NFC North: Jahvid Best

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When Reggie Bush signed with the Detroit Lions in free agency this offseason, he was greeted with a piece of meat in his honor.

Seriously.

Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse in Birmingham, Mich., named its 22-ounce bone-in ribeye after the Lions' running back, an honor usually given to Detroit’s biggest stars.

It showed, almost immediately, the anticipation of Bush’s arrival in Detroit. In 2010, Detroit drafted Jahvid Best for a similar role to what Bush will have -- the do-everything running back who can catch a ton of passes underneath and run the ball with similar precision.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesWith Reggie Bush Detroit may finally have the missing piece of their offense.
“Some of the things you’ve seen with Jahvid in the past (are) back in with Reggie,” Detroit offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “It’s a little different. Everyone has their own personality, a little bit different.

“He’s a guy who has performed very well in space and has throughout his career. I can see those being some of the things we do more of.”

Best’s story displays why there is hope in Detroit now, why Bush is being viewed as the difference for a franchise which had struggled since Best last played an NFL game against San Francisco on Oct. 16, 2011.

When the Lions drafted Best, Detroit already had an emerging quarterback in Matthew Stafford and a star wide receiver in Calvin Johnson. The catch-all running back could be the missing piece in a dynamic offense. Defenses would struggle to adequately cover all the weapons in Detroit's arsenal. For a little while, it worked, too.

Detroit went 6-10 in Best’s rookie year, including a four-game winning streak to end the season. Best did a bit of everything, leading the team in rushing with 555 yards and four touchdowns while catching 58 passes for 487 yards and two scores. The next season, when the Lions went 10-6 and made the playoffs, the Lions started off 5-0. Best had 390 yards rushing and 287 yards receiving.

The Lions, which to that point had not had a winning season since 2000 and went 0-16 in 2008, were actually winning. There was promise. Then Best suffered a concussion against the 49ers, his second of the season.

He never played again. The Lions made the playoffs that season -- finishing 10-6 before losing to New Orleans -- but the part of their offense which made it so dangerous was gone. The Lions floundered, going 9-19 since Best's injury. Last season, the Lions were 4-12.

Now comes Bush. The No. 2 pick in the 2006 NFL draft. The player who made his entire career on being a multi-purpose running back. In many ways, he's a better version of what the Lions had in Best. The bonus for Detroit: Unlike Best, Bush is proven in the NFL.

“Reggie can do a little bit of everything,” receiver Nate Burleson said. “That guy can line up and play receiver and be just as explosive as any receiver we’ve got. We can put him in the backfield and hand the ball off to him.

“As long as guys are getting their blocks on the perimeter, you’re going to see him running past safeties. He’s a splash offensive player, which means at any given moment he can make a huge splash and really change the complexity of the game.”

Defenses now have to account for a player going deep (Johnson), pass-catching tight ends and slot receivers over the middle and Bush, who can take a screen pass or a dump-off and score from anywhere. That’s not even mentioning he can run the ball well out of the backfield, gaining 4,162 yards in his first seven seasons.

Bush will take pressure off Stafford, who attempted 727 passes last season. This is, in many ways, the offense Detroit always imagined.

“He opens up a plethora of options,” Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen said.

Part of Detroit's pitch in free agency was how they would deploy Bush.

“From the first time when they recruited me here, they talked about getting me out in space and always moving around and running the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield,” Bush said. “Lining up at receiver, motioning, shifting, that’s everything that we are doing.

“That will help this team be effective, more effective, and that’s what I look forward to.”

The preseason hasn’t been the best gauge, because Johnson played in one game for two series, the offensive line was still forming, and Bush himself didn’t play a ton. But there’s a confidence around the Lions now. They have the guy their offense might have been missing all along. The guy everyone is interested to see.

“I’m interested, too,” Bush said. “I’m excited to be here and I feel like it’s going to be a fun ride.

“I look forward to the journey that we’re about to embark on.”
As news of the Detroit Lions' roster moves trickled out Saturday, I saw a plenty of references on Twitter to Martin Mayhew's drafts over the past five years. The Lions' cutdown to 53 included three more of Mayhew's draft picks, leaving 21 of his 38 picks over the span of five drafts still on the roster.

(I was a bit off in the wee hours of Saturday night with some of those figures.)

I tweeted out that number with no context. Many of you asked the fair question: What does that number mean? How does it compare to other teams and general managers?

[+] EnlargeMartin Mayhew
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioMore than half of the players that Lions GM Martin Mayhew has drafted in the past five years are still on the team's roster.
For the most part, I think it's difficult to find an apples-to-apples comparison because of the varying team-building philosophies in the NFL. Some teams value quantity of draft picks, leading to higher raw numbers. Some general managers start off with better rosters than others, impacting the chances of draft picks making the team. You could make the argument that undrafted rookie signings should fall into the same category. There is also the question of quality: who is starting and who is a backup? We could go on.

So what I decided to do is draw up a comparison between the Lions/Mayhew and the team that most NFL observers consider the most draft-driven in the league. I think we can all agree that under general manager Ted Thompson, the Green Bay Packers have almost exclusively built through the draft -- especially during the most recent five-year period that matches up with Mayhew's tenure with the Lions.

