Detroit Lions Draft Special: A "What-If" Look at What Could Have Been

jonathan staub@JStaubSportTalkCorrespondent IApril 27, 2009

There will be a lot of critics analyzing the decision of the Detroit Lions to select Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick in the NFL draft.


The Lions have invested more money into Stafford than any rookie in NFL history, and have entrusted the young QB out of Georgia with the fate of their franchise.


Stafford, who adamantly told anyone that would listen that he wanted to play for Detroit, may have bit off more than he can chew.


The Lions are a franchise in disarray, and are years away from being a solid contender in the NFC.


This year the Lions may have actually gotten it right for a change by picking Stafford first, and selecting Brandon Pettigrew with the 20th overall pick in the first round as well; Pettigrew was one of the top overall players in the draft, and the best tight end.


The Lions have not had a franchise quarterback in years, and the last time they selected a QB with a high pick was in the 2002 NFL Draft; they selected Joey Harrington third overall.


The Lions struggles have been well documented, despite showing passive glimmers of hope throughout the years.


The replacement of Matt Milen was an important start, and now it will be up to the men in charge to rebuild the Detroit franchise from the ground up.


But did it really need to be this way?


The answer is no…an emphatic no actually. The Lions futility is marred by more than just busts at high picks.


The struggles are highlighted by bad picks that could have been spent more wisely.


I will go back to the 2001 Draft and work forward to 2008 in order to illustrate what could have been for Detroit.


Instead of being the laughing stock of the NFL, Detroit could have been building a dynasty that would have made them competitive for years to come.


This is one of those fun games of “what-ifs” and when it is analyzed more thoroughly, it is amazing to see what could have been for a failing franchise, as well an economically crippled city.


For the purposes of this analysis I will analyze only the picks made by the Lions, as well as the picks made after their selection. While there is no guarantee that the Lions would have been able to trade up, and what they would have done in order to do so, we will completely negate those possibilities by only examining the specified picks.



2001 – Detroit selected Jeff Backus (G) with the 18th overall selection.


Backus has given the Lions eight solid years. He hasn’t been spectacular, but he has been good. While this pick is one of the better ones made by Detroit this decade, it is also one that doesn’t look to bad in comparison to the others.


Notable first round picks in 2001 that were passed up by Detroit:


No. 19 – Casey Hampton

No. 20 – Adam Archuleta

No. 23 – Deuce McAllister

No. 30 – Reggie Wayne

No. 31 – Todd Heap



2002 – Detroit selected Joey Harrington (QB) with the third overall selection.


Harrington will best be known for two things: One, his giant advertisement on the side of a building in New York City during his Heisman campaign in college, and two, being a monumental bust in the NFL.


Harrington was given several opportunities, but never lived up to his potential…let alone his hype. Joey has bounced around the NFL and made little impact.


He is currently in New Orleans, and in his seven NFL seasons he has accumulated 14,693 yards, 79 touchdowns, 85 interceptions, a 56.1 completion percentage and a career QB rating of 69.4.


Harrington has fallen short in living up to the production of fellow No.3 picks Chris Samuels (2000), Andre Johnson (’03), Larry Fitzgerald (’04), Braylon Edwards (’05), Joe Thomas (’07) and Matt Ryan (’08).


Notable first round picks in 2002 that were passed up by Detroit:


No. 8 – Roy Williams (safety)

No. 10 – Levi Jones

No. 11 – Dwight Freeney

No. 13 – Donte Stallworth

No. 14 – Jeremy Shockey (when you get past the attitude he is a quality TE)

No. 15 – Albert Haynesworth

No. 20 – Javon Walker

No. 24 – Ed Reed


2003 – Detroit selected Charles Rogers (WR) with the second overall selection.


Rogers marks the first in a long line of top 10 wide receivers taken by Detroit.


Bogged down by injuries, Rogers is considered another bust of historic proportions that just couldn’t stay healthy enough to make an impact; back-to-back broken collarbones in 2003 and 2004 all but destroyed any future Rogers would have.


Rogers was also plagued by drug problems throughout his career, and is currently out of football; the last documented workout for Rogers was in January 2007 when he worked out for the Chiefs.


Rogers ran a 4.8 40-yard dash. He was just a “bit” off from his college days when he ran a 4.28.


Rogers played in 14 career games, amassing 36 receptions for 440 yards. Rogers finished his career with four touchdowns.


