Martin Mayhew (left), Jim Schwartz (center), and Tom Lewand (right) have guided the Detroit Lions on a steady path toward improvement.
Every season, the same thing happens. Serious football fans eagerly await the press release with the final list of cuts from the team roster. We want to see which names will make our jaw drop. It is almost as unavoidable as death and taxes.
There are lots of reasons that players get cut. Sometimes, the cut is about money. Other times, it is about attitude. Usually, it just means the player is not good enough. But the reasoning of the coaches that make the cuts are not known, so the fans can only guess about their motivations.
Lions fans have a lot of evidence attesting to the competence of General Manager Martin Mayhew. Mayhew strongly insists that the final decisions on roster cuts are made by the coaches. But we would have to be naive to think that Mayhew does not have significant influence on the decisions concerning which players will be kept on the final roster.
Successful teams operate in a coordinated and focused fashion. They have a plan for how the team will develop and they stick to it. That requires an understanding and cooperation between the coaches and the front office to work.
So far, it appears that Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz are meshing well. We are not privy to the inner workings of the team, so we can only judge by the glimpses we get. I have not seen any indication that Mayhew and Schwartz have anything going other than a respectful and cooperative relationship.
From the roster, you can gain insight into the mindset of the coach and general manager as long as they are working together toward the development plan. After another preseason of watching Mayhew and Schwartz work together, there is a picture that is clearly forming. The Lions are definitely in a youth movement.
The roster is filled with young players that are developing. The centerpiece of this movement is quarterback Matthew Stafford. But Stafford is joined by a very strong contingent of young talent. Over half of the Lions starters are age 26 or younger. Other potential young stars such as Ndamukong Suh, Jahvid Best, Brandon Pettigrew, and Louis Delmas dot the roster.
The reasoning behind this approach is easy to understand. The Lions management wants to build a team that will be competitive for a long time. You can't do that by having a roster full of veterans that are at the end of their career. You need players that will become the core of your team for many seasons.
It is difficult when we watch respected veterans leave the team. There is always a feeling of surprise and some distress when guys like Larry Foote and Jon Jansen are released. These players have performed well in the past, and that gives some comfort to the fans.
It is clear that the Lions do not evaluate talent on the team by looking at the situation today. They will look one or two seasons into the future and evaluate players based on who will be a better player then. If there is more potential from a rookie, then they will play the rookie.
Jim Schwartz is a believer that players develop faster when they play. He is undoubtedly right. The sooner a player can get into the lineup and experience the situations that they will need to face, the sooner they learn how to cope with them. Throughout history, experience has always been the best teacher.
There are some problems with such on-the-job learning for young players. They will make mistakes that sometimes cost the team a win. Making mistakes is just part of the learning process, so it is best to get it out of the way for as many players as possible while the expectations of the team are low.
By developing as many players as possible, the roster becomes more skilled and competent overall. This establishes a young base of experienced talent to build from that becomes critical in the following seasons.
When you have a team that is young and competent across all positions, you have the ideal situation to become a very good team. Conventional wisdom says that it takes two or three seasons to develop a young player in most cases. If you have a competent (or better) starter in place that should play for four or more seasons, then you have plenty opportunity to develop a replacement for them before they retire.
Currently, the Lions are still churning the roster to get competent young players in all of their positions. To be in the best possible situation, the Lions need to fill all of the holes within the next couple of seasons.
Currently, the holes among the starters that remain are unclear. There is a strong possibility the Lions still need a shutdown cornerback, but the acquisition of Alfonso Smith may have filled that need. We have to wait and see how all the young talent develops during this season before we know where the remaining holes are.
The older players on the Detroit Lions still have at least two or three more seasons before they need to be replaced, and most have the confidence of the coaches. This means that the Lions may have reached a crossroads in the development plan. We may not see younger players taking over the starting positions as quickly in the future.
This change in approach is already taking place along the offensive line. You can see that young offensive linemen were kept on the roster, but the Lions are not starting them. They will be given time to learn from backup roles on the team.
The roster will still be turned over at the bottom end in search for good young players to develop. All NFL teams do that, not just the Lions. It is not an indication of weakness at any particular position. The Lions are just in a better position to take advantage of waiver claims so they might make more changes.
For Lions fans, this season should be exciting and interesting. There are a lot of players that will be fun to watch and the Lions should be competitive in many of their games. That is a welcome change over the past couple of seasons.
But for the Lions braintrust, this season is about hoping their decisions pay off. If they do, the Lions will be boasting many young players that will become the foundation of the team. That would set the Lions on a path toward many great seasons to come.