By no means will this look be exhaustive, but let's run through some basics here:

  • The Packers' roster as of Sunday morning includes 26 of the 44 players they drafted between 2009-2013. That does not include two first-round picks, lineman Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod, who are on various injury-related lists. Still, that's 59 percent. The Lions' percentage on the 21-of-38 figure is 55.2 percent.
  • The Packers' likely 24-man starting lineup (including kickers) features 11 players Thompson has drafted in the past five years. (Seven more were drafted between 2005-08.) The Lions' likely lineup also includes 11 Mayhew draft picks. (Two others were drafted before 2009.)
  • So in total, regardless of time period, the Packers drafted 18 of their 24 starters. The Lions have drafted 13.
  • The Packers' 53-man roster includes a total of 34 players they once drafted. That works out to 64 percent. The Lions' includes 23, or 42 percent.

So what do we make of all this? In some cases, frankly, I was surprised to see the numbers as close as they were. No team is more committed to the draft than the Packers, and their roster hit rate in recent years hasn't been much better than the Lions'. The biggest distinction might be in depth: The Packers have 16 backup players that they have drafted, while the Lions have 10.

I would agree that Mayhew's drafts have fallen short in some areas. The Lions haven't had a good success rate in turning mid-to-late-round draft picks into solid backups and special-teams players. In fact, only three players taken below the second round between 2009-11 are still with the team.

It's also true that a few of Mayhew's high-profile risks have blown up, most notably running back Jahvid Best and receiver Titus Young. (Best had a concussion history in college, while Young was considered a character concern by many teams.)

But like many things, you can probably find a combination of figures to support any argument you wish to make. What this exercise helps us realize is that every team has draft failures, no team hits on all of them and there are various mitigating circumstances.

In this era, the responsibility for success of draft picks doesn't fall solely on the general manager. The speed with which these players are often asked to contribute puts a premium on development from coaches, something I think Packers coach Mike McCarthy and his staff deserve credit for. Consider this: 51 of the 53 players on the Packers' current roster have never taken a snap for another NFL team.

The Lions' roster was so bare when Mayhew took over in 2009 that it should have been easier for his draft picks to make the team than it was for, say, the Packers'. I get that argument. In the end, however, it's a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Camp Confidential: Detroit Lions

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions opened training camp expressing unprecedented confidence in the direction of their program, and, if anything, their steam has picked up since then. A relatively injury-free camp, the obvious impact of multiple newcomers and a rousing victory in the first week of the preseason have the Lions and many of their fans convinced they will bounce back from last season's 4-12 record.

"We're every bit as optimistic now as we were then," coach Jim Schwartz said late last week, "and probably more so -- particularly with some of our rookies and younger players. Now, we're saying that two weeks into camp, before we've even played a preseason game. The tale of the tape is going to be consistency over the course of time. But certainly our stance hasn't changed."

Importantly, that optimism isn't based solely on anticipation of another year of development between quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson. It's a nod toward the early returns on the fit with tailback Reggie Bush. There is relief that receivers Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles, who both suffered significant leg injuries last season, have returned healthy.

There's more. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley were unblockable during the practices I watched last week. Rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter of his first NFL game action. New safety Glover Quin's leadership is notable, and rookie punter Sam Martin has been perhaps the most impressive newcomer of all.

The good vibes, and presumed results, come at a crucial time for the franchise. The Lions are entering their fifth season under Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew, and there might not be a sixth if this team misses the playoffs.

"I'm a vet," Burleson said. "I've been at this 11 years. I'm trying to get everyone to understand that if we don't do what we need to do, these name plates above these lockers, this furniture, [everything] is going to be shipped up out of here -- including myself. So I've got to be productive, and everybody has to have the mindset that the time is now, so in order for us to do something special and bring something special to this city, we're going to have to win."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRiley Reiff
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions are counting on Riley Reiff to protect Matt Stafford's blind side.
1. Offensive line transition: The Lions will have three new starters on the line, and here's the good news: The player in the most important position appears to be making a smooth transition. Riley Reiff, the Lions' first-round draft pick in 2012, has replaced retired left tackle Jeff Backus, and he held his own against the Lions' talented defensive line during my training camp visit last week.

Reiff bulked up this offseason after spending his rookie year in a quasi-tight end role. He might be the most soft-spoken player in the Lions' otherwise-boisterous locker room -- when I asked him about the job, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "They asked me to play left tackle so I'm playing left tackle" -- but he more than passed the eyeball test as a credible left tackle.

The same can't be said, at least not yet, about the wide-open jobs on the right side of the line. The Lions are rotating two players at right tackle and up to four at right guard, and no clear leaders had emerged by the weekend. (It was notable, however, that the Lions played rookie right guard Larry Warford for three-quarters of Friday night's game against the New York Jets.) In this case, time will tell.

2. Stafford's next step: He failed to build on his breakout 2011 season in 2012, but in the big picture, Stafford is an experienced starter who has thrown for 10,005 yards in two seasons and who, at 25, still has plenty of room to grow.

That status, however, has generated rare expectations for a Lions quarterback, leading to training camp reports of missed passes and microanalyses of mechanics in a space once reserved for delineating various levels of incompetence. The franchise endorsed his progress with a contract extension that in essence locks him in for another three years at the helm, but the football world is waiting anxiously to see whether Stafford can elevate his career to an elite level.

