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Drafting from Disaster: 10 years of Lions draft classes

It has been a decade since the infamous 0-16 season. How have the Lions rebuilt since then?

2009 NFL Draft Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The 2008 season was certainly a low-point for the Detroit Lions. Being the first team to go 0-16 in NFL history led to a total overhaul, from the front office to the player personnel. Free agency was important, but the Lions needed to draft well. It was poor drafting that led to their failure; Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Ernie Sims, and Gosder Cherilus are some of the first-round picks that did not make a lasting impact for the 2000s Lions. With the 2009 first overall pick in hand, newly minted GM Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz were tasked with rebuilding from arguably the worst team in NFL history — they were drafting from disaster.

2009 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 1 Matthew Stafford QB Georgia
1 20 Brandon Pettigrew TE Oklahoma State
2 33 Louis Delmas S Western Michigan
3 76 DeAndre Levy LB Wisconsin
3 82 Derrick Williams WR Penn State
4 115 Sammie Lee Hill DT Stillman
6 192 Aaron Brown RB Texas Christian
7 228 Lydon Murtha OT Nebraska
7 235 Zack Follett LB California
7 255 Dan Gronkowski TE Maryland

It is somewhat fitting that the Lions’ first pick after their 0-16 season would be—and still is—the cornerstone of their team. Matthew Stafford, despite the single Pro Bowl appearance and a down 2018 season, has been the heart and soul of this team. He and Don Muhlbach are the only Detroit Lions to remain from the 2009 season.

The other first round pick, acquired by trading Roy Williams, was Brandon Pettigrew. The tight end was productive for the first few years of his career, hitting 700 yards in both 2011 and 2012. However, he never developed into a play-maker, and his role in the offense quickly diminished.

The following picks, Louis Delmas and DeAndre Levy had some flashes of excellence, but injuries took a significant toll on their careers.

For the sake of time, we’ll speed through the remaining picks:

Derrick Williams amounted to nine catches for 82 yards. Sammie Lee Hill was a decent rotational defensive tackle, though he was suspended indefinitely in 2016 for substance abuse (it has since been rescinded). Aaron Brown, Lydon Murtha, Zack Follett, and Dan Gronkowski all had little or no long-term impact—Brown lasted three seasons, Murtha didn’t even make the Lions’ roster, Follett suffered a career-ending back injury, and Gronkowski is mainly known for being the brother of Rob Gronkowski (funnily enough, he stands at 69 career receiving yards).

2010 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 2 Ndamukong Suh DT Nebraska
1 30 Jahvid Best RB California
3 66 Amari Spievey CB Iowa
4 128 Jason Fox OT Miami (FL)
7 213 Willie Young DE North Carolina State
7 255 Tim Toone WR Weber State

Following up an awful 2009 season, the Lions were once again picking early in the draft. With the second pick, they chose defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. He quickly developed into a star player for the Lions, reaching the Pro Bowl in his rookie season with 11 sacks. His elite production would eventually garner him a six-year, $114 million contract from the Miami Dolphins in 2015. Despite excellent play on the field, his cap hit significantly hurt the Dolphins, who jettisoned him after only three seasons. He quickly found a home with the Los Angeles Rams; he and Aaron Donald formed one of the fiercest defensive lines in the NFL en route to a Super Bowl appearance last year.

The rest of the Lions’ 2010 draft class had mixed results at best. Speaking of best, Jahvid Best had moments of brilliance, but concussions eventually forced him to retire from football. However, he would parlay his speed into a berth at the Olympics, representing St. Lucia in the 100-meter race. Amari Spievey started at safety but struggled. Jason Fox never developed into a starting tackle due to injuries and poor play. Willie Young was a decent rotational defensive end—which is great value for a seventh-round pick—and signed with the Chicago Bears in 2014. Tim Toone lived up the title of Mr. Irrelevant and failed to even make the roster.

2011 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 13 Nick Fairley  DT Auburn
2 44 Titus Young  WR Boise St
2 57 Mikel Leshoure  RB Illinois
5 157 Doug Hogue  LB Syracuse
7 209 Johnny Culbreath  OT South Carolina St

This is the first draft class that I would deem unequivocally bad. Nick Fairley had some success when paired with Suh, but inconsistency really plagued his tenure as a Lion; he was later diagnosed with a heart condition that forced him to retire. Titus Young was a major headache on and off the field. Mikel Leshoure tore his Achilles in August of 2011 and was never the same. Doug Hogue never amounted to anything more than a special teams body. I’m not even certain that Johnny Culbreath is real—he has no Wikipedia page, nor does he appear on PFF.

