I was none too pleased with my beloved Detroit Lions’ haul from this past weekend’s draft. But I’m not here to tell you whether any of the players that the Lions drafted will be solid contributors. After all, the draft is more art than science, as two well thought out articles released this past week made clear (see Vox.com and 538.com). Instead, I’m here to lay bare the ways in which the Lions continue to outthink themselves during the draft. Generally speaking, General Manager Martin Mayhew’s approach to player acquisition is deeply flawed. Indeed, Mayhew’s draft strategy is cognitively dissonant, incoherent, but worst of all brash. Strong words you say? Well let’s get started with Mayhew’s own words, as they illuminate the Lions’ player acquisition issues.
“I would say this. Our defense, we were right in the middle of the pack last year in points allowed; we were 15th. Our offense was 13th in points scored . . . there’s this perception that there’s this huge gap between our offense and our defense . . .”
A quote like this should give, even the most casual observer some pause. These few words uttered by Mayhew lead me to one astonishing conclusion: Mayhew can’t turn the Lions into a championship team because he doesn’t understand the team’s problems. At first I just dismissed Mayhew’s comments out of hand. Having watched the Lions religiously for as long as I can remember, this sentiment by Mayhew seemed to betray what I had observed watching Lions games these last few years. But the lawyer in me wanted to be fair, so I delved into the numbers, and as expected my hunch was spot on.
Mayhew’s view on how the two main units of the team compare is divorced from reality. Don’t get me wrong, the defense is not horrible. Defensive tackle and franchise cornerstone Ndamukong Suh is one of the best at his position. The Lions also have a few nice pieces in place like safety Glover Quinn and linebacker DeAndre Levy. Upfront the other defensive tackle Nick Fairley has shown flashes of brilliance, and first round pick from 2013, Ziggy Ansah led all NFL rookies in sacks. So there’s a lot here to like. Statically the numbers back that up to some degree:
The Good (league-wide rankings):
- Rush Defense: 5th
- Red Zone Defense: 3rd
- Opposing 3rd Down Conversion: 1st
- Sacks: 31st
- Pass Yards Allowed: 23rd
- Points Allowed: 16th
- Pass Efficiency D (per footballoutsiders.com): 20th
Not alarming, but hardly championship level defense. But of course Mayhew isn’t making the point that the defense is great. Rather he’s making the point that the offense and defense are on equal footing; clearly that’s nonsensical.
My examination of how the Lions drafted this past weekend began with the stated reasons behind selecting tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick. The selection was made to address some glaring need in the passing game and the offense overall. The logic goes that by adding Ebron, the Lions improve their offense. But does the offense need improvement, or is it just their quarterback, Matthew Stafford that needs to improve? Again, I would argue the latter.
Notable Offensive Rankings (league-wide):
- Yards Per Drive: 8th
- Total Offense: 6th
- Passing Offense: 3rd
How these statistics demonstrate a need for more offensive “weapons” in the passing game is beyond me. Especially when you consider these figures (league-wide):
- Turnovers Per Drive: 31st
- Rushing Yards: 17th
- Pass Efficiency : 16th
- Rush Efficiency: 27th
- Scoring: 13th
So the Lions were 6th in total yards but 13th in scoring. This disparity is likely a result of turnovers, penalties, and a running game that was effective but not capable of getting tough yards when needed. How an analysis of these figures translates to a need to draft another passing target is unclear. If anything, it shows a need for improvement in Stafford’s decision making. But equally troubling, is this belief that the Lions don’t have enough weapons on offense. The last time I watched a football game, I’m pretty sure I only saw one football on the field at one time. If that’s the case, then will Ebron be merely taking away targets from someone else – especially with Golden Tate and his $13 million in guaranteed money in the fold – or is he really going to improve on a passing offense that is already 3rd in the league? It sounds more like a shuffling of chairs on the proverbial deck.
I told a friend of mine on Sunday that his draft was “Millenesque” in nature. Of course this was a reference to former Lions’ GM/President Matt Millen who somehow took a perennially mediocre franchise and made it worse. At the heart of Millen’s ineptitude was a belief that he was somehow the smartest guy in the room. While Millen was a member of MENSA, he really didn’t know squat about drafting. Mayhew’s performance this past weekend seemed to reflect the same belief. While Mayhew was salivating at the prospect of drafting his 4th offensive player in 6 drafts in the 1st round, the rest of the league was taking note of the Seahawks dominant performance in the Super Bowl against the league’s best offense – the Denver Broncos. Indeed, 9 of the 11 playoff teams from last year (Seattle traded out) drafted defensive players. What’s more, every other NFC North team drafted defensive players while Mayhew was busy chasing bright, shiny objects in the dark. But wait, you’re arguing that since everyone else is doing it, that must make it right? Well, yeah, in a way. But this isn’t just some misguided belief, it’s backed by data.