My time at Lions camp suggested he is aware of but unaffected by those expectations. I saw no worrisome incompletions, no signs of malaise and an important sense of context as voiced by Schwartz.

"You don't [want to] take him for granted," Schwartz said. "We have a couple of guys new to our organization that come out to practice, and that's one of the first things that they want to say is, 'Holy mackerel, did you see the throw he made here?' It's a little bit like Calvin. You watch him a lot, and you forget how big he is and the plays he made."

3. Special-teams overhaul: Lost in the Lions' busy offseason was a near-total reconstruction of their special teams. New coordinator John Bonamego has welcomed newcomers at place-kicker (likely David Akers), punter (likely Martin) and returner (a wide-open competition to replace Stefan Logan). The Lions also signed longtime special-teams ace Montell Owens to anchor their coverage units.

Akers is working on a limited regimen after an injury-plagued season with the San Francisco 49ers, but he appears healthy and will benefit from both indoor home games and Martin's strong kickoff skills. Martin has been booming punts throughout camp, and his three touchbacks (in as many attempts) in the preseason opener suggest the Lions might have found a long-term answer at the position.

The return game is unsettled and probably dependent on bottom-of-the-roster decisions at other positions. Undrafted rookie Steven Miller has demonstrated elite quickness while getting the majority of reps in training camp, but can the Lions squeeze a return specialist onto their roster? His minimal action as a returner in the preseason opener makes you wonder whether he is a candidate for the practice squad.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Of all the factors I rattled off earlier this post, the most significant might be the attention the Lions placed on their defense this offseason. You're doing pretty well if the worst thing you can say is that the strongside linebacker position is unsettled, especially when you realize that whoever wins the job will come off the field in nickel situations, anyway.

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Lions believe Glover Quin can provide steady leadership as well as solidify the secondary.
The Lions invested heavily at defensive end (drafting Ansah and Devin Taylor, signing Jason Jones and Israel Idonije), cornerback (re-signing Chris Houston, drafting Darius Slay) and safety (re-signing Louis Delmas and acquiring Quin). After two weeks of camp, Stafford said, "This is probably the most talented secondary we've had since I've been here," and Schwartz was lauding the leadership Quin will provide.

"A lot was made a few years back when we signed Kyle Vanden Bosch and Nate Burleson," Schwartz said, "and the difference that they made on the team was a big part of us making it to the playoffs [the] next year. I think the same thing, when it's all said and done, will be said about Quin because he brings that same kind of leadership, that same sort of professionalism."

We all expect the Lions' offense to score this season. If their defense can keep pace, as it appears it is equipped to do, the Lions will be a playoff team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schwartz said "there is no doubt" that the Lions have enough good pieces to make up a competent offensive line. But on the list of potential problem spots that could derail their season, the Lions' offensive line sits most prominently. If you believe in the law of averages, you wonder whether any team could come up with three good starters in one offseason, as the Lions are hoping to accomplish.

Warford has his work cut out to win the right guard job, as many have assumed he would. (The Lions got him 53 snaps in the preseason opener to accelerate that process.) Many have considered Jason Fox the favorite to win the right tackle job, but competitor Corey Hilliard got the first start of the preseason.

