“Who are you to judge?” It’s the question that shadows the NFL draft.
TV experts make predictions. TV experts get it wrong. Viewers laugh, “Who are you to judge?”
Player waits. Player doesn’t get selected. Player snarls, “Who are you to judge?”
Team makes a pick. Fans blast it. Team shrugs. “Who are you to judge?”
It’s that last one that we deal with every year with the Detroit Lions. And here we are again, after the bloated pig called the NFL draft has finally been cut into 256 meaty pieces and distributed to 32 teams, which, after three ridiculously long days, now count their booty like kids dumping out their Halloween candy.
And the questions begin. In Detroit they go this way: A center? The Lions drafted a center with their first pick? A running back from Auburn? They traded up to get him in the second round after five other running backs were taken? A safety from a small school? They picked him in the third round when they have way more pressing needs elsewhere?
But who are we to judge?
“We’re really excited about the pick,” Bob Quinn told the media about selecting Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow in the first round.
“Caught me off guard, I’m not gonna lie,” said Ragnow, when I spoke with him. “But I’m so, so excited.”
“Really great to add a powerful runner … and a versatile defensive back,” Quinn told the media after Round 3. “We’re very excited.”
Excited. Everyone is excited. Maybe they should be. Maybe we should be, too. Maybe we should be saying the Lions, 7-9, 9-7, 9-7 the last three years, have finally pulled their tractor out of the mud and are on their way to being a real contender.
Or maybe we should wait.
Draft busts? Lions have plenty of them
Because if draft history has taught us anything in Detroit, it’s that very little changes very fast, especially with picks that are not in the top 10.
When the question “Who are you to judge?” comes from the Lions’ side, it is fair, because the typical fan has nowhere near the football experience of the men making the selections.
But Detroit fans do have memory. And here are some names from that memory:
Laken Tomlinson. Eric Ebron. Nick Fairley. Riley Reiff. Jahvid Best. All first round picks from this decade.
Gosder Cherilus. Mike Williams. Stockar McDougle. All first-rounders from the previous decade. None of them great. All gone after five seasons or less.
The Lions’ track record at finding franchise guys in the first round has been lousy unless they were handed an almost “can’t-miss” high pick. Matthew Stafford, a No. 1. Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, both No. 2.
But even then, Detroit hasn’t been a sure thing. Charles Rogers was a No. 2. Joey Harrington was a No. 3. Andre Ware and Reggie Rogers were both No. 7.
So you can see why the word “excited” applies more to management than to fans over the years.
Still, a new regime is not responsible for previous blunders. Bob Quinn and new coach Matt Patricia are entitled to their own paper and crayons.
Here’s my take on what they’ve drawn.
Nothing excites like a 1st-round center
Nobody is going to get hyped up about a center. Sorry. Name me the greatest center in the history of the NFL.
I’m waiting …
You get my point. Fireworks were never going to explode at the selection of Frank Ragnow. Be honest. You never heard of him before. Ragnow himself had not expected this selection.
But that doesn’t mean the position isn’t crucial. Historically, the best centers play a dozen or so years, consistently make Pro Bowls, protect their quarterbacks and open holes for running backs. Mike Webster did it for Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw in Pittsburgh. Dwight Stephenson and Jim Langer in Miami were partly responsible for the long careers of Bob Griese and Dan Marino.
The question with Ragnow isn’t whether he’s a good center, but if Detroit using the No. 20 overall pick on him was maximizing its opportunity. The Lions had greater needs. And the need at center traces back to the drafting four years ago of Travis Swanson, who, like Ragnow, was a star player for Arkansas, and was supposed to hold the job. Except he was inconsistent, left the team in free agency, and was to be replaced by Graham Glasgow, who was drafted two years ago in the third round.
This is the stuff that drives Lions fans mad. The team always seems to be patching the same hole in the boat. How many times over the years did they go after wide receivers or defensive backs, only to end up needing more wide receivers and more defensive backs?
The offensive line is supposed to be a place of methodical building, one smart move at a time, until you have five guys playing as one. Constantly shifting, losing, patching and replacing is never good for an offense.
