Old Mother Hubbard: Shopping for Need, Talent, Impact, Patrick Peterson, etc.

>> 5.04.2011

Just after the regular season ended, I wrote a piece called "On the Instant Impact NFL Rookie." I was trying to make a few key points. First, that college coaches now prefer to schematically maximize players' raw natural gifts, rather than slowly build positional technique and craft. Second, that these rawer players are being asked to step in and start as professionals earlier than ever--and given up on before they have a chance to develop. Finally, even when lighting does strike, it doesn't always translate into long-term success. You should read the whole article, because I meant it, but here's the upshot:

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.

In the 2011 draft, the Lions snagged three outstanding talents who will rotate in at positions of strength--rather than start from Day one at positions of weakness. With no free agency to this point, and murky prospects thereof going forward, Lions began to panic that they'd be stuck watching the same dire back seven . . . maybe even a worse one, without FA-to-be Chris Houston. Last night, Jason LaCanfora reported that the Lions explored moving up to the top of the draft to address their most immediate need—cornerback—and teh Twitterz asploded.

It's true, I did that the Lions need two corners in this draft. I do see a need for an immediate challenger for Nate Vasher at the #2 spot, as well as a developmental corner who'll be two-to-three years away from seeing heavy rotation. I was thinking that challenger-for-#2 could be Prince Amukamara with the 13th pick, or a second-rounder like Ras-I Dowling. However, it's clear that the Lions saw only one corner in this draft as a possible immediate starter: Patrick Peterson.

I told Wade at The Honolulu Blue that I didn't think the Lions could do this deal, because they didn't have enough ammo to move up as far as they needed to--not without making it, essentially, a one- or two-man draft plus a seventh-rounder. Sure, the Lions would dramatically upgrade at a position of pressing need, but it would mean missing out on adding either (or both) of the immediate needs they addressed--not to mention all of the immediate and developmental needs they didn't address.

Through the runup to the draft, I'd noticed the Lions’ active search for a change-of-pace power back conflicted with my understanding of their approach. With all the high-priced, high-powered skill position talent they'd collected, why on Earth would they take carries and catches away from them so some fifth-round rookie could pound it into the line a few times? It seemed like a cavemanesque "you gotta move the pile, hurr hurr" capitulation to football orthodoxy, way out of character with The Grandmaster we've come to know and love.

Turns out, the Lions never had any intention of giving precious reps to an unremarkable player. They replaced the Kevin Smith/Maurice Morris/Aaron Brown/Stefan Logan platoon with a dynamic talent many rated the second-best back available--and at a lower position on the board than most thought he'd go at. He meets the immediate need of a change-of-pace back, and has the potential to be half of a long-term star tandem with Jahvid Best.

Same goes for wide receiver: the Lions had need of a field stretcher who could open up space for Burleson, Pettigrew, and Scheffler—and draw coverage away from Megatron. I thought maybe the Lions would target a fifth- or sixth-rounder like USC (and Muskegon’s) Ronald Johnson, since there were more pressing needs. But again, RoJo wasn’t going to pull any coverage off of Megatron, not for a couple of years. Instead, the Lions got Titus Young—again, an impact player who meets the immediate need at third WR, but will have a permanent role in this offense for years to come.

This morning, Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reported that the Lions offered Arizona their first-, second-, and fourth-round picks to move up and get Peterson. The Cardinals said no. This should give you an idea of A) how pressing the need is at cornerback, B) what they thought of Peterson’s ability to fill it, and C) how skimpy of a draft class this would have been if the Lions had sweetened the pot until the Cardinals said “yes.”

Again, I know the OMHs aren't complete yet, but here is the Lions' updated shopping list:

  • A power back who can complement—and serve as an insurance policy for—Jahvid Best.
  • A receiver who can stretch coverage downfield.
  • an impact starting center for 2012 and beyond.
  • An impact two-way defensive end to rotate soon, and develop for 2012.
  • A credible backup middle linebacker.
  • An athletic, pass-rushing OLB ready to start right away.
  • An athletic, pass-rushing OLB to rotate soon, and develop for 2012.
  • An athletic cover corner, ready to take over one side in 2012.
  • If Chris Houston leaves, a complete two-way corner, ready to start right away.

