At first I was skeptical about the Lion’s hiring of GM Martin Mayhew. He and Tom Lewand (now President of the Franchise) were both on Matt Millen’s staff and that’s a poisonous label to have. I heard all the rumors, that William Clay Ford III was doing it for a quick hire and to save money, that the Lions were doing it as a temporary fix till they hire a coach to be co-GM (Bill Cowher) or that it was another terrible hire by Detroit.
But even after all the negatives, I tried to take the positives, well the most positives that can be taken from a 0-16 season, and carry them into the offseason. A General Manager can be graded on coaching hires, drafts, free agent signings and trades as a measuring stick of job performance.
Coaching Hires: B+
Jim Schwartz was most likely the best coach available this offseason. We were not going to pry Bill Cowher from his comfy TV gig just yet, and we needed to go in a defensive direction, even if he was a rookie. Schwartz coached with Bill Belicheck and is an up and coming coach with attention to detail. He coached up great players, and handled tougher players such as Pac-Man and has led some of the best defenses in the NFL every year. It is believed he can be a good evaluator of talent as well, as Mayhew and he are going to be on the same page while drafting, something Millen was not the best at. Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham are excellent coordinating hires. Linehan was part of the St Louis offensive juggernaut, and if not for injuries and player problems, could still be the coach for the Rams. Cunningham brings years of experience (some of it head coaching) to the Lions from Kansas City but faces a tough challenge of turning around an awful defense. He will attack with speed and try to use the improved linebacking core to turn things around.
NFL Draft: B
Aaron Curry or an offensive lineman would have been nice, but Matt Stafford could be the real deal. If he is your guy, and you think he is special, take him no matter what. He seems to have all the tools and mindset to be a successful Quarterback in the NFL. Pettigrew could be an elite Tight End, with the blocking, catching and size you look for. Derrick Williams could jump start an awful situation the return game, Sammie Lee Hill could be a steal as a developmental project and DeAndre Levy could be a starting linebacker in a few years. Delmas looks to be a starter right out of the gate, bringing a tough leadership style and swagger he had in Kalamazoo. Mayhew got three or four starters at least out of this draft, and solid depth and special teamers with the rest. Millen would reach for positions or names and totally ignore depth in the later rounds. Over half the players he drafted aren’t in the league anymore.
This is where Mayhew does his most magic. Just a few weeks into the job, he sent a disgruntled Roy E. Williams and a 7th round pick to the Cowboys for a 1st, 3rd and 5th round pick. Williams would almost surely have left the Lions that summer in free agency, but Jerry Jones wanted Williams to jumpstart the offense and maybe replace TO in the future. Williams promptly signed a large extension with Dallas but did not make an impact in 2008. In the offseason, Mayhew sent overpaid underachieving Corey Redding packing to Seattle for Julian Peterson. Peterson, although not the player he once was, returns to the state he played college ball in (MSU Spartans) and provides the Lions with an impact defensive player, something we have lacked in a while. Redding and his huge contract was a welcome relief, although it did leave a hole in the defensive line to be plugged up with a rotation of Grady Jackson, Chuck Darby, Andre Fluellen, Landon Cohen and Sammie Lee Hill. Jon Kitna was treated poorly and was trade bait last deadline but was put on the injured reserve to end his season. Then he was sent to Dallas to provide a strong arm capable backup for Dallas. The Cowboy’s playoff hopes may have been squashed when Brad Johnson could not come through with leading the offense. The Lions received corner Anthony Henry, a cornerback for the new look Lions secondary. Any change on defense was welcomed, as the Lions could not stop Detroit Country Day some Sundays. Gerald Alexander was traded to Jacksonville for veteran receiver Dennis Northcutt. The injury bug bit Alexander often and he was never able to play a full season after his rookie year. Northcutt is now the most veteran wide receiver and provides steady, but not great, play.
Free Agent Signings: B
The Lions did land Maurice Morris to split carries with Kevin Smith. Smith, a workhorse, could use a veteran change of pace back. Larry Foote was a surprise. The Middle Linebacker, fresh of his second Super Bowl with the team that drafted him, the Steelers. The U of M standout brings a winning attitude and veteran leadership to a team that desperately needs it. He is also a great talent returning his home state to anchor a defense. Grady Jackson and Philip Buchanan were brought in to help out on defense. The two were once standouts, and are expected to be stop gap starters with the Lions. Buchanan could also help to return kicks. Jon Jansen and Ephraim Salaam were brought in to help out the offensive line. They were both good starters at one point (Jansen was an exceptional talent before injuries derailed these last few years) and were brought in to start and bring depth to multiple positions and help tutor the younger players. Will Heller, also out of Seattle, was brought in to backup Brandon Pettigrew. A lot of other veteran players were brought in, not with big contracts, but reasonable deals to provide competition for starting spots. Worst case scenario for these players is spot starts, depth and special team duty. Millen never seemed to bring in veteran depth talent and the Lions suffered. Another welcome change, this is something many teams in the league do. You will always lose starts to injuries, and this helps the Lions chances to win.
Overall Grade so far B/B+
Martin Mayhew has the toughest task ever set before him for a General Manager, maybe in any sport. He has to take the worst team of all time and turn them into winners. 0-16 has never been accomplished and it’s an awful hole to climb out of. The draft was proof that this is a three to four year rebuilding plan, as defense and offensive line (arguably the biggest needs) were largely ignored. Those were set aside for years to come, as a QB was taken while we have a veteran to carry the team for at least another year, and tight end, a position the Lions have lacked for almost a decade. The free agents signings were not exceptional but are all solid and should provide depth and production. The trades were all deals where the Lions gave up something they were not going to have for long for more value. To orchestrate that shows talent and experience beyond his years. I am not drinking Kool-Aid or calling him the savior of the franchise. Maybe I am over rating him for the terrible job we saw these last eight years, but I think he is a solid GM who has the potential to be good for this franchise.