Edson: Lions Need Defensive Playmakers in This Week’s Draft

When the Detroit Lions trudged off the field after their playoff loss last season, it was apparent that this team needed some defensive playmakers before it could become a serious Super Bowl challenger.

General manager Bob Quinn, who worked in the front office for the New England Patriots as they were winning Super Bowls, knows that.

So he has done an admirable job in the off-season building up the offensive line through free agency signings so he could concentrate on defense during this week’s NFL draft. It all starts Thursday night, but the guts of the Lions draft will be made on Friday and Saturday. That’s when Quinn knows his homework could pay off.

He did a smart job of drafting last year and this week he knows how crucial his draft choices will be to the future of the Lions franchise.

When reviewing the draft history of the Lions, I came across some surprising facts.

That is, the Lions drafted two Hall of Fame quarterbacks – Otto Graham in 144 and Y.A. Tittle in 1948 – but let them get away to other teams. Then in 1957 they picked Jack Kemp and in 1962 John Hadl, but also let them slip away. They both became stars in the old American Football League.

The truth is, if the Lions had held onto some of the stars they drafted during the 1960s, they would have seriously challenged the Green Bay Packers during the entire decade for supremacy. As it was, the Lions were as good as the Packers in 1962 and except for a bit of bad luck in a 9-7 loss at Green Bay, they might have won the NFL championship that year.

But after that year, the Lions fortunes started to face during a six-year drought. But had they signed four All-Pro defensive players that they drafted during that time, they would have battled the Packers every season.

Those four All-Pro defensive players included defensive back Johnny Robinson in 1960, defensive linemen Houston Antwine and Earl Faison in 1961 and Gerry Philbin in 1964. All four went on to great careers in the AFL.

They also drafted Hall of Fame wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff out of Florida State with their third round pick in 1965. He decided to sign with the Oakland Raiders instead and went on to an outstanding career.

They drafted two players who went on to NFL infamy – broadcaster Pat Summerall in 1952 and Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcels in 1964.

But give the Lions credit. They did make the playoffs in 1970 because of two outstanding draft classes they had in 1967 and 1968.

In 1967, they picked up running back Mel Farr in the first round, Hall of Fame defensive back Lem Barney in the second round and linebacker Paul Naumoff in the third round.

They came right back in 1968 with quarterback Greg Landry, wide receiver Earl McCulloch, kicker Jerry Depoyster and Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders.

So despite the much deserved criticism general manager Russ Thomas received over his 22 years at the helm, he did put together a couple of good draft classes.

Oh, and by the way – that same Russ Thomas was a second round pick by the Lions in 1947 out of Ohio State, where he was a standout tackle. A knee injury cut his career short after three years. So he was a Lions assistant coach before taking over as general manager.

Thank goodness we can fast forward to Bob Quinn and this year’s draft.

Quinn knows better than anyone that his No. 1 pick will be either a linebacker or defensive lineman. It has to be. This draft is deep in defensive backs, so he can wait on that position.

If he drafts a wide receiver first – like the disastrous GM Matt Millen did three times – it might be time to turn off the TV and head outside to enjoy our northern Michigan spring.

Nick Edson is a retired Hall of Fame columnist and sportswriter. He worked 25 years at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, 18 as sports editor. He is a two-time president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association and a member of the Michigan Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.