They have a plan. They said they did, we all heard them, but until the Lions were on the clock just exactly what that plan was wasn’t quite known or if known, not understood.
As the draft unfolded I realized exactly what the draft plan was. It’s not something that a lot of people can grasp at first. Sometimes even after explaining it. Despite that, I shall give it a go.
The Lions drafted the best available player on their draft board that fit any need.
The key words there are “their draft board” and “any need”. The lions spent thousands upon thousands of man hours, and hundreds of thousands of dollars (or perhaps millions) scouting players throughout the United States, as all teams do to differing extent. They pay scouts, they spend hours scouring film, they travel to pro days, to the combine, they pay for players to come to Detroit. They update their information daily 365 days a year. Then they spend the weeks leading up to the draft ranking each player that will enter the draft vertically, by position. So they have the best LB at the top, then the 2nd best, then the 3rd, etc. They do this for each position. Then after they have hundreds of potential draft picks ranked, they combine the players into a horizontal ranking, meaning the best in the draft, the 2nd best player in the draft, the 3rd, etc. This gives them their draft board. They rank the players by adding to or taking away from their score based on play, based on competition, based on tangibles like height, weight, and even mental capacity. They learn less then a week before the draft which players failed the drug tests at the combine, and lower the scores of those players. The higher picks they talk to their college coaches, their families, their friends, their opponents. All of this is done in an attempt to get the best ranked draft board possible. Every team does this. But, every team puts more emphasis on one area or another, no two teams rank the players the same. No two teams scout players the same way, or have scouts who see the same things. So okay, the Lions now have their draft board set about a day or two before the draft.
They also have reviewed their own team, along with every other team in the league. They have a good idea of what teams need what… including all their own needs. The temptation during the draft for many is to rate the needs of the team into some sort of order then draft a player to fill the most important need, then the next, etc. This method tends to make for a pretty draft, but it causes a team to “reach” for players that normally wouldn’t be taken right there. In essence, the team drafts by ignoring all that work and all that money they put into their draft board. What the Lions did was draft based on the highest rated player on their draft board that filled one of their needs, any need, and in no particular order. If a team is successful in this, they will slowly fill their roster with the best player they could possibly get, and if they did their homework correctly, that position STAYS filled. The next year, there are that many more positions that do not need to be drafted. The main problem is that the this style of draft does not appear to be addressing needs. It is, obviously, but not in any particular order. Nor will it necessarily address the most important need, or the most needy need. Whatever. Teams that go with this method know they will have to address the remaining needs not filled in the draft after the draft as best they can, then draft again the next year. Like I said, eventually, as long as you fill your needs and they stay filled, you build a team, a very good team, the best team you possibly could build based on who was available as you were drafting.
That is what the Lions (presumably) did. Now, I am biased here. I totally agree with this method of drafting. The pressure to stray from the plan is always there, and sometimes a team will cave… and draft a player by reaching for him simply to fill a need. The trick is to resist that temptation and build your team with the very best players you can get your hands on. That way, if there are mistakes made, it’s not because you ignored all your time and money making your daft board, it’s because you made the wrong draft board.
A fan might not like this method, and I can appreciate that. A fan might not agree with the picks a team made, but the fan doesn’t have all the information a team has, so the fan might be wrong, or the team might be wrong. Unfortunately no one knows how a pick will turn out in advance, so it’ll be a year or two or three before it’s known if the team was right or the fan. Regardless of how the draft turns out, a fan needs to realize the team had no intention whatsoever to address all their needs, or even necessarily their most pressing need, they planned to fix ANY need they have with the best players they could get. And that part is very hard to accept.
So on to the Lions 2009 draft. Pick #1, Matthew Stafford. The Lions had him ranked #1 on their board, they had the first pick, and the only thing that would’ve stopped them from drafting him was if the player’s agent and the team couldn’t agree to a contract before the draft… or if some other team made an offer to trade that was just too good to resist. There was no blockbuster trade offer, or for all I know, any trade offer, and the contract was agreed to the day before the draft. The Lions picked their QB for the future. A need. Will he turn out? I have no idea at all. It was a need, he was the highest player on their board. End of pick #1.
Note: I would’ve probably had Eugene Monroe or Jason Smith rated higher then Stafford. So my first pick if a contract was agreed to would’ve been a left tackle. Also a need, in my opinion.
Pick #20 puts the Lions on the clock with (presumably) Brandon Pettigrew TE on the top of their board. A need. The pick is made. They had him rated higher then the 4th left tackle on the vertical board, higher then the middle line backer who dropped nearly a full round from here, so there was info there that fans don’t have. (I might have had Alex Mack rated higher, a center/guard, so my pick would’ve been another Oline pick).
Pick #33 the Lions take their next top rated player, Louis Delmas, the best Safety in the draft. Another need. They had him ranked higher then say Laurinaitis, a much more pressing need, but they are not drafting for need, they are drafting the best player they can at any need. I probably would’ve had the same player on my list (the one I really wanted was drafted the pick before), so a Safety for me as well.
At this point they have their best players picked, QB, TE, S. I would’ve have LT, C/G, S. All these players were on the “list”. The list is posted under this post. It consists of all the players the Lions were known to have contact with. Last year, the list contains every single draft pick they took except for one. This year LionHawkeye, the fan who spent probably hundreds of hours scouring the internet for news and photos to determine who the lions contacted, made an even more in depth list. Between round 2 and round 3 we had no idea the Lions had been sneaky. They had brought in at least 3 players to Allen Park and no one knew (including DeAndre Levy on April 17th). In addition, they told players not to say anything, according to a guy in Iowa, they told the scouts to quit making comments after a couple got out. In other words, they shut down all leaks and the list was utterly incomplete… when we were thinking it was even more complete then the year before. I don’t know if it helped them in the draft, but they managed to get 6 players drafted that were not on our list. I applaud the front office being able to have that much control despite our efforts, we will of course have to try harder… anyone know how to do wire taps? *Just kidding*
The rest of the draft I’m sure you followed (you didn’t read all the way to here without being a big fan). The trades, the picks they took. How thin the draft was in the final two rounds. When all is said and done the Lions got (presumably) the best players they could possibly get based on their own scoring system to fill needs on the team. Not all of them. Maybe not even the most dire needs. Or the most important. Whatever. But if they did it right, they won’t need to fill those needs again next year. This year they didn’t need a #1 WR, or a #1 RB. A right tackle, a kicker, punter, long snapper, or starting weakside linebacker. Next year they also won’t need (hopefully) a starting QB, a starting TE, a starting Safety, and with luck, some other starting positions, or if not that, some backup positions (those are needs too). The more needs that get filled, the more players they will skip over even if rated the highest, because that highest rated player on their board won’t fill a need. If the next 10 players aren’t needs they will accept more trade downs in the higher rounds. Eventually they will be drafting players only to replace free agents and the older vets. The draft then might even appear to the fan like some of the Patriots or Pittsburgh drafts. That’s the plan. That's what the Lions planned to do and as near as I can tell, that is exactly what they did.
In a few days or so I’ll post part II. My opinions of the actual picks, and where I think they will fit in on the roster (or if they will make the roster)… and my opinion of what needs they will yet address in free agency.