Detroit Lions Draft and Offseason Analysis: The Quarterback Edition

David McClureCorrespondent IApril 15, 2009

Of all the draft debates being heard over the past few months, none has been more heated, more argued, and more polar, than the debate over the No. 1 pick. It’s always a significant topic of discussion, but this year has been especially interesting.

There is no clear-cut favorite. Jason Smith is considered the best left tackle prospect with Eugene Monroe a close second. The top defensive line prospects, B.J. Raji and Brian Orakpo, do not look like No. 1 material.

Aaron Curry and Michael Crabtree are considered the best prospects on their side of the ball but Crabtree is not a position of need for the Detroit Lions, and the acquisition of Julian Peterson has made it less likely that he’ll be the pick.

The front runner, it would seem, is Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. But is he the guy? Is he No. 1 talent? After Joey Harrington, Andre Ware, and so on, can the Lions give No. 1 money to an underclassmen quarterback with a career completion percentage under 58 percent? 

I feel confident that almost every football fan has their opinion regarding Stafford and the Lions. I am also confident that every Lions fan has their opinion about what to do with the quarterback spot.

Let’s take a look at the many of the ideas, prejudices, lines of thinking, misconceptions, theories, and anything else we can find, regarding the Detroit Lions quarterback quandary and the first pick in the draft. The following is a rundown of some of the more common thoughts about the quarterback situation in Detroit, with a commentary to follow each one.

1. A quarterback will get killed in Detroit

Possibly the most common line of thinking for people that want Detroit to wait for a quarterback until the draft of 2010 is that a quarterback will have to run for his life, get sacked a bunch, make bad decisions as a result, and will cradle up in the fetal position, being too screwed up to go on to any success. It’s certainly a possible scenario.

Many quarterbacks have seemingly met this fate and support the theory in Motown. Upon further inspection, however, this theory has some serious holes you can poke in it. Most notably, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl behind an offensive line that gave up 49 sacks, New England surrendered 48 sacks en route to an 11-5 record.

Compare that to Detroit’s 52. It’s not a good number but obviously other teams can overcome that. What about contributing factors? Why are they giving up so many sacks? Is it simply a bad offensive line?

There really are numerous reasons a team can give up a lot of sacks. For the Lions, it wasn’t as simple as the offensive line.

Jon Kitna took 15 sacks in the first three games of the season. Jon’s five sacks per game total was as much his fault as anyone else’s; he wasn’t mobile and held onto the ball way too long. His desire to extend plays was admirable and even endeared him to many Lions fans, but it was poor decision making in most cases and did more harm than good.

Another contributing factor was the fact that Lions played five different quarterbacks last season: Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, Drew Stanton, Daunte Culpepper, and Drew Henson all saw action. There is something to be said for consistency and actually knowing the playbook.

On the same lines, the offensive line was in shuffle mode early in the season, and once Gosder Cherilus, the Lions' first pick in the 2008 draft, established himself, the line performed much better. Against the Colts late in the season, the Lions didn’t give up a sack, and the last three games they averaged less than two sacks per game allowed. Contrast that to the five sacks per game to start the season.

Play selection was a major factor in the offense this past season too. Jim Colletto, best known as an offensive line coach, took over play calling duties for Rod Marinelli’s team. He was not well equipped for the job and called 509 pass plays vs. just 352 run plays. In his defense, the Lions were usually down multiple scores.

The last significant contributing factor is the running back. Kevin Smith cemented himself as the starting back midway through the season and became strong and stronger as the season progressed. He eventually brought his yards per carry number up to over four. His success on the ground allowed the play calling to be adjusted to more rushes and made the opposing defense respect his ability. They could no longer rush the quarterback every down.

In Lions history, oddly enough, the quarterbacks have remained injury-free for the most part. They haven’t been killed, so to speak. The few injuries that have occurred have been from practice or freak accidents.

Looking at the numbers with a quarterback that knows the system, is slightly more mobile, and gets rid of the ball when necessary, the Lions offensive line looks a lot better. A run game that has to be respected makes the Lions better. I think with no changes to the roster via free agency and the draft, today, the Lions would be a 35-sack team this year.

That’s not good; it’s on the low side of average. Add a tight end, a No. 3 receiver, and a big left guard and I can see them as a 25-sack team. That’s actually in the top 10 in the league based on last year.

2. Any quarterback will be a bust here
Let me start by saying that fear is not always a good reason to make a decision. If it means staying away from a wild hungry Lion, then sure, it’s a good thing.

However, if your looking at how draft prospects have performed at various positions and selecting the safest pick, then you may as well get rid of all of your draft picks and get veterans instead. It’s not likely you can afford much of a team, but at least you will know what you are getting.

3. We should wait and get a better quarterback next year
Many people have expressed that next year's quarterback class will be significantly better next year. Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, and Tim Tebow are the main headliners in the 2010 draft class, and many felt that Bradford would have been selected before Stafford this year. All three guys have performed very well at the college level and all have a chance to be pro players.

