Ten Reasons Why the Detroit Lions Must Draft Russell Okung

With Sam Bradford pretty much a lock to go No. 1 overall, the biggest 2010 NFL Draft debate now – aside from the Tim Tebow hysterics – is if the Lions should select Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma State left tackle Russell Okung with the No. 2 pick on April 22.

Detroit’s draft strategy is to take the best player available, which would indicate that the front office is leaning toward Suh. But not so fast – there are 10 very good reasons why the Lions should pick Okung instead.

1. Protecting the Franchise Investment. The Lions selected Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Whether this was the right move or not is irrelevant; Detroit is paying Stafford $72 million over six years. If Stafford fails, the Lions will fail. If Stafford succeeds, the Lions will, in all likelihood, eventually reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

How can Detroit make sure Stafford succeeds? Obviously by giving him good pass protection. Stafford was sacked 24 times in 10 starts last year, which translates to 38 sacks over a 16-game campaign. That total would have been higher had Stafford not forced some throws (a few that led to interceptions) to eschew more sacks. Overall, Detroit’s offensive front surrendered 43 sacks to its quarterbacks.

When the Lions took Stafford, I wrote the following in my 2009 NFL Draft Grades: “Unless Stafford receives poor offensive line protection – which shouldn’t happen if the Lions go left tackle at No. 20 – there is no reason that Stafford should bust.”

Detroit did not go with a left tackle at No. 20. Because of this decision, Stafford paid the price.

Jeff Backus apologists will cite that Backus, the team’s current left tackle, isn’t as terrible as this Web site makes him out to be. I’ll have much more on this later on, but facts are facts. The Lions allowed 43 sacks in 2009. That’s way too many. Detroit’s No. 1 priority is to find adequate protection for their franchise player.

2. Peppers, Matthews and Allen. Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s not. All three of Detroit’s NFC North rivals have premier pass-rushers.

Julius Peppers, who just signed with the Bears this offseason, has notched double-digit sack totals in six of his eight NFL seasons. Clay Matthews had a monstrous rookie campaign in 2009, collecting 10 sacks. And Jared Allen is the consensus No. 1 defensive end in pro football. No other division in the league has three dynamic pass-rushers near the caliber of Peppers, Matthews and Allen (the NFC East is a close second with DeMarcus Ware, Trent Cole and potentially Brian Orakpo).

We’ve seen teams react to what their divisional foes have done in the past. For years, the Packers drafted tall corners to contend with Randy Moss. The Ravens drafted Michael Oher last year to deal with LaMarr Woodley. Detroit’s decision to draft Okung would be no different.

The bottom line is that the Lions have to go up against Peppers, Matthews and Allen in six of their 16 games next season. Knowing this, how can Detroit not upgrade its offensive front to protect Stafford? As noted above, the front office needs to do everything in its power to make sure Stafford doesn’t bust. Failing to do this will result in another five-plus years of losing football.

3. Offensive Tackles Have High Hit Rates and Low Bust Rates. It’s true. I’m not some tanned-up ESPN mannequin citing misinformation. Take a look at the following article, How Often Do Offensive Tackles Bust?

Short version: Of the 31 offensive tackles chosen in the top 16 picks since 1993, only five have busted. That’s it. For the full list, check out that article.

4. Is Ndamukong Suh Overhyped? Don’t get me wrong here. Suh is a damn good prospect. But I feel as though some analysts and many casual fans are building Suh up to be something that he’s not.

The following opinions can be read throughout various message boards on the Internet:

“Ndamukong Suh is the best defensive line prospect I’ve ever seen!”

“Ndamukong Suh is the next Reggie White!”

“Ndamukong Suh is so good that he can cure world hunger!”

It’s pretty ridiculous. Everyone saw the Big XII Championship where Suh demolished a pretty weak Texas offensive line. With the help of ESPN overhyping him, we suddenly had “the next Reggie White.”

Before the Big XII Championship, there was much debate as to whether Suh or Gerald McCoy was the top defensive tackle prospect in the 2010 NFL Draft. And there are some, including the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, who have McCoy over Suh. If Suh is the next Reggie White, why is he not the consensus No. 1 prospect?

While we’re at it, let’s clear the Suh-White comparisons. White was a freak of nature. At 300 pounds, White ran a 4.6 40. His speed and athleticism allowed him to play the defensive end position. Suh (4.98 40) doesn’t have anything near White’s atheticism. It’s not even close.

