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Detroit Lions 2011 NFL Draft Grades

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Entering the 2011 offseason, the Lions’ greatest needs were obviously in the defensive back seven, specifically outside linebacker and cornerback. Upgrades and depth are needed at almost every other position, but the Lions have one linebacker on the roster that can play outside linebacker efficiently, and that’s DeAndre Levy, their starting middle linebacker. He gives them flexibility if they find value at inside linebacker in the draft (or free agency), but asking him to play three positions at once is probably out of the question. Detroit’s top corner from 2010 was Chris “League Average” Houston, and he’s a free agent. Even if he is re-signed (which is in question for a variety of reasons, including the ever-fluctuating labor dispute), he’s a number 2 corner at best. Free safety Louis Delmas looks like a potential Pro Bowl player, but strong safety is also a huge need in the defensive backfield. The strength of the Lions team is their defensive line, with stud tackle Ndamukong Suh turning himself into a dominant force and solid veterans Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams still contributing. Cliff Avril is a decent end, but is really more of a 3rd down pass rushing specialist. Sammie Lee Hill, Lawrence Jackson and Turk McBride are decent backups, but are definitely candidates to get upgraded.

On offense, the biggest concern is the health of both Matthew Stafford and Jahvid Best. If healthy, the Lions have a top 10 quarterback, and top 15 running back, and possibly the best wide receiver in the NFL, Calvin Johnson. Offensive line has been the single most criticized unit on this roster, but the team has put forth a concerted effort to improve their blocking over the past 2 years. Left tackle Jeff Backus is without a doubt the most underrated player on the Lions; he’s average to slightly below average, but he’s far from the worst in the league and he’s started every game for the Lions for ten straight years. Rob Sims is one of the best all-around guards in the league, and between former first round pick Gosder Cherilus and surprise fill-in Corey Hilliard, right tackle should be ok. Dominic Raiola and Stephen Peterman need to be upgraded, but would still be starters on a number of other teams. Jake Fox and Tony Ugoh have great pedigrees, even if they haven’t put it all together because of health issues, and offer decent/acceptable depth on the line. Skill position depth is almost non-existent with the Lions, though. Nate Burleson is a nice piece to have opposite Johnson, but he’s better served as a 3rd/slot receiver at this point in his career. Maurice Morris and Aaron Brown are the only legitimate backups at running back, but neither of them are top flight talents, nor do they offer much in terms of complementary skills to Best; a big, powerful back would be a perfect fit for this offense. Coach Jim Schwartz could/should be aiming for a Chris Johnson/LenDale White type backfield like Tennessee had when he was coaching there.

With all of that laid out, here are the grades.

DT Nick Fairley, Auburn, Round 1, Pick 13 (13 overall)

Once thought to be a lock as the number 1 overall pick, this is an absolute steal for the Lions. They chose to build on a strength rather than “reach” for a need. (Note: by “reach,” I’m not saying a player like cornerback Prince Amukamara wouldn’t be worth that pick, but he probably wasn’t in the top 3 or 4 players on the Lions’ draft board at the time, and that early in the draft, that small difference would still qualify as a reach.) Despite already having a great defensive tackle combo, Fairley is talented enough to start right away and be productive, while giving the Lions the flexibility to move Suh around even more than they did last year. Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White was drafted as a tackle with similar expectations to Suh, and made the move to the outside with nearly unparalleled results, so there are plenty of options for Detroit’s front four. The concerns with Fairley that pushed him down to the 13th selection are motivation and experience (he only had one productive year in college, but it was an amazingly productive year). He was without a doubt the most dominant player on the defensive side of the ball in all of college football last year, so the upside is huge. Even though this doesn’t fill a need directly, having this dominant of a pass rush will take an incredible amount of pressure off of Detroit’s thin secondary. Grade: A

WR Titus Young, Boise State, Round 2, Pick 12 (44 overall)

First things first: the current Detroit Lions regime has drafted only one wide receiver in the previous two years (3rd round pick Derrick Williams two years ago), so we can’t hold Matt Millen’s drafts against the team for making this pick. That being said, my first reaction was disappointment. With so many needs, taking back-to-back players that don’t fill the most pressing needs seemed extremely ill-advised. After calming down and looking at the player the Lions got, though, I’m pretty happy. Titus Young was projected to go right around where the Lions selected him, so considering that he is a perfect complement to Calvin Johnson, he very well could have been the highest rated player on Detroit’s draft board. Young is basically DeSean Jackson-lite. He ran a 4.42 40 yard dash, but is considered to play even faster than that. Opposing defenses will no longer be able to bracket Calvin Johnson (jam him with a cornerback and have a safety playing over the top) because Young’s speed will force a safety to shade his way, as well. Defenses will have to choose between having single coverage on both Johnson and Young, with one safety deep, or bracket both wideouts, effectively committing 4 defenders to just 2 of our offensive players. If the Lions can play 9-on-7, even with their offensive line troubles, they can have a top 5-8 offense. In addition to all of that, pairing Young with Stefan Logan gives the Lions perhaps the best return game tandem in the league. Grade: B+