It's too early to judge the outcome of this overhaul, but there is no doubting the challenge it entails and the ramifications if it falls short.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Excitement about the Bush acquisition has centered around his receiving skills and ability to break long runs. But you'll have to trust me on this: The Lions are just as intrigued by his ability to run between the tackles. There will be just as many opportunities for that kind of yardage in a Calvin Johnson offense as there will be anywhere else. "The things that Jahvid [Best] was able to do for us, when he got outside of the tackles, Reggie can do those things," Johnson said. "But Reggie can run inside the tackles as well. He's a good overall back."
  • Along those lines, the Lions also are trying to identify a change-of-pace back behind Bush, and my sense is that they're past the point of giving Mikel Leshoure an inherent advantage over Joique Bell because of his pedigree as a second-round draft pick. If Leshoure isn't any more explosive than he was last season -- and I didn't see any evidence of that at camp -- there is a real opportunity for Bell to win the job.
  • One of the more intriguing prospects in camp is rookie running back Theo Riddick, who has a relatively similar skill set as Bush. He is quick, a good receiver, smart in the open field and in contention for a kick return job. And like Bush, he isn't afraid to bust it inside the tackles, either.
  • Another interesting prospect who has gotten plenty of attention is 6-foot-7 tight end Joseph Fauria. He can get to balls no one else on the field can reach, with the exception of Johnson when he leaps, and he is a natural receiver. It will be really tough for him to be a good blocker with his lean build, but the Lions need him to be just good enough. I sensed real optimism that he can qualify for that modest expectation.
  • Players such as Riddick, Fauria, tight end Michael Williams and others will give the Lions some interesting roster decisions. You wonder whether they will find some room by deciding against having a No. 3 quarterback on their roster. Kellen Moore looks improved and Thaddeus Lewis is intriguing, but the only real reason to keep one of them is if he is projected to someday succeed No. 2 quarterback Shaun Hill. Otherwise, that roster spot might be more valuable elsewhere. "It's about talent and about having a plan for guys," Schwartz said. "We're flexible, and that's not just at quarterback. That's all positions."
  • Receiver Patrick Edwards has gotten plenty of work with the first team in camp and has the unwavering support of Burleson, who said: "In my eyes, he is going to be the surprise player that changes games this year." But Edwards didn't show much in 29 snaps Friday night, going without a catch amid two targets. He got a step on Jets rookie cornerback Dee Milliner in the end zone, but Milliner out-jumped him to knock away Stafford's pass. At some point, Edwards will need to demonstrate some game production if he is going to be in the Lions' receiver rotation.
  • Delmas (knees) has worked in a little less than half of the Lions' practices and did not suit up for the preseason opener, but the Lions remain confident his limited schedule will leave him ready to play in games when the regular season starts. Schwartz: "We're working hard to get there right now. ... He's feeling good right now, and we're trying to keep it that way. Lou has the advantage of having played in this defense the past few years, even though we have new wrinkles each year. The terminology is the same. He's a really hard worker. We need to balance being on the field and practicing with the point of diminishing returns. I think we've been very proactive in camp doing that. Time will tell how effective that plan has been."
  • Much like his week at the Senior Bowl, Ansah wasn't nearly as noticeable during practice as he was during the preseason opener. Nothing he did in three days of training camp jumped out to suggest he was on the cusp of being an elite playmaker, but he stood out immediately against the Jets. In addition to his 14-yard scoring return of an interception, he nailed running back Bilal Powell for a 2-yard loss among his 20 snaps.
  • Take this for what it's worth: Even the amateur observer could notice a big upswing in man coverage from the Lions' defense during 11-on-11 drills. Stafford concurred but suggested the shift was more about evaluating the Lions' newly fortified secondary than it was a scheme change. "They're trying to figure out who can cover and who can't," he said. "But they're doing pretty good out there."
Jahvid Best's official departure from the Detroit Lions merits a look back at the intra-division trade that made him the No. 30 overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft.

As you might recall, the Vikings sent that pick to the Lions in exchange for selections in the second (No. 34 overall ) and seventh (No. 214) rounds. The teams also swapped fourth-round picks, allowing the Vikings to move up to No. 100 overall and moving the Lions back to No. 128.

The Vikings drafted cornerback Chris Cook in the second round, used the fourth-rounder on defensive end Everson Griffen and took tight end Mickey Shuler Jr. in the seventh. The Lions used their fourth-round pick on offensive lineman Jason Fox.

Immediately after the trade, I obsessed over the Vikings' decision to pass on Best and ultimately draft Toby Gerhart as an understudy for Adrian Peterson. Then-coach Brad Childress later said the Vikings had reservations about Best's concussion history, but Peterson's production and health over that time period rendered the identity of his backup -- Gehart, Best or anyone else -- minimally relevant.

(And if you think Best would have been a bigger part of the Vikings' passing game than Gerhart has been, I would counter that Percy Harvin had that segment of the scheme covered.)

Let's take a closer look at the career and, in some cases the future, of the players who were involved in the trade.
  • Best: Concussions weren't the only ailment that limited Best's career. Nearly forgotten were a pair of turf toe injuries that hindered his explosiveness in his rookie year. For the most part, Best was an all-or-nothing back. He had four runs of 20 or more yards, totaling 186 yards. He gained 759 yards on his other 251 carries, an average of 3.0 yards per carry. Best was more explosive in the passing game, catching seven passes of at least 20 yards. He averaged 5.9 yards on his other 78 receptions. In all, Best produced 1,719 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns in 22 games.
  • Cook: Like Best, Cook has played 22 regular-season games, having been derailed by knee and wrist injuries as well as a 2011 arrest for which he was ultimately acquitted. He enters 2013 as the Vikings' presumed No. 1 cornerback, but his inability to complete any of his first three seasons makes that a sketchy projection. He has 11 pass knockdowns but hasn't recorded an interception in three seasons.
  • Griffen: Considered one of the draft's better pass-rushers, Griffen was available in the fourth round because of questions about his maturity and work ethic. Those concerns proved well-founded in 2011, when he was arrested twice in the span of three days, but he has since emerged as a skilled pass-rusher. He finished 2012 with eight sacks and also returned an interception for a touchdown despite making only one start.
  • Fox: Injuries limited him in his first two seasons, but he spent last season as a healthy backup and has a strong chance to earn the starting right tackle job in 2013. He has appeared in five NFL games, but only one since 2010.
  • Shuler: The Vikings tried and failed to get Shuler on their practice squad in 2010, losing him to the Miami Dolphins. He returned briefly last season but has never appeared in a regular season game for them.

Four years later, the trade left the Vikings with two key defensive players and the Lions with one potential offensive starter. As we discussed Wednesday, this is a trade that almost certainly wouldn't happen in 2013. No one would give up assets to move up and draft a player with a scary concussion history like Best's. So it goes.

Related: In the video, Michelle Steele and I discuss Best's legacy in Detroit.

We're Black and Blue All Over:

Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson was the big NFC North winner at the ESPYS on Wednesday night, bringing home the awards for best comeback and best NFL player.

