Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May the Fourth Be With You... Always



It's May, the Pistons and Red Wings are bounced out of the playoffs, the NFL Draft is over, the NBA Draft isn't for another month & a half... Time to talk Tigers!

The Tigers are 25 games into the season and stand at a healthy 14-11, after last night's abysmal performance by Verlander. The team, like Verlander, has been pretty hot & cold, and they've gotten boosts from unexpected places while getting slumps from others. Currently, the Tigers' best hitter is NOT Miguel Cabrera, JD Martinez, Victor Martinez (although he's actually 2nd best, which is also kind of a surprise) or Justin Upton, but Nick Castellanos. Nick was a pretty big prospect coming up, but he'd been a disappointment so far, both with his bat and with his glove. His batting average was in the .250s his first 2 seasons, and his HR, RBI, and other numbers were pretty mediocre. Currently he's leading the AL in hitting with a .368 BA, roughly 100 points higher than he'd ever hit before. He's got 4 HR and 19 RBI, which put him on pace for 26 HR and 123 RBI through 162 games.

It's dangerous to extrapolate such a small sample and set it as an expectation, and that's not what this is for. I'm trying to highlight his hot start, and put it in perspective with what he's done in the past. Castellanos has never had a month this hot in his career. He picked up the hitting in the last 3 months of 2016, but even then he didn't have a month where he hit .290. Based on his strong-ish finish in 2015 and REALLY strong start to 2016, I think we can expect a breakout performance from Castellanos this year. 

Victor has started well and that's a good sign. Kinsler's been really good in the leadoff spot. Saltalamacchia has filled in nicely for McCann and added some much needed pop in the bottom of the order. On the flip, Justin Upton has been striking out A TON (on pace for 252 for the season), but he's cut that down in the last 5 games and brought his average up from sub-Mendoza to .252. Cabrera's average got down to .206, but the next game he went 4 for 4 and really broke out of his slump. Since April 25th, he's on a 8-game hitting streak, during which he's popped 3 HR, 3 2B, and 6 RBI. Also, Cameron Maybin, one of the better offseason acquisitions, hasn't played yet and is due to come back soon.

As far as pitching goes... Well, the Tigers have flipped there. Historically, and last year especially, the Tigers have had pretty good starting pitching and a pretty bad bullpen. This year, Jordan Zimmerman has been excellent, but all the other starters have been mediocre to ATROCIOUS (looking at you, Mike Pelfrey). The bullpen this year has been the 8th best in baseball, according to fangraphs (the starting pitching is 19th out of 30, and without Zimmerman they'd be last). I love how good our 'pen has been, but the starting pitching is a Problem. Capital P. Verlander... ugh. He's had a couple of absolute stinkers already this year. His velocity is down, he's blaming bad pitching on his SLEEVES... I'm not optimistic. He could round up to a #2 or #3-level guy, but the Tigers either need to make a move or get a big year from one of Greene, Norris (still out with a back injury), Boyd, or Fulmer. They need a miracle.

The Tigers might be able to get by with a good offense, mediocre starting pitching, and good relieving - that formula worked for Toronto last year, although their offense was SWEET - but the offense and starting pitching has to improve or they're missing the playoffs. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Lions Draft Recap


There are a few things we can deduce about the Lions' new GM, following his first draft. He clearly values the offensive line, possibly over all other things. He's committed to creating organizational depth. And he may possibly have brought Belichick's aversion to drafting WRs with him to Detroit. As a kid who was scarred by the Millen Era's love of the position, I'm cool with that. Actually, I like all of those qualities. Whether or not Bob Quinn has a good team of scouts and knows a good player when he sees one remains to be seen.

I've already gone over what I thought about the Lions' first pick in depth, so I won't spend too much time going over well-tilled earth. The offensive line needed a shot in the arm, and Taylor Decker is a guy who can help on day one. He can start on the right side and might eventually move over to the left as he develops. The Lions could've gone with a DE like Shaq Lawson, as DE is a huge need, but I like the pick.

I'd also stated my wishes for rounds 2 & 3. If none of the players expected to go on day 1 fell to the Lions' 2nd round pick, they could fill their DE need with Emmanuel Ogbah. Well, Cleveland picked up Ogbah right off the bat (which was funny, since he's NOT a fit for their defense), but the Lions lucked out when A'Shawn Robinson, a DT from Alabama, fell to them at pick #46. Robinson had been projected to go to the Lions in a few FIRST round mocks, so getting him in round 2 was pretty big.

The Lions unfortunately passed on a HUGE opportunity to add needed depth at defensive tackle 2 years ago, when they drafted TE Eric Ebron instead of Aaron Donald. DT wasn't a HUGE need that season, as we still had Suh, Fairley, and Mosley. The problem was, all of their contracts expired at the end of the season, and keeping any of them was going to be tricky, if not impossible. We all know what happened - we couldn't afford Suh, and we didn't want to re-sign the other two, so Mayhew patched up the D-line with a trade and a couple of FA signings. It wasn't a total disaster, but Ngata is nearing the end of his career and has shown he can't play the number of snaps he used to play.




