Yesterday, I argued that Lions should take Ndamukong Suh with the #2 overall pick. The reasons the Lions should take Suh are numerous: he’s a remarkable, once-every-five-drafts talent at the Lions’ greatest position of need, he’s by all accounts a great person, he’ll make everyone around him better, and he could be the catalyst that transforms the Lions’ defense from “terrible but trying hard” to “hardnosed and effective”.
Suh’s physical presence will command double teams, make Sammie Hill’s job easier, allow Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch to beat tackles man-to-man, and make Gunther’s beloved B-gap blitzes much more effective. Rotating with Hill, Corey Williams, and Landon Cohen, the Lions should be able to keep all four fresh, and present a variety of effective defensive fronts.
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* But, why not Russell Okung?
There’s been a clamoring, again, for the Lions to take the best available left tackle—this time, it’s Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung. Like Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe, Andre Smith, Michael Oher, Joe Thomas, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Alex Barron, and Bryant McKinnie before him, he’s currently getting all the Lions fan love as Any Left Tackle Who Is Not Jeff Backus.
I've said it like sixty-two times, and I’ll say it yet again because it's apt. Russell Okung is everything that Jeff Backus is not: a massively-sized, incredibly agile athlete with the potential to be an elite pass protector. However, he’s nothing that Jeff Backus is: a tough-as-nails competitor, a savvy veteran, polished in his use of positioning and technique, or an effective run-blocker.
"Yeah," thinks the Lions fan, "but all that stuff is boring and not awesome. Having a guy who looks, runs and jumps like Shaq at left tackle is awesome!” Unfortunately for all of the Okung fans, the Lions don’t want to run four-wideout sets fifty snaps a game—they want to run a balanced, traditional offense that can run and pass equally well. Okung solves a problem, Jeff Backus’ pass protection, that is far from the Lions’ biggest—and he introduces a whole set of weaknesses Jeff Backus doesn’t possess.
Look at this this way: when the Lions were looking at drafting Matthew Stafford, everyone was ranting, raving, crying, and wailing about how the Lions would be making a huge mistake: Stafford was just a big arm and a head of endorsement-worthy hair! He played too much from the shotgun, didn’t have great TD-to-INT ratios, didn’t “win the big one” like he was supposed to, and he played with first- and second-round talents at RB and WR . . . the objections went on and on and on, with the same underlying theme: he’s a flashy talent who might not excel in the NFL.
Yet somehow, when it comes to left tackles, all Lions fans want is the biggest, flashiest talent in the room. Shredded upper body, huge vertical leap, blazing 40 time, OMG THE LIONS MUST DRAFT HIM! Nobody cares if he played almost exclusively in a two-point stance, as Okung did. Nobody cares if he can run block at all, as Okung rarely had to. Nobody cares about his technique base, his game film, his consistency, or his work ethic—if he looks like Hercules in an Under Armour singlet, give him forty million dollars!
Unfortunately, all that flashy talent will not translate into "protecting Matthew Stafford", at least not right away. A guy who’s almost never come out of a three-point stance is going to get beat like a drum as a rookie starter. He’ll need some time, some coaching, and some seasoning before the Lions will be able to trust him with Matthew Stafford’s health.
Unfortunately, Okung is so trim, agile, and athletic that he wouldn’t be well-suited for playing guard or right tackle—the natural way to season a rookie LT. Drafting Okung would mean hoping that either Backus or 2008 first-rounder Gosder Cherilus can slide inside and play well, which may or may not be. Finally, the Lions would then be paying on Backus’ monster 2006 extension, Cherilus’ 2008 first-round contract, and Okung’s sure-to-be-massive #2 overall deal—and at least one of them will be playing out of position.
Look at the transition Jason Smith had to make in 2009: Smith, an athletic two-point LT like Okung, played mostly RT for the Rams in his concussion-shortened rookie season. ProFootballFocus.com graded Smith out as a mediocre-to-decent RT in what time he saw. Impressive for a rookie, yes—but if the Lions got 7 games’ worth of “mediocre rotational RT” out of Rusell Okung in 2010, fans would be despondent!
That all having been said, if the Lions truly believe that Okung, or Trent Williams, is a clear-cut, no-doubt, franchise left tackle, and they also truly believe that either Backus or Cherilus can play guard at a high level, or that both of them will be gone in two years, then they have a very difficult choice to make . . . but they should still take SUH AT NUMBER TWO.
* But, why not Gerald McCoy?
McCoy, like Suh, is an explosive, pass-rushing defensive tackle. He looks a little faster and more agile than Suh, shows much better leg drive off the snap, and many Mouse-and-Keyboard Scouts say McCoy is a more polished, NFL-ready prospect. Unfortunately, McCoy simply doesn’t fit what the Lions want to do on defense.
You all remember Cory Redding? McCoy is what the Lions thought they were getting when they made Redding the highest-paid DT in football. While the 8-sack season Redding had certainly made an impact, Redding was playing in the attacking, one-gap Tampa 2 system, where stopping the run is the linebackers’ job. In Schwartz’s system, the DTs have to stop the run—and at 295 pounds, McCoy won’t be able to hold the line.
In fact, McCoy would probably play outside on running downs, filling the Kevin-Carter/rumored-Anthony-Hargrove inside-outside role. I can’t see spending a #2 overall pick on a rotational ‘tweener like that; I’d rather see the Lions draft Okung, or trade back for Haden/Spiller/Morgan, and then pull the trigger on Hargrove, surrendering the third-round pick.
It's true that McCoy *looks* like a more explosive player. I watched a little bit of Suh, and agreed with the Keyboard-and-Mouse Scouts: he seemed to play slow and high, standing up off the snap instead of bursting forward. He’d then use his upper-body strength to throw guards around, shedding blocks after the play develops to make tackles. That won’t translate well to the NFL; even the Lions’ iffy left guards each go 6’-4”+ and 330+.
However, Suh played a lot of read-and-react at Nebraska. Often, he wasn’t bursting off the line because his role in the defense was to stand and wait. Schwartz compared Suh and McCoy's differences, and thinks they're partly due to their college defensive schemes, and not their talents. Talent, scheme, or otherwise, though, there’s no denying the difference in production: Suh, in his senior season, had 82 tackles and 12 sacks. McCoy, in his junior and senior year combined, had 58 tackles and 12 sacks.
The Lions have been slowly shedding all of these 290-to-300-pound Tampa 2 pass-rushing ‘tweeners since Schwartz took over; I can’t imagine they blow the #2 pick on a really good one, especially if Suh is available. And, since either Suh will be available, or teams will be calling about Sam Bradford, they won’t. Tampa Bay will be loitering at #3, waiting for either DT, so essentially, there’s no scenario where McCoy will be a Lion. SUH AT NUMBER TWO.
* But, why not Eric Berry?
Because that would be super dumb.
I mean, like, duh.
SUH AT NUMBER TWO.