To All my Sad Captains: My 2014 Detroit Lions Preview

Getty Images North America

Getty Images North America

If, like me, you’ve spent the better part of your life, rooting for a sports team, you realize just how fleeting success can be; especially if you’re a Lions fan. For as long as I can remember, Sunday afternoons in the fall have been riddled with disappointment, mixed with shame and a little angst. At this point, the very sight of the Honolulu Blue and Silver on my TV elicits a certain Pavlovian emotion of anxiety. Of course this begs the question why anyone would choose to root for a team that brings about such grief. My answer is simple, I love football, I love the NFL, and I can’t bring myself to quit the Lions. Besides, misery loves company, and in that regard I have plenty of both as a Lions fan. To put it another way, I look at Sunday NFL football this way:

“Another sunrise with my sad captains, with who I choose to lose my mind . . . and if it’s all we only pass this way but once, what a perfect waste of time . . .”

I’m not sure if any lyric could better epitomize just how soul-crushing it is to be a Lions fan.* Most years, spending 3-4 hours watching the Lions is a waste of time. Not just because they lose, but because of how they lose. To make things worse, they seem to be one of those teams that certain members of the sports-industrial complex have designated as a sleeper team this year. Such notions will only make this season’s inevitable descent into mediocrity that much more unbearable. A little salty you say? Sure, but my pessimism is borne out of a lifetime of disappointment as a Lions fan. A little hyperbolic you say? No, not really. Last season the Lions famously controlled their own destiny in the NFC North compiling a 6-3 record. With Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler missing significant time due to injury at the same time, a playoff berth seemed inevitable. Wrong. The Lions went on to lose 6 of their last 7; ultimately costing head coach Jim Schwartz his job.

Very little that I’ve seen or heard since then leads me to think this season will be different. To be sure, the Lions have brought in some offensive brainpower with the trio of head coach Jim Caldwell, quarterback coach Jim Bob Cooter, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Additionally, the Lions have added more offensive weapons by drafting tight end Eric Ebron 10th overall in this year’s draft, and signing free-agent wide receiver Golden Tate. However, they’ve done very little to address the defense, particularly in the back end, which is both thin and short on talent. Indeed, Grantland.com’s Bill Barnwell points out the following:

Detroit benched each of its top four corners at different points last season, and it has brought three of them back. The Lions are actually going to start Rashean Mathis this year. Rashean Mathis! In 2014! On purpose!

Leading up to, and after May’s draft, Lions GM Martin Mayhew seemed to suggest that the defense wasn’t in as much trouble as some thought. Yet, as of this writing, the Lions are trying out 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback/Methuselah Impersonator Champ Bailey. Given that fact, it’s hard to imagine the Lions are honestly feeling secure with second year corner Darius Slay on one side and the 34-year old Rashean Mathis on the other.

Look, it’s not all bad. The front seven is in excellent hands with Ndamukong Suh up front and second year guy Ziggy Ansah coming off the edge. On offense, there are some obvious bright spots with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford. But looking at the schedule, no matter how many ways I try, I just can’t see more than 8 wins. So there it is, a prediction; the Lions will go 8-8.

Wins: Giants, Jets, Bills, Vikings (twice), Dolphins, Bears, Bucs

Losses: Panthers, Packers (twice), Saints, Falcons, Cardinals, Pats, and the Bears (away)

Best Case Scenario: We steal one game each from the Pack and the Saints, and then find the Bears without Cutler at the end of the season to go 11-5.

*Originally I had the lyrics from this wonderful Elbow song dedicated to my 2014 Michigan Football preview, but I couldn’t get that done before last Saturday. Needless to say, I had some long weekends last fall.

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“Millenesque” you say?

matt-millen-apI 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.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

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. Statistically 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

The not-so-good:

  • 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.

Since both units were supposedly in need of improvement, Mayhew selected tight end Eric Ebron with the 10th overall pick. That selection was made to address some glaring need in the passing game, which would help the offense overall. But does the offense need improvement? Or does it need to become more efficient? 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 or closing out games 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.

HUBRIS 

I told a friend of mine on Sunday that this 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 knew nada 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 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.

INCOHERENCE

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.

CONCLUSION

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 contributors 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.

In Defense of Ziggy


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Detroit Lions fans are understandably quite weary of the team’s most recent draft pick: Ziggy Ansah (DE, BYU), the 5th overall pick in the 2013 Draft. Well call me the contrarian, because I think Ansah will be a great player for the Lions. Pollyanish? Actually, I think that if you take a closer look at his background, and his combination of size, speed, and athleticism you just might come away from this a bit more optimistic. But before I go on fawning over the guy, it’s important to understand context here: the nature of the NFL Draft.