GOOD TEAMS FIND VALUE IN SKILL POSITION PLAYERS
It’s often been said that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Some have argued that this is not always the case. They point to Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Green Bay as recent teams that did it with offense. I’ll set aside the obvious point that Stafford is not Manning, Rodgers, nor Brees. I’ll also set aside the other obvious fact that Jim Caldwell is 28-77 as a head coach without Peyton Manning. Neither point will make you shake your head as much as you do when you take a look at the drafting habits of the best teams in the league since 2000.
Indeed, since 2000, of the 10 winningest teams in the NFL (the only ones to win the Super Bowl besides Tampa Bay in 2002):
- Only 2 teams took a WR or a TE in the top 10: Pittsburgh drafted Plaxico Burress 8th overall & Seattle selected Koren Robinson with the 9th pick
- New England, the winningest team in the NFL since 2000 by 22 games, has never taken a WR or a TE in the 1st round
- In fact, New England has only drafted 4 offensive players in that span (as much as Mayhew has in 6 years!)
- Of the top 10 teams in the league since 2000, Pittsburgh has drafted the most offensive players in the first round (8); but only 2 played either WR or TE
- By contrast, the Lions have drafted 16 offensive players in the first round!!! And 6 played either WR or TE…….6!!!!
But is it fair to include Millen’s draft in your comparison of the Lions to other teams? Well, no it’s not, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. Look, even if you ignored the Millen years, Mayhew has already equaled Belichick’s total of offensive players in almost a third of the time.
You’re not including other rounds, how is that fair? Because statistically, and intuitively, 1st round picks are indicative of where your priorities lie as a team, due to the fact that 1st round picks have the highest correlation of success in the NFL. 1st round picks are expected to contribute immediately, where as players in the later rounds are not. Regardless, Mayhew’s picks in the later rounds have been much worse, so I’m not sure if that would make his case any better. What these numbers reveal is the lunacy of focusing on offensive players. It hasn’t worked for the Lions in the past, and it is not a path that has been taken by any of the successful teams in the league. You would think that Mayhew would want to mirror the best practices of these teams; especially since he didn’t exactly learn from the master. Instead, he seems determined to repeat history rather learn from it.
This draft was also marked by incoherence. For one, Mayhew’s actions are in conflict with his goals. And they don’t follow a clear “best player available strategy” as he suggests.
Mayhew’s stated goal was to get 3 starters out of the draft. Ebron will essentially be a 3rd WR, so I presume he will start. BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy (whom I like) should supplant Ashlee Palmer. That leaves several projects and a kicker. The center that they signed, in lieu of drafting a corner, won’t start. Neither will Caraun Reid (another guy I like) the defensive tackle from Princeton, or Nevin Lawson, the 5-9 corner they signed. Defensive end Larry Webster played one year of Division-II football, so he’s out, which leaves kicker Nate Freese. I suppose you would have to consider Freese a starter, but I highly doubt that that is what Mayhew had in mind when he made that statement.
The facts also belie Mayhew’s claim of drafting the “best player available.” For one, he traded away a valuable 4th round pick to take Van Noy. While I liked the move, he clearly wasn’t content standing pat where they were supposed to pick in the 2nd round. If Mayhew was willing to do so with Van Noy, why wasn’t he ready to do the same in the 3rd when they took a backup Center Travis Swanson? You would think he would have been eager to put that same aggressiveness to use to fill a hole in the defensive backfield.
This probably seems like the constant whininess you hear from fans after a process that takes years to distill. But at the outset, I stated that my issue was philosophy. All of these players may end up being solid players in the league. Mayhew has had some success in the past with players like Willie Young and Sammie Lee Hill. I’m just not convinced that the Lions have done enough in the draft to take forward steps in what will be a tougher division. And I don’t understand the wisdom of drafting a complimentary player – and that’s what Ebron is as the 3rd receiver – at the 10th overall pick. More importantly, Mayhew’s words and actions demonstrate a lack of understanding of his own team’s issues. And his decisions run counter to the manner in which the most successful teams in the league operate.