Should the Lions Draft for Need, or Pick Luxury?

>> 2.28.2011

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.



15 comments:

telemakhos,  February 28, 2011 at 5:05 PM  

I'd rather have a very good linebacker or corner than a great DE or OT. The steelers did their thing and what progress have those moves made for them? Their star linebacking corps is now...a star linebacking corps. The lions are on the verge of contention and have some very sore needs on defense. They need to fill those before they start talking about depth or long term replacements. What did CJ Spiller do for the bills? Forced Lynch out of town and was almost out-rushed by the QB. Teams like the steelers can pick for long term replacements because they don't have glaring needs, so they don't have any other choice. A better case study would be to look at similar teams to the lions.

Anonymous,  February 28, 2011 at 5:30 PM  

Your point about instant impact is very true, particularly outside of the top 10 or so. Yet, it doesn't really answer your question regarding need vs. talent. The Steelers DID draft for need, it just wasn't an immediate need. Likewise, the Lions would be wise to consider next years need (e.g., OT) as well as the immediate need (e.g., LB, DB)... It should be noted that PIT also drafted for need last year (Pouncey) and it helped them get to the Super Bowl.

The answer to the need vs. talent question is: both (or neither). As suggested other places - you can put players into tiers of overall value then select by positional need within the highest available tier. Obviously there's a few positions where you can't invest a 1st rounder into a position where he projects into a mult-year backup, but most are fair game. If there's an elite QB or TE available at the pick, you try to trade down. Otherwise, take the best player available at a position of need. Do both.

If forced to truly choose, then it depends on where you're team is. If you want to contend for a championship, but have a few holes, you want immediate contributions. If you're (re-)building you can take projects. If, as the above commentator argues was the case with PIT and you argue is the case with NE, you have no holes, you can just take whomever you want.

Ty February 28, 2011 at 5:48 PM  

No, that's the point: the Steelers had "glaring needs" too, but they reinvested in their strength, so it would remain a strength. The Lions' defensive line was vey strong last year, and it elevated the team--but KVB's status for 2012 and beyond is hazy. Avril will likely be back, but you can't be certain right now. Lo-Jack and Turk McBride are great backups, with potential to be good starters, but the Lions need to keep the DL elite.

Having 22 first-round starters will take 22 years. To build an elite team, you can't draft to fill your immediate needs--you have to draft to fill your FUTURE needs, and you have to choose which units will define your roster. Schwartz and Cunningham built a great defense in Tennessee without spending a lot of high draft picks in the back seven . . . not saying they won't be drafting D, but they're not going for across-the-board mediocre, but greatness in certain dimensions of the game.

Peace
Ty

TimT February 28, 2011 at 8:14 PM  

By most accounts, it looks like we'll choose between a very talented OT or DE with the 1st rounder. That's not a bad thing. After that, there's a TON of CB's, LB's, G's and WR's to choose from with the remaining picks.

This year shouldn't even have a "need" discussion. The "reaching" at LB or CB with pick 13 could be so drastic, even Marinelli would pass.

Neil February 28, 2011 at 10:56 PM  

The first round will be fine. I'm strangely not really worried, mostly because I have enough faith that the dudes in charge actually know what they're doing now. For once, I'm not going to stress and just let it unfold. It's a strange feeling but one I have decided to embrace.

I am, however, devastated by the loss of the 7th rounder in the tampering fiasco because I was hoping and praying the Lions would do the right thing and draft my man, Wu Pei. Oh well. (If you don't have a clue what I'm talking about, don't worry about it, no one else does either. If you do get it, well ... I'm sorry for having poisoned your mind all this time.)

NorthLeft12 March 1, 2011 at 9:37 AM  

Ty, Using Woodley is a terrible example. He was a second round pick. That is precisely where you pick for guys that you expect to contribute as depth or special teams while they learn your scheme and get ready to step into a starting role.

I looked at every # 13 pick for the last nineteen years. Over 60% started over two thirds of the season as a rookie. Including all three OTs that were taken. Every other player, yes all of them, were regular contributors in some sort of rotation and spot starters. Players like Tony Gonzalez TE, John Abraham DE, Mark Fields OLB, Donte Stallworth WR, Brandon Graham DE, Jonathon Stewart RB, Marcus Stroud DT, and Troy Edwards WR.
The point of the study was that nobody [includes the Patriots and Steelers] picks a player as early as # 13 to sit on the bench. If I expanded this study to # 14 and # 15 I would probably find the same thing. Players get picked that early to make an impact immediately, not to sit and learn. It does not mean they are immediate starters, but the expectation that they will contribute heavily is there.
I don't see the Lions deviating from this to pick a player [OT] that will likely not play very much unless we have a series of injuries at the OT spot. At least a DE can play some snaps and work his way into the rotation. An OT could not unless Backus or Gosder were injured.

Ty March 1, 2011 at 9:46 AM  

Anon--

"The Steelers DID draft for need, it just wasn't an immediate need."

Right, and that's the difference. You'll note I specified immediate need in my post: the Lions desperately need at least one, and maybe two, good starting cornerbacks. Unless Amukamara falls, taking the best corner on the board at 13 WON'T FILL THAT NEED--none of the other corners are good enough to step in and start and play at a high level.

Peace
Ty

Ty March 1, 2011 at 9:49 AM  

TimT--

"This year shouldn't even have a "need" discussion. The "reaching" at LB or CB with pick 13 could be so drastic, even Marinelli would pass."

That's my thought, too, unless the board starts shaking out a little differently. Unless Akeem Ayers' stock starts rising, or Amukamara falls, the Lions' first round pick is likely not going to start Week 1. I'm just trying to get people prepared for that eventuality.