In my opinion, the player Suh should be compared to is Cortez Kennedy. Kennedy is a 2-time Hall of Fame finalist and will eventually don a yellow jacket. If Suh has Kennedy’s career (from a statistical perspective) he should be thrilled.

5. Ndamukong Suh’s Bust Factor and Knees. Chances are that Suh will be a multi-time Pro Bowler in the NFL. He’s a top-three prospect on everyone’s board for a reason.

However, scouts are often wrong about players. Remember when Glenn Dorsey was supposed to be the next Warren Sapp? Remember when the late Gaines Adams was supposed to be the next great pass-rusher? Remember when many scouts had Ryan Leaf over Peyton Manning and Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers? Remember when Vernon Gholston was supposed to be the next DeMarcus Ware? Remember when everyone was in love with JaMarcus Russell?

Though the experts will tell you otherwise, the NFL Draft is a crapshoot. When you give a 21- or 22-year-old kid millions of dollars, anything can happen. They can get into trouble. They can become lazy. They can gain 5,000 pounds like Russell. This is why even someone like Bill Polian, considered by many to be one of the top general managers in the NFL, often drafts busts. It’s unavoidable because the NFL Draft is a guessing game.

There’s one more factor I haven’t discussed yet involving potential busts, and that’s injury risk. Injuries are very difficult to predict – but only when they haven’t happened already.

Suh went through two knee surgeries in college. One knee surgery should be enough to draw a red flag. Two knee surgeries are way too many.

Now, many will argue that Suh’s knee surgeries didn’t affect his play at Nebraska. This is definitely true, but we don’t know the long-term effects. How do we know if Suh’s knees will hold up in three or four years?

No one knows what will happen with Suh’s knees. We can only guess. But are the Lions, who are 2-30 the past two seasons, willing to take such a big risk with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft? What if Suh’s knees fall apart? That’s more than $60 million down the drain.

The point here is that Suh is no lock, as many will have you believe. Even if his knees are fine, he could bust. Any prospect can bust. We’ve seen “great prospects” and “sure things” bust before.

6. Defensive Tackle is No Longer a Need. Some will scoff at this notion, citing that a fifth-round pick (used to acquire Corey Williams from Cleveland) is no way to fill a big need.

First of all, Williams is much more than some fifth-round pick. In 2006 and 2007, Williams collected 14 sacks for the Packers. He was so good that the Browns offered him a $38.6 million deal over six years. That’s a lot of money for a defensive tackle; Tommy Kelly’s $50.5 million contract (over seven seasons) was the richest for a player at that position until the asinine Daniel Snyder dumped $100 million into Albert Haynesworth’s lap.

So, why did Williams’ value decrease so much? Because the Browns put him into a 3-4 system that he was uncomfortable with. Leave it to Cleveland to pay that much money for a guy who had never played their scheme before.

After two horrible seasons, the Browns had to trade Williams because he was an ineffective 3-4 end who was just too expensive. That’s why the Lions were able to acquire him for a mere fifth-rounder.

For those still stuck on this fifth-round pick business, Randy Moss was traded from Oakland to New England for a fourth-round selection. Did Moss suck for the Patriots? Anquan Boldin was recently dealt from Arizona to Baltimore for a third-round pick. Is Boldin not a good receiver? It’s foolish and ignorant to conclude that Williams isn’t any good because he was acquired for a fifth-round draft choice.

Of course there are two starting defensive tackles in a 4-3 defense. Williams will play alongside Sammie Lee Hill, who had a very good rookie campaign. Don’t believe me? Fine, let’s reference Rotoworld and quotes from some Detroit coaches:

According to Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, fourth-round rookie DT Sammie Lee Hill had emerged as a “force” before suffering an ankle injury a couple of weeks ago. “He was starting to come around and be close to what we expected as a rookie, and losing that size and that strength really hurt us,” said Cunningham. Hill has yet to practice this week, putting his status for Sunday’s game against the Packers in doubt.

Lions GM Martin Mayhew indicated that he saw 2009 fourth-round pick Sammie Lee Hill as a difference maker in his rookie season. Mayhew admits Hill is a “middle-of-the-road defensive tackle at this point,” but added “When he wasn’t in there, you could see there was a difference and a drop-off in our run defense.” Hill was very raw coming from Stillman College, so these are all positives. The 6’4/330-pounder has a big upside.

If the Lions draft Suh, they’ll move Williams to nose tackle and have Suh play the under tackle position. The player Suh is supposed to become – remember, he’s no lock not to bust – will undoubtedly be an upgrade over Hill, but that’s not the point. The point is that Detroit doesn’t need a new starting defensive tackle because Williams and Hill are more than capable of handling the job.

