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

Prince Amukamara doesn’t fare well in ESPN stats analysis


Tim Twentyman / The Detroit News

ESPN analyst JC Joyner thinks Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara, a candidate to be selected by the Lions with the 13th pick, is rated far too high in this year’s NFL draft.

And he’s got data to prove it.

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Joyner broke down the statistics of Amukamara and some of the draft’s other corners and found that he lagged behind.

“In fact, his performance level placed him well behind some other cornerbacks that are considered borderline first-round choices,” Joyner wrote.

In the 10 games in which the Cornhuskers faced FBS competition (Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Iowa State, Texas AM, Colorado, Oklahoma and two games against Washington), Amukamara was targeted 37 times and gave up 17 completions for 297 yards (8.7 yards per catch average) with three touchdowns. On plays over 30 yards, Joyner notes that teams completed three of their four attempts against Amukamara for 161 yards.

Amukamara gave up 11 completions/defensive penalties in 20 vertical pass attempts, according to Joyner, which equates to a 45-percent success rate. That would have ranked 82nd in that category at the pro level last season. The 14.1 vertical yards per attempt (YPA) and 16.6 stretch vertical YPA would also have placed him in the bottom quarter of the league in those categories.

Joyner admits that Amukamara’s numbers were skewed by his performance against Oklahoma State star wideout Justin Blackmon (Blackmon went 3-for-6 for 144 total reception/penalty yards and a touchdown), but writes that even if you subtract that game, he still gave up a nearly 50-percent completion rate on all other passes.

Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith is considered another draft candidate for the Lions. In an eight-game sample (Colorado State, California, Hawaii, Georgia, Missouri, Baylor, Oklahoma and Nebraska), Smith was targeted 21 times and gave up eight completions for 73 yards, or a 3.5 YPA. He also had a 3.6 YPA on passes of more than 11 yards and a 2.3 YPA on seven passes of 20 yards or more.

“The Georgia game included two targets in which Smith was covering consensus No. 1 wide receiver A.J. Green, both of which fell incomplete,” Joyner notes.

ESPN Insider is a premium site at ESPN.com. To subscribe, go to espn.com/insider.

Lions’ draft backup plan could include UCLA’s Akeem Ayers


The Detroit News

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has always entered the draft with the thought of taking the best player available when it’s his time to hand in the draft card.

The best example of that was in 2008, when he picked tight end Brandon Pettigrew with the No. 20 overall pick when the Lions had pressing needs at other positions, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.

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ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. released his “backup plans” for each team for April’s NFL draft Friday, and Kiper thinks the Lions could go a number of different ways with the No. 13 pick.

“Detroit really needs to get secondary help, but if (Prince) Amukamara is gone, they may feel like Colorado’s Jimmy Smith is a slight reach,” Kiper wrote. “But they need linebacking help too, and (Akeem) Ayers would fit. They could also consider a trade down to get better value with an offensive line pick.”

Tim Twentyman: Top cornerbacks will be gone before Lions pick, Kiper says


Tim Twentyman: NFL Insider

Mel Kiper Jr., who has been ESPN’s point man on the NFL draft since 1984, has some bad news for Lions fans hoping to snag a cornerback in the first round.

Kiper said the Lions’ top four needs are cornerback, outside linebacker, offensive tackle and defensive end. But he thinks there’s little chance the Lions get a corner deserving of the No. 13 pick.

LSU’s Patrick Peterson and Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara are considered the top two corners in the draft. After Peterson and Amukamara, Kiper said the rest of the corners are more deserving of late-first round to second-round consideration.

Peterson is considered a top-five pick and Kiper doesn’t think there’s any way the Lions have a chance at Amukamara unless they move up.

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“I just can’t see (Amukamara) getting past Dallas (at No. 9),” he said. “Surprises happen every draft, and you never say never, but right now, I have a tough time getting him down to Dallas. I thought he’d fit in good with a couple teams earlier; San Francisco (No. 7) could look corner. I do think at No. 13 that would be a stretch to try and get him.”

Kiper still thinks the Lions will take UCLA outside linebacker Akeem Ayers, which would certainly fill a need.

But Kiper also alluded to a possible wild-card selection.

“I have (offensive tackle) Nate Soder out of Colorado going one pick ahead of the Lions at No. 12,” Kiper said. “He’s had a nice week down at Mobile so far (Senior Bowl), which you knew he would.

“I think he has the most upside out of any lineman in the draft, be it offensive lineman or defensive lineman. He’s a former tight end. He’s a chiseled kid. He’s going to keep getting better and better because of limited experience on the offensive line.

“The history of tight end-turned-offensive tackles in the NFL over the last 35 years is pretty good. I think he would be an interesting guy. He’s the only one right now of the offensive tackles that I think has a chance to really jump up. I think Soder is going to be the hot guy because of the upside and the fact that he’s that diamond in the rough; he’s going to keep getting better and better.”

