The Lions hold five picks within the first 96 selections, the No. 1, No. 20, No. 33, No. 65, and No. 82 picks, to be specific. Those picks represent the opportunity to get, at the very least, three new starters on this team that is bereft of starting quality NFL players.
The million dollar question, or should I say the $30-$40 million question is: Who do the Lions take No. 1 overall?
The No. 1 pick has become a bit of a pariah in recent years. Once highly coveted, it’s now a pretty much un-tradeable pick. No one wants it. This has come as a result of the ridiculous salary structure in the NFL.
In this current system, the No. 1 pick can always expect a significant upgrade in pay over the No. 1 pick from the previous year.
What has resulted is a system in which a player like left tackle Jake Long, last year's No. 1, walked into the Miami Dolphins locker room at the beginning of the 2008 season, as the highest payed left tackle in the league.
Before he had participated in one professional play, let alone game, he was making more than perennial Pro Bowlers like Seattle’s Walter Jones.
Can you imagine going to school to become an engineer, and the day you start your first job, you are the highest paid engineer in the world?
Where else does this type of thing happen? Not in the NBA, which has a rookie wage scale, not in Major League Baseball, where players have to spend years with a team’s minor league affiliates before ever even sniffing a Major League ball park.
Not even in hockey, where 19-year-olds like Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, and Sidney Crosby are anointed the saviors of their franchises before they can even legally drink in the United States.
All of the being said, you can see why the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft is so important. You can also see why no other team really wants the pick. If you make the wrong selection the money involved can set your team back for up to 10 years.
So who should the Lions select? Like I said...it’s a “$30-$40 million dollar question.”
Let’s see what the Lions' needs are:
The Lions have not had a franchise QB in the 50 years since Bobby Layne was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not surprisingly, the Lions have also won only one playoff game in that same stretch of time.
2. Left Tackle
Former first round pick Jeff Backus has started every game in his career since he was drafted in 2001. That is a total of 128 straight starts. Impressive to say the least. His numbers however have been anything but. In that stretch he has given up 63.75 sacks. That’s an average of approximately eight sacks per year. In the past two years alone he’s given up 24.75. These numbers are not conducive to having a healthy starting QB, nor to winning games.
3. Pretty much every single other position on the team
Minus wide receiver, running back, and kicker.
So you can see why this is such an important pick for the Lions.
As a general rule, you only select certain positions No. 1 overall. Those positions being quarterback, left tackle, and defensive end. The money involved doesn’t generally make sense with any other position.
So who are considered the top players in this year’s draft? In no particular order:
Stafford is a strong armed QB from college football’s Southeastern Conference, widely considered the most competitive conference in college football. Stafford has elite arm strength, above average athleticism, and very impressive stats. He also has a reputation for being inconsistent, making bad decisions with the ball (sometimes trusting in the strength of his arm a bit too much), and not playing up to the level of the top competition he’s faced.
Not to mention the fact that he’s a junior, leaving school one year early. Underclassman quarterbacks have not fared well in the NFL. Whether it be for lack of collegiate starts (not a problem for Stafford, who is a three year starter), or just lack of maturity.
Jason Smith is a converted tight end who played left tackle for the Baylor Bears. He is a huge mountain of a man, measuring in at 6’5” and 309 lbs. at the recent NFL scouting combine. He also flashed impressive athleticism for a man that large, running the 40-yard dash in 5.22 seconds. He displayed very good agility and footwork in on-the-field drills, and reportedly impressed coaches and scouts during his interview sessions.
The biggest negatives with Smith involve the offense he played at in college. He played in a wide open spread offense which rarely required him to run block, something the Lions would most certainly ask him to do.
The Dick Butkus award winner (given to the best linebacker in college football), is an absolutely amazing physical specimen. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash time out of all of the LBs present at the scouting combine at 4.56 seconds, faster than even a number of the smaller and supposedly quicker defensive backs. He also weighed in at an impressive 254 lbs. while standing 6’1-and-three-quarters". Curry is the son of former Detroit Lion Reggie Pinkney. Curry is widely regarded as the safest pick in this year's draft.
So who should the Lions take? Well, the conventional wisdom says that when you need a quarterback, you take a quarterback.
An argument could also be made that you build your team from the offensive and defensive lines out, and that you start that process by grabbing a left tackle to anchor the offensive line.
As for Curry, a linebacker has not been selected No. 1 overall since 1988, when the Atlanta Falcons selected Aundray Bruce from Auburn University, passing on the likes of Neil Smith, Tim Brown ,and Michael Irvin.
Easy answer then, just draft the quarterback and be done with it. Not so fast, though.
As we’ve laid out already, you can’t afford to miss on the No. 1 pick. You especially can’t afford to miss when you just finished being the first team in NFL history to go 0-16.
So the plot thickens.
If you take the quarterback, Matthew Stafford, you are selecting a player who is not considered the best player in the draft, only the best quarterback. You are also taking a player that, though very talented, would not have been considered the No. 1 quarterback in other recent drafts.
Stafford also has the cloud of the underclassman quarterback curse hanging over him. Since 1990, 15 underclassmen quarterbacks have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Of those 15, only five have been selected to the NFL Pro Bowl.
Stafford would be a high risk/high reward selection for the Lions. If he pans out, he could give them what they have been missing for over 50 years. If he busts, the Lions would be stuck with his contract, which will undoubtedly include over $30 million in guaranteed money.
Jason Smith, the left tackle, would seem to be the next logical choice. However, you must consider that he has never consistently had to run block, something that he must be able to do in the Lions' new offensive system.
Couple that with the fact that there are a number of quality left tackles in this draft, and the drop off from Smith, the No. 1 rated left tackle, and the next three or four highest rated prospects, is not that large.
So that brings us to Aaron Curry. Now, many will scream that in the history of the NFL draft only two linebackers have ever been selected No. 1 overall, the last being over 20 years ago. However, in this case, history does not apply.
Ask yourself when was the last time that a linebacker was considered the No. 1 player entering the NFL draft? Never, that’s when.
Curry has everything you look for in a No. 1 pick. He is strong, fast, intelligent, and a leader on and off of the field. He has never had any issues with character flaws and he fills a vital need for your team.
The Lions currently have one NFL caliber linebacker on the roster, Ernie Sims. They need to fill the other two starting positions, middle linebacker, and strong side linebacker. Curry has the ability to play all three linebacker positions, as well as line up on the defensive line and rush the passer.
Your offense needs a quarterback to be the leader. Your defense needs one, too, but on the defense the leader is known as a linebacker. Think along the lines of Ray Lewis, Lawrence Taylor, and the late Derrick Thomas. These are players who would take the defense on their backs and say, “Follow me and we will win this game.”
Who was more valuable to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl team, Ray Lewis or Trent Dilfer? Who was more valuable to the New York Giants 1990 Super Bowl team, Phil Sims or Lawrence Taylor?
The answer to the second question is obvious because Sims was unable to play in the 1990 Super Bowl, and his backup Jeff Hostetler had to play.
I firmly believe that Aaron Curry should be the pick at No. 1. He carries the least risk and makes the most sense. You can then draft your left tackle at No. 20.
That being said, however, I’m a Lions fan. If people who know far more about football than me, people like Lions General Manager Martin Mayhew, and his brain trust of James “Shack” Harris and Head Coach Jim Schwartz, feel that Stafford or Smith should be the pick I will root for not just my team, but the player as well.
A true fan wants his team to succeed. A true fan wants the players that his team selects to succeed, not just the players that he thought the team should draft. And a true fan realizes that he is just that, a fan.