Enter Robinson. He's a big dude at 6'4", 307, but he's also pretty athletic. This is a pic of him after the title game, and he looks like he almost could have a 6-pack. Basically, he's built as a DE but has the size and power of a DT. He can stuff the run, power rush the passer, and he eats up blocks like they're slathered in BBQ sauce. Another thing I like about Robinson is he seems to be a much better leader and teammate than Suh was. Ndomukong Suh, for all his talent and ability, wasn't a natural leader. He operated more or less as an island, and that's a problem when the guy the media wants to talk to all the time isn't the guy leading in the locker room. Anyway, HUGE steal for the Lions in round 2.

I was still thinking defense in round 3. The Lions weren't picking until the end, but I was hoping a quality LB or DE might fall to them. The LB I liked, Joe Schobert was available, and a speedy edge rusher, Charles Tapper, was on the board. A safety I liked, Justin Simmons, was also available, and safety was another big need. Quinn opted to go back to offense and draft Michigan C Graham Glasgow.

I kinda wish they'd gone defense there, but I don't mind the pick. If you'll recall, there had been some rumors swirling leading up to the draft about the Lions going with C Ryan Kelly in round 1. Reportedly they were dissatisfied with the job Travis Swanson was doing, feeling that he stunk so bad that he contributed to the bad performance we got out of Laken Tomlinson and Larry Warford last season. In that light, drafting a C was probably a must. I'd have rather taken a DE with one of their top 3 picks, but Glasgow is a quality center and should be able to push Swanson for the starting spot. He can play both G & C at a high level, and he was good enough to garner a All Big Ten Honorable Mention at his position.




The Lions took a safety with their next pick, and by all accounts they got good value there.  Killebrew has a rep as a big hitter and has the size to play the run, maybe even convert to LB. He's expected to push for PT and probably starts out on ST. The Dahl pick was interesting. Again, could've gone defense or WR there, but went with a guy who can play all 5 positions on the line. Taking Rudock raise my eyebrows, since I'm not even sure he'd develop into a quality backup QB. Another former Michigan player, CB Blake Countess, might've been the better pick there. The biggest surprise was drafting a long-snapper (who drafts a long-snapper, honestly), especially with long-time Lion Don Muhlbach still hanging around. Muhlback is 34 and has to go sometime, but did we really need to draft a LS?

The other big surprises/disappointments were not taking a CB or a WR in the entire draft. Those positions were as big a need as say DE, but the Lions at least needed depth there. It looks like Quinn will be addressing that with his undrafted FA signings, however. He's reportedly signing a CB from Ohio, Ian Wells, and a WR from Baylor, Jay Lee. Wells has decent size and speed, and he finished his 2015 season with 2 picks and at least 8 passes defensed (it could be more, as they might not have kept track of that stat in all his games). Those are nice numbers, but I don't know enough about him as a player to say whether or not he could play as even a nickel corner. Jay Lee has nice size and speed as well, but his route-running and his hands leave something to be desired.

Mel Kiper gave the Lions a B- for their draft, marking them down for not taking a WR or a CB. NFL.com gave them a B overall, also questioning the fact that they didn't address WR or CB but took a long snapper. I already gave Quinn a B+ for day 1. I'll give him an A- for day 2, getting a steal in Robinson and addressing interior O-line with Glasgow (but marking down for not addressing slightly more urgent needs). Day 3 gets a C+. I think he made a couple of good picks, but he also had some head-scratchers. His UFAs get a B. Overall, Quinn gets a B+. He gets marked down a bit for not addressing certain needs earlier and made a couple of odd moves, but his worst picks were later and not so costly (like taking a TE  who can't catch or block with your 10th pick when you already have 2 TEs on the roster), and I think he got at least 2 and possibly 4 starters out of this draft.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Taylor Decker is a Beautifully Boring First Round Pick, Reset for Day 2



In the Draft, boring is good. Boring is dependable. Boring means you DIDN'T take a WR in the first round in three straight years. Historically, the Lions haven't been boring in the draft, and that's not a good thing. Excitement in the draft comes when your team trades up to get somebody, or reaches past team needs to get a perceived top pick talent who's been sliding due to some red flags. The Lions have been guilty of being too exciting in the draft, and it's come back to bite them almost every time.


First, this was a really weird draft. The top 2 picks had been traded, which almost never happens, and a whole bunch of red flags started popping up on players who had been projected to go in the top 10 picks. Going into the draft, I was hoping a chain of events would cause Jack Conklin to slide from his expected draft position at #10 to get to the Lions at #16. Failing that, I was fully ready to take the best edge rusher available or Taylor Decker. Something that screwed this up, I think, was OT Laremy Tunsil, the projected #3 pick's twitter getting hacked and a video of him hitting a bong while wearing a gas mask getting posted. Tunsil went into draft free-fall, which pushed the other OTs in the draft, Stanley and Conklin, to get taken earlier than expected.


