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Draft day minus 12 days and counting, and everyone wants to know what the Detroit Lions are going to do with the first pick on April 25. Here's my read of where they are this morning. All things considered, I think they're going to handle it as well as any team hamstrung with this millstone of a pick can handle it.
I believe the Lions will target three players -- Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, Baylor left tackle Jason Smith and Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. Detroit has the benefit of being the only team that can talk to any player in the draft about a contract, because the Lions are on the clock; it's their pick, anytime between now and 4:10 p.m. on the opening day of the draft. Sometime in the coming days, they'll talk to the agent for the player they favor (my guess is Stafford), and tell him it's paramount said player signs before the draft. If this player can't be signed by, say, the Thursday before the draft, the Lions would move on to their second choice, then their third.
That's the general idea. It's not new. Bill Parcells would have done it last year had he not been able to get a deal with tackle Jake Long three days before the draft. This year, it's going to be a slippery slope because I believe Stafford will be hard to sign -- and that may push new general manager Martin Mayhew to draw a line in the sand. He doesn't want to be cowed into signing a player who may carry a guaranteed money tag of $40 million.
Tom Condon and Ben Dogra are the agents for Stafford. They also are the agents for Jason Smith. This could be a weird story. Condon and Dogra could drive a harder bargain on Stafford because of the position he plays, and it's conceivable they could push the Lions to target Smith, if he's No. 2 on their list, because of the signability factor. Conceivable, but not likely. For an explanation, look at the guaranteed money handed to the last four No. 1 overall picks:
Williams, a defensive end, got 10 percent more guaranteed money than Smith, a quarterback. Russell, a quarterback, got 21 percent more guaranteed money than Williams -- and 34 percent more guaranteed money than the quarterback taken two years previously. Long got the premium of a five-year deal (and the ability to be a free agent at 27 at a position where he may be able to hit the free-agent jackpot twice) and an average increase of 12 percent per year over Russell.
So follow the money: A defensive end gets 10 percent more than a quarterback, a quarterback gets 21 percent more than a defensive end, and a tackle gets 12 percent more than a quarterback. To me, that says Condon/Dogra will want 20 percent more for the quarterback than what Long got last year. So Stafford, in that scenario, would want either $36 million guaranteed over five years, or $42 million over six. Let's say Condon/Dogra take a this-economy-stinks discount. Maybe they go to $34 million or $35 million over five, or $38-ish million over six. Maybe.
That's one factor in this. The other factor is which player makes more sense to the Lions.
Stafford had a very good pro day at Georgia and then a better individual workout with the Lions. He's a confident, commanding presence. If the Lions were interested in Jay Cutler, and they were, then it makes sense they'd be interested in the quarterback most like him in this draft.
There are some lingering questions about Stafford in Detroit because the Lions remember the ghost of Joey Harrington and they know there's a 50-percent washout factor with first-round quarterbacks. They wonder why Stafford never became the super phenom he was supposed to be coming out of high school. All logical concerns. But they also know they like him, and they know Daunte Culpepper is not their quarterback of the long-term future, and they may not have a chance to draft a quarterback as promising in the next few years.
Smith would cost a little less, maybe $33 million guaranteed over five years, and he'd probably be able to move in at left tackle immediately, or after one year, enabling the Lions to strengthen the line. They could team him with last year's first-rounder, Gosder Cherilus, as left and right tackles, or move Cherilus inside for a year or two and move left tackle Jeff Backus over to the right side. Smith's a feisty kid with a mean streak, like Long was last year, and the Lions wouldn't regret the pick. He's a safe pick.
I keep hearing Curry is the safest pick of them all, and there's something to it because of his athletic and physical gifts. Lions coach Jim Schwartz told me if Curry were the pick, he'd play middle linebacker and never come off the field. But Curry wasn't a sacker in college, so his pass-rush skills in the NFL are a projection. He does look to be a playmaker and braincenter of the defense. The question is, do the Lions make him the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history (Bart Scott would probably qualify as the highest-paid in terms of long-term deal now, at $8 million per) with at least an $11 million average and the most guaranteed money a linebacker's ever gotten? The Lions may say that, financially, a linebacker who doesn't get sacks shouldn't be a $11-million-a-year player (and that's the low end), and it'd be hard to argue with them.
My guess is that's how they fall in the Lions' pecking order right now: Stafford, Smith and Curry. But I caution you that it's only an educated guess, because the Lions aren't talking. There's a certain tea-leaf-reading you have to do in cases like this, and the most logical thing is the Lions, who can certainly survive over the next two or three years with a Backus-Cherilus tackle tandem, are thinking Stafford, then Smith, then Curry, for football and future and financial reasons.
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