If the Lions had sweetened the pot by upgrading that fourth-rounder to the third-rounder, those top two lines wouldn’t have been crossed out—and, at best, only one of the other ones would have. All of those needs would be left to fill in free agency (and of course, many of them can’t or won’t be) . . . or for next year. The Martin Mayhew Mantra has always been “right player at the right price,” and that sticking with that philosophy no matter what would serve the Lions well. Remember when the Lions refused to give the Steelers anything more than a seventh-round pick for Larry Foote?  “BUT C’MONNNN!!!” we all said, “THE NEED IS SO GREAT! LARRY FOOTE’S SO GREAT! IT’S JUST A SIXTH-ROUNDER!”

Yeah, well, Larry Foote was okay for one year on a totally horrible Lions team. He was never the long-term answer—and that sixth-round pick became Chris Houston, who is the Lions’ only legitimate starting cornerback. The Lions needed Chris Houston last year (and this year!) more than they ever needed Larry Foote—and the Lions need Nick Fairley, Titus Young, and Mikel LeShoure for the next five years more than they need Patrick Peterson now.


6 comments:

Anonymous,  May 4, 2011 at 3:33 PM  

"the Lions should indeed be drafting to develop, not to start"

If you are going to pay someone 20M for 5 years, you want to get 20M worth of production. If a guy sits the bench for 2 years (or only contributes marginally) while he 'develops' you're now paying $6-7M per year of production instead of $4M annually. That $2-3M difference in salary can result in a big change in the type of production you're getting from an alternative use (a free agent).

So while in theory, its fine to be patient and let a guy develop, theres a significant opportunity cost involved. You neeed to have a significant payout down the line (the developmental prospect must have production that exceeds his salary). In other words, your margin of error just got a lot thinner - and we're talking here about a roughly 50-50 proposition of success for first rounders anyway.

"the Lions need Nick Fairley, Titus Young, and Mikel LeShoure for the next five years more than they need Patrick Peterson now."

Perhaps that is true, but I think its primarily the result of having 'bullets in the chamber'. The reality is that of those 4 guys the odds are that 2 will be busts. Obviously Peterson and Fairley have better odds of being all-pros than the other 2, but I think the main selling point for us, as Lions fans, is that all our eggs aren't in one basket.

-Lankownia

Matt,  May 4, 2011 at 10:47 PM  

Lankownia - Don't know if you're the same Anonymous from other threads or not, but I want to draw attention to a fundamental mistake I think you're making in your analysis. You insist (and if you ARE the same person, keep insisting) that prospects are "50-50 propositions." I gather that you would have preferred the Lions had taken their theoretical 50-50 shot at a position of greater need (CB, OT, DE) than at DT. While this is true when viewing the history of the draft in hindsight, that doesn't mean each individual player drafted is a 50-50 shot, that the teams drafting them view those players (or their "draft haul" as a whole) that way, or that we fans should view it that way. These guys are all a collection of gambles, but not coin flips.

You, yourself, turn around and say that Peterson and Fairley have better odds of being All-Pros than Young and LeShoure (I definitely agree). The decision in the Lions' war room wasn't "Do we want to trade up and take a 50/50 shot on Peterson, stand pat and take a 50/50 shot on Fairley, or trade back and take a 50/50 shot on, say, Amukamara, Solder, or Bowers?" It's much more complicated. Instead, the Lions rank Peterson as, for the sake of argument, a 90/10 shot; Fairley 80/20; Prince et al 70/30; Young, LeShoure, etc. 60/40; then your mid-to-late round prospects truly are 50/50 shots or worse (for instance, if you pop over to the Johnny Culbreath thread, you can see I think he's no better than a 10/90 to ever make noise in the NFL). So, the war room question becomes "Do we give up our 60/40 shots for the 90/10 guy, take the 80/20 guy and keep our shots, or trade back for one of the 70/30 guys and add another 60/40 shot?" I think you can make a case for any of those strategies. The Lions happened to go with Option B for what I'm sure is a vast array of reasons.

