NFC North: Darren McFadden
|Will the Detroit Lions choose Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford (left) or Alabama tackle Andre Smith with the No. 1 pick? Or could it be someone else?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
The situation begins to focus this week. At some point, Detroit officials will find themselves face-to-face with Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. They'll size up Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith. They'll get a better sense for the handful of blue-chip players who could be the No. 1 overall pick of a draft that as of Tuesday is 67 days away.
The Lions are approaching a franchise-altering decision: Because of their 0-16 record in 2008, they will have their choice of any college player in the nation. There are no obstacles, no reasons to cross their fingers and no "if-then" scenarios to consider. It's the rarest of opportunities, even for a team with the Lions' recent history. In fact, nearly 30 years have passed since the Lions last owned the No. 1 pick.
|An inside look at how three players are preparing for the 2009 scouting combine.|
(For the historically minded: Running back Billy Sims, 1980.)
The top pick annually carries a combination of opportunity and fear. You can choose anyone -- so don't make a mistake.
Occasionally, the choice is obvious. In 2001, for example, few people faulted the Atlanta Falcons for targeting Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. Sometimes there is a handful of players who seem equally worthy. In 2007, you could have made an argument for LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson or Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas at No. 1.
Then there are years when it seems no one might be qualified. Wouldn't it be the Lions' luck if that were the case in 2009? Media analysts have tabbed Stafford as the likeliest overall pick because he is the top quarterback prospect, but that might not have been the case had Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford not returned to Oklahoma. The Lions must determine whether Stafford is worthy of the No. 1 pick -- or if, like Utah's Alex Smith (2005) and Fresno State's David Carr (2002) before him -- he's merely the best quarterback in the draft.
If it's the latter, where would the Lions turn? Would it be Smith, whom Alabama coach Nick Saban kicked off the team last season? Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree? (The Lions history with drafting wide receivers works against Crabtree in this case.) Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry? Or would they trade the pick altogether?
With the annual scouting combine set to commence later this week in Indianapolis, let's take a closer look at the Lions' options. The Lions, after all, aren't just deciding whom to select. They must determine when they want to pick as well.
The franchise quarterback
This set of circumstances has several implications for the Lions. Historically, underclassman quarterbacks are less likely to develop into NFL stars. That inherently makes Stafford a more difficult and potentially riskier prospect to evaluate. But conversely, it means the Lions will have less to choose from if they bypass him and target a lesser-known quarterback lower in the draft.
(The wild-card might be USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who hasn't generated much No. 1-pick buzz. Sanchez could change that if he decides to work out fully at the combine, as has been reported.)
Knowing they need to address the quarterback position in some way, the Lions have been working for months to evaluate the lower portions of the class. Starting with the combine, they'll be able to address the Stafford question more directly. Stafford isn't expected to work out, following a long-h
eld pattern of top quarterback prospects, but he will be scheduled to conduct interviews with team officials.
How smart is he? Does he display leadership attributes? What about his character? Those are questions the Lions can begin answering at the combine.
If drafted No. 1 overall, Stafford figures to exceed the $30 million in guaranteed money that Miami gave offensive tackle Jake Long last year as the top pick in the draft. If anything concerns the Lions about Stafford's physical or mental makeup, they will have to consider possible fallback options to minimize the financial risk.
The Dolphins took that path with Long, opting for a talented but grounded player who could fill a hole for the next decade. In doing so, Miami passed over Virginia defensive end Chris Long, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan and Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden, among other higher-risk but potentially higher-reward choices.
Does a "safe" pick exist for the Lions at No. 1? Could it be Curry? What about Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who would fill a tremendous need and probably accept less guaranteed money than Stafford? Those questions, too, the Lions will explore in Indianapolis.
Thanks to the October trade of receiver Roy Williams, the Lions already own five of the draft's top 82 picks. They could further speed up the rebuilding process by trading out of the No. 1 pick if they determine no player is worthy of that slot.
A quarterback has been involved the last two times the No. 1 pick has been traded. In 2004, San Diego moved down three spots in the draft so the New York Giants could have Eli Manning. For doing so, the Chargers received third- and fifth-round picks in 2004 and the Giants' first-round pick in 2005.
In 2001, the Chargers moved down four spots in the draft so that Atlanta could grab Vick. San Diego received kick returner Tim Dwight, a third-round pick in 2001 and a second-round pick in 2002 for its trouble.
So it stands to reason that the Lions' best hope for a trade is if another team falls in love with Stafford and is willing to pursue him aggressively.
With any luck, it's an option the Lions won't have to make again for a long time.
So the Lions are two games away from infamy. Exactly 120 minutes of football time separate them from a perfectly awful 0-16 season. It's one record no NFL team wants to reach, and we're here to help.
As part of ESPN.com's Thursday Hot Read on the topic, we hereby offer 16 suggestions for fixing the Lions:
1. Dispatch the denial. Stop counting the near-misses and lamenting the "few plays here and there." Admit you're broken in a fundamental way. With few exceptions, the NFL's competitive model puts most teams relatively close to one another. There's a reason you hear so much about "any given Sunday." For one team to start 0-14, and lose 21 of its past 22 games, indicates an overhaul -- not a tweak -- is necessary.
2. Start at the top. No one knows exactly how the Lions' ownership runs the team. But we got a glimpse this season when vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. publicly campaigned for the firing of president/general manager Matt Millen. Two days later, chairman William Clay Ford did the deed. All indications are that the elder Ford continues to wield final say, but it's time for Ford Jr. -- whose judgment on Millen far surpassed his father's -- to take over.
|Leon Halip/US Presswire|
|Rod Marinelli has a 10-36 record in his three seasons in Detroit.|
3. Put Rod Marinelli out of his misery. Marinelli might be a good football coach, but no one can lose so many games in a such a short period while maintaining credibility inside or outside the organization. I know, Marinelli hasn't been blessed with the NFL's best personnel. But it's hard to convince anyone you're moving forward with a coach who has lost 36 of 46 games over a three-year tenure.
4. Before hiring the next head coach, settle on a front-office structure that provides checks and balances to avoid a repeat of the unchallenged mistakes Millen routinely made. Most people assume that chief operating officer Tom Lewand will retain a prominent business role, which is fine. On the football side, however, the Lions need a general manager and coach tandem that understands each other's philosophies and will consider contradictory thoughts. The current model is in Atlanta, where general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith are said to work exceptionally well together.
5. Thank interim general manager Martin Mayhew for his eye-opening work after replacing Millen. And then send him on his way. This is in no way a comment on Mayhew, who in other circumstances would make a fine general manager for the Lions. But remember our general premise: This is not an organization that needs tweaking. It needs to be rebuilt in a big-picture sense. You can't convince your fan base, free agents or even coaching candidates that you're making fundamental changes if Millen's top assistant replaces him -- no matter who it is.
6. Throw a bone to fans -- not a gimmick or a marketing slogan, but something that genuinely invites their interest. A 10 percent cut in ticket prices might be a start. Or, perhaps, a real barnstorming tour that allows fans to ask unedited questions of the Lions' football decision-makers over the course of the season. Transparency and honesty during the rebuilding process, while not comfortable, will help re-connect to a fan base that has lost faith in the team's ability to operate effectively.