For the purposes of the article I am not going to concern myself with the potential lockout and I’ll assume that money will talk and an agreement will happen in time. That said, the annual Lions super bowl has taken less meaning in some respects, no longer is Detroit the talk of the nation after the #1 and #2 picks. Obviously as a fan, this is a good thing. It means we actually won some games.
There are several common lines of thinking for the Lions draft, most of which I disagree with so let’s address them first. Misconception numero uno: The Lions are targeting a corner or line-backer in the first. Misconception numero dos: The Lions need to get an elite left tackle so Stafford doesn’t get hurt again. Misconception 3: The pass defense was the biggest problem this season. Misconception 4: Millen’s biggest problem was drafting players with no talent. There are more but those are the top ones it seems like.
As far as drafting is concerned, the Lions DO NOT target positions. They may see a player they like and align themselves to get that player ( see Javhid Best) but they will not reach or gamble on a player because of the position they play. They employ an almost strict Best Player Available strategy. There are general rules, they won’t draft a kicker in high rounds and they won’t draft a QB in high rounds, but most standard positions are fair game. The idea in the NFL is to gather talent. A great LG is worth as much on the field as a great safety. The financials aren’t equal but the impact on the game is similar. Point being, an elite RG would have a significant impact just like an elite corner would. In the draft, you have to try to get elite players almost regardless of position. Even though we may be set, in some peoples minds, on the defensive line doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t draft a player you believe will be an elite defensive end because there is a good corner sitting there. We saw this with Pettigrew, many felt Oher should have been the pick but the Lions weren’t sold on him being an elite player and they believed pettigrew was an elite prospect. Oher has played well and was a good pick up for Baltimore but Pettigrew has the makings of a true Pro Bowl caliber tight end. You may want to value a tackle more but the truth is that a tight end like Jason Witten or Dallas Clark have immense values to their teams.
I said all that to say that needs are secondary come draft time, as they should be. Get talent and worry about holes later. The more talent you bring in the less holes you will have down the road. It’s the best long term solution. You can use trades and free agents to plug holes on the roster. If we’ve learned anything this year it should be that you can never have a team that is too deep.
As for Backus, he’s not one of the top left tackles but he had another great year, he was consistent, and he shut down many of the best pass rushers in the game. Just because Peppers made one play doesn’t mean Backus is garbage. Peppers gets paid for a reason too. If that’s your logic than Suh is garbage and it was really just the offensive lines he faced that were no good. Give credit where credit is due. He had a good year and probably has a few more left.
The pass defense graded much higher than expected. This is a team that has statistically ranked at or near the bottom in both run and pass defense the past several years. A testament to how truly awful things were at one time. This year the pass defense was actually better then the run defense and outside of a few big plays earlier in the season, they held together decent. Coverage was tighter and there was an emphasis on keeping plays in front them in the last 6 games.
As for Millen, who admitted recently how horrible a job he did, there was a bigger problem than his drafting blunders. You can find that article over on Detnews.com by the way. Millen’s biggest problem in my mind wasn’t just drafting the wrong guy. I think the lack of development is what destroyed so many draft picks here. Run down the list of guys he brought in and they all had skill, maybe less than he thought they did at times, but they had potential. The obvious choices are Calvin Johnson and Cliff Avril. Avril is a great example. They talked a lot about how they thought he could be a really good DE. You didn’t see it with previous coaching staffs but the jump from last year to this year has been outstanding. Despite being slowed by injuries Cliff has had an outstanding season. Statistically speaking, he had a better season than Julius Peppers, Mario Williams, Brian Orakpo, and Ray Edwards. 33 tackles and 8.5 sacks while battling an injury mid-season is a solid effort. I think he will be even better next year.
Another example, this one from a different view was my favorite prospect from 2009. Sammie Lee Hill was one of the rawest prospects in the entire draft but he had strength, size, and athletic ability that you can’t teach or coach. When you have players that have the natural ability, those are the players that you have to look at in the draft. The natural abilities are the start, what you are able to get them to do with it, that determines how good they can become. I truly believe SLH is good enough to start on any 4-3 team in the league. He still has significant upside and the way he can collapse the pocket and still get after a QB is impressive. His development throughout the year last year and heading into this year has gone unnoticed by some. He picked up 2.5 sacks and 30 tackles by being a back up the entire season. That’s a quality rotation guy. He could have gone downhill after having some issues in the off season but the coaching staff woke him up and got him heading back in the right direction.