Take a look at where the most elite players in the NFL were drafted and you’ll see that no one can predict with any real precision, how great a player will turn out. For every Peyton Manning there’s a Tom Brady; for every Jason Witten, there’s a Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski; for every….well, you get the point. Often times, it can be tough to project how well a player’s skills will translate to the next level; especially in a year when many consider the top-level talent to be thin.

Compounding the issue of top-level depth was the issue of need. With the top 3 offensive tackles going first, second and 4th, respectively, the Lions missed out on addressing their most glaring need- offensive tackle. Thus, they were only left with the choice of either trading down for more picks, or drafting most likely LSU DE Barkevius Mingo, Alabama corner Dee Milliner, or Ansah. While I would have equally endorsed the Milliner pick, given his speed, size and pedigree, I don’t think I would have chosen Mingo over Ansah. At 6’4”, 248 lbs., he wouldn’t have been a great fit for the Lions 4-3 wide 9 scheme. Sure he’s played against superior competition, but the metrics here just don’t work as well. And anyway, Ansah has a higher ceiling. Maybe trading down would have helped, but then who would they have taken, at which pick, in exchange for what? Given those choices, I like Ansah as the pick the most. If anything, the kid has the sort of attributes that make great players, just look at his background.

Ansah came to the US from Ghana on an academic scholarship hoping to walk on to the basketball team. As a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, he chose to do so at BYU. Having failed to make the basketball team, Ansah was encouraged to move over to football where he finally flourished in his 3rd season. Ansah knew very little about football before he came here. Yet he was able to walk on to the football team (and track team where he ran a 10.91 in the 100m).

As a senior, he played every position on the defensive line, including nose tackle, registering 4.5 sacks and 62 tackles. Is that enough to merit first round consideration in the draft? Well, no. For one, 4.5 sacks isn’t all that impressive. But keep in mind, he played 5 different positions at BYU. He wasn’t merely a rush end so his numbers are a bit skewed. What was impressive however was how Ansah managed to dominate at the Senior Bowl. Under the guidance of the Lions coaching staff, Ansah led the South defense with seven tackles (3.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble, raising the eyebrows of NFL brass everywhere. From there, he went on and ran a 4.6 at the NFL combine; for a 6’5” 271 lbs end that’s pretty impressive.

As a Lion, he will play for a head coach in Jim Schwartz that has coached his share of great defensive players in the NFL (Haynesworth, Suh, Vanden Bosch), and he will again be able to have an impact in different ways. The Lions will likely move the newly acquired Jason Jones around on the defensive line, as they have done with Ndamukong Suh. Down the road, they could use Ansah in a similar capacity.

Nevertheless, Ansah’s success will likely turn on his character, and this is where I think the Lions may benefit the most. This is a kid that is living a real-life fantasy. A few years ago he emigrated here from Ghana in pursuit of a dream to play basketball. Today he’s an NFL player and a millionaire. He’s worked hard to learn the game.  He’s smart, and he seems humble. Considering Ansah’s journey, he might realize, more so than his fellow players, that playing in the NFL is a privilege. Just one more reason why I think Ansah will be an excellent addition to the Lions.

Mikel Leshoure: My Take

Of the 4 areas in which the Lions need help, this is the first pick that addresses any of those needs. The Lions moved up to take Leshoure by swapping with Seattle, who traded its 2nd-round pick, 5th-round and 7th-round picks for Detroit’s 3rd (75), 4th (107), 5th (No. 154) and 7th (205).

Not surprisingly, this is the first move they’ve made thus far that I really like. Leshoure is a big back with good speed and great athleticism. While he doesn’t have a large body of work, he was very productive in the one year that he was a starter, running for over 1,700 yards. I’m sure that folks are scratching their heads at the Lions taking an RB so early, but they only have two on the roster and Jahvid Best missed a lot of time last year.

Grade: A-

Titus Young: My Take on Round 2

I guess it’s silly season in Allen Park. Instead of addressing several pressing needs, the Lions instead opted to draft WR Titus Young from Boise State. I’m sorry, but this makes no sense. Drafting for talent in favor of need only makes sense when you’re taking a guy that’s too good to pass up. While it’s certainly possibly that Young could be a productive player, I find it hard to believe that Young graded significantly higher than some of the other players available. Why not take a flyer on DaQuan Bowers? Or how about Ben Ijalana? Surely Bill Polian knows a thing or two about the draft.