I was legitimately considering the prospect of the Lions taking Tunsil when Miami took him off the board with the 13th pick. To tell the truth, I was relieved. Taking Tunsil would've been classic Lions, and those types of risks have NEVER panned out for us. Nick Fairley had conditioning concerns, Titus Young had character concerns, Mike Williams had talent concerns, Jahvid Best had concussion concerns... The Lions drafted them anyway and found those concerns to be well-founded.

When the Lions' pick was in, I figured Goodell would say one of three names - Taylor Decker, Shaq Lawson, or Ryan Kelly. I had begun to be concerned about Lawson's numbers being inflated and his talent overrated. It also seemed a bit early to be taking a center, but I'd talked myself into Kelly as he might've improved all three positions on the interior O-line. Still, Decker was the pick I was most comfortable with, and that's who the Lions took.





I covered him earlier in the Draft Preview, so I'll just recap in broad strokes. Taylor Decker profiles as a day one starter at right tackle, with the potential to switch to the blind side. He's solid in pass protect but known more as a road grader in the running game. He fits a need, he does it well, and he could develop into even more. Plus, I like his temperament as a lineman. He's got a mean streak, and you've got to have that. Anyway, most draft graders gave Bob Quinn a B for his first pick, but I give him a B+, because doing the safe, smart thing is SO underrated. And in Detroit, it's been SO rare.

***

Tomorrow is Day 2 of the draft, covering rounds 2 and 3. The Lions have the 15th pick in round 2 (46th overall), and a compensatory 3rd round pick for losing Suh, 32nd in the round and 95th overall. When I previewed the draft back in March, my wish list of potential Lions was based on the ESPN grades of who might be available at those picks. Keanu Neal actually went 17th, right after the Lions' FIRST round pick. Karl Joseph went two picks BEFORE. And the last player I'd identified, Kenny Clark, was scooped up before the end of the first round as well. So all my round two options went earlier than I expected, but several quality players dropped.



The top guy currently available, talent-wise, is LB Myles Jack. He's a top ten talent, he's at a position of need for the Lions, but... I don't want them taking him in round 2. Maybe round 3, if he's there. But the knee injury scares me, and he's done if he needs micro-fracture surgery. Either of the Alabama DTs would be a good pick, but I expect them both to go before the Lions pick is up. Reggie Ragland would be great too, but he's probably gone as well. Kevin Dodd, a guy some people had the Lions reaching for in the 1st round, is available as well, but like the others, I think he'll be gone when the Lions' pick rolls around. So who does that leave?


If none of the guys who slid out of round one are available when the Lions are up, Kendall Fuller is a possibility. He missed all but the first 3 games last year when he had knee surgery, so he's a bit of a risk, but not as much as Myles Jack seems to be. Fuller could play corner or switch to safety in a pinch, both areas of need.




Another option in round 2 is Emmanuel Ogbah, and to be honest, this is the guy I hope the Lions get (if no one drops to them). Ogbah is a pure pass rushing DE. He's weak against the run, which isn't ideal, but you aren't going to find a perfect DE (a premium position) outside of the first round (if even then). Ogbah recorded double-digit sacks in each of his last 2 seasons, he knocks down passes and forces fumbles. He needs to work on his effort on an every down basis, and his instincts covering the run aren't all that good, but he looks everything like a disruptive force rushing the passer. I'll take that in round 2.




For round 3, the Lions don't pick until the end, 95th overall. This might be where you take Myles Jack or Jaylon Smith, both high-quality guys with injury concerns. Other options at this level are S Justin Simmons from Boston College, OLB Joe Schobert from Wisconsin, and CB Will Redmond from Miss. State. All three would struggle to start on day 1, but I would expect they would at least be part-timers, and work into a starting role after a year or two.


I like Schobert best of that group. He's a converted safety, so he's still adding bulk, but he rushes the passer well and covers well. He walked on at Wisconsin and was eventually made a captain. He finished his senior season with 76 tackles, 20 for a loss, 9.5 sacks, 1 pick, 2 passes defensed, 2 fumble recoveries and 4 forced fumbles. He's still a work in progress, which is kind of scary, considering how good his production has been. The knocks on him are his size and lack of elite athleticism, but his size will be less of a problem playing in a 4-3 system.


So there are my day 2 wishes - if none of the big names drop to the Lions, Ogbah in round 2 and Schobert in round 3. So far, I think Quinn is off to a nice start.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

NFL Draft: Lions-related Mocks and Rumors



The NFL Draft is Thursday... that is to say, round 1 of the NFL Draft is Thursday, rounds 2 & 3 are Friday, and the rest of the thing is Saturday, because you know they're about milking as much money out of this as possible. Anyway. With the draft imminent, upcoming, looming, and whatever other synonym for "approaching" you can think of, I'd like to take a fresh look at the mocks and any hot rumors regarding the Lions.