If the Lions pass on Ayers for Soder, or Amukamara drops, Kiper said there are good 4-3 outside linebackers available in the second, third and fourth rounds that will fit the Lions’ needs.

He named Bruce Carter (North Carolina), Lawrence Wilson (Connecticut), Mason Foster (Washington) and Ross Homan (Ohio State) as possibilities for the Lions later in the draft.

By the numbers

$83,000 — Payout for each player on the winning team in Super Bowl XVL

$42,000 — Payout for each player on the losing team

$15,000 — Payout for each player on the winning team in Super Bowl I (1967)

$7,500 — Payout for each player on the losing team

Air attack

Still don’t think the NFL is a passing league? A record 22 quarterbacks passed for 3,000 yards or more this season. The previous high was 19 in 2001 and 2009.

Philip Rivers, Chargers — 4,710

Peyton Manning, Colts — 4,700

Drew Brees, Saints — 4,620

Matt Schaub, Texans — 4,370

Eli Manning, Giants — 4,002

Carson Palmer, Bengals — 3,970

Aaron Rodgers, Packers — 3,922

Tom Brady, Patriots — 3,900

Matt Ryan, Falcons — 3,705

Kyle Orton, Broncos — 3,653

Joe Flacco, Ravens — 3,622

Sam Bradford, Rams — 3,512

Josh Freeman, Buccaneers — 3,451

Donovan McNabb, Redskins — 3,377

Chad Henne, Dolphins — 3,301

Mark Sanchez, Jets — 3,291

Jay Cutler, Bears — 3,274

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers — 3,200

Matt Cassel, Chiefs — 3,116

Michael Vick, Eagles — 3,018

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks — 3,001

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills — 3,000

He said it

“The entire senior leadership team stands with me in its commitment to resolving the CBA issues with the players union. While several other executives have also volunteered to make additional reductions to their compensation, I have asked them not to take that step at this time as we continue our negotiating efforts.”

— NFL commisioner Roger Goodell, who said he’ll cut his salary to $1 if there is a work stoppage after the collective bargaining agreement expires in March. Goodell makes $10 million per year.

ttwentyman@detnews.com

It’s not too early for Lions fans to think draft

Lions: Analysis

Tim Twentyman / The Detroit News

Allen Park– The Lions lost their ninth game in 11 tries over the Thanksgiving Day weekend. With hopes for a playoff spot dashed for an 11th-consecutive season, it’s not too early to start looking at how this team might improve itself in 2011.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew put together a couple of nice drafts the last two seasons, particularly with top picks Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh, and will need to get more help this spring.

Positions in need of upgrades: the secondary, linebacking corps, and offensive line.

So who might the Lions target with another likely top five pick?

After watching Tom Brady slice up the Lions in a 45-24 Thanksgiving Day loss, the early favorite is Louisiana State cornerback Patrick Peterson. Peterson is a true lockdown corner, something the Lions haven’t had in years.

Peterson (6-1, 222) has drawn comparisons to former Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson. Only a junior, he is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top cornerback. He’s also a productive returner, averaging 27.5 yards per kick return and 19.7 per punt.

Peterson has elite size for the position and runs in the 4.3 to 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash.

Other possibilities

Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara could also be an option. Amukamara (6-1, 205) doesn’t have an interception in 2010, but that’s mainly because opposing quarterbacks rarely throw his way.

Amukamara was a late bloomer, making three starts his first two seasons at Nebraska, but has developed into one of the nation’s top defenders. He’s also a finalist for the Thorpe Award.

The year’s cornerback class is deep by draft analysts, and includes other top-flight corners in Brandon Harris (Miami), Janoris Jenkins (Florida), Ras-I Dowling (Virginia) and Aaron Williams (Texas).

On draft day, don’t be surprised, if the Lions bypass all the cornerbacks and decide early to get help at linebacker, especially on the outside.

Veteran outside linebacker Julian Peterson and his $8 million salary are likely gone after the season.

Zack Follett, who started the season at outside linebacker, was lost for the season due to a neck injury and has an uncertain future.

The unit needs a young playmaker alongside middle linebacker DeAndre Levy.

The two best linebacker prospects, according to Kiper, are Akeem Ayers (UCLA) and Von Miller (Texas AM).

Both Ayers (6-4, 255) and Miller (6-3, 243) have terrific size and speed, but are viewed more as 3-4 rush linebackers at the next level. The Lions run a 4-3 base defense.

Later round talents

Other options at linebacker, later in the first round or possibly early in the second round, are Travis Lewis (6-2, 232) of Oklahoma and North Carolina’s Bruce Carter (6-3, 225).

Lewis and Carter are a bit small for Lions coach Jim Schwartz’s scheme, though.