Marcus McNeill’s recent signing of a five-year deal with the San Diego Chargers is hot news in the NFL and has ended rumors of a trade or lengthy hold out once and for all. But amid all the chaos of the Vincent Jackson trade rumors, I for one am surprised that no one tried to cut a deal for Marcus McNeill. He is a hard working, model citizen who fills arguably the second most important position on the field to a Pro-Bowl standard. And the team that should have pushed the hardest (not at all because they’re my team) is the Detroit Lions.
The Lions issues at left tackle have been well documented for as many years as I have followed the NFL. But the addition of a premier LT would catapult them from the basement to at least the middle of the pack in terms of respectability in the trenches and would make up for not picking Michael Oher in the 2009 NFL Draft. With McNeill at left tackle, Jeff Backus could be moved inside to either left or right guard, where he could be hidden from sack artists like Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews and Jared Allen (all NFC North opponents). This would give the Detroit Lions Backus, Rob Sims and Marcus McNeill in their starting lineup, and three solid players to build around
This sounds very simple, but the greatest challenge is pitching a deal that the San Diego Chargers would agree to. Put simply, it would take some very attractive draft picks or a bevy of talented players to pry a Pro-Bowl tackle away from any savvy GM. The Detroit Lions need all of the second category that they can get their hands on. However, even a tough dealer like A.J. Smith would find it hard to say no to the Lions if they waved their first round pick from 2011 and 2012 in his face. While this would certainly get the attention of the Chargers, it would shackle the Lions for the next few years in the draft. It could even end up costing the club in the long run. They would gain a top caliber player now but may not get a chance for two years to revamp any other positions of need with top prospects.
Another option would be to offer a second and third round pick this year and the first rounder for 2012. This may even suit the Chargers better, as they will get more picks in the long run, and with the strength of their roster, they can afford to wait for a few workout warriors to develop. On top of this, they will still get a (worst case scenario) mid first round pick in 2012. This would become a good bargaining chip and yield a talented player to add to their roster. For the Lions, this allows them to keep their first rounder this season, although without a second or third rounder they would have to get their pick on the button. This has not been too much of problem for the new management though, so the risk would be acceptable. The 2011 Draft will still see the Lions picking in the top-10, and with a franchise left tackle on the roster, the Lions would be able to target the last position of major weakness on the roster and pick up a shutdown corner. This year’s draft is full of them, with Prince Amukamara, Patrick Robinson , Ras-I Dowling, Omar Bolden and Kendrick Burney all up for grabs.
The Lions final option would be to combine an early draft pick or two, say the second and fourth rounder for 2011 and a second rounder for 2012 with a good solid veteran in a position of weakness for the Chargers. A prime candidate for this is Julian Peterson. Although he provides veteran leadership for the team, and is a reliable playmaker at linebacker, by the time the Lions become respectable, he will be washed up or retired. In contrast, the Chargers have the roster to go all the way this year, and a talented outside linebacker who can both rush the passer and play coverage could be the missing piece. With Shawne Merriman on the cusp of being cut and Larry English still a year away from dominance, Peterson would be valuable to the Chargers to combine with early season star Shaun Phillips.
To my amateur eye, it seems that a deal that would send McNeill to the Lions for a second and third round pick in the 2011 draft and a first round pick in the 2012 draft would be the most mutually beneficial. The Lions get an elite tackle and also the chance to grab an elite prospect at cornerback in the upcoming draft, without giving up any players. The Chargers would have two extra early picks in the upcoming draft, which could have been used to trade up into the first round or draft players like Jason Campbell to slot into the left tackle position. Then in the 2012 draft they would have had another first round pick to either pick a new top left tackle or grab another future star. This deal is especially sweet because the Chargers pass protection for the start of the season has been fine, proving they could still be a championship team without him.
But this is all wishful thinking. The Chargers have re-signed McNeill, so a deal will now border on impossible. Despite the great work the Lions front office has done, they really missed a gift wrapped chance to turn their team from pretenders to contenders. The pain is increased by all the close losses they have been having, because someone who is used to winning may be able to help them to victory. If only they had a time machine. The future would look so much brighter.