First, the mocks. NFL.com currently has 4 different mocks out, dated this week. All 4 have the Lions taking a defensive player - either DE Shaq Lawson, DT Jarran Reed, DE Kevin Dodd, or CB William Jackson III. Any of those would be a good pick, depending on whether or not you believe in Lawson. ESPN's Todd McShay put out his 5th mock last week Thursday, and he also had the Lions taking a defensive player - DT A'Shawn Robinson. Mel Kiper released his A-Grade mock last week, prior to the Eagles trading up to #2, and he had the Lions also taking Lawson.


It's interesting that no one from the two main networks covering the draft have the Lions taking an offensive player, especially considering the offensive line was such a weak point last year. And this brings us to the hot rumor concerning the Lions. A number of sources, most notably Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, have tabbed Alabama Center Ryan Kelly as the Lions' pick at #16. There's a lot there to unpack.
  • First, the Lions already have a C, Travis Swanson, who they took in round 3 a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, he was really, REALLY bad last year, to the point where he may have been mainly responsible for Larry Warford and Laken Tomlinson's bad performances last year
  • Second, the 16th pick is really high to take an interior offensive lineman. There's a bit of buzz around Kelly right now, so Quinn may be looking to just pick him at 16, he may be looking to trade back, or...
  • He might be trying to psych out the Colts, who reportedly are really interested in Ryan Kelly. If the Colts are so enamored with Kelly that they'll trade up to pick him in front of Detroit, that might push back a player that the Lions are more interested in. If that's the case, that is some Belichick-level deviousness right there
It's very possible that Bob Quinn is interested in drafting Kelly, no matter what, and relegating Swanson to the bench. If Ryan Kelly is good enough to boost the play of 3 different positions on the line, I'm all for it. Draft him at 16, trade back, whatever. This is probably the likeliest scenario, since the Lions have supposedly interviewed everyone who ever knew Kelly several times. If it IS in fact a red herring (which I doubt, since so few people are that devious in real life), Quinn COULD be pushing a guy like OT Jack Conklin (who Mike Mayock said the Lions should SPRINT to the podium to pick if available), CB Vernon Hargreaves, or DT Sheldon Rankins back to the 16th pick, where the Lions could scoop him up.

Mike Mayock's mock draft hasn't come out yet, but normally it comes out the day before the draft (which is today, soooo... what's the holdup?). He seems to be in every team's draft room and is rarely surprised by a pick. I place a lot of weight on whoever he has the Lions taking, so I'm a bit disappointed that hasn't shown up yet. To recap, I had the Lions' top 3 options for round 1 (in order) as OT Jack Conklin (less likely a possibility now, as his stock has risen), DE Shaq Lawson (at least possible, if not likely), and OT Tyler Decker (relegated to consolation prize status). Round 1 is tomorrow, and I'll be covering round 1 and previewing round 2 on Friday.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pistons Playoff Recap and Outlook


My dad and I last went to a Pistons playoff game on April 24, 2009. Dumars had traded Billups for Allen Iverson earlier that season, Ben Wallace was long gone, and the head coach had devolved from Larry Brown to Flip to Michael Curry. In short, the Pistons were staring at the end of a streak of 6 straight conference finals appearances, and they knew it.

That game remains to this day the WORST Pistons game I've ever attended.
They only lost by 11 points, but the effort from the Pistons' vets was so pathetic that the outcome of the game was never in doubt. After the game, we were pretty despondent because we knew an era had ended. THIS game 3, played almost exactly on the 7 yr anniversary of the previous one, was in many ways a mirror image of the earlier game. The Pistons lost by double digits, the Cavs were the opponent, LeBron James figured prominently, Detroit was eventually swept... But the outlook of the team is TOTALLY different from the '09 squad.

First, the game experience was pretty good. My dad sprung for the seats, so we were in a really good spot. Not at center court, but one section over from the middle, and in the upper third of the lower bowl. It was a good playoff crowd, very locked in and rooting hard for the Pistons (instead of just showing up to watch LeBron). I had a few quibbles - the Palace might be the worst arena in the league when it comes to showing the fans replays, many of the graphics were seizure-inducing, and blocking out a section of seats for a stage so KISS could play 2 songs was a TERRIBLE idea, both on the fan experience side and because it kept fans out of the building. Oh, and they need about twice as many bathrooms as they've got.



Other than those quibbles, the Palace is a pretty good place to watch a game. They have pretty good concessions (my dad and I got Halo Burger), microbrews are available all over the place, HUGE video boards, etc. I wish they'd move the thing downtown, but that's another conversation entirely. The game itself was tight, and the Pistons were basically in lockstep until 2 minutes to go. The 4th quarter has been their downfall these playoffs.


The sweep was completed Sunday night, another close game (Reggie Jackson jacked up a wild shot at the end that would've won it, if the shot had a prayer of going in). What's clear going forward is that a) the Pistons are one or 2 starters short of being really good, b) the bench is REALLY weak, and c) as a team, they lack the playoff mettle. Problem c) kind of takes care of itself, or it doesn't. Problems a) and b) require personnel moves. I don't want to speculate on trades or who the Pistons might be drafting just yet, so lets look at potential fits via free agency...