RB Mikel Leshoure, Illinois, Round 2, Pick 25 (57 overall)

(Everything that I said about not holding the current regime accountable for Matt Millen’s horrible drafting applies here, too.) The Lions traded up and sacrificed a few later picks to take what I view as the second best running back in this draft. My personal comparison for Leshoure is Steven Jackson. Mikel may not become a top 5 running back like Jackson, but they share similar skills. He’s a big back with decent hands and great speed for his size. In my opinion, Leshoure’s natural talent is unmatched at his position in this year’s draft, including Mark Ingram. The college production isn’t quite as impressive as you’d like to see, and there are a few off the field concerns (Leshoure got in a fight with a teammate in 2008 resulting in Mikel’s jaw being broken, and also got suspended from the Illinois football team in 2009 for violating team rules), but there’s no denying the immense upside. Leshoure was thought to possibly sneak into the end of the first round, so getting him near the end of the second round is as big of a steal as Fairley at pick 13. It’s unfortunate that the Lions had to sacrifice so much to make this deal, but I fully believe that they will get at least that much value out of Leshoure. Pairing him with Best will create scheme nightmares for opposing defenses. Again, this doesn’t fill a pressing need, but I can’t argue with the value the Lions got by taking a top 25-30 player at pick 57. Grade: A-

LB Doug Hogue, Syracuse, Round 5, Pick 26 (157 overall)

For the first three selections, the list of other players available didn’t affect my grades as much because of the value Detroit was getting with their selections. So now that the Lions finally select a linebacker to fill their biggest need, they leave better linebackers on the board. Quan Sturdivant out of North Carolina and even local favorite Greg Jones from Michigan State seem to have more upside and certainly had more collegiate production at the same position. Hogue is a decent player that might start right away considering the complete lack of competition he’ll face on this roster, but I can’t see him being more than a very good special teams player on a good team. Hogue is one of the strongest and fastest linebackers in this draft class, so perhaps the Lions can coach him into a solid contributor at weakside linebacker (lining up behind Vanden Bosch). He’s not a horrible pick, but with Sturdivant rated as a 2nd or 3rd round prospect and Jones as a 3rd or 4th round prospect, they could have gotten a better player with higher upside at the same position. Grade: C+

OT Johnny Culbreath, South Carolina State, Round 7, Pick 6 (209 overall)

A Division 1-AA Second Team All-American, he’s 6’5″ and 323lbs, so he has good size to play 4 positions along the offensive line. Definitely a project pick, but he’s extremely athletic. There’s not much more to say one him, but he did visit with the Lions before the draft, so it’s safe to assume that he’s a good kid and will fit in well with this team. There are no sure-thing players in the 7th round, so an athletic player with his upside at a position of need is a really good choice. Grade: B


Summary

It’s easier said than done, but we have to try to analyze how the Detroit Lions operate during the NFL Draft without assuming that this is the same old Matt Miller-run organization. Popular sentiments were that the team needed to use almost every pick on the defensive side of the ball. If they had shored up the secondary and linebacking core with early draft picks, could the Lions have been able to sneak into the playoffs this year? Absolutely. Could they have competed for a championship? Absolutely not. This team made huge strides last year, but they needed more than just one more offseason to assemble a top-tier roster. The Lions’ needs certainly were not addressed in the order that was expected, but all of these picks filled some kind of need. Keep in mind, depending on how the labor agreement dispute plays out, there are plenty of options available in free agency on the defensive side of the ball. Free agent Stephen Tulloch is one of the best middle linebackers in the league and played under Jim Schwartz in Tennessee, so it’s possible that this connection could land him in the middle of the Lions defense, flanked by Levy and Hogue. Also, if the labor dispute lasts for most of the offseason, meaning that the free agency signing period gets shortened to only a couple of weeks, it will put the players at a huge disadvantage from a negotiating standpoint. That perfect storm could allow the teams that are considered lesser free agent destinations, Detroit included, to find some good players at great values. Without knowing what’s going to happen with any of that though, this draft was still productive and solidifies a great foundation for the Detroit Lions. A division crown in 2012 is very much a possibility. Overall Grade: B+

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Written by aaron

April 30, 2011 at 4:29 pm

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