I don't think it's fair to then apply the "universal standard" that draft picks are 50-50 shots and go "Well, two of these guys are probably going to be busts." That's a consideration, but not the whole argument. For one, we acknowledge that the best teams/personnel people consistently beat that rate and vice versa for the worst teams. In the limited time we have to evaluate Mayhew, he looks like he's ahead of the curve. All of his 1st-round picks (Stafford, Pettigrew, Suh, and Best) have at least proven they have the tools to succeed, if not excel, at the NFL level. Same goes for 2nd-rounder Louis Delmas, 3rd-rounders DeAndre Levy & Amari Spievey, and 4th-rounder Sammie Hill. The only 4th-round-or-higher pick we can say Mayhew definitely missed on is Derrick Williams (3rd), which may not bode well for Titus Young. Zack Follett & Dan Gronkowski get honorable mentions as 7th-rounders, but we probably "missed" on Lydon Murtha (7th), Aaron Brown (6th), Tim Toone (7th), and Willie Young (7th). I say "missed" because I'm not sure how much you can ever consider 5th, 6th, or 7th round picks "busts." The only guy I've left out is last year's 4th-rounder, OT Jason Fox, who is still "in development." My point is that, even considering the limited sample size, Mayhew has outperformed the 50-50 standard so far. Therefore, I think he deserves a little benefit of the doubt with this draft. . .at least until these guys, y'know, play a couple games.

In closing, I completely agree when you say "I think the main selling point for us, as Lions fans, is that all our eggs aren't in one basket." I also think this is the selling point for the TEAM and why the Lions didn't ultimately "pull the trigger" on a Peterson trade. They/we/I would rather have decent chances at filling two holes plus adding a "luxury" stud than having a really good chance at filling, to be fair, our one biggest hole with a stud.

Anonymous,  May 5, 2011 at 12:46 AM  

Matt,

I agree it is far more complicated. The 50-50 thing is just a general expression of the risk/uncertainty involved.

"we acknowledge that the best teams/personnel people consistently beat that rate "

Certainly that is true and certainly Mayhew looks good so far. But there's a good chance he's gotten lucky and will regress to the mean. Nobody's track record is even close to being perfect. As a local example, Joe Dumars looked like a genius after drafting Okur, Prince, etc. and then proceeded to either miss or give away nearly every draft pick since.

That said - I agree he deserves the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

-Lankownia

Mike May 5, 2011 at 12:32 PM  

IMO there are two major contributors to a high pick "busting".

1) Reaching for need and picking a player you're assuming is going to "fill the need". Amukumara would've fallen into the category, since while he may be a good CB, he was never going to be the shutdown press corner that he was hyped to be. Even if he wasn't a bust in many respects he still wasn't going to live up to our expectations and many would consider him a bust.

2) Putting a player in a bad situation. Most often this is considered a player with "red flags" going to a team with little structure and leadership. A good example is Charles Rogers...sure injuries plagued him, but he didn't have people there to make sure he didn't go back to his problems from college. Once he spiraled downward a bit more we decided to just part ways.

This is why I like the Lions' draft strategy. It scouts players who both aren't drafted higher than they should be so their talent isn't dwarfed by the hype and putting players in situations where they won't self-destruct, and they're doing it while getting outstanding value.

Ty May 10, 2011 at 5:07 PM  

-Lankownia--

"If you are going to pay someone 20M for 5 years, you want to get 20M worth of production. If a guy sits the bench for 2 years (or only contributes marginally) while he 'develops' you're now paying $6-7M per year of production instead of $4M annually. That $2-3M difference in salary can result in a big change in the type of production you're getting from an alternative use (a free agent)."

That's an excellent analysis, and one I hadn't really thought of. I've already retrained my brain to forget about screaming about salary numbers; with no cap who cares what Mr. Ford is willing to dish out?

You're right, though, that if the Lions are going to have that kind of contract on the books, they're going to need to get top-notch production out of Fairley later if he doesn't get much time now.

However, contrast that with the cost associated with paying the same slot contract to a player you don't think is anywhere near as talented! Regardless of what the current depth chart looks like, the Lions were obviously far more confident that Fairley would ultimately be worth the investment than anyone else.

Peace
Ty

Ty May 10, 2011 at 5:13 PM  

Something I just thought of, as an addendum: the new CBA, whenever it happens, is likely to dramatically reduce rookie salaries, so that Big Huge Contract may not be so huge.

Second, I agree with Matt that you can't view every single pick as a coin flip between "All-Pro" and "bust;" there are plenty of former first-round picks who went on to have unremarkable/average careers. It all exists on a spectrum--and even if the Lions thought Peterson was a lock to be a perennial Pro Bowler, I'd be they're confident that they'll get more total production out of Fairley, Young, and LeShoure combined.

Peace
Ty

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