The biggest need is backup PG. It's weird to consider a bench position as the #1 need, but the reality is they only need marginal upgrades at a couple of their starting positions but a HUGE upgrade over Steve Blake. Jennings did a capable job of running the 2nd team offense, but I don't think he'd come back and I'd also just rather get someone else.

  • Jerryd Bayless, PG - 27 yrs, 10.4 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.4 tov,  .423/.437/.778
    Bayless is coming off a $3M/yr contract. It's tough to guess what that translates to under the new cap, but he's the ideal guy to back up Reggie.
  • Norris Cole, PG - 27 yrs, 10.6 ppg, 3.7 apg, 1.7 tov, .405/.324/.741 Cole is probably a slightly cheaper version of Bayless. He's not NEARLY as good a shooter, slightly better as a defender, and has a bit more playoff experience.
  • Jordan Clarkson, PG - 23 yrs, 15.5 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.7 tov, .437/.347/.804 Clarkson might be a bit of a pipe dream. He's young and good enough to start, but LA drafted their PG of the future last year. I'd love to get him, but he probably goes someplace where he can start.
  • Ish Smith and Ramon Sessions would be decent upgrades over Steve Blake as well.
After backup PG, I'd like to get either a starting caliber SG, PF, or a backup SG. KCP is really only half a player, so I'd rather he come off the bench. Tobias Harris is a quality player, but he might be better served coming off the bench as well, as a 6th man.
  • Courtney Lee, SG - 30 yrs, 9.6 ppg, 1.7 apg, 1.1 stl, .454/.378/.839Lee's still got something left in the tank. He'd start over KCP at this point, but in another year or two, I could see that flipping.
  • Jared Dudley, G/F - 30 yrs, 7.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.1 apg, .478/.420/.735Dudley is a lot like Lee. Solid defender at 2 spots, good shooter, getting a little long in the tooth. Dudley might be a little more approachable...
  • Kent Bazemore, SG - 26 yrs, 11.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, .441/.357/.815
    I don't like paying for a breakout season, but this was one I could see coming. It feels repeatable, is what I mean. He'll be pricey though, and Stan might not want to foot the bill.
  • It might be worth making Evan Fournier an offer, or taking a flyer on a guy like PJ Hairston or Garrett Temple, although you might be better served by sticking with Bullock in the latter 2 cases.
  • Al Horford, C/PF - 30 yrs, 15.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3.2 apg, .505/.344/.798Horford would be a GREAT get, but he'd be really expensive - in the $20M/yr range. Stan might have to work out a trade or a S&T to squeeze him under the payroll and add everything else he needs to add, but Horford would offer amazing roster flexibility. He could play next to Drummond and he could play C in place of Drummond. He does everything you want a basketball player to do, and he does it well.
  • Ryan Anderson, PF - 28 yrs, 17 ppg, 6 rpg, 1.1 apg, .427/.366/.873He's been the most-rumored guy attached to the Pistons, mainly because he flourished under SVG in Orlando and is the prototypical stretch 4. He'd be expensive though, and I don't think he does enough of the other things I want out of our starting PF to be worth what he'll cost.
  • Marvin Williams, PF - 30 yrs, 11.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, .452/.402/.833Williams has been this guy for several years now, but the league is finally moving toward valuing his skill set. He's a combo forward, plays good D and shoots the 3.
  • Mirza Teletovich, PF - 30 yrs, 12.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.1 apg, .427/.393/.774Basically a knockoff version of Ryan Anderson. He doesn't do much except knock down threes. If you'd rather get Ersan Ilyasova, they're essentially the same guy.
  • Other options, from safest to most risky, are Jon Leuer, Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger, and Ryan Kelly.
We'll have to see how the draft goes. I hope Valentine falls to us, or at least Sabonis. We don't have a ton of space under the cap, and we need to sign Drummond to his max deal after everything else. They might be able to add a player like Horford with some finagling, but they'd have little-to-no room for anything else. Ideally, they get Bayless, one of Dudley or Fournier, and Jon Leuer in free agency and draft Valentine or Sabonis.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

NFL Draft Preview

We're a month away from the NFL Draft. The Lions blew a shot at getting one of the top picks by winning 6 of their last 8 games, so they're stuck hoping to get lucky with the 16th overall pick. They lost Calvin Johnson to retirement in the offseason, and they didn't make much of a splash in free agency. Their signings were headlined by WR Marvin Jones, a solid receiver who will share the responsibility of replacing CJ's production with Golden Tate. After Jones, Detroit didn't do much. They flirted with LT Russell Okung (the guy I REALLY wanted them to sign), but they didn't wow him with an offer and Okung ended up in Denver. They got safety and DB depth, and they re-signed a bunch of people (Ngata, Tyrunn Walker, Crezdon Butler, Mulbach, Whitehead, Orlovsky, etc.), but they're still left with some major holes on the team.

