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Re-Grading Detroit Lions' Past Five Drafts

Jeff RisdonContributor IApril 22, 2014

Re-Grading Detroit Lions' Past Five Drafts

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    Carlos Osorio

    The last five NFL drafts for the Detroit Lions coincide with Martin Mayhew's reign as general manager and Tom Lewand as team president. They were hired in the wake of one of the most egregiously unsuccessful management tenures in professional sports history, better known as the Matt Millen era. 

    From that pit of despair, Detroit has rebuilt itself into a competitive franchise. It even made a rare playoff appearance after the 2011 season and was poised to run away with the NFC North in 2013 before a late-season collapse that led to the firing of the third man in the above picture, head coach Jim Schwartz. 

    Much of that groundwork has come via the draft. In five seasons, Mayhew and his staff have added several key starters and improved, in some cases dramatically, the overall depth and talent level of the entire roster. 

    Grading those five drafts must take into account where the franchise was at that point in April of 2009. 

    Some other factors into the grades include:

    • Value/impact of the pick
    • Other options the team considered for the pick, if known
    • Ongoing value looking forward
    • Positional needs at the time of the pick

    Here are the grades for each draft of the Mayhew era.

2009

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    Reed Saxon

    The picks:

    Round/OverallPlayerPosition/Team
     1st round/1st overall Matthew Stafford QB, Georgia
     1st/20th Brandon Pettigrew TE, Oklahoma State
     2nd/33rd Louis Delmas S, Western Michigan
     3rd/76th DeAndre Levy LB, Wisconsin
     3rd/82nd  Derrick Williams WR, Penn State
     4th/115th Sammie Lee Hill DT, Stillman
     6th/192nd Aaron Brown RB, Texas Tech
     7th/228th Lydon Murtha T, Nebraska
     7th/235th Zack Follett LB, California
     7th/255th  Dan Gronkowski TE, Maryland

    Mayhew's first draft class came at a time when the franchise desperately needed an overhaul. Coming off the first 0-16 season in NFL history dictated the need to accrue as many picks as possible.

    Stafford frustrates at times, but he has also demonstrated legitimate star quality just as often. No other player has thrown for more yards before age 26, and he has re-written the franchise passing record book. 

    Still, if the team selected Mark Sanchez or Aaron Curry instead of Stafford, it's hard to imagine just how much worse the Lions would look today. Try not to think about it, folks...

    Pettigrew has been the starting tight end for almost his entire Detroit career, for better or worse. He's been inconsistent in all facets of his game, and he's proven to be little more than an average starter in his five seasons.

    The team thinks highly enough of Pettigrew that they re-signed him for four years and $16 million this offseason. 

    Levy had much the same first few years as Pettigrew: inconsistent, underwhelming, average. Then 2013 happened, and Levy blossomed into a strong asset. 

    His six interceptions led all linebackers, after producing just seven total turnovers in his first four campaigns. Moreover, his cover skills and sound run defense keyed a midseason defensive surge. Levy's arrow is pointing up. 

    Unfortunately, none of the rest of Mayhew's initial draft class remains in Detroit.

    Only Hill, who was a capable third defensive tackle for four seasons before moving onto Tennessee, has done anything in the NFL. Brown and Follett showed a little initial promise but could not keep pace as the overall roster improved around them.

    Grade: B-

2010

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    Paul Sancya

    The picks:

    Round/OverallPlayerPosition/College
     1st/2nd Ndamukong Suh DT, Nebraska
     1st/30th Jahvid Best RB, California
     3rd/66th Amari Spievey S, Iowa
     4th/128th Jason Fox T, Miami (FL)
     7th/213th Willie Young DE, North Carolina State
     7th/255th Tim Toone WR, Weber State

    Suh has been everything the Lions expected when they selected him over Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, among others. 

    Best was a risky proposition entering the draft, coming off a serious concussion history from his career at Cal. The Lions rolled the dice in trading up to select him and wound up losing. Best looked awesome in the first half of his second season, but suffered another concussion. He's now out of football as a result of his repeated brain injuries. 

