The Detroit Lions and Martin Mayhew have been partners in crime since the firing of Matt Millen late during the 2008 season. Previous to that Mayhew had served as assistant general manager and senior vice-president for eight years under Millen. In other words, Mayhew has been here during the majority of one of the worst periods in NFL team history.
That’s not to say that Mayhew is necessarily responsible in any way for the mistakes Matt Millen made, but it does allow for a hint as to why they have some of the same philosophies. While Mayhew has been far more successful than Millen ever was, that’s a very low standard to work up from.
There have been some great moves that Mayhew has made. Guard Larry Warford was a third round pick that Mayhew selected last year and he helped to fortify the very surprising offensive line and could easily made a case for him to be in the pro bowl. He also drafted Ryan Broyles in the second of 2012 knowing he had injury problems and traded up to the first round for Jahvid Best despite his history of concussions.
There have been some successes in Mayhew’s drafts like Ndamukong Suh, Matthew Stafford and Ziggy Ansah. They were all first round picks and those players should start and star in the NFL considering they were top 5 picks. When you look deeper you see Nick Fairley, Titus Young, Mikel Leshoure, Brandon Pettigrew, and Louis Delmas who were all first and second round picks and they have not worked out at all.
Mayhew took the Lions to the playoffs in 2011 with his talented young team that included Suh, Stafford and the mega star Calvin Johnson. It provided great hope for an NFL city that long needed something to root for. The fans thought the team and its coach Jim Schwartz had finally made a step in the right direction and could compete in the NFL despite its early exit in the playoffs that year.
Since then, it’s been more mistakes, more missed opportunities and the young talent is now seasoned and may be at risk of wasting its opportunity to achieve its goals. The 2014 NFL draft was an important key to determine whether or not the Lions would reach their goals. They needed immediate impact players to help a 7-9 team reach the playoffs. There was much talk about the Lions trading up for wide receiver Sammy Watkins and team him up with Johnson and the newly acquired Golden Tate and just attempt to outscore every other team. That didn’t happen.
What did happen is the Lions made an attempt to copy the New Orleans Saints, likely greatly due to their new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s history as a Saints assistant. Mayhew selected the player that the Lions had as the second best on their offensive draft board, tight end Eric Ebron. They believe Ebron will give them that over the top middle of the field dynamic player that could spread the field the way Jimmy Graham has for New Orleans. In theory it’s a great idea, but the two players don’t really compare all that well.
Jimmy Graham is 6’7” 265lbs compared to Ebron’s 6’4” 245lbs, a significant difference and height which is a big part of what makes Graham so difficult to cover. Graham is also slightly faster than Ebron running a 4.5 40 yard dash as opposed to Ebron’s 4.6. In addition to the three inch height advantage Graham has a 38.5” vertical to Ebron’s 33” as well as having almost another 2” in arm length. Grand total of reach difference between the two players is nearly a full foot. Ebron might be a very good player but asking him to be Graham is unfair to him as a player and sets expectations he’ll never meet.
Another thing to keep in mind is where Ebron was drafted. He was the 10th overall pick of the draft. The last tight end chosen that high? None other than Brandon Pettigrew, and he was actually the 20th pick overall. The Lions felt they couldn’t afford to let Pettigrew go during this past offseason and resigned him to a four year deal worth $16 million, $8 million of that is guaranteed. Pettigrew in other words isn’t going anywhere which leaves the Lions, who are already salary cap strapped, with a position that typically is not drafted in the first round(Graham as an example was a third round pick, 95th overall) taking up far too large a portion of that cap committed to tight ends. You would think that Mayhew would have learned his lesson about that as he has been directly confronted with it this offseason at defensive tackle with Suh and Fairley both set to become free agents next year and at risk of losing both for a position that usually doesn’t have that high of salaries.
Ebron might become a fine player, he certainly has skills that caused him to be rated highly by many teams. He also has shortcomings though, one of which he shares with Graham. Neither Graham nor Ebron are known for blocking, more often than not lining up in the slot position. Graham has gone as far as to challenge the Saints and the NFL as he was the Saints franchise player this year. Graham contests that he should receive the wide receiver salary as opposed to the tight end designation, and his case is strong. If he wins it would likely change the way Ebron is seen as well. A 4.60 40 yard dash is impressive for a tight end; it’s slow for a wide receiver.
Ebron also has a history of dropping passes, as high as 12% just last year. The Lions already have a problem with dropped passes. That in part might be due to the accuracy of Matthew Stafford, who often throws the ball behind his pass catchers. All too often last year Johnson dropped wide open passes, Pettigrew has done the same throughout his career and Reggie Bush was baffling out of the backfield last year almost appearing to have stone hands at points. Ebron may need to learn how to deal with the backlash of Detroit fans from Pettigrew if he doesn’t to do something to dispel that reputation. Ebron does share another trait with Pettigrew as well. He only had three touchdowns in over 60 receptions last year. He doesn’t have the vertical advantage Graham has that helps create touchdowns in the redzone.
I don’t think it’s fair to heap the pressure on Ebron that Mayhew and the Lions have done here. Ebron is likely to be a fine player, but as the only tight end to be drafted in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft he is expected to be amongst the best in the league right away. That isn’t likely to happen. Mayhew (and Millen’s) philosophy of drafting the best player available is a failed method; the Lions have proven that with their lack of success over the last 15 years. There are things to like about what the Lions did in this draft and I’ll address those later, but the 10th pick needed to add a dynamic that Mayhew likely has whiffed on here. There’s a reason people around the NFL wish they had a player like Jimmy Graham; because there is only one Jimmy Graham. Expecting Ebron to be what he is not is only setting him up for failure.