I am expecting violence and wholesale disagreement. That's OK, just hear me out before you skewer me.
First, let's agree on one thing. Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz have done a great job of building a respectable team from the ground up. They've done a great job of bringing in talent through both the draft and free agency, and even the moves we criticize have been successful to an extent (e.g. Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson, etc.).
In short, the Lions' braintrust has a plan and knows what it's doing. The team went from 0-16 to 10-6 and playoffs in three years, with steady improvement each year. In my mind, the effectiveness of Mayhew/Schwartz is beyond debate.
So when Mayhew says he's not going to break from his usual "best player available" (BPA) mindset, I cringe a little, but then I listen to him explain why.
"What we don't want to do is reach for needs at specific positions—bypass good players to reach for a need," Mayhew said, as reported by Mlive.com. "In the history of the draft, I've seen a lot of mistakes doing that, and we don't believe in that."
I imagine Mayhew knows quite a bit about this, and has seen a myriad of draft mistakes. It's easy to forget he was installed during the Matt Millen era as an assistant, considering the remarkable prowess he has exhibited since Millen's firing.
To further illustrate this concept, consider this question: Would the Lions be better off drafting an average player to fill a major need, or an All-Pro player at a minor need? Would you rather the Lions draft the next Calvin Johnson, or the next Jeff Backus?
See, the draft isn't really for filling needs. It's for acquiring talent. And the Millen era should be enough to teach anyone that high draft picks does not necessarily mean talented players.
The Lions should draft...
But even Millen had his moments when he stuck to a the BPA philosophy. In 2007, Calvin Johnson was the consensus top player on the draft board—maybe the best prospect of the decade.
However, the Oakland Raiders needed a quarterback, so they reached, with the top overall pick, for JaMarcus Russell, the best available quarterback. The Lions took Johnson, and if I have to explain how that worked out for both teams, you need a football history lesson.
Did the Lions really need a wide receiver? No, in fact, it was Millen's fourth receiver in five years, and he caught a lot of heat for it. Granted, his previous picks were busted or busting, but 2007 was also the year of Mike Furrey and Roy Williams. The need might have been there, but it wasn't prevalent.
But of all the picks Millen made during his tenure, Johnson is perhaps the only one in which he got truly equivalent return on investment, and he got it because he drafted the best player, plain and simple.
With all that said, the idea that the Lions will really, truly draft the BPA is a crock. More than likely, they will take a couple of positions (I'm thinking QB, RB and DT) and throw them away.
If Robert Griffin III, a consensus top-10 quarterback, drops to the Lions at 23rd, he will be the BPA. But they won't draft him. They'll draft the best player they can use.
This is probably a better description for Mayhew's draft strategy: not "best player available," but "best usable player."
The Lions can't use a new quarterback. There is no room for a new defensive tackle. These are positions that not only aren't a need, but any notable addition to the position would be a waste, regardless of talent.
In the minds of many, Nick Fairley did not fill a need for the Detroit Lions, but because of Jim Schwartz's philosophy of rotating defensive tackles, Fairley was a usable player.
More importantly, he was a good player. The only reason he didn't have more impact in 2011 is because he spent the entire year either out or hobbled by injury. But when he did play, he made plays. He all but dominated the first quarter of the Saints game in Ndamukong Suh's absence.
Similarly, Titus Young didn't represent the Lions' greatest need in the second round, but he made enough of an impact as a rookie to be worth it.
And of course, none of this is to suggest that the Lions don't have needs. But the draft is not the only way to acquire those needed players, either. Free agency can fill immediate needs, particularly while the team is waiting on young draft picks to develop. Good teams don't build through free agency, but they use it when they need to.
This brings me back to the central tenet of this entire philosophy. The point of the draft is not to fill needs but to acquire good players, and you don't build a team by filling holes with average players unless an average team is what you're trying to build.
This is what Martin Mayhew really means when he says "best player available."
Drafting for need won't get the Lions anywhere if the player doesn't stick. And if there is one thing, if there is any thing, that Martin Mayhew should know and that Lions fans should ask of him, it's that the goal of the NFL draft is to draft the best player he possibly can.
Failing to do that is the difference between drafting Mike Williams (10th overall, 2005 draft) and DeMarcus Ware (11th overall, 2005 draft).