If the Lions draft Suh, what will happen to Hill? Why waste such a high draft choice on a position that doesn’t need to be upgraded?

7. Money. As mentioned earlier, Tommy Kelly’s $50.5 million contract was the greatest for any defensive tackle until Daniel Snyder overpaid Albert Haynesworth. If the Lions draft Suh, the Nebraska prospect will sign the second-richest contract given to a defensive tackle in NFL history (based on Jason Smith’s 6-year, $61 million deal as the No. 2 pick and Tyson Jackson’s 5-year, $57 million contract as the No. 3 pick last year).

But that’s not even the most important thing in this section. If Detroit takes Suh, the front office will be paying more money to its defensive tackles than any other team in the league except for (you guessed it) Washington.

Here’s the full breakdown. Listed in this table is every team in the NFL and the contract totals paid to its two defensive tackles. For the 3-4 teams in this chart, I’ve listed the contract totals of the nose tackle and the highest-paid 3-4 end (who would be a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme). The exception is the Chiefs; I took the totals of Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey.

Contract Total to Top Two Defensive Tackles
Washington Redskins
$106.9 million
Detroit Lions with Ndamukong Suh
$100.3 million
Kansas City Chiefs
$90 million
New England Patriots
$76 million
Oakland Raiders
$63 million
New York Jets
Approx. $61 million
Minnesota Vikings
$55.2 million
San Francisco 49ers
$52 million
Philadelphia Eagles
$49.5 million
Green Bay Packers
$47.8 million
Cincinnati Bengals
Approx. $46 million
Pittsburgh Steelers
$45.8 million
San Diego Chargers
Approx. $45 million
New York Giants
$44 million
Cleveland Browns
$43.8 million
Buffalo Bills
$42.5 million
Chicago Bears
$42.3 million
St. Louis Rams
$24 million
Lions without Ndamukong Suh
$40.1 million
Jacksonville Jaguars
Approx. $40 million
Dallas Cowboys
$38.5 million
Denver Broncos
$38 million
Atlanta Falcons
$35.8 million
New Orleans Saints
$34 million
Baltimore Ravens
$32.2 million
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
$25.5 million
Seattle Seahawks
$23.8 million
Arizona Cardinals
$23.7 million
Tennessee Titans
Approx. $20 million
Houston Texans
$16.4 million
Miami Dolphins
Approx. $10 million
Indianapolis Colts
Approx. $5 million
Carolina Panthers
Approx. $4 million

Interestingly, four of the top five teams on this chart (including the Lions), are among the worst franchises in football. The bottom six teams on this chart were all 8-8 or better last year (except for the Dolphins, who were 7-9 but had a ridiculous schedule). This just goes to show that defensive tackles are not that important compared to other positions like quarterback, left tackle and defensive end.

If the Lions take Suh with the No. 2 pick, their contract totals for their defensive tackles will exceed the obscene amount of $100 million. That’s more than double than what most teams are paying their defensive tackles. From a financial perspective, taking Suh with the No. 2 selection is disastrous and fiscally irresponsible.

8. Russell Okung – Not a Scrub. While most draft fanatics are all about praising Ndamukong Suh and comparing him to Reggie White, there are those who believe Okung isn’t very good.

That’s far from the truth. Had this version of Okung been in the 2009 NFL Draft, the Rams would have drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick – no questions asked.

Okung is the real deal. He’s an athletic franchise left tackle. He’s not some overweight pig like Andre Smith. He’s not some overhyped, raw Combine star like Jason Smith. Okung has been the consensus No. 1 offensive tackle all year. Any quarterback would be lucky to have him protecting his blind side.

Don’t believe me? Fine. Okung is the No. 1 offensive tackle on Mel Kiper’s Big Board. He’s the No. 1 offensive tackle in Mike Mayock’s rankings. He’s the No. 1 offensive tackle listed on DraftCountdown.com. He’s the No. 1 offensive tackle on Matt McGuire’s Big Board. Not even Suh can say he’s the top consensus prospect at his position.

Can Okung bust? Absolutely. I’d be a hypocrite if I said no, based on everything I wrote in Section No. 5. But remember two things: First, Okung plays a more important position than Suh. And second, based on their positions alone, Suh has a 25-percent greater chance of busting than Okung. And we’re not even factoring in Suh’s knees here.