For those of you who didn't see it, Peterson showed more public personality than he typically does in receiving the first award. He also made sure to mention two locals who he believes played vital roles in his return from knee surgery: Vikings athletic trainer Eric Sugarman and the team's chef, Geji McKinney.

Two other NFC North players had been nominated for an ESPY. Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson lost the best record-breaking performance to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, while Johnson and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers lost to Peterson for best NFL player.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall thinks he needed offseason hip surgery in part because the Bears didn't have enough weapons around him last season. Marshall, via Sarah Spain of ESPNChicago.com: "I am [looking forward to having more weapons]. It was tough sledding last year. I think that's why I had to have the surgery. I had 2-3 guys on me every single play…."
  • The contract of Bears cornerback Charles Tillman will expire after the season but he doesn't think this is his final year in the NFL, writes Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Tillman would prefer to play his entire career with the Bears, according to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Justin Rogers of Mlive.com looks at the training camp battle for the Detroit Lions' No. 3 quarterback spot between Kellen Moore and Thaddeus Lewis.
  • As Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News points out, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has admitted he made a mistake in counting on tailback Jahvid Best to return to the field last season. Best was released Wednesday.
  • Tight end Jermichael Finley is the ninth-most important player on the Green Bay Packers' roster, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • The Packers guaranteed $8.25 million in the new contract of Packers safety Morgan Burnett, notes Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette looks back at the career of Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who will be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame.

For almost nine months, it has appeared a near-certainty that Jahvid Best would never play for the Detroit Lions again. So on the day that the Lions made it official and released him, we're left to wonder: Would a player with Best's medical history even be drafted in 2013?

Best's series of concussions bridged two eras of NFL concussion protocol. When he was drafted in 2010, it was well-known that his college career at Cal had ended on a nasty head-first fall that left him unconscious on the field. NFL teams closely examined his medical records, and while some might have had concerns, few blinked when the Lions traded back into the first round to make him the No. 30 overall pick.

At the time, as we've noted, Lions coach Jim Schwartz said: "[A]ll our reports and everything else led us to believe that he had put that behind him and was no more susceptible than any other player."

[+] EnlargeJahvid Best
AP Photo/Greg TrottJahvid Best played in 22 games for the Lions, who drafted him in the first round of the 2010 draft despite a history of concussions.
Schwartz's sentiment reflected that of many in the NFL at the time. But as we all know, the tenor of thought on head injuries has changed dramatically since then. There have been studies that connected deceased former players to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. Thousands of former players have joined lawsuits against the NFL for its treatment of their head injuries, and return-to-play protocols have been enhanced and standardized throughout the league.

In 2010, few of us differentiated the risk between a concussion history and a chronic knee injuries. In 2013, I really wonder if a concussion like Best's -- he fell nearly 5 feet onto his head, was motionless on the field and said nearly two months later he still was not 100 percent -- would remove a player from the draft board altogether.

In the end, the Lions got 22 games out of Best before his second and final NFL head injury. He said repeatedly last year that he was no longer having concussion symptoms, so it was not entirely clear what standards he and the Lions were using to measure his recovery and what further hurdles he faced before being cleared.

Regardless, this day has been inevitable since the Lions decided not to activate him from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list last fall. They moved on this offseason by signing free agent Reggie Bush to fill the scatback role they once envisioned for Best, but we should be careful about throwing him on the scrap heap along with the Lions' other failed draft choices. This situation was unique, and if the Lions hadn't drafted him in 2010, someone else would have. In 2013? I'm not so sure.
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.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

PHOENIX -- The Detroit Lions drafted a left tackle in the first round of the 2012 draft. In 2013, their longtime left tackle retired. But it's apparently not as simple as connecting the dots between the retirement of Jeff Backus and the presumed ascendance of Riley Reiff at the position.

Speaking to Detroit-area reporters at the NFL owners meeting, general manager Martin Mayhew said "I could see [Reiff] at left tackle" this season but left open the possibility he could play another position as well. Mayhew also touted inexperienced backups Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard as promising, and noted that Reiff can play several positions.

Your best left tackle on the roster should play the position, even if he can also play guard. It's much easier to find a guard than a left tackle, generally speaking. The Lions' indecision on Reiff's position could indicate mixed beliefs on his attitude as a long-term left tackle.

On the other hand, Mayhew might simply not want to telegraph his draft strategy at No. 5 overall. If he names Reiff the starter, it probably rules out the possibility that he would draft a left tackle in the first round.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Here's what I can tell you about the busy-bee Detroit Lions in the opening minutes of free agency:
  • As expected, running back Reggie Bush is headed to Detroit for a visit, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. I think there's a pretty good chance Bush will sign with the Lions to fill the role once envisioned for Jahvid Best. More on that if and when it happens.
  • Schefter also reports the Lions have Seahawks defensive lineman Jason Jones on the way in for a visit. Jones went to high school in Lathrup Village, Mich., played at Eastern Michigan. He was a backup defensive tackle last season for the Seahawks, and his season ended in December because of a lingering knee injury. Earlier I wrote he could project as a starter at defensive end, either for the released Kyle Vanden Bosch or for Cliff Avril if he signs elsewhere in free agency, but that doesn't seem likely.
  • Earlier, the Lions gave defensive end Willie Young a second-round restricted free agent tender. That suggests they have significant plans for him in 2013, possibly as a starter.
  • According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, among others, the Lions have re-signed safety Amari Spievey to a one-year deal. Spievey was a restricted free agent but his concussion history figured to limit any interest on the open market.