As disappointed as I am with Detroit's offseason, I don't mind the strategy as much as I mind what it indicates. If Detroit had gone out and thrown money at Okung or one of the other big names on the market, new GM Bob Quinn would have been saying "I think we're only a couple of players away from contending." By primarily adding depth instead of making a splash, Quinn is essentially saying "I know what a championship roster looks like, and this is nowhere close." Years of bad drafting by Millen, followed by years of bad drafting under Mayhew, left the Lions like a house built on a Styrofoam foundation. The Lions might as well not even have shown up for the 2010 & 2011 drafts, since no player from either draft is still on their roster. Only 2 players remain from the 2012 draft, and the 2014 draft also looks to be a bust. Quinn has used this free agency period to try to rebuild the depth that should've come from the last 6 drafts.

With depth issues somewhat addressed by free agency (their DT signings/re-signings enabled the Lions to put off addressing that position in this year's draft), what does that leave? The Lions have some holes in their roster, and there's also certain positions that you constantly need to re-up every few years. For example, I'm of the opinion that you should be taking either an OL or a DL in the first round in 1 out of every 2 drafts (45% of the 22 guys you put on the field is a lineman of some stripe). Anyway, take a look at the list of needs the Lions have, as I see it:

  1. Offensive Tackle. They essentially passed on the chance to get Okung in free agency, and they had one of the worst O-lines in the NFL last year. They couldn't pass-block, and they DEFINITELY couldn't run-block. Riley Reiff projects as a better RT than LT, so they could shore up both tackle positions by taking a solid LT. The #16 pick is a little low to get a guy who can start at LT his rookie season though, so they may end up drafting a prototypical RT. That wouldn't be the worst thing either, since the run-blocking needs so much help.
  2. Defensive End. After Ansah, the Lions don't really have a guy that puts the heat on opposing QBs. Jason Jones hasn't been re-signed yet, and he's only a mid-level talent at best anyway.
  3. Linebacker. Normally I'd differentiate between OLB & ILB, but the LBs they have are flexible enough that the Lions could take either an outside guy or an inside guy and be ok. Last year's ILB, Stephen Tulloch, is supposed to be released from the team, but for some reason that hasn't happened yet. DeAndre Levy is still recovering from last year's injury, which is a major concern. Right now, it looks like the LB corps would be Levy & Bynes on the outsides and Whitehead in the middle. Kyle Van Noy is their backup, and he's playing entirely out of scheme (Van Noy is a classic 3-4 OLB, which is not the defense the Lions run. Again, that one is on Mayhew for drafting him). Ideally, they'd draft an LB that would allow Bynes to slide out of a starting role, and then they'd trade Van Noy to a team that would actually use him correctly.
  4. CB/Safety. We always need a CB. Slay looked REALLY good in spots last year, and he could be turning into a top cover corner. Quandry Diggs was ok, but you need more than 1 good corner these days. I'd feel a lot better with another guy at Slay's level or better, which would allow Diggs to play as a slot corner. Safety is also a need. Ihedigbo was mostly bad last year, so the Lions will let him go elsewhere. They let Isa Abdul-Qudus sign with someone else, which was a mistake. Qudus looked like a player. The Lions signed a safety in free agency, but that was a depth move. They need to draft one.
  5. WR/QB/TE. I put these three positions in the same category. WR is a need because they really only have 2, and you need 4 who can make plays. I'd have rated QB #1 if the Lions had a higher pick, but with the 16th pick, you're looking to draft a backup. TE makes the list because Pettigrew can't catch & can barely block, and Ebron can barely catch & can't block. They need someone who can do both. I'd really like to see them draft a sure-handed TE who mainly blocks, but sometimes steps out and catches the little TE pop pass. I don't need him to be Tony Gonzalez or Mark Whitten.
So who would I like to see the Lions draft? With the 16th pick in the 1st round, they're not going to get a TOP top guy, but they can still do pretty good. They've also got the 15th pick in the 2nd round (46th overall), and a compensatory 3rd round pick for losing Suh that would translate to the 33rd pick in that round (95th overall). They've got a bunch of later-round picks too (1 in the 4th, 2 in the 5th, 3 in the 6th, and 1 in the 7th), which shouldn't be discounted, but I'm just going to speculate on their top 3 picks, since I don't have all day to evaluate prospects.


Three Options for 1st round, pick #16:


Jack Conklin - OT Michigan State
6'6", 308#
40  time: 5.00 sec

Bench: 25 reps



I picked the OSU game because it's probably the best example of what Conklin can do when facing top talent. He's not an elite pass-blocker, but he could step in and start on the right side of the Lions' O-line on day one.



Shaq Lawson - DE, Clemson
6'3", 269#
40 time: 4.70 sec
Bench: --

2015 tats: 59 tackles, 24.5 for loss, 12.5 sacks




Lawson ran one of the better 40-times for a DE at this combine, although it's not reflective of what an elite edge rusher would run. He finished 2015 with 95 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and an amazing 25.5 tackles for loss, which led the nation. That's not a TON of sacks, but it's not bad. He's a great run defender and a decent pass defender, and with some improvement on his technique, he could be great at both.