Peace
Ty

Ty March 1, 2011 at 9:51 AM  

Neil--

"The first round will be fine. I'm strangely not really worried, mostly because I have enough faith that the dudes in charge actually know what they're doing now. For once, I'm not going to stress and just let it unfold. It's a strange feeling but one I have decided to embrace."

Yeah, I mentioned something about an OT on Twitter, and someone went, "YOU'D TRUST MAYHEW TO DRAFT AN OT OF THE FUTURE?!?!?!" I could have responded a lot of different ways, but I just went "What choice do I have?"

Peace
Ty

Ty March 1, 2011 at 9:59 AM  

NorthLeft12--

"Ty, Using Woodley is a terrible example. He was a second round pick. That is precisely where you pick for guys that you expect to contribute as depth or special teams while they learn your scheme and get ready to step into a starting role."

Yes, but who did they draft in the first round? Lawrence Timmons. With four linebackers in their prime, the Steelers went LB-LB at the top of the draft . . . people thought it was somewhere between crazy and criminal, given that the Steelers (as all teams do) had holes elsewhere, especially on the offensive line. But the Steelers have made the choice to "get by" with a patchwork offensive line, and continually have one of the best linebacking corps in football.

The strategy has worked well for them.

What I'm trying to get across is that you don't build a Super Bowl champion by "filling holes" in the roster with rookies. You draft long-term cornerstones like Suh, and spackle with stopgap veterans like Grady Jackson.

Look at Delmas and Pettigrew: people called them "luxury picks," because the need at MLB was so great--but they Lions didn't see a long-term difference maker at MLB, so they didn't draft one. Is anyone crying out for Rey Maualuga over Delmas or Pettigrew now?

Peace
Ty

Matt,  March 1, 2011 at 11:45 AM  

Love this discussion, but I think the word "need" is being used too loosely. Of course, every pick fills some kind of real or perceived current and/or future need at the time the pick is made. If it didn't, someone else would have been picked. I think what we're really talking about and are warning against is reaching for a particular need.

I suppose the most extreme scenario for the Lions this year would be "Well, we need OLB and Von Miller is gone, so we'll take the next best guy at 1.13" (I'm assuming another OLB doesn't emerge and, of course, some guy is going to get drafted in the 2nd-4th round and, three years from now, everyone will be saying "Dang, he shoulda' gone right up there with Von Miller"). However, I'm with everyone who is not at all worried about something like this actually unfolding. The Lions are in a sticky spot at 1.13 and their immediate needs don't align well with how this draft appears to be shaking out. But you never know with draft day. The hype machine can move anywhere between now and then, plus it never really knows what coaches/GMs are REALLY thinking anyway. The labor situation will have some kind of impact, regardless of what the situation actually is come late April. Basically, who knows what the draft will bring? I've learned to at least give Mayhew & Co. the benefit of the doubt and, if nothing else, they have shown they are willing to go after the players they believe in (and they've mostly been right). I ultimately think they'll make smart moves with all their picks and, hopefully, a couple guys quickly become significant contributors. More than any individual position, the Lions just need a few more good players (ok, mostly in the back 7 on D). I think we'll find some in the draft.

Matt,  March 1, 2011 at 12:42 PM  

I'm not crying out for Rey Rey, but don't forget the Lions also passed on Lauranaitis. I might trade Delmas or Pettigrew straight up for him right now.

NorthLeft12 March 1, 2011 at 1:15 PM  

Ty, I think the criticisms of those two picks was because of the "value" of the positions they play. Arguably, those are the two easiest positions to fill, and have the least value.

But I would be amazed if anyone thought the Lions had anyone at those positions who were NFL quality. We had zero talent there. The guys we had at Safety in 2008 could not make another team's roster let alone a starting spot. Ditto for our Tight Ends.
I was critical of Mayhew for filling those glaring holes with those high picks as opposed to getting a mediocre FA and/or a later round draft pick. I am okay with his strategy now, and will speculate like hell before the draft, then get behind whoever Mayhew decides to pick.

Ty March 2, 2011 at 12:29 PM  

Matt--

"I suppose the most extreme scenario for the Lions this year would be "Well, we need OLB and Von Miller is gone, so we'll take the next best guy at 1.13""

Right, that's exactly the thing I'm warning against. A lot of mock drafts have the Lions taking OLB or CB because they're the most pressing immediate needs . . . but unless Miller or Amukamara falls (increasingly unlikely) or, as you say, Ayers's stock blows up, there's nobody at 13 who can actually MEET those needs.

If the Lions reach for Ayers, or a Jimmy Smith, those guys won't step in, start, and play well right away just because they got picked at 1.13 instead of 1.23 or 2.3. They'll still need time to develop--and the Lions will still need a corner or OLB.

Meanwhile, they'd be passing on an OT or DE that might actually be WORTH the 1.13; a major mistake IMO. An OT or DE that will be great in 2-3 years is a BIG need, even if it's not an IMMEDIATE one.

Peace
Ty

Ty March 2, 2011 at 12:37 PM  

NorthLeft12--

"I was critical of Mayhew for filling those glaring holes with those high picks as opposed to getting a mediocre FA and/or a later round draft pick."

Right, and I think that's where I'm coming from. As fans, we want our team to make D+ to B- attempts to fill every "hole" on the roster every year, never blowing the wad in free agency, or spending a high pick on a not-lineman. But that, over the long haul, gets you a D+ to B- team.

Schwartz and Mayhew are building an "A" pass-first offense, and an "A" defensive line. So, they're going to make sure those units are continually stocked with fresh "A" talent, even if it means bargain-hunting elsewhere on the roster.

Peace
Ty

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