Detroit Lions Proving Character Is Important in Evaluation Process

Ty SchalterNFL National Lead WriterJuly 5, 2012

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Nick Fairley #98 of the Detroit Lions stands on the sidelines before their game against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum on December 18, 2011 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Randy Moss made NFL teams think character isn't important in the talent evaluation process. The Detroit Lions, however, are proving that it is.

Moss, the San Francisco 49ers wide receiver, has been a walking "red flag" for character issues since high school. He got into serious trouble at the prep, juco and college levels despite jaw-dropping talent.

In the 1998 draft, he slid all the way to No. 21 overall and wasn't even the first receiver taken. But Moss harvested 9,316 yards and 92 yards for the Vikings as if his long history of criminal trouble and switching schools never happened.

The NFL is a copycat league. Several teams have been drafting for talent almost without regard for character, the Cincinnati Bengals being the prime example. Per Robert Klemko at USA Today, the Bengals led the NFL in arrests from 2000 to 2011 with a whopping 33.

The Lions were tied with the St. Louis Rams for the fewest at seven. Think about that. The Lions' six arrests this offseason are just one shy of their total for the previous 11 years!

So what went wrong?

The Lions' current leadership—President Tom Lewand, GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz—took over the worst team in NFL history. Coming off an 0-16 season, they had an almost impossibly high mountain to climb.

Asked about what his team needed going into its first draft, Schwartz said, "We have a number of needs. The No. 1 need is talent."

The Lions hauled in a lot of talent with that draft. No. 1 overall pick quarterback Matthew Stafford, first-round tight end Brandon Pettigrew, second-round safety Louis Delmas, third-round linebacker DeAndre Levy and fourth-round defensive tackle Sammie Hill are all key contributors to the Lions heading into their fourth season.

Seventh-round offensive tackle Lydon Murtha was signed off the practice squad by the Dolphins and quickly became a spot starter/swing backup. Seventh-round tight end Dan Gronkowski (yes, Rob's big brother) was traded to Denver for cornerback Alphonso Smith, who has since had eight interceptions in two seasons.

Sounds like a home-run draft, right? Well, the Lions did swing for the fences, but the 2009 draft was full of risky picks.

In three years at Georgia, Stafford was unable to translate his phenomenal talent (and No. 1 quarterback recruit status) into collegiate dominance. Delmas had an unimaginably hard upbringing, as his drug-dealing parents abandoned him with the police on their trail.

Third-round receiver Derrick Williams entered Penn State as the No. 1 overall prospect in the country but left as a swing QB/WR/KR with measurables no more impressive as a college senior than as a high school senior.

Levy, an outside linebacker at Wisconsin, was drafted to play inside. Hill came from a tiny Division II school where they used him as a 3-4 DE and assigned him half the field.

Seventh-rounder Zack Follett, a linebacker with a penchant for huge hits, had his draft stock plummet because of a chronic neck injury—one that would later force him to retire.

From the top of the draft to the bottom, the Lions drafted players with starting-caliber upside but accordingly riskier downsides. The pattern continued in 2010.

No. 2 overall pick Ndamukong Suh was nearly a flawless prospect, but the Lions traded back up into the first round to take running back Jahvid Best, a breathtaking talent who had struggled to stay healthy. The Lions drafted unconventional Iowa cornerback Amari Spievey and immediately converted him to safety.

Seventh-round defensive end Willie Young didn't fit the Lions system at all. Walking at a leggy 6'5" and 251 pounds, Young was at least 20 pounds too light. "Mr. Irrelevant" Tim Toone dominated the FCS Big Sky Conference, but it wasn't known whether his game-breaking speed and swerve could translate to the higher levels.

Again, the pattern was clear: The Lions were drafting players on talent first and everything else last. The Lions didn't hesitate to draft players from small schools with injury risks and/or without natural positions. 

The 2011 draft brought in another crop of high-risk, high-reward picks, but this time, they all had the same risk: character concerns.

First-round defensive tackle Nick Fairley couldn't stay academically eligible in high school and had to bounce through prep school and junior college and retake a correspondence class before joining Auburn.

Second-round receiver Titus Young came to Boise State from Los Angeles, and his me-first antics on and off the field got him suspended twice. BSU head coach Chris Petersen nearly forced Young to transfer before Young put his head down and worked.

Second-round running back Mikel Leshoure came from the roughest possible background, born in a correctional facility to a mother struggling with addiction. Leshoure missed time his freshman year when he got into a fight with a teammate who broke his jaw. He had just one outstanding season at Illinois before leaving for the NFL.

The perception is that the Lions have become the new Bengals: a team that seeks out prospects with character issues in order to get the maximum possible talent out of their drafts.

The reality is that the Lions have been drafting talented players with all sorts of red flags, and the strategy has paid off more often than not.

But players who don't pan out due to injuries, poor system fits or inability to compete at higher levels don't make headlines.

Randy Moss proved that sometimes, a player's ability trumps any character concerns. His career totals stand at 14,858 yards and 153 touchdowns—numbers worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Even so, Moss was often a distraction even when he was producing. His attitude has always been a problem. As often as his talent has been a catalyst for great things, when he sulks, he can weigh an entire team down.

Players who become national news during the offseason bring shame to their teammates, coaches, executives and fans. Of course, there isn't a direct connection between shaky pasts and arrests; Delmas was born to two drug dealers and has kept his nose clean. But repeatedly drafting guys who have made poor decisions is playing with fire—and the Lions got burned.

Though the team's front office has completed one of the most incredible turnarounds in NFL history, the Lions are currently a laughingstock.