More to come, I'm sure.

NFC North free-agency primer

March, 11, 2013
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» NFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears
GENERAL MANAGER: Phil Emery
HEAD COACH: Marc Trestman

Cap Status: The Bears have a modest amount of cap space after using $8.45 million for the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton. Over the weekend, they were projected to have between $6 million and $10 million available to them.

Strategy: Conventional wisdom suggests the Bears will seek improvement at offensive line and tight end this offseason, and free agency offers the first avenue. At the moment, the Bears' best offensive lineman is right guard Lance Louis, who is still recovering from ACL surgery and is a pending free agent himself. You wonder if the Bears have enough firepower to sign left tackle Jake Long, but New York Jets guard Brandon Moore could be a reasonably priced option. At tight end, everyone loves the Tennessee Titans' Jared Cook, but he will be costly. Incumbent Kellen Davis is signed for 2013 but had a disappointing season last year as a pass-catcher.

Detroit Lions
GENERAL MANAGER: Martin Mayhew
HEAD COACH: Jim Schwartz

Cap Status: The Lions won't have much cap space to work with unless they can renegotiate/extend one of the two huge contracts on their books: quarterback Matthew Stafford ($20.8 million cap figure) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ($18.2 million). According to the Detroit Free Press, the Lions are projected to have $6 million in space at the moment.

Strategy: There are plenty of needs to squeeze into that small amount of cap space. The Lions would love to find a speedy tailback to fill the role once envisioned for Jahvid Best, a profile that seems to fit veteran Reggie Bush. But with only two of their 23 projected free agents now under contract, the Lions could have needs for two safeties, two defensive ends, two cornerbacks and one outside linebacker. That's because defensive ends Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young are all pending free agents. The same goes for cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jacob Lacey and safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey. A weekend flooding of the cornerback/safety markets could drive down prices.

Green Bay Packers
GENERAL MANAGER: Ted Thompson
HEAD COACH: Mike McCarthy

Cap Status: The Packers are projected to have about $20 million in space, a number that could increase depending on whether they renegotiate the contract of tight end Jermichael Finley.

Strategy: Thompson signaled at least some participation in free agency by hosting a visit for defensive lineman Chris Canty last week; Canty had been released by the New York Giants. The Packers know they need to improve their defensive line, whether it is with veterans, drafted players or a combination of both. There is also plenty of fan support for the Packers to pursue running back Steven Jackson, who has said he would take a role as a "counterpuncher" on a passing offense if necessary. But to this point, there has been no indication the Packers are interested. Much of their cap space is likely to be devoted, one day, to contract extensions for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.

Minnesota Vikings
GENERAL MANAGER: Rick Spielman
HEAD COACH: Leslie Frazier

Cap Status: They will have a moderate amount of cap space, about $15 million, if nothing changes between now and Tuesday.

Strategy: There is no doubt the Vikings need to improve their receiving corps, but to this point there has been no indication they are interested in the pre-eminent receiver on the market: Mike Wallace. Multiple reports suggest Wallace is most likely to end up with the Miami Dolphins. Monday's trade of Percy Harvin means the Vikings could get into the Wallace mix or perhaps Greg Jennings or Brandon Gibson. Meanwhile, it's quite possible the Vikings could seek a safety on the free-agent market, and they'll have to decide what to do at strongside linebacker and middle linebacker. The incumbent starters, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, are both free agents.

» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Chicago Bears: It's unclear how much interest the Bears would have, but a tight end like Jared Cook would make sense. General manager Phil Emery is on record saying that he wants better production in the passing game from the tight-end position, and Cook is a smooth receiver. He would be a big upgrade from Kellen Davis in that regard, and new coach Marc Trestman could find plenty of different ways to line Cook up and move him around.

Detroit Lions: I'm all for the Lions pursuing running back Reggie Bush, who would provide a speedy alternative to Mikel Leshoure and also re-open a level of the passing game that has been missing without Jahvid Best. But the Lions' lack of reliable depth at safety is no less important, especially when you remember that general manager Martin Mayhew wants more playmakers in the back end. The Lions might not have the salary-cap space to sign Dashon Goldson, but fellow free agents William Moore and Glover Quin would help matters.

Green Bay Packers: Running back Steven Jackson has plenty of wear on his 29-year-old body -- nearly 2,800 touches. But a move to Green Bay would set up a satisfying conclusion to his career. The Packers will never move too far away from their pass-first philosophy, but part of that approach is the result of never having a big running back like Jackson. He could capitalize on defenses focused on Aaron Rodgers and the passing game and provide a new level of physicality to this offense.

