That means making a trade -- participating in the art of the deal exercise that’s popular in the first round every year.
The Lions have the 10th pick overall on May 8. That puts them in the nether region of the first round. There will be plenty of good prospects at that spot, but none that Lions GM Martin Mayhew rates as elite.
“We’re not quite at that point to say a specific number,” Mayhew said at the NFL annual meeting last month. “In my view, there are not 10 elite guys.”
Getting an elite pick – and wide receiver Sammy Watkins of Clemson is one of the elite prospects – requires trading up. The cost of trading is draft picks that are given up, and the players that could be drafted with those picks.
In other words, it’s giving up quantity for quality.
Sometimes, it’s worth paying the price.
“The depth of the draft is obviously a factor in terms of trading up,” Mayhew said. “But what are you missing out on? If you’re picking 10th and there are five elite players and you get one of those guys, you’re getting some value.”
With the first round 24 days away, this week’s Monday Countdown focuses on numbers – which players qualify as elite, the impact of quarterbacks and the largest underclass group in NFL history, what it might cost for the Lions to trade up to draft a player they target, and ultimately one man’s opinion (mine) on whether it’s worth the price.
We start with the elite:
1: Top 5, plus QB: There isn’t much doubt among analysts about which players make up the top 5, but it doesn’t mean they’ll go off the board in that order. And it doesn’t mean they’ll be the first five players drafted.
The top 5: defensive end Jadeveon Clowney of South Carolina, offensive tackles Greg Robinson of Auburn and Jake Matthews of Texas A&M, linebacker Khalil Mack of Buffalo and Watkins.
The top 5 becomes the top 6 by adding a quarterback – any quarterback -- who will be drafted higher than his rating because of a team’s needs. No position disregards overall draft position more than the quarterback because of their importance.
Blake Bortles of Central Florida and Johnny Manziel rank as the top two candidates to be the first quarterback drafted. There is more sentiment for Bortles to be the first QB off the board.
2. Sammy Watkins: If the Lions are so inclined, he is the obvious candidate to trade up to draft.
The Lions have a high regard for Watkins. Coach Jim Caldwell and Mayhew had dinner with Watkins at his Pro Day workout last month. Caldwell told reporters at the NFL meetings that there was nothing not to like about Watkins.
But the Lions aren’t the only team that could use a receiver of Watkins’ ability. The most likely candidates are Jacksonville, with the third pick, Oakland at No. 5 and Tampa at No. 7. And there’s nothing to say that the Rams wouldn’t take Watkins at No. 2, especially since they also have the 13th pick in the first round and can fill other needs at that spot in a deep draft.
3. Trading times: There is heavy pick-swapping in the first round every year. It’s not quite like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on the opening bell, but there are willing trade partners.
In the last five years, 54 of the 160 first-round picks have changed hands in deals involving draft picks or players. Most have involved picks only.
Of the 54 deals, 11 have been for top 10 picks, and six have been top five.
The 2010 draft was the only year when no top 10 picks were traded, but all four from 11-14 changed hands.
4. Mayhew, deal-maker: Twice since becoming GM early in the 2008 season, Mayhew has acquired an extra first-round pick in a trade.
In 2009, tight end
In 2010, Mayhew traded up in the first round to get running back Jahvid Best with pick No. 30. Best gave the Lions a big-play threat, but his career ended early because of concussions. His last game was Game 6 of 2011, his second season with the Lions.
In 2011, Mayhew reportedly tried to trade up with Arizona to draft cornerback Patrick Peterson, but the Cardinals kept the pick and took Peterson.
Bottom line: Mayhew has demonstrated a willingness to deal.
5. Trade spot: Realistically, it’s the Browns at No. 4. After releasing Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, the only quarterbacks on their roster are Brian Hoyer and Alex Tanney. They have four career starts combined – all by Hoyer.
Three weeks before releasing Weeden and Campbell, new Browns coach Mike Pettine told reporters about the quarterback position: “We have a lot of priorities. Quarterback is the obvious one.”
6. Trade price: There is no price guide for trades – and no discounts, either. The price is whatever one team is willing to take, and what another will give up. It’s that uncomplicated.
A potential comparison price for Watkins was In 2011, when the Atlanta Falcons traded with Cleveland to move up 21 picks – from 27 to 6 – to draft wide receiver Julio Jones.
The price was five picks -- Atlanta’s first- and fourth-round picks in 2011 and 2012, plus a second-round pick in 2011.
Presumably, the Lions wouldn’t have to give the Browns that much to move up six picks this year – from 10 to 4 – but it wouldn’t be cheap.
7. The quarterbacks: Need can overcome ratings when it comes to drafting quarterbacks, which is why Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr all appear in mock drafts as first-round picks.
Deal or no deal for Watkins, every quarterback that goes off the board before the Lions make their pick helps them.
8. Underclassmen: A record 98 applied for this year’s draft, by far the most in NFL history. Last year’s draft had the previous high with 73, of whom 52 were drafted.
Underclassmen give the draft quantity and quality in most years. In 2011 and 2012, eight of the top 10 players drafted were classified as underclassmen. Last year, only three of the top 10 were underclassmen.
9. Pros & cons of trading up: The arguments are obvious – and valid – on both sides.
No -- The reason not to is that trading up costs draft picks needed to build depth with players who can be starters or solid role-players for four or five years before they hit free-agency and get big money.
Yes -- Trading up adds quality. In the case of Watkins, he’s a blue-chip receiver with Pro Bowl potential and no obvious holes in his game or his character.
10. If I were GM: If Watkins is as impactful and pro-ready as he seems to be, I’d make the deal, but with a price limit. I’d give up first-round picks this year and in 2015, and two lower picks – but not this year’s second-rounder. In a deep draft, the Lions should get a starting-quality player in the second round. After last year’s failure that produced a coaching change, there is a win-now urgency that is stronger than at any time since the 1991-2000 span, when the Lions made the playoffs six times in 10 seasons and had only three losing records.