The Detroit Lions are still looking for their first NFL Championship in the Super Bowl era. While the team has shown a lot of improvement over the past few seasons, they still haven’t made it to the NFC Championship Game since 1991, when they lost to the Redskins (boy times have changed). In fact the Lions have yet to win a playoff game since that season, when they crushed the Cowboys 38-6 in the divisional round. Since that win, they have only made the playoffs seven times, going one and done in each appearance.
The team has some talent now, including the best receiver in the game in Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford who is inching his way into the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the league. Jim Caldwell had a promising first year as Lions head coach, but he finds himself in a division where he has to figure out a way to beat Aaron Rodgers, something the Lions have had trouble doing.
Part of the reason that the Lions haven’t been able to reach the Super Bowl in their franchise’s history is because of their poor draft picks in the past. The worst stretch that the team had in drafting was when Matt Millen was at the helm. Thankfully for Lions fans, Millen was run out of town and things are turning around.
So if you could go back and erase the Millen era and redraft the first rounders for the Lions over the past 15 years, what would their roster look like? Let’s take a look at the last 15 first round picks the Lions have made, and see who they could’ve (and possibly should’ve) drafted in each of those seasons.
15 2001 - Drew Brees
The Lions didn’t draft until the 18th selection in the first round in 2001’s NFL Draft, where they took local college star Jeff Backus, the offensive tackle out of Michigan. It’s hard to say that Backus shouldn’t have been the pick here since he played all 12 of his NFL seasons with the team, but there were future stars that were drafted shortly after. Reggie Wayne would have been a good pickup, but the Lions were in need of a quarterback, and Drew Brees was still on the board when the Lions selected. Brees went 14 picks after Detroit at 32nd overall to San Diego.
14 2002 - Dwight Freeney
2002 was the first season that the Houston Texans were selecting, so they got to move to number one ahead of the Panthers and Lions. The Lions drafted third in 2002, and took Joey Harrington, the quarterback from Oregon. It was clearly not the best choice for Detroit at the time, and there wasn’t another quarterback on the board that was worth taking in the first round. If the Lions had to do it all over again, they could have picked up Dwight Freeney, who was taken 11th overall by Indianapolis.
13 2003 - Andre Johnson
Detroit’s struggles continued as they stayed toward the bottom of the league, drafting second overall in 2003, where they took wide receiver Charles Rogers from Michigan State. Rogers ended up being a huge bust, and if they wanted a receiver, the next pick would have been a good one since Andre Johnson was scooped up by the Texans with the third choice. If you’re keeping track at home, this means that the Lions would have had Drew Brees, Dwight Freeney and Andre Johnson thus far, which probably would have made them an instant contender.
12 2004 - Vince Wilfork
2004 was one of the better first rounds for an NFL Draft in recent memory, with stud quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger all going in the first 11 picks. The Lions drafted seventh in 2004 and took Roy Williams, who flamed out pretty quickly in the league. Roethlisberger would have been the only one left on the board for the Lions at quarterback, but the most solid pick would have been Vince Wilfork (who went 21st to the Patriots) if the Lions had fixed their quarterback problem at this point.
11 2005 - DeMarcus Ware
It was yet another top 10 selection for the Lions in 2005, as they took Mike Williams, another wide receiver, except this time from USC. The Lions went on quite the bender of drafting bust receivers at this point, and the next three picks in the draft all went to the Pro Bowl at some point in their careers. Still, the Lions had a chance to get DeMarcus Ware, who went with the next overall pick to the Cowboys. Ware could have been a long term solution for the Lions defense that was porous at best during this era.
10 2006 - Halotia Ngata
Another rough year for the Lions in 2005, as they were lined up with the ninth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, selecting linebacker Ernie Sims out of Florida State. Sims got off to a decent start in his career, but tailed off quickly. The Lions had a shot at drafting Haloti Ngata out of Oregon, who went 12th overall to the Baltimore Ravens. Ngata is now a member of the Lions via a trade this offseason, but it would have been nice to have him in his prime years.
9 2007 - Calvin Johnson
Thankfully for the Lions, they drafted second overall in 2007 instead of first, where they could have wound up with JaMarcus Russell. Instead, the Raiders scooped up the LSU quarterback while the Lions were able to get Calvin Johnson, one of the best receivers of the past decade. In a re-draft, there is no doubt that Lions fans would love to draft Johnson all over again, even if it is hard to ignore the fact that Joe Thomas went third overall and Adrian Peterson went seventh. Still, Johnson was the best available pick at the time.