Notable first round picks that were passed up in 2003 by Detroit:


No. 1 – Carson Palmer (while I did state I wouldn’t look at trading up, in this situation it could be justifiably assumed that something might have been done to move up one slot)

No. 3 – Andre Johnson

No. 5 – Terrence Newman

No. 7 – Byron Leftwich

No. 10 – Terrell Suggs

No. 11 – Marcus Trufant

No. 16 – TroyPolamalu

No. 23 – Willis McGahee

No. 31 – Nnamdi Asomugha



2004 – Detroit selected Roy Williams (WR) with the seventh overall selection.


Williams was traded to Dallaslast season, and the first round pick that was received by the Lions was used on Brandon Pettigrew this season.


Williams has enjoyed somewhat marginal success in the NFL, but not the kind of success you expect from the seventh overall pick.


Williams has only played one full season of 16 games, and that also happened to be his best; he accumulated 1310 yards and seven touchdowns in that season on 82 receptions.


For his career Williams has 281 receptions, 4082 yards and 30 touchdowns in his five seasons of work.

Notable first round picks that were passed up by Detroit in 2004:


No. 8 – DeAngelo Hall

No. 11 – Ben Roethlisberger

No. 12 – Jonathan Vilma

No. 18 – Will Smith

No. 24 – Steven Jackson



2005 – Detroit selected Mike Williams (WR) with the 10th overall selection.


Williams is best remembered for challenging the system and ultimately missing an entire season of play.


A standout at USC, Williams has been anything but a standout in the NFL.


Another one of the wide receivers that Detroit became infatuated with, Williams has been a total bust in the NFL and is now in Tennessee; Williams started last season in Oakland and finished with the Titans.


Williams played 14 games in his rookie season, and only 16 since. In his three seasons he has accumulated 539 yards, 44 receptions and two touchdowns.


This may ultimately be one of the most unexplainable picks that Detroit made, as all the signs were there for Detroit to pass on Williams.


Notable first round picks that were passed up by Detroit in 2005:


No. 11 – Demarcus Ware

No. 12 – Shawne Merriman

No. 24 – Aaron Rodgers (I think we all remember this “Greenroom fiasco”)

No. 25 – Jason Campbell

No. 30 – Heath Miller



2006 – Detroit selected Ernie Sims (LB) with the ninth overall selection.


Sims has been a good pick for Detroit; one of the only ones they have made recently. A stout playmaker on defense, Sims has improved in each of his three NFL seasons to date.


2006 was a very talent-rich year for the NFL, as a lot of today’s young stars came out of this draft class.


There were eight very solid picks before Detroit’s selection at nine. Those picks included Mario Williams No. 1, Reggie Bush No. 2, D’Brickashaw Ferguson No. 4, A.J. Hawk No. 5, Michael Huff No. 7 and Donte Whitner No. 8.

If Detroit can get their franchise turned around, Sims will be the man to quarterback the defense.


Notable first round picks that were passed up by Detroit in 2006:


No. 10 – Matt Leinart

No. 11 – Jay Cutler

No. 12 – Haloti Ngata

No. 25 – Santonio Holmes

No. 27 – DeAngelo Williams

No. 29 – Nick Mangold



2007 – Detroit selected Calvin Johnson (WR) with the second overall selection.


Detroit finally got it right at wide receiver with the selection of Johnson.


A rare combination of size, power and speed, Johnson has all the tools to become one of the best wide-outs in the NFL. He has blossomed into a legitimate threat and looks to be the franchise wide receiver Detroit has so relentlessly pursued.


If Staffordand Johnson can develop some chemistry then there should be many bright days ahead for the Lions offense as CJ is a player the Lions can build around.


Last season Johnson caught 78 passes for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns.


Notable first round picks that were passed up by Detroit in 2007:


No. 3 – Joe Thomas

No. 6 – Laron Landry

No. 7 – Adrian Peterson

No. 11 – Patrick Willis

No. 12 – Marshawn Lynch

No. 22 – Brady Quinn



2008 – Detroitselected Gosder Cherilius (OL) with the 17th overall selection.


After bouncing around in the draft through trades, the Lions settled on the 17th pick and used it to acquire offensive lineman Gosder Cherilius.


Cherilius will be entering his second season, and has the size to be a force on the offensive line. Whether or not he lives up to his potential will be based on how hard he works.


Linemen are typically a safe bet, so the Lions should be able to expect good things from Cherilius.


