Detroit Lions' 2010 Draft: Russell Okung and the Difference a Year Makes

Dean Holden@@Dean_HoldenAnalyst IApril 13, 2010

CHICAGO - OCTOBER 04: Jeff Backus #76 of the Detroit Lions moves to block against the Chicago Bears on October 4, 2009 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Lions 48-24. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

What a difference the last season has made.

If the masses will recall, it was this time last season that I was decrying the likely (and inevitable, as it turned out) selection of Matthew Stafford. I wasn’t the only one; so much of the fanbase agreed, Stafford’s greeting to the NFL and the Detroit Lions was a resounding jeer on draft day.

And why were Lions fans so unhappy with the selection? Because most of them wanted an offensive lineman (Jason Smith), or a linebacker (Aaron Curry).

Fast forward to today. Though some hesitate to be completely sold on the kid (count me among them), Stafford has gained acceptance as the team leader.

If the Lions had waited until this year to draft a QB, they would have had to choose from an injury risk (Sam Bradford), the next Brady Quinn (Jimmy Clausen), a project with limited experience reading legitimate defenses (Colt McCoy), and a third-string tight end (Tim Tebow). Stafford is still the same age as most of these guys, but suddenly looks like a much better option with a year of NFL experience.

And despite passing on the "sure thing" in Curry, the Lions are now looking at linebacker as the position of greatest strength on defense, despite finishing 2008 in shambles.

But one of the greatest perceived holes from last year, left tackle, is in exactly the same state as last year. Jeff Backus is still the starter, and the Lions have yet another opportunity to replace him with the best offensive lineman on the board.

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Yet Backus is an enigma. Lions fans hate him, Lions coaches swear by him. Jim Schwartz considers him the best blocker on the line, and one of the best left tackles in the NFL, and that type of accolade has been lavished on him by multiple coaches throughout the last decade.

Regardless, we call for his head every year. Last year we were going to serve it to Andre or Jason Smith (no relation). This year, it’s Russell Okung.

Let me clear one thing up right now. Russell Okung is neither a “bad” pick, nor a “mistake.” With that said, he’s also not the “best” pick.

That’s right. One year after effectively calling Martin Mayhew a moron for passing on an elite left tackle, and with no changes to the position, I am calling for him to once again pass on an elite left tackle. Consider this my official apology.

The reasoning is simple. In addition to Backus being better than perceived (he falls somewhere between the coaches’ “elite” rating and the fans’ “revolving door” rating), he also has two years left on a very large contract. The Lions can’t possibly pay second overall pick money in a position where they’re already on the hook for one of the highest-paid linemen in the league (the sixth-highest when he signed his current deal in 2006).

The solution to this problem would have been to put Backus out to pasture by moving him inside to the excessively weak left guard position. But with the acquisition of Rob Sims from the Seahawks, that position has a starting-quality player it lacked last year.

In other words, the only places for Backus to go are the bench and another team. But you don’t send a $40 million dollar man to the bench when he still has value to your team, and you don’t get any value from a trade when your chip is the highest-paid non-Pro Bowl lineman in the league.

Translation: Love him or hate him, we’re stuck with Backus. Which makes Russell Okung the odd man out. And that’s okay.

Yes, Lions quarterbacks have taken a disproportionately large number of sacks in recent years, and as the single most important pass protector, Backus takes a lot of heat for that.

But the biggest issue with protection last year had nothing to do with Backus. Sure, he had some lapses, as all linemen are prone to, but 300-pound defensive tackles charging right through center Dominic Raiola and whoever happened to be the guard of the day isn’t something he can help.

Offensive line issues aside, one of the biggest reasons Okung doesn’t fit into this year’s draft is, in fact, last year’s draft itself. Repeatedly, we were told that the Lions would be drafting by “talent, not need,” which was upsetting at the time but made sense, because the whole team roster was effectively one big need.

The most notable results were Louis Delmas (Defensive ROY in your hearts) over Rey “draft-day golden child” Maualuga, and the surprisingly good DeAndre Levy as an OLB when the team needed a MLB (where he will likely start in 2010).

A year later, very little has changed. The Lions have a little more talent, but they still need lots of work. So assuming the team’s status is the same, the draft strategy should also be the same with a few exceptions (like not taking Bradford, for instance): Talent over need.

And if we’re going on talent, Okung is nowhere near the most talented player on the board. In fact, he barely cracks the top five, or maybe not even.

Sure, Okung is almost certainly an upgrade for the Lions. But he’s a smaller upgrade who will cost more money, while, say, Ndamukong Suh, for instance, is a greater upgrade at a position of greater need.

So there it is. Russell Okung’s talent, Jeff Backus’s issues, and Matthew Stafford’s shoulder be damned. Okung, while not a major gaffe-in-waiting, is a less than optimal pick.

And frankly, I’m tired of the Lions making those. It's time we get used to them nailing it.


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