How Deeply Could Lions Cost Themselves In Draft Down The Stretch?

They took quite the hit on Sunday.

Will Burchfield
December 11, 2018 - 7:21 pm

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The Lions beat the lowly Cardinals last Sunday -- because anyone would have beaten the lowly Cardinals last Sunday -- to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. That left some fans satisfied -- and who could blame them after all this organization's losing?

It left others up in arms -- and who could blame them after the win dropped the Lions from fifth on the draft board to tenth? 

Not that the players could ever be asked to lose, but couldn't the decision-makers have sent out a team unfit to win? Couldn't they have sacrificed what's left of 2018 in the name of 2019 and beyond? A loss on Sunday would have given the Lions the inside track to a top-five pick. Now, with three winnable games remaining, they'll be lucky to pick within the top 10

Look, there's some value in closing out the season strong under a first-year head coach, especially a head coach who hasn't always had the full faith of his locker room. The Lions are starting to turn a corner on defense, the defense entrusted to Matt Patricia, and that growth could mean something moving forward. 

So could a shot at the best talent in the draft. And what kind of talent might the Lions have cost themselves in April with an essentially meaningless victory in December? 

Well, we won't have much of an idea until the draft order is set at the end of the season...we won't be able to start judging until the draft itself takes place...and even then it will take a couple more years to come to any kind of conclusion. What we can do, though, is consult history. 

And here's what recent history tell us: Yeah, you want a top-five pick. As for whether you want it more than an extra win or two in December when the playoffs appear out of reach, well, that can debated. 

To glean some perspective, let's look at each draft from 2007 to 2016, withholding the past two drafts because they're still too fresh to judge. That gives us 150 players taken in the first 15 picks, a sample size that feels big enough to trust. And let's break them down into three groups of 50. 

Picks one through five have produced 15 All-Pros, combining for 31 All-Pro selections; plus 29 Pro-Bowlers, combining for 93 Pro-Bowl selections. 

Picks six through 10 have produced nine All-Pros, combining for 18 All-Pro selections; plus 16 Pro-Bowlers, combining for 42 Pro-Bowl selections. 

Picks 11 through 15 have produced seven All-Pros, combining for 23 All-Pro selections; plus 24 Pro-Bowlers, combining for 70 Pro-Bowl selections.

If these numbers aren't all that surprising, they're pretty darn clear. Teams picking in the top five are about twice as likely to land an All-Pro as teams picking from six to 15 -- a chance of 30 percent versus 16 percent. As for Pro Bowlers, the odds are about 60 percent versus 40 percent. 

That's a substantial difference, especially in regard to the building blocks of an organization. The Lions have had just four All-Pros since 2007 in Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Darius Slay and return-man Jamal Agnew. The former two were top-five picks -- top-two, to be exact -- and stand as Detroit's only players to earn multiple All-Pro selections since Barry Sanders. 

A high pick comes with no guarantee, of course. The Lions know this as well as any team in any league. But their history of draft failures don't count against current GM Bob Quinn, who hasn't picked higher than 16th in three years at the helm. And if confidence in Quinn is already starting to wane, all the more reason to arm him with a top-five pick, where it's easiest to stumble into a franchise player.

We'll see how the Lions play things out down the stretch. If they lose on Sunday at Buffalo and are eliminated from playoff contention, maybe they'll rest some of their starters in the final two games. Maybe they'll prioritize draft position over establishing some momentum and a winning atmosphere heading into Patricia's second season. Probably not. 

If and when they find themselves with another mid-range first-round pick in April, they may not like their odds of finding a star. Just know there were better odds to be had, at a price many other teams have been willing to pay.