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Final Thoughts on the Lions’ 2011 Draft

I don’t really like grading drafts right after they happen, even though I like reading them, there really isn’t a whole lot to grade.  Some people grade drafts for the needs the team filled, some grade drafts for the value of the players drafted and some are a combination of the two.  Any way you slice it, nobody truly knows how this draft will pan out.

Rather than providing grades for each of the Lions’ picks, I will provide my thoughts on each pick and what the expectations of those players will be.  Busts are usually defined as players that don’t meet the expectations of the pick that was used on them, but if the expectations are not clearly established it makes it more difficult to grade the picks down the road.

Nick Fairley, DT Auburn: I initially was not a fan of the Fairley pick due to the questions about his work ethic and the fact that the Lions passed on Robert Quinn who I felt was a bigger impact type player and passed on Anthony Costanzo who I felt played a higher valued position.  Martin Mayhew and the rest of the front office has done as good a job as anybody of adding talent to a depleted roster.  However, despite the vastly improved roster, the Lions aren’t at a point where they can afford to draft a boom or bust player and have him bust.  The Lions have one of the best motivators in the league in defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and another coach not far behind him in defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.  They have ample veteran leadership on the defensive line in Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams.  They also have a ton of peer pressure and high expectations in that position group, so any concerns about Fairley’s work ethic are muted by the environment he got drafted into.

The expectation of Fairley is to come in and be a part of the defensive tackle rotation.  There is nobody in the organization that expects Fairley to have the success that Suh had last year.  In fact nobody in the organization expects Suh to maintain that level of success year in and year out.  Which is why they drafted somebody to help him.  Fairley may not even become a starter until 2013 when Corey Williams’ contract is up.  Fairley will be the third tackle in the roatation and see time on obvious passing downs.  There is a chance that the Lions will stand him up or move him around like they did with Suh, but a lot of that depends on how much of the offseason program is limited by the lockout.

Titus Young, WR Boise St: Titus Young was a player that was connected to the Lions as early as the Senior Bowl, so it was no surprise when they drafted him in the second round.  I really think the Lions planned on taking Bruce Carter or Ras-I Dowling if they were on the board, but obviously they weren’t so the Lions passed up “need” positions to draft Young.  The funny thing is when you build a team around a young quarterback and his all world receiver, there are positions that become more of a need than most people expect.  The Lions added Nate Burleson last offseason because they needed to have somebody that could prevent Calvin Johnson from getting triple teamed.  Burleson helped that, but teams still heavily focused on Calvin so they needed another weapon to draw attention away from Calvin.  If you look at Houston and Andre Johnson they did the same thing.  Johnson was drawing too much attention so they added Kevin Walter, Andre Davis and Jacoby Jones.  None of those guys is going to catch 8 balls a game or put up 1,200 yards in a season, but they all have great deep speed and open up the whole offense.   When Houston just had Andre Johnson in 2005 they were 30th in passing offense.  In 2006, they added Kevin Walter and Matt Schaub and moved up to 27th.  In 2007, they added Andre Davis and Jacoby Jones and jumped to 11th.  In 2008-2010 they have ranked 4th, 1st and 4th in passing offense and Johnson is widely considered the best receiver in the league.

Titus Young’s success may have nothing to do with his stats and more to do with Calvin Johnson’s, Nate Burleson’s and the offense as a whole.  He will play in three receiver sets and spell Burleson or CJ from time to time.  He also could join Stefan Logan on special teams or substitution packages too.  He very well could spend his first season as nothing more than a glorified decoy, but as long as he draws attention away from CJ, that’s just fine.

Mikel Leshoure, RB Illinois: This was the first real head scratcher to me, not because they drafted a running back, but because they gave up so much to get Leshoure.  It just shows how high a grade the Lions had on Leshoure in comparison to their next highest ranked running back.  Every Lions fan knows how much the running game has struggled since Barry left.  The Lions have found some temporary help getting a few solid years from James Stewart and a good year from Kevin Jones.  Best’s first two weeks made it look like the running game woes were a thing of the past.  However, when Best got hurt the whole dynamic of the running game changed.  The Lions lost a number of close games last year because they couldn’t get first downs to kill the clock, settled for field goals inside the 20 or had drives killed because opponents didn’t respect the run and loaded up to defend the pass.

The trade chart actually showed the Lions getting a bit of a bargain on the trade up, but this draft was filled with solid middle round running back talent, so the question will be how does his career compare with other backs that could have been cheaper to acquire.  Daniel Thomas, Demarco Murray, Stevan Ridley, Alex Green and Roy Helu all were viable options but none of them have the talent of Leshoure.  The measuring stick will be Leshoure’s production vs. their production and a fourth round pick’s production.

Doug Hogue, LB Syracuse: Hogue  was the first pick that filled a “need” for the Lions and even then, he doesn’t really fill it for this season.  Hogue is a converted running back that has only played defense for two seasons, but has a wealth of raw talent.  Hogue will fortify the depth at linebacker in his rookie year and his ability to help on defense again boils down to how much time he gets to develop in the offseason.  Hogue needs to work on his pass drops, stacking and shedding blocks and learning his role in the defense.  If he gets three weeks of training camp that won’t be enough.  If he gets OTAs and training camp he’s far more likely to contribute this season.

Hogue was picked in the hopes that his upside can be harnessed and eventually develop into a starter.  The timeline largely depends on this assinine lockout.

Johnny Culbreath, T South Carolina State: Culbreath fits the mold athletically and size wise, but he’s raw.  He has SEC or ACC school talent, but played against lesser competition and received less coaching on technique.  Culbreath won’t be counted on in any fashion this year if things go as planned, allowing him time to develop.

Culbreath is another pick that is long on potential and short on instant production.  He offers next to nothing short term, but has the raw ability to be a versatile backup and possibly even challenge for a starting role in a year or two.  The offensive line is a position group that has some of the best success with late round picks.  If a guy is big and strong in college he can get by on physical ability only, teams rarely spend high picks on guys like that because they take time to develop.  J’marcus Webb, Lydon Murtha, Demetrius Bell, Charlie Johnson, Barry Richardson and Carl Nicks are all later round lineman that were drafted recently and developed into starters.

Overall: The Lions drafted heavily on potential which makes each of their picks a little riskier.  Fairley has a ton of talent, but there were teams that had needs at defensive tackle that went with other positions.  Titus Young is somewhat risky because of his size and limited character concerns, but has the potential to be a gamebreaking player.  Mikel Leshoure isn’t really a risky pick, but any time you surrender picks to move up, you increase your investment in a player which elevates the expectations placed on that player.  The Lions then drafted two players long on potential but short on instant production which is a dicey proposition sometimes.  Derrick Williams was a player that had a ton of upside but would need time to develop and he hasn’t developed much in two seasons.  On the flip side, you have a Zack Follett who developed faster than expected and became a starter in his second year.  Even though it was at a weak position, any time a 7th rounder becomes a starter in one year it’s a bonus.

As I said earlier, there is no way to grade these players this early, but understanding the reasons they were drafted and the roles they fill makes it easier to grade them when the time comes.

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