“I take pride in it,” Ragnow said, when I asked him about his college record of never allowing a sack on his quarterback. And whether he could duplicate that in the NFL, great. Matthew Stafford will love him. Fans will look back at this pick as a vital, if not titillating, selection.
On the other hand, if Ragnow goes the Travis Swanson route, fans will rightfully say, “Why did we use the first-round pick on him? We did the same thing with a third rounder!”
But who are we to judge?
Keep calm and Kerryon
What about the selection of Kerryon Johnson, the running back from Auburn? The Lions traded up seven spots to get him, surrendering a fourth-round pick to New England to do so.
I loved watching Johnson last year in two big games against Georgia and Alabama. I remember thinking he was a special back to perform that well against arguably the best two teams in the country. He comes from a big-time program and played against big-time competition. But when you watch a lot of his highlights, much of the time, he’s going through gaping holes provided by an excellent Auburn team.
That’s not likely with Detroit. I don’t see Johnson making a lot of guys miss, something you need to do in the NFL, especially on a below-average running team.
Still, the Lions needed a running back, and he was the highest guy left on the board. You could ask if they were willing to trade up, why not go higher and try for Sony Michel or Ronald Jones? But that’s nitpicking.
And who are we to judge?
Late to the D-line party
The rest of the picks? Again, you could quibble. Did they really need to use a third-round pick for a safety, Tracy Walker, from a small school, Louisiana-Lafayette, and a guy projected by some NFL scouts as a backup or a special teamer? Wouldn’t a defensive lineman have been more helpful?
They did take a defensive lineman in the fourth round, an intriguing pick, Da’Shawn Hand from Alabama, but they gave up a higher-round pick (third round) next year to move up and get him.
Hand was once the most highly ranked high school recruit in the nation. He didn’t live up to that hype at Alabama, but you could argue he was on the best team in the country loaded with future NFL talent, so standing out was difficult. For a fourth-round pick, I find this a good gamble, given what the Lions need.
And getting Tyrell Crosby, Oregon’s versatile offensive lineman, in the fifth round — when he had been projected much higher — could be a nice surprise.
But who are we to judge? Let’s face it. This year the entire NFL draft threw everybody’s opinion into the hopper and shredded it. Baker Mayfield was supposed to be the fourth-best quarterback. He went No. 1. Josh Allen was supposed to be a real risk; Buffalo traded up to snag him at No. 7.
Derrius Guice was considered the second- or third-best running back in the draft, yet he fell all the way to the third round, and the Lions passed him over in the second, preferring Johnson, considered no better than the fifth or sixth prospect at the same position.
Michigan defensive end Maurice Hurst had a similar tumble. Once considered a potential first-round pick, fears over a heart condition dropped him all the way to the fifth, where he was selected by Oakland.
So much for mock drafts.
Time will judge this class
And then there was Josh Rosen. The UCLA quarterback was considered the most ready of all his peers for NFL action. Yet he was the fourth QB taken at No. 10. Afterward, he announced he was “pissed off” and told the media “there were nine mistakes ahead of me.”
And you know what most people thought?
“Who are you to judge?”
It’s the mantra of the moment. And it won’t change. In general, I believe Lions fans are copacetic about this 2018 draft. Flat emotion about Ragnow, excitement about Johnson, cautious optimism for Hand, some head scratching about the other picks. One problem when you pick No. 20 is that your fans still want you to deliver as if you’re picking No. 2. The Lions were cautious in a first round where many risks were taken by other teams. That’s either smart or timid. They did make trades in the later rounds, but those trades were with New England. And do you really think, when you’re dealing with Bill Belichick, you’re going to walk away with the better end of the deal?
We’ll see what happens. Last year, after Quinn’s first draft, the top seven picks all made the opening-game roster. On the other hand, outside of Jamal Agnew, none of them made a big splash. Those players will be judged, these new ones will be judged, Quinn and Patricia and Mrs. Ford will be judged, and the analysts, experts, talk-show hosts and opinionated columnists like myself will be judged, all, ultimately, by the same thing, the one and only barometer that always gets it right.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.