Notable first round picks that were passed up by Detroit in 2008:


No. 18 – Joe Flacco

No. 19 – Jeff Otah

No. 24 – Chris Johnson



Eight-year analysis of draft picks


Before I get into my final thoughts I would just like to make a note that all assumptions on “what could have been” is based on the Lions picking in the same spot each year. While that would obviously change if they had chosen a different route amongst picks, there is no way to assume where they could have been.


I will also only be using the notable picks mentioned to formulate the possibilities for different scenarios that could have arisen during the Lions streak of futility.


While we had no idea how the draft picks would have played if they would have been on different teams, I will be basing everything on what has actually happened to date.


It is amazing to see some of the picks the Lions have passed on over the years.


There has been a veritable cornucopia of all-pros that have slipped right through the hands of the wayward Lions.


This exact situation, however, is what separates the bad franchises from the good franchises, and the good franchises from the great franchises.


The draft can make or break a franchise for years, as evident by the Lions choice of poor selections this decade.



Scenario one – “What-could-have-been” on defense.


Let’s say for the sake of argument that the Lions chose to rebuild their franchise by focusing on defense.


Over the past eight years they could have put together a team that looks as follows:


2001 – Casey Hampton

2002 – Ed Reed/Dwight Freeney/Albert Haynesworth

2003 – Troy Polamalu/Nnamdi Asomugha/Terrell Suggs

2004 – Jonathan Vilma

2005 – DeMarcus Ware/Shawne Merriman

2006 – Ernie Sims/Haloti Ngata

2007 – Laron Landy/Patrick Willis


Try to imagine a combination of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu roaming a secondary in the same uniform.


Perhaps Casey Hampton, Albert Haynesworth and Terrell Suggs dawning the blue and silver ready to stuff the middle on Thanksgiving day; those are some big boys.


What about Jonathan Vilma, DeMarcus Ware and Ernie Sims all lurking behind a line of Hampton, Haynesworth and Suggs.


The Lions could have put together a defense that would have rivaled that of the Steelers of the ‘70’s, the ’85 Bears or the Ravens of 2000.


There have been more than a dozen all-pro defensive players that the Lions have passed on, not to mention a couple potential Hall of Famers as well…but then again…who knew?



Scenario two – “What-could-have-been” on offense.


The Lions tried building an elite offense through the draft over the years.


Detroit’s drafting will always be tarnished by their string of unsuccessful wide receivers, and they extreme bust at quarterback.


While they are hoping that Matthew Stafford can erase the memory of Joey Harrington, and Calvin Johnson is showing that persistency can pay off, it didn’t have to be so difficult for Detroit.


Whereas there were multiple all-pro’s selected on the defensive side of the ball after the Lions pick, there has been some very strong selections on offense…including a Hall of Fame quarterback.


2001 – Reggie Wayne/Todd Heap

2002 – Donte Stallworth

2003 – Willis McGahee/Byron Leftwich/Andre Johnson

2004 – Ben Roethlisberger

2005 – Heath Miller/Aaron Rodgers

2006 – Santonio Holmes/Jay Cutler/Nick Mangold

2007 – Joe Thomas/Adrian Peterson

2008 – Joe Flacco/Jeff Otah


The Lions have been cursed with horrible luck at the wide-out position, but imagine if they would have gone with Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Santonio Holmes (Super Bowl XLIII MVP) instead of Charles Rogers, Mike Williams and Roy Williams.


That is a Pro-Bowl trio of receivers as opposed to three busts at the wide-out position.


The struggles at the quarterback position have also been well documented for the Lions, as their most notable quarterback to date (in this time frame) has been journeyman John Kitna.


But…what if the Lions had selected Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 instead of Roy Williams?


Would we be saying, “Ben Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback of the Detroit Lions”?


An offensive line that has consistently let down the running game, and allowed the quarterback to be obliterated, could be significantly stronger if Nick Mangold, Joe Thomas and Jeff Otah were anchoring the line.


Finally, what about the non-existent Detroit running game?


The only time Detroit really got it right was with Calvin Johnson. They could have put the same money into Adrian Peterson, and we could be watching the second great running back to come through Detroit; I, of course, am referencing Barry Sanders.


The most excruciating thing for Lions fans is the way the players selected after their pick have panned out.


This is a great case of “what-if” that could have turned the Lions from the laughingstock of every NFL franchise, to the envy of every NFL franchise.


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