When all is said and done the Lions have the most significant need at LB. The system Detroit runs calls for very versatile guys that can cover the pass just as well as play the run. I think the LB play is the crucial piece to the Lions defense. The run defense was the weakest link on defense based on stats.
What happened late in the season, after Suh’s injury, the Lions went to a 3 man rush with Suh playing like he did at Nebraska. He would read and respond. I think this was a big reason for the improvement in run defense. It also was smart because teams were double teaming Suh and by staying back he allowed for true one on one match ups for his teammates. They were able to keep the pressure on and Suh is amazing in space for a DT. It was a great scheme. It took some pressure of of the backers who could focus on receivers and reading plays more than worrying about a QB stepping up or a run in the middle.
Teams will notice this and adjust by blocking him one on one more next season and the scheme will not be as effective. The Lions really need to target a guy that can move really well in space, has the size to knock the bigger backs backwards, and has the speed to go sideline to sideline. We need a big time player on the strong side. That will make all the difference in the world. For everything Julian Peterson has done in the NFL, this scheme didn’t fit his strengths. It was still a decent trade but Julian is better when blitzing and playing the run. He’s probably best suited in a 3-4 at this point. Less reading and reacting and more going will show his true abilities.
The weak side spot is also a concern, we have several guys that might fit the bill but on a really good defense, they should be relegated to back up duty. I like the potential of Carpenter, he did well in pass coverage which was a big boost down the stretch and he did decent against the run. He wasn’t dominant and he didn’t necessarily stand out but he gave good production. Ashlee Palmer showed some good hitting ability, decent speed, and he made some plays against the run that made you think the potential is there and it very well may be. Landon Johnson was better against the run than the pass but I can’t see him being an everyday starter if the Lions want to take the jump to playoff contender. Dizon looked good to start the pre-season and I think he is a very solid depth player as well.
So looking forward at the draft I see one player in the first round that has the kind of potential that warrants consideration. I’m not sold on a lot of the prospects this year and I’m not sold on this prospect but the raw talent is there. He just looks like an under developed kid who is still growing into his body to me. That man is Akeem Ayers. He has the size/speed combination and is a decent natural athlete. He needs to develop an aggressiveness towards attacking the ball and he needs to work very hard on his ability to function in space. He shows flashes that he can move and change direction but he wasn’t asked to cover screens or backs out of the backfield like he will if he ends up in Detroit. His combine and workouts will be very telling. He’s the top OLB prospect so he fits Detroit’s drafting criteria. The best at his position, and he will grade out high enough to warrant a 1st round pick. The only problem with Ayers is I have to wonder if he can make a difference right away or will we have to wait a year or two? But again, you draft talent, not production, not need. I think he fits a nice combination of need, production, talent, and potential. He’s a good fit.
Some other LB prospects on my radar that aren’t talked about as much would be Nate Irving over at NC State. He had injury problems but has flashed some really good potential, if he’s around in the round 4 I would be very interested in him. He is more of a run stopper but plays a very aggressive, hard hitting, style of football. He has decent size and shows the ability to drive ball carriers back. I like his instincts and speed to the ball. Colin McCarthy, although he doesn’t jump off the screen, he has plenty of potential as well. He is well rounded and has decent size. If he’s in position he seems to make the play. I would look at him later in the draft as well.
As for the secondary concerns, I think they need two pieces to take that leap forward. A nice CB prospect will be available in multiple rounds of the draft. It’s a matter of what you are looking for. Aaron Williams is a really nice round 2 prospect. I like the potential of Devon House and Jimmy Smith as well. They may be available in round 3 or 4. Ras-I-Dowling has potential as a number 2 corner in the league or he could role back to a safety role with his size. Same goes for Jimmy Smith. The thing about Smith is that he is kind of like Sammie Hill. Gifted but very raw. There is lots of potential there but he needs some time to develop his talent.
Another thing I can see this team doing in the middle rounds is going after one of the big raw tackles. Ben Ijalana and Marcus Cannon are the kind of players that can be real road graders on your offensive line. Cannon could be a Phil Loadholt type right tackle but I think Ijalana is the guy that can move into guard and make a difference if coached up right. The potential is definitely there. Both guys have that size and athletic ability that only God can give.
So, as we move into the off season, watch for Mayhew to get to work finding a player or two in Free Agency to plug known holes while using the draft to stock talent, regardless of position.