A New Perspective on the Lions/Matt Millen Drafts

I was perusing a few websites this morning reading some season preview/draft review articles and I realized how much of an impression the Lions’ 2009 Draft class has made on people.

The Lions get credit for one of the best drafts (after one full season) in 2009 since they drafted five starters and all but one player contributed to the team.  The only 2009 draftee that didn’t contribute was T Lydon Murtha who was signed off the Lions practice squad to the Dolphins 53 man roster.

That success has given the Lions’ front office a measure of respect from many writers and given many fans confidence in the Lions 2010 picks.  I was contemplating the dramatic change in fans’ demeanor from the Millen years which after the draft, experts would give the Lions decent grades, but fans knew to temper their expectations.

Now Lions fans have a measure of faith in the picks that the front office makes, and that is when it hit me.  After the Lions fired Matt Millen and promoted Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand they only made one front office hire,  James “Shack” Harris.

They did not fire scouts or personnel evaluators, they didn’t revamp the front office, they removed Millen and replaced him with Mayhew and Harris.  Which casts a whole new light on how poorly Millen did his job.  Millen ran eight drafts and made 62 picks, 14 of which are still on the team (eight from the 2008 draft.)  Of those 14 picks, five are starters;  Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola, Calvin Johnson, Cliff Avril and Gosder Cherilus.

The same front office, minus Millen, has drafted eight starters in two seasons and converted several of Millen’s busted picks into more players.  Millen had the same scouts that Mayhew is working with yet Mayhew has yielded far better results.

Mayhew and Schwartz have created an environment of discussion and collaboration where Millen collected information and then made his own decisions.  To make matters worse, Millen’s coaching hires were always dramatically different in scheme so the scouts never had any consistency to work with.

The Lions went from an aggressive downfield passing game under Marty Mornhinweg, to a conservative passing game under Mooch, back to an aggressive downfield passing game under Marinelli and Martz to a zone blocking running scheme under Jim Colletto.  On defense they started with an aggressive blitzing defense, switched to a more conservative defense that emphasized size and strength and then switched to a Tampa 2.  All the inconsistency made the scouts job even harder because they were looking for different types of players every three years.

I don’t like to look back at the Millen years often, but the fact that the Lions are drafting much better, without changing much more than firing him, is even more damning evidence of how poor a GM he was.  He was a divisive presence in the front office, he overrode scouts’ opinions, he did little scouting of his own, he made poor coaching hires and worst of all he hid from the public when things were bad.  Mayhew has been the exact opposite in every way.  In fact, when the fans were in an uproar over the Matthew Stafford selection, Mayhew wasn’t hiding from the fans’ ire, he was selling the fans on the reasons why they drafted Stafford.

Mayhew is running this franchise the way successful franchises are run, the Lions put up a very Millenesque win total last year, and one good draft doesn’t mean that this year’s draft is going to be another homerun.  However, the attitude has changed, the culture has changed and the Lions are deserving of the benefit of the doubt right now thanks to Tom Lewand, Martin Mayhew and Jim Schwartz.

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