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.