Sleeping Lions: A Draft Strategy to Bring Back the Roar

Lions SleepingTotal Pro Sports – With the Senior Bowl behind us, and the Super Bowl looming, the college player evaluation process is beginning to intensify. Draft day is exactly three months away, and internet discussion boards are quickly filling with chatter regarding what teams will or should do with their first selections, and beyond.

The ultimate high profile team of this, and any draft, is the team which holds the top spot. In 2009, that team is the lowly Detroit Lions, who will have two selections in round one, and five of the first ninety picks overall. It is perfectly understandable then why so many feel that Detroit’s future depends, in large part, on the decisions that are made or not made this April. Speculation as to what the Lions will do has reached a fever pitch, as armchair GM’s from around the globe are deciding the fate of the 0-16 Lions on blogs everywhere. It’s time for Total Pro Sports to weigh in!

First, let’s begin by examining the obvious. They need everything! They need help at every position. Understanding that, what positions make the most impact on game day in deciding victories? Quarterback, right? In the case of the Detroit Lions—WRONG! I don’t dispute that having a great veteran quarterback in Detroit, such as a Peyton Manning, would instantly make that team respectable. That being said, taking one in the draft, even the best one available, would be a mistake for this team at this time in this draft. We’ll come back to that topic…

Second, let’s look at the current strengths of the team. Detroit has one of the best young play makers in football in Calvin Johnson, and a very talented young running back in Kevin Smith. Defensively there isn’t much, unless you count linebacker Ernie Sims, who has yet to live up to his first round draft selection (9th overall) in April of 2006. Being that defense is the bigger weakness of the two units the Lions should focus on defense more so than offense, right? Again, WRONG, and again we’ll come back to that.

Detroit LionsFinally, Detroit has to completely map out the upcoming draft and determine its strengths and weaknesses, assessing the talent at every position, as well as the needs of every other team in the league. This will help them to create a blueprint for draft success, which is used to closely estimate when and where certain players will go. This is a process that every team struggles with, but it allows them to gauge which players represent the greatest value to them, at certain spots on the board, and where they can obtain the best value for their own draft picks. Executing this task poorly has been the largest contributing factor to the Lions ineptitude. With Matt Millen gone, I can only speculate that the Lions’ war room will be much improved, and their draft soldiers better prepared to take the field.

As of today, Matt Stafford is the fan and media favorite to be drafted by Detroit with the number one overall selection. As we approach April 25th, however, I believe that those perceptions will change. Take a look at the video we’ve provided below. This video is only one game, but it shows every pass he threw in that game—some good, and some not so good. Look at his eyes, his pocket presence, his accuracy, his feet, and his decisions. Most of his completions and yards were designed plays to a primary target (screens, quick throws, etc.). While he did find wide open receivers down field, as is typical at Georgia, even then his accuracy was a problem, preventing run after the catch opportunities.

There were few situations where he had to read the defense, process information, and make an independent decision. When he did that, he did not do it well consistently, often staring down receivers leading to incompletions, defended passes, and interceptions. He did make some major league throws in the game, threading the needle a few times, but it is obvious to me that he is a player that relies heavily on his arm strength to beat defenders rather than creating separation with his eyes and “throwing receivers open” with good anticipation. This is a formula for disaster in the NFL. The list is far too long to name every quarterback that contracted the Matt Stafford disease after making the quantum leap from college to pro football. The truth is that they all were carriers of the illness before. The college game just provided some temporary relief. He has unlimited physical ability, but quarterbacks are not judged on arm strength in the NFL. They are judged primarily on decision making and accuracy. These are Stafford’s biggest problems. Could he be a great quarterback with some hard work, and time to improve? He ABSOLUTELY could—but not in a situation like Detroit. He needs to be on a team that has a solid offensive line, and a decent defense, so his mistakes won’t be the reason the team loses early on in his development. In Detroit there will be too much pressure to play well immediately. He will be asked to do too much, and he is far from being ready to do that. I believe that type of situation could lead to his being benched, crushing his confidence, sending him spiraling into the Ryan Leaf/Vince Young, pit of despair.

No, taking Stafford is not a risk that Detroit can afford to take. They need to pave the road for their future quarterback by getting him an outstanding offensive line and developing a nice running game. With Kevin Smith, the usually trailing Lions have a back that somehow managed better than four yards per carry and nearly a thousand yards rushing, given a limited number of opportunities, behind a group of furniture movers. He will become a Pro Bowl caliber player behind a better line, and Calvin Johnson will only become more productive once the quarterback, whoever it is, has time to find him down the field.

I’m of the Bill Parcels philosophy, believing that you build the offensive and defensive fronts first—then take care of the rest. Why? With a great offensive line, average players can produce like elite players. They open more holes for backs, they allow quarterbacks and receivers more time to make big plays instead of constantly checking down, and they keep the chains moving by creating more push in short yardage. Additionally, by converting more third downs, the defense will be better rested, and will be more effective as a result. They make the whole team better! On the defensive line, linebackers and safeties make far more plays when they are not being blocked. Good defensive linemen protect those guys, allowing them to make more tackles and bigger hits, forcing turnovers and giving the ball back to the offense. If Detroit fixes the D-line first, however, what is the offense going to do with those extra possessions? Punt the ball and put a tired group of players back on the field, that’s what.

In this league, you have to score points to win. Without an excellent offensive line, that is extremely difficult, if not impossible. In this draft, Detroit holds three of the top 33 selections. If they can’t trade the number one pick, they must take Andre Smith, OT from Alabama, at that spot. If they do make the trade, there will still be an elite left tackle available later in the first round. There are four guys in this draft that should go in the top 15-20, three of which probably go in the top 10, and five or six that will go in the first round. They drafted their right tackle last year. They need to get the left tackle this year. With the 20th pick, they should take the best guard in this draft, Duke Robinson from Oklahoma, or look at TE Brandon Pettigrew from Oklahoma State, if he’s available. Pettigrew is the most complete TE in the draft, and is an excellent blocker at that position. Robinson is a mauler who will bring toughness to that offensive front, and open holes for Kevin Smith in the running game. With the first pick in the second round, they should go with Max Unger or Alex Mack, depending upon how they would be used. Unger or Mack can both play guard, but Mack is a better pure center. One of those two might not be there, so the decision may be an easy one. Other players that could be considered at 20 and 33 are Andy Levitre (G), and Chase Coffman (TE). Obviously, their selections will depend upon what the other teams do first.

My “dream scenario” for Detroit would be to take Andre Smith number one, Brandon Pettigrew number twenty, and Duke Robinson number thirty-three. That is a very plausible scenario, as Robinson could slide some being that he is a guard, a notoriously undervalued position in past drafts. They can now use the remainder of their draft, which includes two 3rd round picks, to start improving that defense. Free agency is another resource that they could use to add talent to the defensive unit.

As always, there are lots of possibilities for what those wacky Lions might do. I, for one, retain hope that they have seen the light, and will adopt a draft strategy which will improve their ability to win in the long term, not one that improves their ability to sell tickets in the short term. Sorry Stafford.

Tags: Detroit Lions, Draft day, Drew Stafford, football, Kevin Smith, Matt Millen, NFL, Peyton Manning,