Relax, Lions Fans. The NFL Draft is Fun Again

>> 3.30.2012


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?


Meet Jacob Lacey, new Detroit Lions Cornerback

>> 3.27.2012


The Lions secured the services of all of their major free agents, and extended Calvin Johnson until the sun goes dark. As I wrote last week, this slams the revolving free agency door shut: the Lions won’t be losing any of their key young veterans for quite some time.

The flip side of this is obvious: they won't be bringing in anyone else's key young veterans, either. The Lions have only acquired one new free agent who figures to make any impact at all, and that's former Colts cornerback Jacob Lacey.

What are we getting? What can we expect? How does Lacey stack up to the existing Lions cornerbacks? Time to mash up two of our favorite features: Meet the Cubs and Old Mother Hubbard.

Jacob Lacey was a three-star Rivals prospect out of Garland, Texas. A 5’-10,” 155-pound kid with decent speed and some pop in his shoulder, Lacey had several Big XII and Big Ten offers. Lacey initially committed to Kansas, but flipped to Oklahoma State. Lacey played in 10 games as a freshman, and started all 13 games his sophomore year—as he would his junior and senior years as well.

Per College Football Reference, Lacey’s junior year was extremely impressive: 63 tackles, 48 of them solo, with 5 interceptions (one returned for a score) and 14 passes defensed. He had 61 tackles in senior year, 52 solo, and though he only had 2 picks he still broke up 16 passes.

Lacey's lack of game-breaking ball skills, as well as his thin frame (his combine weight was 177 pounds), dropped him out of draft consideration. Most sites projected him as a free agent, but also noted his upside ( graded Lacey at 3.00, a “first-year contributor” in their system).

Contribute immediately, he did: after signing with the Colts and making the initial 53-man roster, Lacey got on the field almost immediately, and started Week 5 of his rookie year. After the subsequent bye, Lacey picked off Sam Bradford, took it back to the house, and drew a celebration flag all in one go . . . my kind of player. He finished 2010 with 3 interceptions and 7 passes defensed in sixteen games (nine starts).

Lacey was picked on, too; Mike Vick and Carson Palmer completed a combined 10-of-12 against him for 101 yards and a score over consecutive weeks. But for an undrafted free agent rookie, stepping in and being a major contributor to a team’s weakest unit is impressive.

As for 2011? Well . . .


As we saw in the cornerback Old Mother Hubbard, Darrelle Revis was the best corner on the planet last season and nobody was close. Aaron Berry earned the season’s best PFF grade, barely eclipsing Chris Houston who played hurt at the tail end of the season (note that Houston’s positive plays actually helped the Lions win more than Revis’s did the Jets).

After Berry and Houston’s solidly above-average performances, Alphonso Smith turned in the most spectacularly boom-or-bust mediocre season ever. It’s at this performance level, with a much improved level of consistency, that Lacey’s 2011 campaign came in.

Lacey played 712 snaps, three times as many as Smith, almost twice as many as Berry, and about a hundred fewer than Houston. He didn’t have much statistically in either direction: just 2 TDs allowed, but only 1 interception and 3 passes defensed. At 34 targets per TD allowed, he was above the NFL average, and ranked 30th out of 109 qualifying corners. But then, he also allowed 73.5% of passes targeted his way to be caught, which was the eighth-worst percentage in the NFL.

This is probably why Colts fans were not a huge fan of Lacey's work last season, and also likely why Lacey was available for the Lions to sign. But his +EPA of 31.7 and +WPA of 0.58 back up the statistical production: he didn’t make a lot of big plays, but he made them in big spots—and his PFF coverage grade of -4.8 coverage indicates he didn’t allow that many of them, either. Plus, his run grade was an excellent +3.1, 22nd-best of 109 in the NFL.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story, either. Nate Dunlevy of Colts Authority and Bleacher Report pointed out this ESPN story about Lacey’s rebound after defensive coordinator Larry Coyer was fired. The bounce in the PFF grades is Backusian:

jacob_lacey_cornerback_gradesDunlevy also went to the tape himself to break down Lacey’s performance against the Chiefs in that fateful Week 5 game you see in red above. Lacey had a rough day at the office, but not nearly as bad as Colts fans came away thinking.

Bottom Line: Jacob Lacey is about as good as Alphonso Smith, trading the gambling risk/reward for consistency and much improved play against the run. Lacey should have a good look at unseating Smith for playing time in nickel/dime situations; if he can continue developing as he did at the end of the year he could push Berry for time at the #2 spot.

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