8 2008 - Duane Brown
The Lions showed a lot of improvement in Johnson’s rookie season, moving up to the 15th overall pick in the NFL Draft before trading back to 17 with Kansas City. Detroit ended up taking Gosder Cherilus, the offensive tackle from Boston College, while the Chiefs took Branden Albert. The names that came after Cherilus in the draft were underwhelming, but not as underwhelming as Cherilus when you look at Joe Flacco, Aqib Talib and Duane Brown. Since the Lions were hurting for an offensive tackle, it would have been nice to have Brown, who went 26th overall to Houston.
7 2009 - Matthew Stafford
The Lions finished the 2008 season with a record of 0-16, giving them the first overall pick in 2009, where they selected Matthew Stafford. Stafford is still the franchise quarterback for Detroit, even though he’s had his detractors in the fanbase. Still, the first round was not an impressive one in 2009, so it looks like Detroit got the best player they could have asked for. Other notable names that were drafted in the first round include Jeremy Maclin, Clay Matthews, Alex Mack and Vontae Davis, but the Lions were desperate for a quarterback and got their man.
6 2010 - Ndamukong Suh
2010 saw one of the best first round draft classes in quite some time, and the Lions had the second overall pick, taking Ndamukong Suh. Suh produced a lot of good years for Detroit before making his way to Miami as a free agent, but there’s no doubt that he would be their selection again if given a re-draft. Some other players that they could have selected include Gerald McCoy, Trent Williams, Joe Haden and Earl Thomas. Suh is one of the best defensive players in the league, so he was a safe pick then and still is today.
5 2011 - Robert Quinn
Despite having Suh locked firmly into place at defensive tackle, the Lions went with the same position the next year by drafting Nick Fairley out of Auburn with the 13th overall pick in 2011. Fairley has already moved on after an up and down career with the Lions, and the next three picks have all produced a lot for their respective teams in the form of Robert Quinn (St. Louis), Mike Pouncey (Miami) and Ryan Kerrigan (Washington). It’s a tough call between Kerrigan and Quinn, but the nod goes to Quinn here for Detroit’s re-draft.
4 2012 - Riley Reiff
2012 was the infamous draft that saw Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III go first and second, and the Lions didn’t make their selection until the 23rd overall pick, taking Riley Reiff out of Iowa at offensive tackle. The back half of the first round in 2012 hasn’t produced a lot of superstar talent, but Detroit isn’t kicking themselves too badly for drafting Reiff. While he has produced solidly, some would argue that Harrison Smith (who went 29th to Minnesota) would have been a better pick for Detroit, but Reiff is fine where he is.
3 2013 - Sheldon Richardson
Detroit took a big step back in the 2012 season, which put them at fifth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, surprising some by taking Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah out of BYU. Since there have only been two years of playing time for those that were drafted in 2013, it’s hard to say that the Lions made the right or wrong pick. Ansah has been good for Detroit, but if you are looking only at early returns, Sheldon Richardson would have been a better pick, who went 13th overall to the New York Jets.
2 2014 - Zack Martin
The Lions went into the 2014 NFL Draft with the 10th overall selection, where they picked Eric Ebron, the tight end from North Carolina. Ebron struggled pretty badly in his rookie season, playing in 13 games and collecting just 25 receptions for 248 yards and one touchdown. Four of the next seven selections all made the Pro Bowl in their rookie seasons last year, with Odell Beckham, Jr., Aaron Donald, Zack Martin and C.J. Mosley all playing tremendously. If you had to select one for the Lions, Zack Martin at 16th would have been the choice to help shore up that offensive line as the receiving corps already has Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
1 2015 - Laken Tomlinson
Detroit reached the playoffs in the 2014 season, meaning they were moved all the way back to 23rd overall, and then swapped their pick with Denver’s to move back to 28th. The Lions took guard Laken Tomlinson out of Duke, and it’s clearly too early to say whether or not that was the right move. Tomlinson has yet to play a snap in the NFL, so we won’t give out any judgment yet, but he’s getting praise as a utility lineman so far in training camp.