Detroit Lions Mismanage Roster by Failing to Embrace Player Development
One of my favorite proverbs is the old axiom, "The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging." The message is to quit making the same mistakes and cease exacerbating the existing problem. Alas, the Detroit Lions continue to carve away the ground beneath with a backhoe that never appears to stop.
The hole that general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz stepped into following the 2008 season was akin to the Grand Canyon of football. Matt Millen's river of ineptitude carved a chasm so deep that his final squad, the 2008 Lions, became the only team in the Super Bowl era to lose all 16 games.
How bereft of talent was that team?
Only four starters from that roster—Calvin Johnson, Gosder Cherilus, Cory Redding and Dominic Raiola—are still starting in the NFL. Just three other players from the 53-man roster at the start of that season, Broncos center Manny Ramirez, Seahawks reserve defensive end Cliff Avril and Cowboys backup linebacker Ernie Sims, are still listed on active rosters as of Sept. 3. Calvin Johnson is the only Lions draft pick from 2002 to 2008, the dates of Millen's reign of terror, that is still on the team.
Into that gulf of despair stepped Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz, along with team president Tom Lewand. Neither had served in those lofty capacities before, meaning two rookies were charged with overhauling years of ineptitude. Rebuilding a house without a foundation requires a lot of quick-setting concrete in the form of serviceable veterans, and Mayhew attacked that market with abandon.
It was entirely necessary at that time to bring in functional hole fillers like Grady Jackson, Phillip Buchanon, Bryant Johnson and Julian Peterson. These were among many of the veteran patches that were acquired to field a competitive football team until the young talent could fill in more holes.
Even with the highway robbery of Jerry Jones in the Roy Williams trade, there are only so many draft picks that can impact a team right away.
It's important to note the distinction between adding veteran hole fillers and building the core with veterans. When Mayhew signed Schwartz favorite Kyle Vanden Bosch after that first season, he was importing a long-term building block, not some quick fix like adding 30-year-old journeyman corner William James.
The same is true of trading for Chris Houston and picking up Nate Burleson, two players still starting on the team four seasons later.
Unfortunately, far too many of the picks from the 2010 and 2011 drafts failed to pan out.
The first round picks from those years are Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, the heart of the defense and an exceptional foundation to build around. Mayhew swung and missed in trading away three picks to move up four spots to take exciting but injury-prone Jahvid Best, who gave the Lions a handful of very good games before repeated concussions ended his career.
Many of those concussions came in Best's college career at Cal, including this horrifying crash.
The inability to build depth through the draft perpetuates the vicious cycle of having to fill holes with veteran patches. While the top of the Lions roster improved immeasurably with front-line talents like Suh, Fairley, Matthew Stafford and Louis Delmas, the role players and reserves all remained short-term fixes with marginally talented players.
Yet, because those short-term fixes seemed effective, Mayhew and the Lions have become overly reliant on them. While some have proven prudent, the relative successes of players like Stephen Tulloch and Lawrence Jackson come with an unintended downside.
It's more expensive to sign a proven veteran than work with a later-round rookie. Signing mid-level vets like Tulloch or Corey Williams might make the Lions stronger in the short term, but their contracts unwittingly dig new holes. The Lions overpay for mediocre results instead of taking a chance on less proven commodities that provide more financial freedom.
When a team has top-shelf talent with astronomical contracts like the ones Stafford (five years, $76.5 million) and Johnson (eight years, $150.5 million) signed, every dollar is precious.
Successful franchises balance those massive cap-eating deals by filling the middle and bottom of the depth chart with cheap, young talent. Many are later-round draft picks or even undrafted free agents who make relative peanuts. Those teams are willing to trade off reliability for the cost savings and developmental potential.
Having a coaching staff that can teach and develop talent is critical to that strategy. Unfortunately for the Lions, Schwartz is not a teacher.
I explored this coaching concept in great depth recently. Schwartz and his lieutenants, Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham, are not great teachers. When given young players with untapped raw potential, this staff has consistently proven it cannot advance those players to an acceptable level.
That regrettable inability to teach and develop young talent was painfully evident this offseason.
Two draft picks from the 2012 draft were unceremoniously cut loose. Fourth-round pick Ronnell Lewis played exactly one snap as a rookie defensive end. Fifth-round pick Chris Greenwood, the epitome of a developmental project at cornerback, scantly played in the final two preseason games before being sent to the practice squad. A third-round pick from 2010, safety Amari Spievey departed Detroit with no visible improvement from the marginally competent and overdrafted player he was coming out of Iowa.