    Spievey wound up being a disappointment. He started nine games as a rookie with uneven results. An impressive performance in the finale, a win over Minnesota, lifted the hopes heading forward.

    His limitations were on display in 2011, his only full season as a starter. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him 75th out of 87 safeties, including 83rd against the run. In 2012 he got a concussion and missed more than half the season. Spievey failed to make the final roster in 2013.

    Last season was supposed to be the year for Jason Fox to prove Detroit's patience in him was valid. He missed almost all of his first three seasons with injuries. After a spirited camp battle for the open right tackle spot, Fox earned the opening-day start.

    It lasted all of 16 snaps before Fox went down once again. He got another crack a few weeks later but lost the gig to the superior LaAdrian Waddle, an undrafted free agent. Fox is now a Miami Dolphin. 

    Young flashed some legit pass-rushing sizzle in limited duty in his second season, but was a complete disappointment in 2012. He earned 15 starts in 2013 and finished the campaign ranked 16th by PFF

    He parlayed that into a free-agent deal with the rival Chicago Bears. Another one gone.

    Toone was more notable for his dreadlocks than his football aptitude. He never took a regular-season snap in his one year with the club. Like Spievey and Best, he too is out of football. 

    After four seasons, the only thing the Lions have to show for the 2010 draft is Suh. Young's ascendance in 2013 raises the grade a half-letter, even though he's now the enemy. 

    Grade: C-

2011

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    The picks:

    Round/OverallPlayerPosition/College
     1st/13th Nick Fairley DT, Auburn
     2nd/44th Titus Young WR, Boise State
     2nd/57th Mikel Leshoure RB, Illinois
     5th/157th Doug Hogue LB, Syracuse
     7th/209th Johnny Culbreath T, South Carolina State

    This is the draft class that makes Lions fans shake their heads and sigh. It's the nadir of the Schwartz era. 

    Fairley has been sporadically excellent but largely underwhelming. Battles with weight, off-field issues and effort level have marred the flashes of absolute brilliance that Fairley has demonstrated from time to time.

    He was a surprise selection on two fronts. 

    First, Fairley was widely projected to be long gone before Detroit picked at No. 13. Secondly, the Lions had just taken Suh one year earlier. With so many other pressing needs still on the roster, few expected Detroit to double down on defensive tackle. 

    Instead, the Lions chose Fairley over several other potential candidates who had been linked to the team in various mock drafts. Among them:

    • Linebacker Robert Quinn
    • Cornerback Prince Amukamara
    • Tackle Nate Solder
    • Cornerback Jimmy Smith

    The Lions recently refused to pick up the fifth-year option on Fairley's contract, casting his future with the team in serious doubt. 

    Leshoure is the only other player still with the team. He was active for just two games in 2013, and he will enter the final season of his rookie deal battling with Theo Riddick to be the third running back. It's doubtful he returns beyond this year, if he even makes the team in the fall. 

    Young, Hogue and Culbreath are all out of the league. In fact, none were on NFL rosters at the start of 2013 either. 

    Also notable about this draft class is the police blotter activity. Only Hogue has escaped arrest since the draft. Young's descent into disturbing trouble has long ceased to be funny. 

    Thus far, the 2011 Lions draft class harkens to the Matt Millen era. 

    Grade: D

2012

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    Paul Sancya

    The picks:

    Round/OverallPlayerPosition/College
     1st/23rd Riley Reiff T, Iowa
     2nd/54th Ryan Broyles WR, Oklahoma
     3rd/85th Bill Bentley CB, Louisiana-Lafayette
     4th/125th Ronnell Lewis LB, Oklahoma
     5th/138th Tahir Whitehead LB, Temple 
     5th/148th Chris Greenwood CB, Albion
     6th/196th Jonte Green CB, New Mexico State
     7th/223rd Travis Lewis LB, Oklahoma

    The initial enthusiasm for this class has waned considerably over the course of the first two seasons. 

