Mulling the Lions' risk tolerance in 2013

February, 26, 2013
2/26/13
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Jahvid Best, Titus Young, and Mikel Leshoure USA TODAY SportsJahvid Best, left, Titus Young, center, and Mikel Leshoure are among the recent draft picks by the Detroit Lions who have had their careers impacted by injuries and/or off-the-field issues.
The NFL's cyclical intent is never more apparent than draft time, when the worst teams from the previous season line up to select the best players entering the league. It is a time of renewed hope and realistic dreams for a better tomorrow. For the Detroit Lions, this year is also reason for reflection, nerves and perhaps some skittishness as well.

The Lions have the No. 5 overall pick when many of the draft's top prospects face physical or character issues. The situation isn't necessarily unique, but it draws further scrutiny to a franchise that has experienced a debilitating mix of bad luck and poor decisions in its recent drafts.

The Lions have drafted 29 players over the four-year tenure of general manager Martin Mayhew. Of that group, 11 -- about 38 percent -- have had their careers significantly sidetracked by injuries or disciplinary issues. That list, detailed in the chart, doesn't include quarterback Matthew Stafford, who missed 19 of his first 32 games because of shoulder injuries.



In many cases, those players had predictive histories. Receiver Titus Young had been suspended for behavior issues at Boise State. Tailback Jahvid Best suffered a violent concussion on the final play of his college career. Other setbacks, including running back Mikel Leshoure's ruptured Achilles tendon, could not reasonably be expected.

Still, as a whole, the Lions' recent draft performance is a worrisome backdrop for 2013. Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the draft's No. 3 prospect according to Scouts Inc., was diagnosed with a heart condition at the NFL scouting combine. Linebacker Jarvis Jones, who might be the draft's top pass-rusher, was forced to transfer from USC to Georgia because of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal cavity. Meanwhile, Alabama's Dee Milliner -- the draft's top cornerback -- is scheduled for surgery to repair a torn labrum. Another top linebacker, Georgia's Alec Ogletree, has been suspended for a failed drug test and arrested for DUI in the past year.

Medical and character evaluations are a part of every draft class. But if you're the Lions, and your recent list of issues is as long as the one in the chart, you have less room for error. With only six draft choices at their disposal at the moment, the Lions might have to reconsider their risk tolerance.

"Honestly," said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. "We've had guys that have had a history of injuries that got injured. We've had guys that have had a history of injuries that have made it through without getting injured. Injuries are a part of the landscape. And if you think because a guy hasn't been hurt before that he won't get hurt, you might be mistaken. If you discount a player because he's been hurt. …"

I can fill in where Schwartz left off. If you discount a player because he's been hurt, you're dramatically and unnecessarily limiting your pool of candidates.

"I think the biggest thing with injuries," Schwartz said, "is probably identifying things that are chronic, things that aren't going to get any better, things that he can rehab."

In 2013, the concussions Best suffered while playing at Cal would be considered chronic. In 2010, as we discussed last fall, they were not. Generally speaking, though, NFL people will tell you that players who were routinely injured in college will be routinely injured in the NFL. Offensive lineman Jason Fox, whose knee problems at Miami carried over to his rookie season in 2010, is an example. (The Lions hope Fox can compete for a starting job in 2013.)

Even so, injuries are a much more scientific evaluation than the type of character judgments the Lions have been forced to make in recent years. Four of the five players they drafted in 2011, for example, experienced disciplinary issues over the following year, from defensive tackle Nick Fairley's arrests to Young's insubordination to Leshoure's drug suspension.

Young lasted only two seasons before the Lions released him this month, but at the combine Mayhew said that was "a very unique situation" and added that he is "confident" in the process that led to drafting him. He also noted that new personnel executive Brian Xanders has helped make some changes in the Lions' combine preparation and interview process.

In the end, the Lions are almost certain during this draft to face the same type of decision they did with Fairley, Young, Best, Fox and others. And I agree: A risk-free approach isn't any more advisable than a high-risk one. But the Lions need to improve their batting average, and their high-profile position in this draft means no one will miss the result.

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