Unlike when a new executive is brought in from another team, when Martin Mayhew was promoted to GM, he was already intimately familiar with his roster: a group of 53 players, plus a host of players on IR, plus practice-squadders, that had completed the NFL’s only 0-16 season just the day before. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of all of them; he’d presumably argued either for or against the acquisition of almost every one. Therefore, when he was handed that roster and told to make a winning football team, he knew he had a long, hard road in front of him.
First, of course, he had to establish a long-term vision for the kind of team they want to build—both with his front officemate, President Tom Lewand, and then his head coach, Jim Schwartz. Then, he could go to work: subtracting players who didn’t fit that vision, and adding players who did. Unfortunately, you can’t turn over an entire roster in one offseason; it’s just not possible. Moreover, even between the draft and free agency, all of the players needed to fill the long-term vision almost certainly won’t be available the year you establish that vision. That means that when Martin Mayhew went roster-building, he had to continually keep in mind that the point wasn’t to do whatever it took to maximize the Lions’ win total in 2009—it was to actually build the roster.
There’s been a bit of handwringing over how most of these changes have left the Lions--theoretically a youthful team starting from the ground up--actually quite old. I’ve commented before that between Grady Jackson, (possibly) Kevin Carter, Larry Foote, Julian Peterson, Anthony Henry, and Philip Buchanon, the Lions’ defense would be the best in the league if it was 2004 now. However, this is where you have to keep in mind the above. The Lions were acquiring the kinds of players they need to win, because they couldn't possibly acquire all the specifc players they need to win in one spring. However, pay close attention, because from here on out, the rookies that the Lions draft, and the young veterans they sign to long contracts, will fill those same roles. DeAndre Levy could become quickly become young Larry Foote. Sammie Lee Hill could develop into young Grady Jackson. Louis Delmas could quickly become young Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu—and believe me, if Troy Polamalu had been past his prime and available as an affordable free agent, the Lions would have done everything they could to get him in here.
The key here is remembering that the older stopgaps are just that—stopgaps. They might work out beautifully, giving the Lions a couple of very productive years, like Dan Wilkinson did earlier this decade. They might already be out of gas, and barely see the field. The beautiful part is that none of these “graybeards” have been signed to extensive deals. Beyond Julian Peterson and Philip Buchanon—both on the right side of 32—the veteran acquisitions are all on one- or two-year deals. Mayhew and the Lions could easily wash their hands of any of them.
As oft as Matt Millen is excoriated for his awful drafting, I think that has more to do with the visibility that comes with being in the top ten every year—the Eagles have been just as prolific and putrid as the Lions in taking first-round wideouts. I really think it’s his free agent signings that sunk the team. Over and over again, he’d make a huge splash by giving all the money in the world to the best available guy who played the position he wanted to address. As one example, he backed up the Brinks truck for Dre’ Bly—an undersized speed-and-coverage cornerback—while his defensive coordinator was Kurt Schottenheimer, who preferred very physical press coverage. Why? The Lions were desperate for cornerback help, and Bly was the best one available. To Millen, it didn’t matter that Bly didn’t fit the vision, it didn’t matter that Bly’s mouth was even bigger than his sizable talent, and it didn’t matter that the enormous money would chain the Lions to Bly for the next several years--he just needed to fill that hole.
Come next spring, the veterans that didn’t work out—or were eclipsed by younger players—will be let go, and another big infusion of players who fit the vision will be brought in. This time next season, I really believe that we will see a Detroit Lions roster that is very young, very talented, and very close to the kind of team that Mayhew, Lewand, and Schwartz have meant to build.
As for now . . . well, let these old dogs have their day. We might be surprised.