2012 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 23 Riley Reiff OT Iowa
2 54 Ryan Broyles WR Oklahoma
3 85 Dwight Bentley CB Louisiana–Lafayette
4 125 Ronnell Lewis DE Oklahoma
5 138 Tahir Whitehead LB Temple
5 148 Chris Greenwood CB Albion
6 196 Jonte Green CB New Mexico State
7 223 Travis Lewis LB Oklahoma

2012 was another iffy-at-best draft class. Riley Reiff and Tahir Whitehead turned into decent players; Reiff earned a five-year, $58 million contract with the Vikings in 2017, while Whitehead inked a $19 million contract over three years from the Raiders in 2018.

The rest of the draft was poor. Travis Lewis was probably the best of the other picks, though his only significant contribution was on special teams. Ryan Broyles couldn’t stay healthy. The trio of defensive backs all failed to develop into even average players; Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood were gone in 2014, while “Bullet” Bill Bentley lasted until 2015. Ronnell Lewis lasted just one season with the Lions.

2013 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 5 Ezekiel Ansah DE BYU
2 36 Darius Slay CB Mississippi State
3 65 Larry Warford OG Kentucky
4 132 Devin Taylor DE South Carolina
5 165 Sam Martin P Appalachian State
6 171 Corey Fuller WR Virginia Tech
6 199 Theo Riddick RB Notre Dame
7 211 Michael Williams TE Alabama
7 245 Brandon Hepburn LB Florida A&M

The 2013 draft was Martin Mayhew’s magnum opus. The 2013 draft class had an incredibly high bust rate, which makes the Lions having such an incredible draft even more amazing. Of the top-10 picks, I’d argue that only Lane Johnson (fourth overall) was better than Ezekiel Ansah. The public opinion of Ansah has been down recently due to his recurring injuries, but there’s no question that when he was healthy, he was an extremely talented pass rusher for the Lions; Ansah wasn’t considered injury-prone coming into the draft either.

The Lions followed it up by drafting Darius Slay and Larry Warford, both of whom turned into Pro Bowlers in 2017 and 2018. There isn’t much to say about Slay that we don’t already know: he’s one of the best shutdown corners in the league. Warford, meanwhile, signed with the Saints in 2017, but that shouldn’t discount how good of a pick he was; if anything, the reason the Lions let him walk is that he out-priced himself with his excellent play. Elsewhere in the draft, the Lions landed an solid punter in Sam Martin and an excellent pass catching back in Theo Riddick.

The remaining picks didn’t amount to much, but no draft class will have a 100 percent hit rate. Devin Taylor had an elite athletic profile, along with monstrously long arms, but he failed to develop those traits and turn into a serviceable pass rusher. Corey Fuller, Michael Williams, and Brandon Hepburn were all out of the league by 2017.

2014 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 10 Eric Ebron  TE North Carolina
2 40 Kyle Van Noy  OLB BYU
3 76 Travis Swanson  C Arkansas
4 133 Nevin Lawson  CB Utah St
4 136 Larry Webster  DE Bloomsburg
5 158 Caraun Reid  DT Princeton
6 189 T.J. Jones  WR Notre Dame
7 229 Nate Freese  K Boston College

The 2014 draft is infamous to Detroit Lions fans. In the years leading up to 2018, many within the community harped on the Lions drafting Eric Ebron over Aaron Donald; Ebron had turned was a decent but disappointing tight end, while Donald had become one of the fiercest defenders in the league. I felt as though the hate for Ebron was undeserved, and the critics had the benefit of hindsight. Then, after unsuccessfully trying to trade Ebron, the Lions released him in March of 2018. Ebron went on to have a Pro Bowl season in Indianapolis — of course. Now the debate has shifted to the fact that the Lions wasted Ebron’s potential. It seems like the Lions are always on the wrong side of history.

Speaking of the wrong side of history, the Lions enjoyed two-ish seasons of mediocre play from Kyle Van Noy before shipping him off to New England for a 2017 seventh-round pick—essentially free; Van Noy has since become their starter.

