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Analyzing the Lions’ draft picks over the past 5 years

A look at the distribution of draft picks from the Lions since 2012.

Detroit Lions Introduce Jim Caldwell Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Before we look ahead to what the Detroit Lions will do this offseason, it’s a good idea to look back at how the team got to be where they are now. This is a team that is coming off of a playoff appearance but is perceived to have a lot of holes going into 2017.

We all know the best way to build a team long-term is through the draft. So, if the Lions have so many holes on the team, it’s likely because of a failure from previous drafts. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to fret: the Lions’ change at general manager could very well fix the issues of the past. Early returns on Bob Quinn’s first draft are very promising, but they’re also too premature to really give Quinn any meaningful credit.

Rich Hribar of Rotoworld created a chart that gives us a good idea of how the Lions have spent their last five year’s worth of draft picks and compared it to the rest of the league:

There’s a lot going on here, but what jumps out right away is their lack of spending on skill positions. Often, Martin Mayhew was criticized for spending too many picks on “luxury” picks when the Lions needed more infrastructure. But unlike the Matt Millen days, the Lions hardly spent any picks on wide receivers. Of course, having Calvin Johnson is a good way to justify that. The Lions are also below average in spending on tight ends, but choosing one at No. 10 overall shows serious investment in the position.

It should come as no surprise that the Lions have spent more draft capital on improving the offensive line than most other teams. For the better part of the year, all five starters on the line were draft picks from the first three rounds of their respective drafts. Only the Colts, 49ers, Rams and Seahawks spent more on the position since 2012.

What also sticks out is the Lions’ investment in special teams; they’re the only team to have spent three draft picks on special teams over the past five years, but it hasn’t been for nothing. Sam Martin is one of the best kickers in the league, Jimmy Landes is likely to take over long-snapping duties next season, and while Nate Freese was a disaster as a kicker before his quick release, he only cost the team a seventh-round pick. The Lions ended up lucking into Matt Prater that year, so, no harm, no foul.

Now that we know how the Lions have been spending the draft picks, it’s important to look at how successful the picks have been. Thankfully, Hribar gave us one unit of measurement to judge their draft classes: Amount of picks that failed to play even one game.

A few notes before we get into this. One, this is obviously a very low bar to set for your draft picks. Seeing the field once doesn’t exactly make your pick worthwhile. For example, third-round pick Alex Carter played a few special teams snaps in one game this year, and therefore isn’t accounted for on this list, but few can argue that that pick hasn’t been a complete bust. Additionally, the Lions number should actually be three: Jimmy Landes, Jake Rudock and seventh-round pick in 2013 Brandon Hepburn.

With all that being said, it’s actually quite remarkable how the Lions have had only three draft picks never seen the field in the NFL. For Landes and Rudock, that’s completely excusable, as Rudock was never expected to see the field and Landes was simply on IR.

But there’s also the argument that the Lions roster has been so thin over the past few years that they have needed to play their young players in a desperate attempt to simply field players.

While both of these charts make Mayhew out to be a pretty good drafter, the data just isn’t sufficient to truly make that claim, and all you have to do is look at the offensive line. The Lions have spent endless resources on the position during Mayhew’s reign and now they’re facing a conundrum where two high draft picks—Riley Reiff and Larry Warford—may not even make it to their second contract under the Lions. Another high pick, Laken Tomlinson, has yet to live anywhere close to his expectations, and once his rookie contract is up, he could be gone, too.

Overall, Mayhew was able to avoid any huge busts over his past five years, with maybe Ryan Broyles being to sole exception. That’s a low bar to set for a general manager, and it’s probably why the Lions ended up making a change. Now Detroit will have to monitor Quinn closely to make sure he doesn’t end up making the same mistakes.