theory).

But to attract free agents, and I'm talking about real free agents like Nnamdi Asomugha and Jonathan Joseph, not the riffraff that we find every year, you have to be a desireable destination. The Lions never get the top-end free agents, because honestly, "Who the heck would want to play for Detroit??" When we got Larry Foote, it was a sympathy thing; he was a Detroit native. And even he wasn't all that great, plus he left after one year.

But last year something changed. We nabbed VandenBosch and Burleson, two guys who actually belong on an NFL roster. For the first time in 18 seasons, the Lions actually have more than 5 NFL-caliber players.

And with the additions of Suh and Fairley, I suspect that Detroit becomes an even more desireable location for defensive free agents. What I'm getting at is, maybe we'll be able to fill the needs at OLB and CB with proven players, not castoffs. What I'm ultimately getting at is, of course, maybe this Nick Fairley pick helps us land Nnamdi Asomugha.

Call me delusional. Call me naive. But I would rather have Asomugha than all 32 picks in the first round combined. He's the Peyton Manning of defense. And he's on the market. And he's sick of losing.

More than that, he's sick of playing the style that Oakland made him play. He was forced to help in run support. He was asked to play man-to-man every play. He was used like a normal cornerback, not like the other-wordly talent that he is.

In Detroit, Nnamdi would have everything he wants. The respect of fans and coaches who appreciate how great he is. The green-light to play a zone or a man, whatever he wants. And best of all, a defensive line that can stuff the run AND create a pass rush, all without blitzing. Finally, Nnamdi won't have to tackle running backs, won't have to play on an island all game, and won't have to worry about whether his defensive teammates are actually trying.

Don't get me wrong - he's by no means a lazy player. He doesn't want to cop out of physical play. It's just that he embraces the challenge of shutting down opposing receivers, and he wants to focus on that. He wants to eliminate half of the field and force quarterbacks to throw places they don't want to throw, because he knows that will help his team win. Ultimately, he wants to win, and he wants to do it by dominating on defense. In Detroit, with Nnamdi on board, that just might happen.

If we miss Nnamdi, Bengals' corner Jonathan Joseph would be a great constellation prize. Plenty of others, including Champ Bailey and Brent Grimes, might be on the market. Between those guys, Detroit should be (or might be, I guess) able to find a huuuuge improvement over Alphonso Smith. Nick Fairley will help make that possible.

Then, there's the outside linebacker position, Detroit's most glaring weakness, namely because we have no outside linebackers. Free agents to be include: Stephen Tulloch, Barrett Ruud, Keith Bullock, and don't forget, Ernie Sims! The best choice and most realistic is Tulloch, who played with Schwartz in Tennessee and could be reuinted with his old friend KVB. Those rumors have already started swirling.

Imagine a defense with Suh commanding double teams, VandenBosch and Fairley tormenting quarterbacks, Asomugha shutting down #1 receivers, Tulloch and Levy petrolling the middle, and Delmas delivering bone-crushing hits to players after they go out of bounds. That unit would truly dominate the league. Even Matthew Stafford could win with that defense.

Now, imagine Detroit's roster as it is. No corners, no linebackers, and we're not sure how committed Fairley really is to working hard. It's gloomy, yes? That's why I can't wait for this lockout nonsense to end! I can't wait for Detroit to hurry up and get some free agents!

In the meantime, at least we drafted another wide receiver.

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