Elsewhere in the land of disappointments, Travis Swanson couldn’t stay healthy. Nevin Lawson, now an Oakland Raider, was notorious for being in perfect position yet still allowing the catch—as well, he has yet to record an interception, despite starting 54 career games. Larry Webster was an elite athlete masquerading as a football player. Caraun Reid never developed into anything more than a bottom-tier defensive tackle. Nate Freese missed four of his first seven field goal attempts before being cut in September—at least the Lions landed Matt Prater soon thereafter. The only somewhat redeemable player from the 2014 draft is TJ Jones, though he severely regressed in 2018 after a successful campaign the year before.

2015 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 28 Laken Tomlinson G Duke
2 54 Ameer Abdullah RB Nebraska
3 80 Alex Carter CB Stanford
4 113 Gabe Wright DT Auburn
5 168 Michael Burton FB Rutgers
6 200 Quandre Diggs CB Texas
7 240 Corey Robinson OT South Carolina

While some players in the 2014 draft class had success after leaving Detroit, only one player from the 2015 class would be considered a success—sixth rounder Quandre Diggs. The diminutive slot corner had an excellent rookie season, but 2016 and 2017 were rough. The Lions opted to move him to safety for the final four games of 2017, and it paid off: he recorded three-straight games with interceptions, then had a turnaround season in 2018, including a pick-six of Sam Darnold on the first play of the season.

The remainder of the draft class was disastrous to say the least. Laken Tomlinson struggled immensely as a Lion, and eventually getting shipped off to San Francisco for a fifth-round pick. Ameer Abdullah had moments of brilliance, but the injuries and critical fumbles were too frequent. Alex Carter couldn’t cut it at either corner or safety; he has since played for six other teams in the league. Gabe Wright, much like Reid the year before, was bad, and was cut after just one season. Michael Burton was an intriguing pick at the time, and while he was actually decent at fullback, the Lions barely utilized him, waiving him after just two seasons. Corey Robinson, meanwhile, was a bottom-of-the-roster player.

2016 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 16 Taylor Decker  OT Ohio State
2 46 A'Shawn Robinson  DT Alabama
3 95 Graham Glasgow  C Michigan
4 111 Miles Killebrew  S Southern Utah
5 151 Joe Dahl  OG Washington State
5 169 Antwione Williams  LB Georgia Southern
6 191 Jake Rudock  QB Michigan
6 202 Anthony Zettel  DT Penn State
6 210 Jimmy Landes  LS Baylor
7 236 Dwayne Washington  RB Washington

In Bob Quinn’s first draft, the Lions had some early hits. Taylor Decker had an outstanding rookie season, and despite missing a majority of the 2017 season with a shoulder injury, rebounded nicely in 2018; it’s also worth noting that the big man caught a touchdown pass. For the first two seasons of his Lions career, A’Shawn Robinson was quite mediocre, and it was beginning to look like he would turn into another Reid or Wright. However, he was phenomenal in 2018 once the Lions acquired Damon Harrison Sr. Their run-stopping ability helped turn around what was once an extremely weak Lions interior. Graham Glasgow, meanwhile, struggled as a rookie at left guard, but soon found his footing at center, turning into a decent starter for the Lions.

The remaining picks from the 2016 class weren’t as good, but expectations should be tempered, given the gamble that comes with mid- or late-round prospects. Miles Killebrew was billed as an anti-TE weapon in the secondary, but he never found much success before being relegated to special teams duties. Joe Dahl still lurks on the roster as a backup guard. Antwione Williams had a poor rookie season and was jettisoned the following year. Jake Rudock was middling at best, excruciatingly awful at worst. Anthony Zettel posted a seven-sack season in 2017, but those numbers were quite misleading due to his mediocre pass rushing skill; he would be waived in 2018. Dwayne Washington was one of the most athletic running backs of all time, but he also had awful vision and couldn’t turn his traits into any success.

Oh, and the Lions drafted a long snapper.

Who never played a single down.

In the sixth round.

Not great, Bob.

2017 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 21 Jarrad Davis LB Florida
2 53 Teez Tabor CB Florida
3 96 Kenny Golladay WR Northern Illinois
4 124 Jalen Reeves-Maybin LB Tennessee
4 127 Michael Roberts TE Toledo
5 165 Jamal Agnew CB San Diego
6 205 Jeremiah Ledbetter DE Arkansas
6 215 Brad Kaaya QB Miami
7 250 Pat O'Connor DE Eastern Michigan

After an solid debut draft, Quinn’s 2017 draft class isn’t looking as good. However, it it worth noting that these players will be going into just their third season, and while the initial results are disheartening, the jury is still out on regarding their long-term outlook.