I appreciate Young’s playmaking ability, but he’s not particularly big (5’11, 170 lbs.), or fast (4.53), and he reportedly has some maturity issues.

Honestly, the only positive thing I can say about this pick was that I got to hear some “Barry Barry!” chants after former Lion great Barry Sanders announced the selection.

Grade: D-

Nick Fairley: My Quick Take

I find myself conflicted by the Lions’ selection of Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley. On one hand, Fairley is quite a force. He’s big, fast, physical, and plays with great technique. With these physical tools in tow, Fairley wreaked havoc on opposing offenses as a member of the 2010 National Champion Auburn Tigers. After his performance in the BCS National Championship game there was speculation that he may be the #1 player taken overall in the draft. However, some of Fairley’s recent actions allowed his value to drop precipitously. For one, he missed his flight to the combine. He was also late to several pre-draft interviews. Finally, many wondered if Fairley might be a one-year wonder, as he had not done much before last year. Nevertheless, nabbing Fairley at #13 was a steal, given his talent.

On the other hand, the Lions have tons of other needs. As I outlined yesterday, the Lions are in need of a corner, an outside linebacker, a defensive end, and also an offensive tackle. Defensive tackle is a position of strength for them. So it came as a shock to me that they would pass up the top corner on the board (Prince Amukamara) in favor of Fairley, despite the value they got with the pick. I guess the decision comes down to the age-old question of whether teams should take the best player on the board, or try to fill needs. My thought is that when you’re a team like the Lions, that has so many other needs, why draft a position of strength? Here’s what Lions head coach Jim Schwartz had to say about the matter:

“The philosophy here was we’re drafting to our strength,” Schwartz said. “Defensive line is a strength of what we do. When we won our last four last year, you can have probably a quiz show to find out who our corners were in those games. But we’re good up front and being good up front is what drives our defense. So we had a player that could be an impact player at a position.”

While I find this logic curious, I’m willing to give the Lions’ braintrust the benefit of the doubt. After all, they’ve drafted fairly well the last few years, and they got tremendous value with Fairley. I just hope that it all works out. If it does, the Lions could have the best defensive line in the league.

Grade: B

My NFL Draft Preview Part II: Detroit Lions

Yesterday we took a look at the Lions’ needs. Today we’ll discuss some of the players they should target in the first round, based upon their draft position (in order of priority):

  1. Cornerback
  2. Outside Linebacker
  3. Offensive Tackle
  4. Defensive End

While the priority here should be cornerback, I would be happy with the Lions drafting the highest graded player at either OLB, OT, or DE. With that in mind, here are a few guys I that I would love to see the Lions draft in the first round.

CB Prince Amukamara (Nebraska)

With Patrick Peterson presumably off the board, Amukamara would serve as a nice consolation prize, were he to fall to the Lions at 13. Amukamara is a former prep running back that switched to defense while in college, at the insistence of former head coach Bo Pellini. Amukamara has good size and speed, and plays with great recognition. As an added bonus, he played alongside current Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh on a great defense two years ago, so pedigree is also a strong suit.

OT Anthony Castonzo (Boston College)

Castanzo is the type of safe, but sure pick the Lions need as they take the steps necessary to improve their team. Castonzo is smart (Academic All-American), and experienced as he started all four years. At 6’7” and 308 lbs, he’s got great size to play tackle. The critics point out that he could stand to gain some strength and improve his run blocking, but as a pass blocker he’s pretty damn good; just check out the clips from his matchup against top DE prospect Robert Quinn.

DE J.J. Watt (Wisconsin)

While Watt may not provide the same amount of upside as some of the other DE prospects in the draft, he is no slouch. As a former tight end, Watt provides some athleticism. But more importantly, he’s a high motor guy, with great size for the position (6’6”, 296) and he’s the sort of player that creates a lot of havoc on the field.

Guys I don’t Really Love:

DE DeQuan Bowers (Clemson): Were it not for Bowers’ knee injury, he’d be a top-ten pick. Draft guru Gil Brandt thinks the Lions would be getting a steal; maybe he’s right. Personally, I think they should stay away as he poses too great a risk.

CB Jimmy Smith (Colorado): Smith has great size and athleticism and he would be filling a great need for the Lions. But he’s got some serious off-the-field issues that pose too great a risk for the Lions.

DE Robert Quinn (UNC): Quinn is a terrific prospect. He’s just too small to play end in the Lions’ defense. Quinn is better suited to play DE in a 3-4 scheme.

OT Tyron Smith (USC): Smith is ranked as the top tackle prospect by most draft gurus. Who knows, he could be the second coming of Anthony Munoz. He just seems too raw to me, but what do I know.