I've got to be the
Godfather today," Lions president Matt Millen said last Saturday morning,
sitting in the living room of his town house in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn.
He sounded full of hope and anticipation. In an hour Millen, a man who badly
needed a good day, expected to be fielding calls from three or four clubs and
hoped--in a role reversal for Don Corleone--that someone would make him an
offer he couldn't refuse in exchange for the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.
It never came. At 12:20 p.m., after the Raiders opened the draft by selecting
LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the Lions went on the clock, prepared to use
their full 15 minutes to listen to suitors.
With Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, widely considered the best
receiver to come along in years, there for the taking, all eyes went to the
phone console in Millen's office. "Don't do anything with the pick until
you talk to me," Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had told him on Thursday.
Dallas owner Jerry Jones and Millen had talked at length before the draft, with
Millen explaining what he was looking for: high-round picks, plus a starting
player. Millen thought he might also hear from general managers Rich McKay of
the Falcons and Bruce Allen of the Buccaneers, both of whom he'd spoken to late
in the week.
A month earlier
Denver had offered two first-round picks, a second-rounder and two
third-rounders, plus veteran linebacker Al Wilson, but when the Broncos
wouldn't substitute another second-round pick for the injured Wilson, Millen
turned them down. With that, the bar was set high.
Two minutes passed.
Four. Eight. Not a single ring. And Millen wasn't going to make any calls. In
the macho world of NFL deal-making, to do so when you're on the clock is the
ultimate sign of desperation.
desperation hasn't been in ample supply in Detroit. The Lions' 24--72 record
during Millen's six seasons--worst in the NFL over that span--partly reflects
his poor drafts. Johnson would be the fourth receiver Detroit had taken in the
top 10 in the last five years. Two were abject failures--the injury-plagued
Charles Rogers (2003) and the uninterested Mike Williams ('05), who, fittingly,
was dealt to Oakland later on Saturday. Quarterback-of-the-future Joey
Harrington, the No. 3 pick in '02, also flopped.
With six minutes
remaining, Millen clapped his hands. Why delay the inevitable? "Get
[Johnson] on the phone," he barked. An aide handed Millen the phone.
I told you when you visited here, that you wouldn't get past the Number 2
pick?" Millen asked Johnson.
remember," Johnson, at the draft in New York City's Radio City Music Hall,
not getting past the Number 2 pick. Congratulations. You're a Lion."
If Johnson's as
good as advertised--a physical 6'5", 239-pound receiver with sprinter's
speed who loves to play the game-- Millen did the right thing by setting the
trade bar high. But he shouldn't have been surprised that no offer
materialized. A team picking in the top 10 used to be able to trade down for a
package of picks and/or players, but this was the third straight year no such
deal was made. Why? The disparity in payouts to rookies at the top of the draft
has grown more pronounced as the NFL salary cap has risen from $85.5 million to
$109 million since 2005. A mere two-slot move up by Tampa Bay, from fourth to
second, would have cost the Bucs an additional $3 million per year, minimum, in
player compensation, plus at least two second-round selections. The fact that
no one moved up for a such a highly touted player as Johnson is a sign that the
days of top-of-the draft trades may be over.
Which helps explain
all the deals that came later. For Millen the action started in the second
round. He held the 34th pick and had his eyes on Michigan State quarterback
Drew Stanton, whom the Lions had graded very close to Notre Dame's Brady Quinn.
The Bills, eager for Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny, offered second- and
third-round picks for the 34th. Millen made the trade and got Stanton at No.
43. He'll be groomed to be Detroit's 2008 starter.