Taylor Decker - OT, Ohio State
6'7", 310#
40 time: 5.23 sec
Bench: 20 reps






Decker is a lot like Conklin. He's a great run-blocker and an adequate pass-blocker. He'd likely start as a RT, with the potential to move over to LT at some point. He matched up pretty well against Shilique Calhoun, an NFL-level prospect. He got beat on a couple of plays, getting too upright in his stance, but for the most part he was pretty good.


ILB Reggie Ragland of Alabama wouldn't be a bad pick here as well. Although DT is now more of a luxury pick than an immediate need, I wouldn't be mad if Quinn opted for one of the DTs who might be available in this range, like Alabama's Jarran Reed or Louisville's Sheldon Rankins.


Three options for 2nd round, pick #46:


Keanu Neal - S, Florida
6'0.5", 211#
40 time: 4.62 sec
Bench: 17 reps
2015 stats: 84 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 int, 1 PD






Neal is a classic big-hitting, ball-hawking safety. None of the big hits in his highlight reel would be penalties in the next level, and he's doing it to players of all sizes - WRs, RBs, and TEs. His 40 time is a bit of a concern, but he's run it much faster at about 4.53 sec, so he may have just had a bad combine. He'd be the ideal type of guy to replace Ihedigbo.


Kenny Clark - DT, UCLA
6'3", 314#
40 time: 5.06 sec
Bench: 29 reps
2015 stats: 73 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, 5 PD






I know DT isn't on my list of needs, but I think the Suh situation last year showed that you can't always put things off. Ngata is old, Walker spend a good deal of last season injured, and no one else looks talented enough to step up. Enter Kenny Clark. He's like a poor man's Suh, at least as a prospect. He's good against the run, and he has potential to be good against the pass.


Karl Joseph - S, West Virginia
5'9.5", 205#
40 time: 4.55 sec
Bench: --
2015 stats (4 games): 20 tackles, 1 sack, 5 INTs, 1 PD 

2014 stats: 82 tackles, 4 for loss, 1INT, 3 PD 






Karl Joseph is like Neal, only with better hitting & tackling, and with worse coverage. I'm kinda ok with that. The Lions suck at stuffing the run, and a big-hitting, hole-stuffing safety would be just what the doctor ordered.


Three options for 3rd round, pick #111


Kendall Fuller - CB, Virginia Tech
5'11.5", 187#
40 time: 4.49 sec
Bench: 15 reps
2015 stats (3 games): 7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 PD
2014 stats: 54 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 13 PD






Fuller is really a 1st or 2nd round-level talent, but injury concerns push down his value. He missed all but 3 games in 2015 to a knee injury, and apparently his medical review at the combine didn't go well. On the plus, he's got great cover skills, and he racked up a bunch of interceptions in his previous 2 college seasons. He has 2 brothers already in the NFL, Bears CB Kyle Fuller and Lions WR Corey Fuller. ESPN has a 2nd round grade on him, but it sounds like the injury concerns will push him into the 3rd or 4th round.


BJ Goodson - ILB, Clemson
6'0.5", 242#
40 time: 4.69 sec
Bench: 30 reps
2015 stats: 108 tackles, 14 for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 3 PD


Goodson doesn't have top end speed, but he's STRONG, and that's more important for a Mike linebacker. He probably wouldn't start in year 1, but could develop into a defensive centerpiece in the future.


Kenny Lawler - WR, Cal
6'2.5", 203#
40 time: 4.64 sec
Bench: --
2015 stats: 52 rec, 658 yds, 13 TDs, 0 fum






The counting stats (other than TDs) don't wow you and that 40 time looks weak, but Lawler's non-Combine 40 time was a full tenth faster, and Cal REALLY spread the ball around on offense (5 guys with over 500 yards, and 6 guys with at least 40 catches). Lawler's got good hands, pretty good route running, and excellent body control. He's the guy Cal had running comeback routes and bubble screens, and he led the team in catches and TDs. The Lions need more of this type of WR, the possession receiver, less of the guy who is just going to try to blow by his coverage. Those guys take forever to get open, and Stafford doesn't have the time.

I don't do this for a living, and I don't watch a ton of college football, so there may be better guys out there that I'm not aware of. This was a best guess at who would be available at each pick, based on ESPN's prospect rankings, and addressing need and positional value with each pick. Having watched tape on everybody (with the exception of Goodson, who weirdly didn't have a highlight reel), the round 1 & 2 guys look like they have the potential to start on day 1. The round 3 guys would at least be solid bench contributors in their rookie season, with the exception of Fuller, who could start if he's healthy. That should be a baseline goal from your draft - get starters in rounds 1 & 2.



