On the Lions' need for immediate impact

April, 16, 2013
4/16/13
12:30
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Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher, Lane JohnsonAP PhotosLuke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson are prospects who could fit into the Lions' plan for 2013.
The Detroit Lions bottomed out and had desperate needs at nearly every position in 2009 when, with the draft's No. 20 overall pick, they selected ... a tight end. No one doubted the skills and potential of the Lions' choice, Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew, but it seemed fair to question why they targeted a supplemental position while leaving presumably more important areas critically bare.

Two years later, the Lions targeted a running back in the second round a year after drafting one in the first round. At the time, Illinois' Mikel Leshoure seemed a luxury so soon after drafting Cal's Jahvid Best. The same could be said for the 2012 decision to draft Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles in the second round at a time when there were several good options available to upgrade their thin secondary.

If nothing else during the tenure of general manager Martin Mayhew, the Lions have demonstrated a thorough commitment to long-term draft philosophy over immediate need. It has given them a talented, if imbalanced, roster and provides a fascinating backdrop for next week's affair.

A 4-12 record in their fourth year under Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz has generated a natural sense of urgency for this year's draft, Mayhew told reporters last month. Schwartz added: "There's nobody that doesn't feel that whether or not you've had success." The Lions' position at No. 5 overall provides a good opportunity to draft an immediate-impact player, or it could bring them a player who fits their long-term needs better but might need seasoning. The chart shows how teams have fared over the past 10 years in that spot.


If the Lions stay true to their approach under Mayhew and Schwartz, they could wind up with a player who isn't immediately ready to help them rebound from last season's debacle. Another disappointing season could prompt Lions ownership to end the tenures of both men.

Could self-preservation alter the Lions' philosophy? Will we see them draft the most NFL-ready defensive end, cornerback or linebacker -- arguably their three biggest positions of need? Or could they take a longer-term approach by drafting at a position where they already have at least an adequate starter -- say, at left tackle -- because the player is, in their view, the most talented at any position still available?

The guess, and frankly the hope, is the Lions won't deviate too far from an approach that has brought them players such as Pettigrew, Broyles, defensive tackle Nick Fairley and others. This discussion could quite possibly be moot, especially if Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner is still available at No. 5, but to me the gray area would be exposed under a scenario in which Milliner is gone.

In that situation, would the Lions draft BYU defensive end Ziggy Ansah, a freakish athletic talent who seems a perfect fit for their defense but had just one season as a starter and totaled just 4.5 college sacks? Ansah might not be ready to pass rush against the likes of Matt Kalil and Jermon Bushrod in Week 1, but over time there is a widespread belief he could develop into an elite defensive end in the mold of Jason Pierre-Paul (New York Giants) and Aldon Smith (San Francisco 49ers).

The most intriguing analysis comes at left tackle, where the Lions could almost certainly get by in 2013 and perhaps beyond with Riley Reiff, their first-round pick in 2012. But Reiff is athletic and versatile, and over the long haul, the Lions might well be better off with Reiff at right guard or even right tackle if they could find a better left tackle.

Most draft observers would tell you that Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan's Eric Fisher would fall into that category. But what if Joeckel and Fisher, along with Milliner, are both off the board at No. 5? I've asked around over the past week and have been surprised by how many people suggested the Lions might and/or should draft Oklahoma's Lane Johnson in that scenario.

Johnson -- as well as Joeckel and Fisher -- would fit the profile of the Lions' recent draft approach. He is talented and well-regarded at a position the Lions don't have an immediate need at. While he hasn't been included in the Joeckel-Fisher debate, Johnson is generally considered a top-10 pick and might not make it past the Arizona Cardinals at No. 7.

His primary drawback is experience, having played quarterback, tight end, defensive end and right tackle before becoming the Sooners' starting left tackle last season. He has every athletic and physical measurement imaginable, from 35 1/4-inch arms to a stunning 4.72-second time in the 40, and ESPN analyst Todd McShay said the comparison between him and Reiff "is not even close in terms of natural ability." McShay said there is a gap between Joeckel/Fisher and Johnson now "but not a big difference between where they should be in a year or two."

McShay: "It all falls in line with a guy who has a chance to be a great player. But you may take some lumps in that first year. Obviously your quarterback is the franchise and that's the guy you have to protect, and he doesn't move well. ... But I do think [Johnson] is talented enough and there is such enormous potential. The ceiling is really high with him."

Can the Lions afford to take a player with "enormous potential" and a "really high" ceiling who has a better chance of making them better in 2014 than 2013? Or, in that scenario, would they need to look toward a more immediately helpful player, perhaps Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan? We're all waiting to see.

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