I was reading an article in SB Nation that Sean linked in the FanShots. It says Detroit will take Akeem Ayers with their first pick. While I was reading this article I was struck that there are some points that a some folks seem to be missing in considering their first round selections for their mock drafts.
The Lions are going to use the Best Available That Fits A Need (BATFAN) strategy in selecting their player in the first round. For the first time in a number of years, the Lions will pick low enough in the draft that the players who are clearly a step above the rest are going to be gone. There are not likely to be any "no brainer" choices that will fall to the Lions at pick 13. So the Lions will be selecting from a number of players with similar grades on their draft chart.
Given the BATFAN philosophy, not only will the Lions have grade on the talent of the player, but there will also be some weight given to whether they play a position of need and which positions are better to take in certain rounds. In this situation is is clearly better for the Lions to take a cornerback over a similarly graded linebacker in round one. I will explain why after the jump.My opening point settles on the factors that make a dominant team. There are really four positions that are most important. On offense you need a franchise quarterback and a consistent, if not dominant, left tackle to protect your QBs blind side. On defense you need a dominant pass rusher and a very good, if not great cornerback. Teams that have these four positions filled are well on their way to winning division, and maybe even league, championships consistently. All the team needs to do is fill in the roster around them with good players, but they do not have to be great.
The Lions have two of these players drafted already. Matthew Stafford is the franchise quarterback, though he needs to keep healthy so that he can lead the team on the field instead of the sideline. Ndamukong Suh is a dominant force on the defensive line. Jeff Backus may not be a dominant left tackle, but he has been consistent of late. That makes him less of a priority to replace, though the Lions will have to give that some attention soon because Backus only has a few more years to play at a high level. The most immediate need out of the "big four" positions is a top quality cornerback.
As I have mentioned several times before, I believe there are better prospects available in later rounds at the linebacker position than there are at cornerback. IMO the Lions get better overall value by taking a CB in the first round and a linebacker in later rounds if the value of the players are relatively equal.
Linebacker is the type of position where a player can use drive and aggression to overcome talent deficits. Shutdown cornerbacks cannot compensate for a lack of speed or talent very easily by just working hard.The nature of the cornerback position places them against some high quality athletes and they will need to be a match in physical abilities and attributes if they are going to shut them down. Linebackers have a lot more help around them and they do not get placed on an island the way that conrs sometimes do.
All of this works together to mean that you can get a Pro Bowl caliber linebacker much later in the draft than you can get a star cornerback. That means if the Lions have several players available that all grade about about the same, the cornerback should get priority over any other position given their needs.
My opinion is not just backed up by the mechanics of building a team or playing a position. If you look at the top cornerbacks in the league over the past decade or so, they are usually drafted in the first round:
Champ Bailey – Round 1, pick 7
Nnamdi Asomugha – Round 1, pick 31
Darrelle Revis – Round 1, pick 14
Charles Woodson – Round 1, pick 4
Leon Hall – Round 1, pick 18
Johnathan Joseph – round 1, pick 24
Deangelo Hall – Round 1, pick 8
Antonio Cromartie – Round 1, pick 19
Dominique Rogers-Cromartie – Round 1, pick 16
Dunta Robinson – Round 1, pick 10
About the only real impact cornerback that was not a first rounder was Asante Samuel in my view. But he was drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round, and we all know the Patriots have a knack for developing mid and late round players into stars. It is possible to snag somebody like Cortland Finnegan from a small school as a sleeper pick, or maybe you can get a Jabari Greer as an undrafted free agent. But that is a "lightning in a bottle" type of situation. You can't count on it happening enough to make plans based on it.
I think these names prove my point though. The big majority of top cornerbacks are first round picks. Waiting till the second round only rarely nets you a very good cornerback, just a decent one, maybe. But if you are going to be a great defense, having a shutdown cornerback is a very desirable piece. Having a superb linebacker is less important. One other thing to notice is that the best cornerbacks are often selected where Detroit is going to draft, or even later, in the first round.
If you do the same analysis on linebacekrs you find that many of them have been drafted in the second round or later. Mike Peterson, Lance Briggs, Demeco Ryans, Lofa Tatupu, Joey Porter, Zach Tomas, James Harrison, Barrett Ruud, and London Fletcher are all guys that were drafted in the second round or later. Harrison and Fletcher were not drafted at all. They are perfect examples of using hard work and aggression to make up for a lack of pure talent.
May people rank Akeem Ayers fairly high on the draft boards. I feel his tendency to play slower than his speed allows is a big knock on him. His drive and desire are also called into question. In short, he is a soft player. I have ranked him as being drafted between pick 15 and 20 overall. I feel Ayers has already hit his peak value and he is on his way down the charts because his finesse play style does not suit an aggressive NFL defense at the linebacker position.
Both Brandon Harris and Jimmy Smith are in the opposite situation, I feel they are headed up the charts. By the time we get to the draft I feel that both Smith and Harris will be graded about the same as Ayers, if not a bit better. It is also possible that Prince Amukamara will drop to the Lions as well. Picking any of these three CBs at #13 will not be much of a stretch and I feel they take priority over any linebacker except possibly Von Miller. Miller might grade out high enough on the Lions draft board to surpass any CB except for Patrick Peterson.