This is the first Lions draft since 2000 that isn't being managed by either Matt Millen or someone from his "tree". In that time, they've had 3 good drafts, 2 so-so drafts, and 10 bad ones (subjectively, as opinions vary what constitutes a "good" draft). I've got high hopes. Quinn has a good pedigree, and he hasn't been poisoned by the organization (yet). Will he continue to exercise patience and build the team the right way, or will he jump the gun and go for a QB or WR in the first round?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Good bye, Calvin

If you've been living in a cave for the past 3 months, you probably still know that Calvin Johnson announced his retirement from the NFL this week. A lot of people are drawing comparisons between Calvin and Barry Sanders, and that's pretty natural.
  • Both players were career Lions
  • Both guys were EXTREMELY mild-mannered players who let their play on the field do the talking
  • Both players retired with something left in the tank (Barry especially, still in his prime and just 1 season away from his best ever)
  • Both players are in the conversation for best ever at their respective positions - Barry in the mix at RB with Walter Payton and Jim Brown, Calvin in the mix with Jerry Rice and Randy Moss
  • And neither player had much (or any) post season success
That last point (combined with the 2nd point) leads many to conclude that playing for the Lions killed both players' desire to play professional football. I think that's likely the case with Barry, but not so much with Calvin. Barry had a bit more of a competitive edge and stronger leadership qualities. Calvin famously never made team speeches. After his historic 329-yd game against Dallas in 2013, Schwartz handed him the game ball and all the players chanted "SPEECH" as a joke. Calvin said something like "why start now" or "thanks", and that was that.

Anyway, I always got the impression that Barry took losing a little more personally than Calvin did. When the Lions lost to the Bucs in the 1998 playoffs, Barry said he cried for 3 months. Calvin seems to be more of a "punch the clock" type of guy, not taking the losses home with him. The biggest difference between the two players, however, is HOW each left the team. Barry announced his retirement by a fax to his hometown newspaper in late July of '99. It was a shock, and it left the team with absolutely no opportunity to replace him. Calvin, on the other hand, gave the Lions plenty of forewarning that his retirement was imminent, and retired prior to the opening of NFL free agency. The Lions got his presumptive replacement on day 1.



It would be very "Lions" to lose 2 of the greatest football players ever due to "Lionization" (the cumulative effect of losing and incompetence crushing your spirit), but that's not entirely the case. It is with Barry, and that story is one of the great career tragedies in football that doesn't involve an injury. But with Calvin, he just wanted to hang up the cleats while he still has all his fingers and can remember his own name. He might've wanted to stick it out if the Lions were building a contender, but he might have retired anyway. Calvin is just a different sort of dude.

Anyway, regardless of what the Lions were doing, you had to appreciate Calvin.




Calvin had more straight-line speed than jukes, but he could do some damage in the open field because he was built like a TE, but he could run past your #1 corner. He also came up with more jump balls in triple coverage than anyone I can remember. In fact, the Lions saw some pretty weird defenses that were designed purely to keep the ball out of his hands. I wish they had used him better, I wish he'd had better QBs, and I wish the Lions could've done a better job of keeping defenses honest by running it more effectively. Calvin managed to overcome all that to accomplish a lot of individual success.

***



Now that Calvin is out the door, it does leave a rather large hole to fill on offense, but less of a hole than you might think. Calvin BARELY made the Pro Bowl this year, and I think that was largely based off of reputation, since there were between 2 and 4 other WRs that were better but didn't make the initial cut. A couple of injury-riddled seasons took their toll, and CJ went from a Jerry Rice-type season in 2012 to playing more like latter day Cris Carter the last 3 years, that is to say he was an exceptional possession receiver.


The Lions are replacing Calvin with former Bengals WR Marvin Jones. He was probably the best guy available once Alshon Jeffrey was franchise tagged by Chicago, and he's relatively affordable at $8M/yr. Jones has burner speed (along with some of that Golden Tate-like shiftiness), good hands, and has a reputation for making tough catches through the hits. He's also never fumbled in his NFL career. He turns 26 tomorrow (happy birthday!), so he should be just entering the prime years of his career.






The Lions also acquired a few solid depth guys looking to compete for PT - former NE S Tavon Wilson, special teams ace CB Johnson Bademosi, and DT Stefan Charles. None of these guys are world-beaters (although a good ST specialist can make a huge difference), but this is the kind of thing you need to do when the previous regime sucked at drafting. Like the post-Millen Lions, this team is depth deficient and needs to rebuild.

Detroit could still be looking to make a splash though. OT Russell Okung is in town today, and he's easily the biggest name on the market if you're looking to boost your line. He's been plagued by injuries throughout his career, so he would be a bit of a risk, but that should drive the price down as well. If Okung ends up elsewhere, I still expect the Lions to find a tackle, but probably not one who will be good enough to swing Reiff to the right side of the line.


***

I'll get into the draft in a week or two. I missed the combine coverage because my son was born! Good reason, I know. His name is Cirdan (pronounced KEER-den... it's a Tolkien thing, because I'm a nerd) and he's a big dude so far - 10lbs 0.8oz, 21.65" at birth, currently 10lbs 6oz, 22". I don't know what his 40 time is yet, but I'll let you know once he becomes mobile. My daughter's  might not be terrible, if she could run that far without stopping to investigate some rocks or dirt or something.