Minnesota Vikings: There is plenty of clamor for the Vikings to make a run at speedster Mike Wallace. That's one option. From a bigger-picture perspective, a more inclusive approach would have the Vikings targeting a second-tier free agent -- such as Brandon Gibson -- re-signing Percy Harvin to a multi-year contract and focusing on a top-end speedster in the draft. Gibson has outside skills and wouldn't threaten the Vikings' salary-cap structure at the position.
Jahvid Best, Titus Young, and Mikel Leshoure USA TODAY SportsJahvid Best, left, Titus Young, center, and Mikel Leshoure are among the recent draft picks by the Detroit Lions who have had their careers impacted by injuries and/or off-the-field issues.
The NFL's cyclical intent is never more apparent than draft time, when the worst teams from the previous season line up to select the best players entering the league. It is a time of renewed hope and realistic dreams for a better tomorrow. For the Detroit Lions, this year is also reason for reflection, nerves and perhaps some skittishness as well.

The Lions have the No. 5 overall pick when many of the draft's top prospects face physical or character issues. The situation isn't necessarily unique, but it draws further scrutiny to a franchise that has experienced a debilitating mix of bad luck and poor decisions in its recent drafts.

The Lions have drafted 29 players over the four-year tenure of general manager Martin Mayhew. Of that group, 11 -- about 38 percent -- have had their careers significantly sidetracked by injuries or disciplinary issues. That list, detailed in the chart, doesn't include quarterback Matthew Stafford, who missed 19 of his first 32 games because of shoulder injuries.



In many cases, those players had predictive histories. Receiver Titus Young had been suspended for behavior issues at Boise State. Tailback Jahvid Best suffered a violent concussion on the final play of his college career. Other setbacks, including running back Mikel Leshoure's ruptured Achilles tendon, could not reasonably be expected.

Still, as a whole, the Lions' recent draft performance is a worrisome backdrop for 2013. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the draft's No. 3 prospect according to Scouts Inc., was diagnosed with a heart condition at the NFL scouting combine. Linebacker Jarvis Jones, who might be the draft's top pass-rusher, was forced to transfer from USC to Georgia because of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal cavity. Meanwhile, Alabama's Dee Milliner -- the draft's top cornerback -- is scheduled for surgery to repair a torn labrum. Another top linebacker, Georgia's Alec Ogletree, has been suspended for a failed drug test and arrested for DUI in the past year.

Medical and character evaluations are a part of every draft class. But if you're the Lions, and your recent list of issues is as long as the one in the chart, you have less room for error. With only six draft choices at their disposal at the moment, the Lions might have to reconsider their risk tolerance.

"Honestly," said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. "We've had guys that have had a history of injuries that got injured. We've had guys that have had a history of injuries that have made it through without getting injured. Injuries are a part of the landscape. And if you think because a guy hasn't been hurt before that he won't get hurt, you might be mistaken. If you discount a player because he's been hurt. …"

I can fill in where Schwartz left off. If you discount a player because he's been hurt, you're dramatically and unnecessarily limiting your pool of candidates.

"I think the biggest thing with injuries," Schwartz said, "is probably identifying things that are chronic, things that aren't going to get any better, things that he can rehab."

In 2013, the concussions Best suffered while playing at Cal would be considered chronic. In 2010, as we discussed last fall, they were not. Generally speaking, though, NFL people will tell you that players who were routinely injured in college will be routinely injured in the NFL. Offensive lineman Jason Fox, whose knee problems at Miami carried over to his rookie season in 2010, is an example. (The Lions hope Fox can compete for a starting job in 2013.)

Even so, injuries are a much more scientific evaluation than the type of character judgments the Lions have been forced to make in recent years. Four of the five players they drafted in 2011, for example, experienced disciplinary issues over the following year, from defensive tackle Nick Fairley's arrests to Young's insubordination to Leshoure's drug suspension.

Young lasted only two seasons before the Lions released him this month, but at the combine Mayhew said that was "a very unique situation" and added that he is "confident" in the process that led to drafting him. He also noted that new personnel executive Brian Xanders has helped make some changes in the Lions' combine preparation and interview process.

In the end, the Lions are almost certain during this draft to face the same type of decision they did with Fairley, Young, Best, Fox and others. And I agree: A risk-free approach isn't any more advisable than a high-risk one. But the Lions need to improve their batting average, and their high-profile position in this draft means no one will miss the result.

Lions: The Calvin Johnson Effect

February, 13, 2013
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So I've spent some of this offseason downtime fiddling with the vast database of ESPN Stats & Information. Now that I'm more familiar with "filter," "sort" and other research tools, I'm hoping to provide additional focused insight into how and why things happen in the NFC North.

Johnson
First up is what I guess we should call "The Calvin Johnson Effect," although I think it's probably more complicated than that. In either event, the database reveals how dramatically defenses altered their standard approach against the Lions in 2012. It also illustrates how limited the Lions' running game was in exploiting those schemes, and highlights the challenges Johnson faced in breaking the NFL record for yards in a season.

In 2012, the Lions ran more plays (855 of a possible 1,160) against defenses with six or fewer defenders in the box than any other team. They also faced, by far, the fewest number of "stacked" boxes -- eight or more defenders within two yards of the tackle and five yards deep. That happened on only 1.6 percent of their plays (19 of 1,160).

(The Lions saw a "standard" look -- seven defenders in the box -- on 286 plays, the third-fewest in the league.)