    Only Reiff is an established starter, capably taking over for Jeff Backus at left tackle in 2013 after being the swing tackle in his rookie year. PFF graded him positively, and he fared better than any of the rookie tackles taken in the first round in 2013 and thrown into action, too. 

    Reiff has been a better pro than several of the players right after him, including Whitney Mercilus, Dont'a Hightower and Nick Perry. 

    Broyles has been the victim of some rotten luck. He fell in the draft because of a torn ACL in his final year at Oklahoma, and the Lions were lauded for taking him late in the second round. 

    MLive's Anwar Richardson (now with Yahoo) broke down some of the other options the Lions bypassed for Broyles. In that article, Richardson quotes Mayhew as stating that Broyles was the top player on the team's board. 

    Unfortunately, Broyles tore his other ACL as a rookie. After working his way back in 2013, he tore his Achilles tendon. His future is very much in doubt. That's one of the risks of taking an injured player, and the Lions learned it the hard way with both Broyles and Best. 

    The three defensive backs all remain on the roster, and they hold the key to the class. Thus far only Bentley has done much of anything, earning the starting nickel role in his second season. 

    He was not great, earning a -5.1 score from PFF before Louis Delmas ended his season with a reckless head shot that gave Bentley a concussion. His run support was generally strong, and as long as he can shake off the cobwebs he should improve in his second year starting in the slot.

    Greenwood and Green were both drafted as athletic projects. Both remain athletic projects two years later. Greenwood offered some serious promise by playing well in the 2013 finale, but only after the Lions waived him and he had a stint in Dallas

    Green flashed competence when pressed into emergency duty as a rookie, but his 2013 preseason and brief foray in the regular season dampens the enthusiasm. He'll get one more shot to prove he belongs.

    The three linebackers have been nothing short of wasted picks. Whitehead's work on special teams is the only contribution thus far. Ronnell Lewis was praised as a strong pick by B/R's Scott Carasik at the time, but poor play and a subsequent arrest proved the death knell on his time in the Lions den. 

    While the final grade here cannot be written until we learn the fate of the cornerbacks, Carasik's initial "B" grade proves too optimistic. Bad luck with Broyles and poor player development by the Schwartz staff downgrade this class. 

    Grade: C

2013

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    Carlos Osorio
    Round/Overall Player Position/College 
     1st/5th Ezekiel Ansah DE, BYU
     2nd/37th Darius Slay CB, Mississippi State
     3rd/65th Larry Warford G, Kentcucky
     4th/132nd Devin Taylor DE, South Carolina
     5th/165th Sam Martin P, Appalachian State
     6th/171st Corey Fuller WR, Virginia Tech
     6th/199th Theo Riddick RB, Notre Dame
     7th/211th Michael Williams TE, Alabama
     7th/245th Brandon Hepburn LB, Florida A&M

    The early returns on this class are nothing short of outstanding. 

    Ansah, Warford and Martin all made NFL.com's All-Rookie team. All are already above-average starters, while Warford has quickly established himself among the league's elite at guard. He finished 4th in PFF's guard rankings as a rookie. 

    Taylor's play progressed nicely as he saw more and more action throughout his rookie campaign. He figures to challenge for a starting role opposite Ansah in his second season. 

    Slay won a starting job in training camp but gave it back with poor play. He redeemed himself late in the year when given another chance, and as reported by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Slay just might be the No. 1 corner this fall. 

    That's five projected starters, three of whom have already shown they can be very good ones.

    In addition, Riddick showed some spark as Reggie Bush's backup. That role might expand with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who liberally deployed his depth at running back in New Orleans.

    The other three never saw active duty as rookies. Williams broke his hand in the preseason and spent 2013 on injured reserve. The blocking specialist will compete for the third tight end position. Fuller and Hepburn will have to earn their way back onto the practice squad with the new coaching regime. 

    This just might be the best Lions draft class of the Super Bowl era when all is said and done. They're well on their way. 

    Grade: A

    All draft and statistical information is from NFL.com unless otherwise noted

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