Lynn Henning: Rest easy Lions fans, this front office has shown draft smarts


Lynn Henning

Allen Park— You can appreciate this about the Lions in the hours before this year’s NFL Draft begins.

No longer is it a simple, or melancholy, exercise studying their first-round options.

The new crew gets it. They have gotten it since Martin Mayhew, Shack Harris and Jim Schwartz began fusing minds and analyses in grabbing college players who would help make the Lions a flesh-and-blood NFL team.

Some folks are waiting before voting. They want to see more later-round success. That’s fair. But if you can pick with smarts in the early rounds, you’ll pick, over the long haul, deftly in the latter rounds.

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It’s what happens early that most matters for any team, particularly one with the Marshall Plan-like reconstruction program the Lions have faced.

Matthew Stafford was the correct pick in 2009, as was their second first-rounder that year, Brandon Pettigrew. Ndamukong Suh was the right guy a year ago, and so, probably, was their decision to trade up and grab Jahvid Best.

Meanwhile, the Lions were at least competent with some later-hour picks in each draft — Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy in 2009; Amari Spievey last year — just as they were shrewd in signing free agents the past two springs.

Common sense and good judgment

This newfangled NFL competency in the Lions’ chambers makes for a particularly gripping guessing game ahead of Thursday night’s first round.

There are now two spheres of thought in Allen Park, which is two more spheres than most of the Lions’ previous front-office regimes demonstrated over 40-plus years.

On one hand, they probably won’t miss if they go for the safe, healthy, talented guy who meets their specifications. There are lots of those available, whether it’s Prince Amukamara, who might help heal a generations-old wound in the Lions secondary, or Anthony Costanzo, the Boston College offensive tackle who could help gird a thin offensive line that won’t have Jeff Backus and Dominic Raiola forever.

But what also happens when a front office has a modicum of savvy and confidence is that the brass isn’t afraid to make a risk-reward wager.

And there is your basis for taking a deep breath and rolling the dice on Da’Quan Bowers, the speedy defensive end from Clemson who would be the edge rusher the Lions ideally need if they intend to be anything more than a qualifier for the NFL playoffs.

“Calculated risks make sense,” Mayhew, the Lions general manager, said last week during a news conference at Lions headquarters, where the usual murkiness on draft plans was maintained to a spectacular degree.

The words “calculated risks” were thought — thought — to be a reference to Bowers, whom Mayhew acknowledged was “not in pristine physical condition,” owing to a knee problem that might require microfracture surgery.

It makes you wonder all the more what this consortium might be thinking. The Mayhew-Harris-Schwartz triumvirate (it’s nice that no one seems to care who gets the brunt of the credit on a front-office team that actually behaves like a team) has been proving why the NFL is a competent front office’s best friend.

The league rewards GMs, coaches, and personnel private eyes who demonstrate common sense and good judgment, not that either quality was on display here for the better part of 40-plus years.

The Lions’ new generals had a different plan: They would show competency. And so they delivered the makings of a competitive team last year, which wasn’t much of a surprise after their first two drafts and free-agent springs (following Mayhew’s shrewd trade of Roy Williams the previous autumn).

There was nothing hollow about that 6-10 record or those seven Lions losses by the whopping sum of 27 points. The team was much improved was moving within the area code of becoming a playoff team. Suddenly, foundational talent was being drafted and free agents were no longer the quizzical or gimmicky folks who once arrived at Allen Park for a long, lamentable autumn.

Or, put another way: Charles Rogers and Mike Williams would no more be picked by the new guys than Az-Zahir Hakim or Bill Schroeder would be signed to a nattily generous free-agent deal.

Play it safe or gamble?

So, what do the Lions do Thursday night?

It gets down to which of their two personas they’re going to assume.

If they go safe and steady, it figures be for a guy like Amukamara on defense when the Nebraska cornerback has no disqualifying physical or character hang-ups.

Or, maybe it goes like this: Considering Schwartz’s obvious plan to provide Stafford with all the help a draft and free agency could provide (Pettigrew, Best, Nate Burleson, etc.), it would seem feasible that he will want to dump a bit more concrete into Detroit’s offensive line, which makes Costanzo appealing.

But what if a team has progressed to a point where some derring-do can finally enter their draft psyche?

The Lions might have gotten to that stage in 2011. Getting the potential game-changing pass rusher, even if he won’t be ready to unleash Hades on opposing quarterbacks until next season, makes the Bowers selection doable.

Jimmy Smith, the Colorado cornerback? Another possibility, if the Lions decide the so-called character issues have been explained to their satisfaction.

But if you can take anything from their first two drafts, or anything from the fog Mayhew deliberately spewed last week, it’s this:

Whether they play it safe with a guy like Costanzo, or spin the wheel with Bowers, they’re going to end up with a terrific football player.

Those projections weren’t made in earlier years. They can be now, which is simply one more way of saying the Lions have at last rejoined the National Football League.

lynn.henning@detnews.com

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