Even the developmental projects the Lions have kept around have failed to advance. Corner Jonte Green showed legitimate potential as a sixth-round rookie last season. That potential was raw, but Green proved he could have a decent future as a useful nickel corner or perhaps a hybrid corner/safety in the league. Instead of fostering that talent, the Lions ran scared to the patchwork veteran hole-filler well once again.
Rashean Mathis might make the Lions more competitive in 2013, but he'll almost certainly be gone in a year or two. Meanwhile, all his practice reps are taking invaluable developmental experience away from Green.
Because of that, once Mathis moves along, the Lions will have to fill the same hole once again because Green still won't be ready. Instead, Green will be another one of the drafted names on the waiver wire next summer because he hasn't shown enough growth.
Those holes are a plague, but the Lions keep digging them. I understand Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew are under intense pressure to win right now, but that pressure is there precisely because they keep digging holes out from under their own feet. Take the aforementioned Manny Ramirez, now the starting center for a Super Bowl contender in Denver.
A fourth-round pick in 2007, Ramirez started 12 games for the 2009 Lions. He was not good, as his player page from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) demonstrates; Ramirez graded out at minus-13.0, the third-worst score for all guards that season.
But instead of trying to improve his technique and mold Ramirez into a better player, the Lions quickly gave up on him. In the middle of the next season, they unceremoniously waived him in order to acquire Jamon Meredith, a similarly underskilled lineman who never did anything in Detroit.
The Broncos plucked Ramirez from the scrap heap and devoted real resources to developing him. He started 11 games at right guard for a team that went to the AFC Championship Game last year. Ramirez still isn't a great player, though he did improve his Pro Football Focus score to a positive 3.0. But he was functional and inexpensive, and the organization cared enough to work with him.
That is exactly the sort of player Mayhew and the Lions never seem to get. When they sign young castoffs from other teams, they never pan out. Take Broncos discard Alphonso Smith, one of that franchise's worst draft errors. Smith was an enigmatic, error-prone gambler of a corner who was the 37th pick in the 2009 draft. The Broncos saw enough, or rather not enough, from Smith to cut him after his rookie year.
The Lions swooped in and signed him off the street. Smith had enough natural talent to start 10 games, in which he picked off five passes and was a willing run supporter. His lack of proper technique caused him to commit too many penalties and chase ghost receivers too often, but those flaws can be mitigated. Not with the Lions, however.
Rather than trying to coach the rough edges into a more useful and better player, the Lions simply chose to replace him with the more expensive Eric Wright. When Wright was gone after a season, the Lions again chose to dig with a veteran stopgap over Smith. That player, Drayton Florence, proved far worse in 2012 than Smith was in his bad Denver days.
With the hole getting deeper, the Lions kept digging with another veteran in Jacob Lacey rather than trying Smith or another young developmental talent. The only reason Jonte Green got on the field was because Chris Houston got hurt and there was literally nowhere else to turn.
And yet the digging continues.
Detroit cut two 2013 draft picks. The waiving of sixth-rounder Corey Fuller and seventh-rounder Brandon Hepburn don't exactly fit the narrative here, as both were known long-term projects that were unlikely to see the field as rookies.
But for an embattled management staff with no margin for error, the perception of yet more wasted draft picks sends entirely the wrong message. Besides that, there is a fundamental philosophical disconnect at play here. Why are the Lions continually drafting developmental projects when the coaching staff clearly cannot, or will not, develop them?
Instead of using promising but raw young defensive tackle Jimmy Saddler-McQueen and living with his youthful mistakes as the fourth tackle, Schwartz and Mayhew panicked and signed 34-year-old Justin Bannan. Instead of sticking with athletic young guard/center Rodney Austin as the ninth offensive lineman, the Lions dug in with 29-year-old Titans discard Leroy Harris.
Schwartz is so petrified of young depth that he won't give the last roster spot, one that almost certainly won't appear in a game before November, to a young player with some promise but who isn't quite ready for prime time.
The Lions signed a 38-year-old kicker coming off a terrible season and chose him over a promising but unproven rookie.
Sure, David Akers looked great in preseason, and the "Kickalicious" sensation that was Havard Rugland lost steam as camp progressed. Akers was the prudent short-term choice, but he will be gone in a year or two. Rugland might have missed two or three more field goals than Akers this season, but he has the natural leg talent to thrive in the NFL for a decade.
All the digging has left the Lions with the oldest roster in the league. This is even after waiving veterans like Ron Bartell, Jake Scott and Andre Fluellen from reserve roles.
Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz have dug an overpriced, overaged roster that is still pockmarked with serious holes despite having veteran presences filling many of those gaps. They may have done a good job building a foundation for success, but they never let anything build up from that strong base.
Mayhew and Schwartz have dug their own Lions graves by never committing to player development and prudent roster management.
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