Group A: Cory Redding, Kalimba Edwards, Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola.
Group B: Roy Williams, Shaun Rogers, Jeff Hartings . . . Leigh Bodden?
Group C: Kevin Jones, Johnnie Morton, Luther Eliss . . . Leigh Bodden?
Much has been made of the Lions' consistently poor drafting. After all, it seems evident: so few of the many high Lions draft picks are still with the team! Yet, as bad as the Lions' drafting has occasionally been, I actually don't think the Lions' pattern of first-day failure has been extraordinary. Go look back through NFL Draft history: every first round, from every year, has some stars, some decent players, quite a few disappointments, and several laugh-out-loud busts. What slot in the first round you're talking about doesn't matter--I believe the figure most often quoted is that 50% of all first-round picks are busts. And when you consider that first-rounders are both theoretically the most talented of all draftees, and definitely command the greatest financial commitment from the franchise that drafted them, that means that the other rounds probably have similar--if not higher--percentages of failure. Think about it, folks: every team invites 80 players to training camp; 2,560 guys enter July with a shot at an NFL job. By mid-August, that number has gradually shrunk to the 53-man active roster--that's 1,696 real jobs to go around. The NFL draft is seven rounds long, times 32 teams, plus compensatory picks; let's call it 250 rookies drafted every year. Plus, most teams bring in 5-15 undrafted free agents. That means that every year, ~350 kids come looking for one of 1,696 jobs--and many keep coming year after year, bouncing around the CFL, Arena League (now defunct), NFLE (now defunct), XFL (now defunct), UFL (supposedly starting up), and AAFL (supposedly starting up) . . . the vast majority of new hopefuls will spend years trying to break onto an NFL roster.
The question becomes, when will they let the incumbent go?
The Lions' biggest problem, to me, hasn't been the multiple high-profile misses at the top of the first; it's been the inability to identify and retain the talent it does develop. Look at Group A up above: Cory Redding, Kalimba Edwards, Jeff Backus, and Dominic Raiola. All were high Lions draft picks. All of their performances showed both downside and great upside through the duration of their rookie contracts--and for all, the Lions chose to retain them by paying them what they'd be worth at the peak of their upside. Redding, Edwards, Backus, and Raiola all signed massive extensions, as if they were amongst the best in the league at their position. And, the truth must be told, all of them had at least flashed that level of on-the-field play at that point. Even the biggest disappointment of those four, "Kalimbust", had an overlooked-by-most sensational rookie year, highlighted by a game against Atlanta where none other than Mike Vick was unable to escape his relentless pursuit. These are the players people think about when they assert that the Lions consistently "overpay to keep mediocre talent around".
Let's look at Group B: Roy Williams, Shaun Rogers, and Jeff Hartings. Each of these three were obvious "hits" from the day they took the field as Lions. Each reached the highest level of performance right away. Each had some struggles with either injury, discipline, or inconsistency, and each was either traded or allowed to walk away. Each has gone on to (or "will go on to"--I'm sorry, but Roy will be sweet in Dallas) great success elsewhere. These are the players people think about when they assert that the Lions consistently "won't pay to keep good players".
Finally, Group C: Kevin Jones, Johnnie Morton, Luther Eliss. All Lions first-round picks. All acheived great success with the Lions, albeit for varying lengths of time. At the time each was released (or allowed to walk away), Lions fans were stunned. These were valuable contributors who had productive years in front of them! Moroever, each individually had many rabid fans amongst the Lions faithful. To send them packing--and get nothing in return--seemed ridiculous. And yet . . . Eliss was nothing more than cheap depth in New England. Johnnie Morton picked up his monstrous paychecks in KC with a mask and a gun. KJ was a mostly-invisible backup to workhorse rookie Matt Forte in Chicago this year, and will be lucky to ever start again in the NFL. These are the players nobody ever thinks about, because the Lions got it right.
Notice there's not a group D: players that the Lions took a chance on keeping, and got it right. Obviously, Morton and Eliss each recieved multiple contracts with the Lions through their veteran careers, but each were clearly productive veterans who had a well-defined role on the team. It didn't take much talent to decide to extend a perennial Pro Bowl DT in his prime. Also, the Lions get no cookies for cutting obvious busts like Joey Harrington, Mike Williams, and Charles Rogers. Instead, look at the way New England tap-dances around their roster: Wes Welker gets extended, Deion Branch gets shipped off. Mike Vrabel is kept, Roosevelt Colvin is released. Production is rewarded, inconsistency punished. Youth is not seen as a virtue of itself, yet veterans who are too old to produce are treated mercilessly (see: Brown, Troy). Easy-peasy, right?
Well, no. Belicheck and Pioli ran circles around the rest of the league in this area for years--and with the billions being thrown around to chase those two, they'd have been caught if it were easy. Yet, just last year, the Patriots were a dude catching a ball with his helmet away from going 19-0.
This is the first of the real "crossroads" decisions the Lions' new brass have had to make: Bodden is a young veteran in his prime, and came to the Lions with all the indicators of success--physical tools, confidence, some real time starting, and some real production in that time. However, it's indisputable that Marinelli's desire for "53 gym rats" didn't mesh with the acquisition of Bodden, that Bodden's skills weren't ideal for the Tampa 2, and that Marinelli's stick-and-bigger-stick approach to motivation did nothing but DE-motivate him. So a talented, young-but-experienced player at position of desperate need is sent packing, more because of the Lions' mishandling of him than because of his failure to produce. Make no mistake, though, Bodden DID fail to produce. If he is half as skilled as he thinks he is, he should have been able to perform better than he did in 2008. Putting 8.5 million dollars in his pocket, and committing to him for three more years--when he was already publicly dissillusioned with the franchise--certainly seems like a gamble.
So Lewand and Mayhew are put to the test. Will Bodden be the next Jeff Hartings, a perennial standout for an elite franchise? Or will he be the next Johnnie Morton--a bitter disappointment to a team that thinks they're getting a standout starter just entering his prime? At this point, only time will tell.