Last month, I wrote about the “instant impact” NFL rookie. Wunderkinds from Ndamukong Suh to Dutch Clark have conditioned fans to hope, if not expect, that every first-round pick their team makes will set the NFL on fire. At minimum, we think of a first-round pick as a player who will start from day one; a player who will step in and “fill a hole” or “solve a problem” at their position from day one, and for years to come. The problem, of course, is that it almost never works that way.
The three-ring-circus of 2006 top picks Mario Williams, Vince Young, and Reggie Bush should have taught us all a lesson about rookies. Few seem to remember it now, but the pick of Williams over Young and Bush was roundly panned. Moreover, Williams’ 5.5 sacks in 16 rookie starts had people hanging the “bust” sign on him. Meanwhile, Young’s leading of the Titans to ugly-but-gritty comeback wins landed him a spot in the Pro Bowl (despite a 66.7 passer rating). By dividing “all-purpose yards” by “total touches,” many in the media managed to keep the hype train that Reggie Bush rolled in on stoked for a year or two.
Eventually, Bush revealed himself to be what he always was: a third-down back and kick returner with home-run ability. Young’s “ugly” eventually overwhelmed his “gritty,” and got both he and Jeff Fisher run out of Nashville. Williams eventually developed into the dominant, prototypical defensive end the Texans thought they were getting. You’d think, after all this, that we’d have learned about rookies and the short term . . . but of course, the football hivemind never truly learns.
The Lions find themselves in a particularly tricky spot: their “window” is opening this year. To the extent there will be an NFC in 2011, the Lions are expected to contend for a playoff spot within it. They have a few pressing short-term needs, though; any they fill will drastically boost their chances to make the playoffs, and make some noise therein. Unfortunately, they’re stuck in slot 13, and none of the top prospects at the Lions’ need positions figure to be available. Likely, the Lions will have to pick between two poisons: reach for a need, or the dreaded “luxury pick.” Either way, the Lions will have a hard time impressing those who grade drafts by instant impact.
Two years ago, Forbes.com’s Monte Burke dissected the prior three years’ drafts. He assigned a score to each team based on how many of their picks were still on the roster. He added a small boost—but not much of one—for Pro Bowlers and All-Pros (after all, many are granted those awards based on reputation alone). His dubious conclusions: the Texans were the best-drafting team in the NFL, while the Patriots and Steelers were the worst and third-worst, respectively.
He chalks the Patriots’ lack of success up to having to pick late in every round, and suggests their keen nose for value in the free-agent market has made up for their blundering inability to pick good players. Here, however, are all the Patriots’ first-round picks since Belichick took over: Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Meriweather, Laurence Maroney, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson, Ty Warren, Daniel Graham, Richard Seymour, Damien Woody, Andy Katzenmoyer, Robert Edwards, Tebucky Jones, Chris Canty, and Terry Glenn. Out of 16 picks, that’s at least thirteen solid contributors—and, by my count, ten difference-making pros. I doubt you’ll find another team with a better track record.
How come, then, so few of the Patriots' draft picks stick around? Because it’s hard to make the Patriots’ roster. The Pats have been stacked for a decade, and they’re run by a ruthless dictator who knows exactly what he wants at every position. Every year, their fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-round picks must amaze in training camp, or be sent packing. It’s not that the Pats can’t draft; there’s just no room on their roster for long-term backups; either they’ll be starting in three years, or they’re out. Drafting later in the first actually makes it easier on the Pats; they can draft to fit one of their few needs (like Logan Mankins) without blowing a huge amount of salary—or expecting that player to make an impact on day one.
But what about the other poison, the luxury pick? Turns out, the Steelers are a great example of that, as well. Back in 2007, the Steelers’ linebacking corps—as always, the strength of the team—consisted of James Harrison, James Farrior, Larry Foote, and Clark Haggans. They were 29, 32, 27, and 30, respectively; all in their primes. So, who did the Steelers draft that spring? In the first round, with the 15th overall pick, they chose Lawrence Timmons, an inside linebacker. In the second round, with the 14th pick, they took outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
What on earth were the Steelers thinking? Well, the year after that, Haggans left as a free agent. The year after that, Woodley had a breakout year in his first as a starter, and Foote was made expendable by the growth of Timmons. They released Foote after winning a Super Bowl with their “luxury picks” leading the way—and the Steelers continued to be great at what they’re great at without missing a beat. By drafting high at a position of current strength, with an eye towards a year or two down the road, the Steelers maintained their perpetual success . . . it’s what great teams do.
So, when the Lions are on the clock—presuming they stay at 13—they’ll be faced with this choice. What they WON’T do is what the Lions did in 2008: gather their list of immediate needs and draft at those positions, crossing them off with a crayon as they go. With the 2007 2.14, the Steelers drafted LaMarr Woodley because they knew they’d need a new outside linebacker in 2008. With the 2008 2.14, the Lions drafted Jordon Dizon because they needed a middle linebacker to start right away. They didn’t “fill the hole” because Dizon couldn’t fill that hole. They didn’t “meet their needs” because Dizon couldn’t meet that need.
Despite the CBA uncertainty putting the kibosh on free agency, the Lions cannot approach the draft as a way to meet immediate needs—not without moving up and getting a true blue-chipper. They may take a good player to fill a less flashy need, like OLB or safety. They may take a talented project who has no chance of cracking the starting lineup this year—like an OT or DE. But what I said last month holds true:
Not every good player is an instant-impact player. Not every instant-impact player evolves into a Hall of Famer. “Great for a rookie” is only “decent” overall. As the Lions round the bend into this draft season, they do so with only a few pressing needs. I trust the Lions leadership not to reach for those needs, but I’m cautioning us as fans to do the same. As this roster matures, the Lions should indeed be drafting to develop, not to start; the second- or third-round pick may not start right away and that’s okay. The likes of Sammie Hill will have to hustle to make the team, and that’s okay. The Lions have a much bigger need for a Mike Williams type, who slowly develops into a quality starter, than a Michael Clayton—who set the world on fire in his rookie year, and has barely moved the needle since.