There can be no doubt that the 2013 NFL season was a disappointing one for the Detroit Lions franchise and its fans. Despite a strong start that saw them atop the NFC North at 6-3 overall, the Lions imploded down the stretch, losing six of their final seven games. A season of promise ending in a 7-9 overall record; boos and fan chants of same old Lions providing a fitting soundtrack to what turned out to be yet another lost season for the much maligned franchise. Yet, despite the disappointment of the 2013 NFL season, there are benefits that come with such on the field futility. Namely, a high pick, the 10th overall, in the 2014 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, it is a reality Lions fans know too well.
Yes, for the 7th time in the last 10 NFL Drafts the Detroit Lions will again have a top ten pick. Nine years ago the lions were in a similar situation, statistically at least. Coming off a 6-10 record, the Lions held the 10thoverall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. After using first-round picks on the wide receiver position the previous two years, Matt Millen, Detroit’s infamous former President and General Manager, decided to draft yet another and chose Mike Williams from the University of Southern California. After sitting out the entire 2004 college football season due to his hiring of an agent, Williams came to Detroit overweight and unprepared for the NFL. As a result, he would only last two seasons with the Lions, totaling 37 receptions, 2 touchdowns, and less than 450 receiving yards. He was a bust; another in the long line of draft disappointments for the franchise that included wide receiver Charles Rogers and quarterback Joey Harrington.
This current Lions team is certainly more talented than any from the Matt Millen era. With a gifted defensive front highlighted by Ndamukong Suh, one of the top wide receivers in all of football in Calvin Johnson, and an athletic, big-armed quarterback in Matthew Stafford, the Lions have a talented young core of players. With a solid offseason, this team is capable of competing for a spot in the playoffs next year. If they are to do so though, the play of former number one overall pick Stafford must improve. Since his breakout year in 2011, a season that saw him pass for over 5,000 yards and throw for 41 touchdowns to only 16 interceptions, Stafford’s play on the field has regressed the last two seasons. This is an assertion that is not just backed up by passing statistics or critics, but also by the Lion’s overall record of 11 -21 during that stretch.
Despite his struggles, the Lions are committed to Matthew Stafford as their quarterback going forward. Last summer’s $53 million dollar contract extension assures him the position in Detroit for at least the next few seasons. This financial commitment, a recognition of the importance of Stafford’s play to the team’s overall success, helps to explain why the organization took the unprecedented step of including Stafford in the interview process that led to the hiring of former Indianapolis Colts head coach, and Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, Jim Caldwell. The NFL is often called a quarterback’s league, and it seems that the fate of the Lions is tied to theirs. The Lions need Matthew Stafford to play consistently at the high level he has shown flashes of. As he goes, so go the Lions.
Does Stafford need more help? That is a question the Lions front office will have to answer before the start of next season. As is apparent to all that have watched Lions games the last few years, Stafford and the Lions offense rely heavily on Calvin Johnson, perhaps too much. Last year in two games when Johnson was not available due to injury, that over-reliance was painfully visible as the Lions offense stagnated and Detroit lost both games. With solid running back and offensive line play, some of the blame for this can be attributed to the lack of a viable second receiver. In 2013, Detroit’s second and third leading receivers, behind Calvin Johnson, were the running back duo of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Its fourth leading receiver was the much maligned tight end Brandon Pettigrew, a free agent, who has a reputation for dropping passes he shouldn’t and whose future with the team is uncertain.
Despite using early picks in two of the last three drafts on the wide receiver position, the Lions have not been able to find another productive option. Second round picks Titus Young (personal issues) and Ryan Broyles (injuries) have not panned out. Former free agent signee, and current restricted free agent Kris Durham, has been extremely underwhelming in his play despite starting 13 games last year. Nate Burleson, who missed a combined 17 games over the last two years, has been released.
With cap issues and needing to restructure the contract of Ndamukong Suh who will count $22.4 million against the cap next year, Detroit’s moves on the free agent market may be limited. Thus, the Lions best chance to improve their team may come through the draft. With needs in the secondary and at the wide receiver position, Detroit will have options with the 10th pick. According to pundits, such as those at ESPN’s Scout’s Inc., these options could include cornerback Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State or any one of the highly ranked wide receivers – Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, USC’s Marqise Lee – in this draft class.
While the idea of Detroit drafting a wide receiver with the 10th overall pick may raise a few eyebrows due to their past failures with the position and the current presence of Calvin Johnson on the roster, it actually may be the most sensible pick. The Lions have a lot invested in Matthew Stafford and if they are to make the playoffs next year, his play, and the consistency of the offense, must improve. Drafting a wide receiver would give Stafford another playmaker that could help open up the field and take away some of the attention defenses pay to Johnson. This would certainly help an offense that has proven that it can throw for a lot of yards, but has struggled at times where it matters most – scoring points.
Though informal fan polls in Detroit favor defense – specifically Michigan State star cornerback Darqueze Denard – over the drafting of a wide receiver, it is ultimately up to the Lions’ front office to decide which player offers them the greatest upside. This is a scary thought for many Lions’ fans due to the organizations numerous missteps on draft day. These past missteps are also why some fans of the team do not want the Lions to draft a wide receiver so high. Nevertheless, this team can’t allow the failures of the past to dictate the future. With the hiring of an offensive-minded head coach in Jim Caldwell and bringing new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi over from the New Orleans Saints, the Lions front office recognizes the need to improve the play of Matthew Stafford and the offense. Drafting a highly talented wide receiver with their first round pick, one that would complement the offensive playmakers currently on the roster, would go a long way towards that goal by giving the Lions another weapon and more flexibility on offense. Unlike in the past, taking a wide receiver with the 10th pick this year may offer Detroit the best chance for immediate improvement on the field. It may not be the safe pick, but it would be the right one.