9. Jeff Backus. Again, Jeff Backus apologists will be up in arms about how he’s the greatest thing since Internet porn. I’ll say this – Backus is an excellent run-blocker. He would be a great left guard or right tackle. Overall, he’s not a bad player. But as a left tackle? The word “mediocre” comes to mind.

In the past four years, Backus has allowed 44 sacks. Last season, Backus surrendered 9.25 sacks – ranking worst among left tackles in the NFL. In 2008, Backus also yielded 9.25 sacks – this time ranking fourth-worst among all left tackles.

Some people will cite that sack totals can be skewed based on the quarterback, offensive scheme and blitz pick-ups. This is true. So, let’s take a gander at quarterback pressures allowed. Last year, Backus yielded 25 pressures. This ranked him 10th-worst among all left tackles. In 2008, Backus allowed 32 pressures. This was fourth-worst compared to all of the players at his position.

Now, those same people who ignore sack totals probably won’t care about quarterback pressures either. Numbers just don’t work for them. And that’s OK – because we can use the eyeball test as well.

Four days before Thanksgiving, Matthew Stafford suffered a shoulder injury on a fluke Hail Mary play. Stafford showed enough guts to make a game-winning throw against the Browns one play later, but was listed as doubtful for Detroit’s Thanksgiving game against the Packers. Despite this, Stafford played – only to be drilled into the ground repeatedly by Clay Matthews. I remember watching that game thinking, “Jim Schwartz is a complete moron – why is his injured quarterback playing a meaningless game when the offensive line can’t keep the other team’s best pass-rusher out of the backfield?”

Matthews completely humiliated Backus in that contest. He just made it look too easy. Stafford consequently was lost for the rest of the season after trying to go against the Bengals 10 days later.

Stubborn Backus apologists still won’t like this, but drafting Okung is the right move. Not only will the Lions upgrade an extremely important position, they’ll be able to move Backus to left guard. That’s two very important upgrades for the price of one. You can’t beat that.

And for the record, moving Backs over to left guard isn’t a completely alien concept. In late February, Schwartz said, “[Backus] can play left tackle, he can play left guard. If that’s something he ends up doing, I think he could do either one.”

In March, Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski wrote on MLive, “Okung is a potential target because he would fill one nagging hole in the team’s roster – left guard. If Okung is drafted, he would likely play left tackle with Jeff Backus moving inside. Okung is an excellent pass protector while Backus is a better run blocker.”

10. Atoning for Past Mistakes. Given Detroit’s failures over the years, the following fact should not be surprising – The Lions have not chosen an offensive tackle in the upper half of an NFL Draft (top 16 picks) since 1985. Wow.

Back in 1985, Detroit spent the No. 6 overall pick on Lomas Brown. Brown was a huge success – he was a 7-time Pro Bowler – so it makes you wonder why this organization has been so reluctant to select another left tackle with a high draft choice since Brown left the team in 1995.

Let’s take a look at how the Lions fared with Brown and after Brown:

Lions with Lomas Brown (1985-1995): 79-96 (.451), 4 playoff appearances in 11 years.
Lions after Lomas Brown (1995-2009): 69-153 (.311), 2 playoff appearances in 15 years.

Additionally, the last time the Lions won at least 10 games was the last year Brown was on the roster.

Left tackles solely can’t turn a franchise around. Only quarterbacks can. But there’s no denying how big of an impact a left tackle can make when a team has a franchise quarterback it needs to protect.

Let’s flash forward to last April – the Lions foolishly drafted a tight end with their second first-round pick last year instead of Michael Oher. Oher went on to have a very good rookie campaign with the Ravens, even thriving in some starts at left tackle when Jared Gaither was injured. Meanwhile, a tight end doesn’t offer anything near the impact a franchise left tackle does. Detroit must atone for its big error last April and draft Okung to protect its franchise quarterback.

In Closing… Sadly, this was probably a waste of time. This article may change the mind of people who have been on the fence, but I get the feeling that Suh supporters will stubbornly dismiss everything I’ve written.

Suh will continue to be a “can’t-miss” prospect.

Suh’s knee injuries will continue to be dismissed.

Suh will continue to be regarded as the next Reggie White.

Okung will continue to be viewed as a mediocre prospect.

The monetary concerns related to drafting Suh will continue to be ignored.

The fact that Detroit doesn’t need a defensive tackle will continue to fall on deaf ears.

Backus will remain a very good left tackle.

And sadly for the good people in Detroit who haven’t been able to cheer on a winning team since 2000, their football team will probably continue to make the same mistakes.


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