Jarrad Davis has had a rough two years as a Lion, but he’s had moments where he’s showcased his potential. Unfortunately, they’ve been few and far between, and the time for progression is now. Consistency has plagued a weak Lions linebacking corps for years now, and they cannot afford to continue this trend.

The follow-up pick, Teez Tabor, has been even more disastrous. His play on the field has illustrated his poor athletic profile; he has struggled to stick with receivers, as well as make plays in the secondary. He was passed on the depth chart by undrafted rookie Mike Ford, despite a dire need at the corner position.

The Lions’ third pick has been the complete opposite of the first two. Kenny Golladay has blossomed into an excellent weapon in the Lions’ arsenal. After an injury hampered his rookie season, Golladay turned into arguably the Lions’ best receiver in 2018, en route to a 1000-yard season.

Of the remaining picks, Jamal Agnew has been the most productive, earning a first-team All-Pro nod as a returner in 2017. He was injured in October the following season, playing in only six games with minimal success. We’ll see if he can return to form this season; as well, his defensive skills could use improvement.

Elsewhere in the draft, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Michael Roberts are still on the roster, though their stints as starters haven’t yielded much success. They figure to compete for depth at this point. Jeremiah Ledbetter, Brad Kaaya, and Pat O’Connor had short tenures; Ledbetter was waived in 2018, while Kaaya and O’Connor failed to make the initial roster, though Kaaya did return for a brief time on the practice squad.

2018 NFL Draft Class

Round # Name Position College
Round # Name Position College
1 20 Frank Ragnow C Arkansas
2 43 Kerryon Johnson RB Auburn
3 82 Tracy Walker S Louisiana
4 114 Da'Shawn Hand DE Alabama
5 153 Tyrell Crosby OT Oregon
7 237 Nick Bawden FB San Diego State

Much like with the 2017 draft class, it is still too early to render verdicts on the 2018 class. Nonetheless, the initial signs are quite encouraging. Frank Ragnow struggled at first, but his play steadily improved over the course of the season. Kerryon Johnson was easily the best running back on the roster, demonstrating amazing potential as a runner and a receiver. When he went down with injury, the Lions’ offense essentially lost their entire run game. His health will be worth monitoring, but there’s a bright future for Johnson.

On defense, Tracy Walker and Da’Shawn Hand were outstanding. Walker, who was chosen surprisingly early, had one of the highest PFF grades in 2018, and while it came on somewhat limited snaps (268), he is a very promising candidate to replace Glover Quin. Hand, meanwhile, was phenomenal in the interior. He was PFF’s top-rated rookie interior lineman — great value for a fourth-round pick. Coupled with Robinson and Harrison, the Lions boasted an excellent run defense.

The final two picks still have a chance to perform. Tyrell Crosby had a modest role as a rookie, primarily acting as the top backup at tackle. However, he played well enough that he could develop into a starting tackle in the future; the Lions might also have him compete at guard to replace T.J. Lang. Nick Bawden, meanwhile, tore his ACL in June of 2018, preventing him from even hitting the field for training camp. With Nick Bellore still unsigned, Bawden figures to have the fullback position on lock... should the Lions opt to carry one.


Looking back at all of these drafts, it’s easy to say that the Lions have blown a lot of picks. However, there are many caveats to consider as well. Firstly, after 10 years, it is likely that many players would be out of the league anyway, so the older classes look poor by comparison. Additionally, injuries are a very unpredictable reality of football, many of which aren’t due to preexisting conditions. For example, Ansah wasn’t injured prior to being drafted—injuries just happen, and it’s terrible that they can end promising careers.

Furthermore, despite all the analytics and research that goes into the draft, it is extremely unpredictable. Some super safe picks bust, such as Aaron Curry, while others with significant question marks turn into stars, such as Jarvis Landry. Coaching and circumstance play an important factor on a player’s career.

It’s easy to look back and say, “I told you so.” There will always be people like that, given how broad the NFL’s fanbase is. No draft class will be perfect. Have the Lions whiffed on picks? Of course. Will the Lions whiff on picks? Of course. Can the Lions still build a winning team? Of course.

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