As they approached their second-round position Friday night, the Detroit Lions sure seemed to be sitting pretty. A team with a shortage of cornerbacks was looking at a nice group of second-tier defensive backs whose time on the market appeared up. In addition, the draft's top center was still available if the Lions were inclined to secure a future replacement for starter Dominic Raiola.
They turned away a trio of cornerbacks: Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward, Montana's Trumaine Johnson and Central Florida's Josh Robinson. Hayward went at No. 62 to the Green Bay Packers, Johnson at No. 65 to the St. Louis Rams and Robinson at No. 66 to the Minnesota Vikings.
The Lions? Naturally, they went for a 24-year-old slot receiver who tore his anterior cruciate ligament last November. Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles will join a seemingly crowded position group that also includes Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and 2011 second-round pick Titus Young.
I got a number of immediate reactions along these lines of this one from @breynolds0324: "Sadly, best case he is 4th receiver. That secondary made [Matt] Flynn a multimillionaire. Feel like we are a secondary away from SB."
I understand where you're coming from, and perhaps some of you were assuaged when the Lions drafted Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Dwight Bentley in the third round. But I feel like many of you allowed your immediate emotions to overtake rational thought, and more importantly, what should be a clear understanding of how the Lions operate under general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz.
You can object to the relative lack of attention the Lions have paid their secondary during this rebuilding process. Feel free to dispute their assessment of the talent they've passed over. But by now, like it or not, you should have come to expect that they will follow their board in as much of a vacuum as any team in the NFL. And I hope you also realize that approach has left the Lions short in the secondary but is probably the single-biggest factor in their return to contention.
"You don't solve needs by drafting poor players," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters in Detroit. "… There's a discipline that goes into it. You have to be able to stick with that philosophy. The philosophy is: 'Talent rules the board.' … If you chase need, you're chasing a moving target. What looks like a need one day might not be a need another day. If you have the discipline to say, 'Hey look, let's get good football players that fit a philosophy that we have a plan for, that continue to be the highest rated guys on your board,' then you're going to be successful over the long run.
"Even in this organization in the past, I think everybody knows some examples where this organization reached for certain players because of needs. I don't see how that solves your need. When it's all said and done, the need is still there."
It would be reasonable to question whether, say, Hayward would have been a reach at No. 54 when the Packers selected him just a few spots later. But the more relevant question is whether the Lions would have left a more talented player on the board. And in the Lions' evaluation, they would have. That made their decision easy Friday night at No. 54.
Broyles is one of the most productive receivers in the history of college football, having caught an NCAA-record 349 passes in his career. Just five months after surgery to repair his ACL, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds. Mayhew, whose success in recent drafts grants him some leeway in making such judgments, told reporters: "If the guy were healthy now he'd have been gone way before our pick."
And while they are in fact stacked at the front end of their depth chart, the Lions in reality were one injury away from not being able to use offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's three-receiver set. Burleson, meanwhile, will turn 32 this summer. In other words, the Lions could be a year or two away from having an obvious need at receiver. As we discussed Thursday, the key to orderly transitions is acquiring the replacement before he is needed.
Look, the Lions don't need me to be an apologist for a decision -- and thus far, an entire draft -- that might not have much impact on their 2012 team. You have a right to dispute it. But you shouldn't be surprised, and the Lions' success to this point earns them at least a partial benefit of the doubt from me.