In my formative years, I had an annual NFL Draft routine. I’d have my Sports Illustrated draft preview issue, Friday’s Detroit Free Press, and a spiral-bound notebook. My targets would be dog-eared and circled, and I’d snuggle in to my blue beanbag chair with a two-liter of Cherry Coke and my insulated Lions mug.
I'd wake up early, tune in to ESPN, and jack in to the Draft and all its glory. I always wrote down every pick through the first round, scratching the draftees off my target list, living and dying with every draft card preceding the Lions’ pick. I can still feel the hot, bitter tears on my cheeks from when the Vikings—the damned VIKINGS—took Dewayne Washington just in front of Detroit.
Back then, the draft was a surprise, a mystery, a carnival of anticipation. Following the draft that maniacally was rare to begin with, and who could anticipate the capricious whims of Wayne Fontes? The needs on the field were legion, even when the Fontes teams were at their best, and his picks rarely correlated with them anyway.
During the Millen years, the drafts actually made sense. He laid the foundation with his first three picks: Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola, Shaun Rogers. In subsequent drafts, he added a “franchise quarterback” and surrounded him with elite weapons: Charles Rogers, Roy Williams, Kevin Jones.
Indeed, Millen’s philosophy was consistent: he loved athletes. He loved speed and talent and elite natural ability; he drafted for that on both sides of the ball. Boss Bailey, Kalimba Edwards, Tedy Lehman, Ernie Sims, Calvin Johnson. With a few exceptions, the picks made sense to fans and media alike. Just because the picks overwhelmingly failed, and Millen’s teams were historically bad, doesn’t mean Millen didn’t get great draft grades throughout his tenure.
One of my deeper regrets is not starting this blog earlier; I wrote hundreds of "blog posts" that have disappeared into the archives of forums I haunted in the Aughties. On the other hand, folks today would be able to dredge up deeply embarrassing posts from that era, brimming with conviction about what prospects the Lions should draft, and what would become of the ones they’d drafted.
During the Millen era, draft season was less fun and more important. Since the fortunes of the “new Lions” so were entwined with the “real football man” at the helm, each pick was a glimpse into the glorious future yet to come. Even as the glorious future rounded the bend and became a disastrous present, the draft was our only hope for escape. Outside of a few major free agents who went bust, Millen never made an concerted effort to improve the roster. Going into the last few Millen drafts fans screamed at each other, “WE MUST GET FIVE IMMEDIATE STARTERS OUT OF THIS DRAFT!” which should have tipped us off because that’s ridiculous.
Now, the Lions will return 21 of 22 starters from a young playoff team. In key positions, depth is plentiful. The few real needs are obvious, but we understand that the Lions understand what they are—and further, we understand that the Lions are smarter than to draft to fill needs. They draft great young players, or players with the potential to be great. That’s it.
During the Lions’ town hall meeting, Schwartz told a hilarious story:
“Last year we drafted Nick Fairley, Mikel Leshoure, and Titus Young—three great young players who are going to be a big part of what we do for a long time—and every press conference after, we’d get up on stage and the media would be like [WTF SHRUGGING] ‘Really? Really?! Don’t you guys know you need a corner?’ We were like ‘. . . well, would you feel better if we drafted a crappy corner?’”
The amount of faith and confidence I have in this leadership is almost boundless. I stare at today’s Lions draftniks with a mix of deep respect and profound confusion: why on Earth are you building out a seven-round “draft board” for a team that is schooling the rest of the planet on talent evaluation?
Last year's pick of Titus Young was a gift, a tremendous surprise. I’d researched late-round receivers, but Young was completely off my radar. A wideout I’d never heard of, with sub-six-foot size, from a mid-major? It threw me for a loop—but then I did Young’s Meet the Cubs, and saw a world of potential. Then he got on the field and blew me away.
This year’s draft has that old magical feel for me. The Lions draft too low to have a definite grasp on who’ll be available, and there are plenty of good prospects who’ll fit a need, whether or not they’ll fit whatever your personal opinion of what the need is. When the Lions turn their card in, we’ll all get to find out who the newest great young piece of this team will be. I can't wait.
Now where the hell is my beanbag?