That's an understandable split when facing a team with the NFL's best receiver and one of its least-threatening running games. A six-man box is an open invitation to run, and to their credit, the Lions tried. In 231 attempts, they rushed for an average of 4.48 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns. But they managed a first down on only 18.6 percent of those runs, tied for No. 21 in the NFL in that scenario, which to me is a bottom-line percentage that opposing defenses can live with in exchange for maximum attention on Johnson.

Now let's turn the numbers around. By definition, Johnson did most of his damage in 2012 against pass-stacked defenses. With six or fewer defenders in the box, and thus five or more in coverage, Johnson caught 91 of his 122 passes for 1,428 of his 1,964 yards and all five of his touchdowns.

What does this mean as the Lions begin constructing their team for 2013? I think it highlights the need for a running back/running scheme that can better capitalize on defenses who are dropping one or more extra defenders into coverage as frequently as they did against the Lions last season. Perhaps Jahvid Best could have filled that role, and it's one we've discussed in relation to free agent Reggie Bush as well.

Regardless, there is a world of untapped first downs available for the Lions via their running game as long as Johnson is in his prime. Let's see if they can capitalize better in 2013.
Recently we used Bill Polian's comprehensive free-agent ratings Insider to discuss the (unlikely) match between the Green Bay Packers and free-agent running back Reggie Bush. But as long as we're at the height of silly season, we might as well acknowledge a better fit for the Packers and for Bush.

Jackson
Jackson
Bush
Bush
If you're the Packers, a team stocked with playmakers but short on physical grinders, you wonder if Steven Jackson isn't a better fit than Bush. And if you're Bush, could you imagine joining the Detroit Lions for a role once envisioned for Jahvid Best?

Let's start (again) with Bush, who was deemed "a perfect fit" for the Lions on Monday by Sports Illustrated's Peter King. Indeed, the Lions drafted Best in 2010 in large part to be a backfield playmaker in their passing game, one who would further stretch defenses and clean up on the yards available either in the flat or on draws when defenses over-commit to receiver Calvin Johnson.

Best had some success in that role but was miscast as an every-down back before concussions threatened his career. Mikel Leshoure now holds down the Lions' traditional running back role, and pairing him with Bush -- who has had three seasons of at least 50 receptions in his career -- would make some sense.

Again, we're just matching skills with scheme at this point. Interest from either side is unknown. The Lions have limited salary-cap space, and it's debatable whether they want to commit any of it to a running back who has been through seven NFL seasons' worth of contact. But given general manager Martin Mayhew's assertion last week that he will participate in free agency, we should at least consider all possibilities.

That's also the best reason for connecting Jackson with the Packers, whose offense was embracing veteran Cedric Benson in 2012 before his season-ending foot injury. I think we can all agree Jackson is a more dynamic player, even as he approaches his 30th birthday this summer, and Polian considers him one of the true gems of the free-agent class.

Polian: "If the price is right, a contender could get him for two to three years and feel pretty good about it. I think he could be a Corey Dillon-like find but without the baggage."

Dillon, of course, was a workhorse running back for seven seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals before moving to the New England Patriots in 2004 at age 30. He rushed for 1,635 yards that season and scored 35 touchdowns in three seasons with the Patriots to end his career.

Like Dillon, Jackson would add a different dimension to a passing offense: A running back who can create yards and first downs with sheer force. It's worth a discussion -- or at least a blog post.
As many of you have pointed out, the release of Detroit Lions receiver Titus Young pretty much wrapped up the "Have at It" debates we generated a few years ago about the best young receiver in the NFC North. (Hint: It wasn't Young.) It also opens the door for an inspection of the Lions' drafts under general manager Martin Mayhew, who took over the NFL's most barren roster when promoted to his current role after the 2008 season.

The chart shows the 20 Mayhew draft picks who remain on the roster. Eight were 2012 starters, and of the larger group, six are pending free agents whose return is at least uncertain.

On the whole, we can see that many of the Lions' best players are Mayhew draft picks, be it quarterback Matthew Stafford or defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh or even defensive tackle Nick Fairley. (Receiver Calvin Johnson was selected in 2007, the penultimate year of Matt Millen's tenure.) There have been some low-round hits, most notably 2010 seventh-rounder Willie Young, and two high-profile failures.

Young, of course, is one. The other is tailback Jahvid Best, whose complicated situation we discussed in depth last fall. Things have changed a lot since 2010, and given Best's history of concussions, it is highly unlikely he would be a first-round draft pick in 2013. The Lions gambled that Best's prior concussions wouldn't make him more susceptible to future ones, a passable projection three years ago that has since proved folly.

More than anything, Mayhew's drafts lack the kind of volume that would have been necessary to fully restock the Lions' roster over a four-year period. Compare their raw numbers to the recent drafts of the Green Bay Packers, who are the NFL's gold standard draft-and-develop program.

The Packers have 26 players on their roster from their past four drafts, including 14 who spent time as 2012 starters. In fact, the Packers had a former draft pick or undrafted free agent start at every position last season, including place-kicker and punter.

I won't suggest that the Lions have to match the Packers' draft practices to be successful. Good teams can be built in different ways. But as Mayhew approaches his fifth draft, we've already discussed the possibility of a defensive overhaul and noted that the team needs to beef up its depth at receiver, running back and offensive line as well. That's a long list of needs for a group that has been at this four years already.

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