The flip side to this thinking is that they are all spread quarterbacks that will likely have a hard time adjusting to a pro-style offense. Bradford, widely considered the best of the bunch, does not have as good of physical tools as Stafford. It was up for debate who the better prospect was this year. Either way, if the Lions wait until next year, than they will need to let Sam sit another year or two to learn the NFL game.

That means the new franchise quarterback wouldn’t take the field until 2011 or 2012. That’s also assuming the Lions are in a position to draft one of these guys. You never know where you’ll be drafting and who will be available.

It would seem that you are gambling that you will be able to select a player next year that will be a gamble. Or you can just take the risk this year and see how it goes. I’ll leave that decision up to the guy who gets paid to make it.

4. Daunte Culpepper is the answer for the next several years
There is plenty of Daunte Culpepper support in Detroit. It would appear Martin Mayhew himself was a strong supporter of Culpepper. With the addition of Scott Linehan, the Lions have put together a duo that, in their three years with the Vikings, were ranked fourth, second, and first in total offense. Can they find that success again? It’s tough to say...Daunte is a different player these days.

Seeing recent pictures and reports regarding Culpepper, it is obvious he is in the best shape he’s been in since the knee injury. He also has had time to absorb the new system, which may not be new to him at all. We will get to see if he is a solid quarterback still. He will be healthy, know the playbook, and have support all around him.

If everything goes well, then Daunte could be a solid option for the next three to four years. He will be the third-best quarterback in the division if he plays well. It’s a big if.
No matter how you see Culpepper, one fact remains: The future quarterback for the Lions is not on their roster. 

5. We can get a veteran next year if needed
In order for Detroit to get a decent quarterback next year, they will have to trade for one. The free agency class is weak. If it’s a trade deal like Kansas City pulled off for Matt Cassel, then that would work. Those trades just don’t happen, though. A franchise guy will cost the Lions players and/or picks. They have both to lose, making it an option.

Looking at it from the other side, Mayhew has stated he wants a younger, faster, stronger team and that he wants to build through the draft. Mayhew also said the Lions wouldn’t be spending tons of money on free agents. These comments would lead me to believe that they plan on drafting their quarterback of the future. I do not see the Lions being willing to give up young players and picks in a trade.

6. Matthew Stafford is a choke artist

The kid went 3-0 in bowl games. He had a few bad games in the mix against some of the best teams in college football. It would be nice to see more from him, but he did perform well in enough big games that labeling him as a choke artist is well off base.

Matthew Stafford has one big issue: He seems to force things too much. A good coach can correct that problem. It’s not mechanical, it’s not physical, it’s mental. A mental issue that, with little effort, can be corrected. I just do not see him as a choke artist.

7. We have to build inside out

One of the more common comments by NFL fans, the inside-out theory is one that says you have to build the offensive and defensive lines before getting skill players. It, in theory, would allow you to control the line of scrimmage, keep pressure of your team, and put pressure on the opposing team.

The use of this theory is where the conflict exists. If you have five picks in the top 82 and could make a trade down or two and have as many as seven picks in the top 100, then why is taking a quarterback an issue? Do you need to draft five or six linemen early?

The answer, of course, is no. The Lions could use youth, depth, and upgrades across both lines. This can be achieved by drafting three guys early and one late. An offensive lineman, a defensive tackle, and a defensive end in the top 100 would accomplish the build from the inside-out theory.

That leaves you with two or more top 100 picks depending on trades. A quarterback and a middle linebacker would be the next priority positions and with a trade down a secondary player, a tight end, and/or a wideout could be looked at seriously.

8. What about Drew Stanton?
The hometown kid has been a fan favorite, despite doing next to nothing on the field. Stanton was never a top prospect and hasn’t been able to climb higher than No. 3 on the depth chart until this season. He is No. 2 by default as it stands. Perhaps Linehan can pull something special out of him, because he was always a winner on the field.

It still seems like Lions fans have the Mike McMahon syndrome again. The guy who never plays is always the next savior. Maybe it’s our eternal hope as Lions fans; maybe it’s because hope is all we’ve had.

The truth is Stanton can’t stay healthy, and when he is healthy he is less than impressive. I think Stanton could have been an average quarterback if he would have had a better coaching staff and had been thrown into the action early on. He is the type of guy who would have handled the pressure just fine. It seems like his time to assert himself has passed, and we likely will never know what he could have been.

9. What about Drew Henson?
The phenom. Another hometown favorite at one time, Henson should have stuck with baseball. He looks like he has the build for it these days. 

The bottom line is that the Lions are dependent on Daunte Culpepper. He has a limited shelf life and a replacement has to come this year or next. For Mayhew to build this team the way he said he was going to, he would need to draft a quarterback. Any quarterback we draft will need time on the bench.

I strongly feel that Matthew Stafford has done enough to be the No. 1 overall pick this year. I believe Aaron Curry and Jason Smith are both going to be successful in the league and would be happy with either of them.

Yet I still think Stafford is the pick, and probably the right one, not because of what he is, but what the team needs him to become. The best way I can describe Stafford is capable. He has the capacity to be the quarterback Detroit needs.

David McClure can be reached at or you can comment here and on his page at this link:


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