Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
This is the time of year where far too many people fall victim to the phenomenon of groupthink. A spurious idea about a team or a draft prospect catches fire and burns up mock drafts, internet message boards, and Twitter. Often it begins innocuously enough, with a simple projection by a popular pundit positing a player to a team because the need seems to fit the talent. Somehow this gets construed as some sort of Old Testament commandment from the NFL Draft Gods, of which Mike Mayock from the NFL Network is the reigning Zeus.
Mayock and others assigned Alabama CB Dee Milliner to the Lions at the 5th overall pick in mock drafts over the past month, and this is somehow being treated as gospel by the teeming throngs of sycophantic followers. No disrespect to Mayock, whose work I greatly respect and whose candid presence and persona is a real treat, but this is just not going to happen. Here are several reasons why the Lions will not take Milliner despite what the message board know-it-alls and broad-scoped national analysts will tell you.
Foremost is the relative state of the team. Last year the Lions drafted not one, not two, but three corners. Third round pick Bill Bentley started three of the first four games before getting hurt and going on injured reserve. Fifth round pick Chris Greenwood never saw action because of an abdominal injury suffered in OTAs. Sixth round pick Jonte Green wound up in a starting role at the end of the season and was a pleasant surprise. That is a pretty significant investment into the corner position just last year, and because of where the players were taken it was presumed that the payoff would not be immediate. GM Martin Mayhew was looking towards the future with those picks, and that future will be here this summer.
Bentley and Greenwood are in a similar spot to where Mikel Leshoure was a year ago. Leshoure was a second round pick in 2011 but missed his entire rookie season due to a preseason injury. The masses all seemed to write him off completely, regularly mocking running backs to the Lions in the early stages of the draft. Never mind that the team had just spent a second round pick on Leshoure, or traded up into the first round to draft Jahvid Best a year before. Sure, both were injured, but that doesn’t bury the fact that the team had just made a sizeable investment in the position without adequate time to reap in any potential payoff. I spoke to Jim Schwartz during Senior Bowl week last year and he raved about Leshoure, saying he felt like he was a bonus draft pick for 2012 and would be an integral part of the offense. He also was brightly optimistic about Joique Bell, who finished the 2011 with the team and impressed in practices. Anyone close to the Lions at all knew this, and at that point there was still some hope that Best could return as well. The Lions internally viewed running back as a position of relative strength, not need, heading into the 2012 draft. That didn’t stop numerous draftniks both prominent and ponderous from mocking players like Isaiah Pead, Robert Turbin, or Lamar Miller to the Lions in the second or third rounds.
The Lions feel about their current corner situation now much the way they felt about running back a year ago. When I talked to the coaches and staff in St. Pete and Mobile this year, I got eerily similar takes about Greenwood and Bentley that I did a year earlier about Leshoure and Bell. Detroit is bullish on these players and very anxious to see what they can do when healthy. Bentley and especially Greenwood are essentially being considered like redshirt rookies, players that greatly benefitted from a year within the system to mature and learn. One position coach told me that Greenwood can emerge as “a real studhorse” this season. The team is also quietly optimistic about late-season addition Ron Bartell. They are very satisfied to see what they have from last year’s acquisitions, though they absolutely wanted some insurance.
That insurance policy is Chris Houston. He was a top priority in free agency, and the Lions re-signed him for less cash and a longer term than expected. Houston sits atop the corner depth chart and keeps all the young talent where they belong on that pecking order. He also serves as a mentor, which is something the organization is more cognizant of as a need. Chris Houston is a perfectly adequate #1 corner. He is not a shutdown corner by any means, and his ball awareness skills are infuriating at times, but the team trusts him to fill that role and for the most part he has performed well enough. Had Houston not re-signed, then taking Milliner at 5 was definitely more of a possibility. But it was still doubtful. Why?
The Lions have a very distinct team philosophy and valuation of the cornerback position. Jim Schwartz’s defense is predicated on having playmakers on the defensive line. There’s a reason why Sammie Lee Hill, a good talent who will be the featured starting DT in Tennessee now, sat fourth on the depth chart in Detroit; Schwartz very strongly believes in dominating the line of scrimmage and defending the passing game by getting pressure on the opposing QB. If corners can make plays, that’s all the better, but the Lions are not a team that places an imperative on having a premium, top-shelf cornerback. More to the point, if they do want an elite corner that is a definite upgrade from Chris Houston, that guy is available in Darrelle Revis. The Lions would trade the #5 pick to the Jets for a proven commodity like Revis before they would use it on an unproven talent like Milliner.
So when you are filling out your own mock draft, or mindlessly accepting that the mock drafts you see from prominent pundits are irrefutable evidence that a team is absolutely going to select someone, keep this in mind. Think about the forest beyond the tree right in front of you. That’s precisely what Martin Mayhew and the Lions are doing this offseason. Whether you agree or not, the Lions are very confident that they are fine at cornerback; it is not a pressing need either now or in the immediate (1-2 seasons) future. That doesn’t mean they dislike Dee Milliner or that he isn’t worthy of consideration by a team picking in the top five. He just isn’t a realistic option for Detroit at the five spot.