Lions, Schwartz aggressively fill needs
When it comes to going after something he wants, Jim Schwartz is not a meek man. He’s the kind of guy who, in the space of a few minutes, could probably convince a telephone solicitor to buy something from him.
So, as the Lions’ second-year coach sat in the team’s NFL draft room late Thursday night while his boss, team president Tom Lewand, calmly negotiated the trade with the Vikings that would allow the Lions to snag former Cal running back Jahvid Best(notes) with the 30th overall pick, Schwartz had to fight off every impulse in his being to avoid having a meltdown.
As Schwartz recalled Saturday: “Minnesota’s on the clock, and it’s winding down, and Tom’s finalizing the trade. My blood pressure is going up and up, and Tom’s looking over – ‘Relax, we’re good’ – and making small talk: ‘So, how are the kids …’ Tom’s very good at what he does, and he played it perfectly. But at that point I wanted to grab the phone out of his hand and beat him over the head with it.”
I thought about Schwartz for much of Thursday night’s first round as I watched the proceedings while attending Dez Bryant’s(notes) emotional draft party. Detroit, as expected, scored big at the start of the night, picking universally revered former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh(notes) with the second overall selection.
The Lions, however, needed a big-time ballcarrier. Starting halfback Kevin Smith(notes) tore his anterior cruciate ligament last December, and Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew were determined to find a rookie who could make an immediate impact in 2010. When top-rated backs C.J. Spiller(notes) and Ryan Mathews were snatched up in the first 12 picks, things grew tense in the Lions’ draft room.
Best was the only other player in the draft Detroit’s brass regarded as an elite runner, and I knew Schwartz wanted him badly. In January, he’d confided to me that he coveted the dynamic breakaway threat to a degree that some might find unhealthy.
“Some people watch adult videos on their computer,” Schwartz had told me. “I go to YouTube and watch Jahvid Best highlight clips. That’s what gets me going.”
He was exaggerating for effect – I think.
This was a hugely important draft for Schwartz, the brainy ex- Titans defensive coordinator who went 2-14 as a rookie head coach in ’09. The same goes for Lewand and Mayhew, the former Matt Millen lieutenants who got promoted in the wake of their maligned ex-superior’s demise.
Millen was one of the funniest and most honest players I ever covered, and there are few people in football with whom I’d rather have a beer, but I’m not alone in describing his seven-year run as an inexperienced team president as a disaster. The cupboard wasn’t simply bare when Schwartz arrived after the Lions completed the NFL’s first-ever 0-16 season in ’08; it was full of rats and termite damage.
Quietly, a year ago, the Lions came away with what I believe will go down as a fabulous draft class. Detroit found a franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford(notes), with the No. 1 overall pick; a potential All-Pro tight end in fellow first-rounder Brandon Pettigrew(notes); a standout safety and defensive leader in second-rounder Louis Delmas(notes); a starting middle linebacker, DeAndre Levy(notes), in the third round; and a special teams ace, seventh-rounder Zack Follett(notes), who Schwartz says will have a chance to start at outside linebacker in 2010.
I can’t tell you with certainty that this year’s crop will make a similar impact. It includes physical third-rounder Amari Spievey, who could help right away at cornerback, and the final pick in the draft (aka “Mr. Irrelevant”), slot receiver Tim Toone(notes), who Schwartz (no lie) compared to a certain “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” stoner extraordinaire. (Said Schwartz: “He’s a white guy with dreadlocks who looks like Jeff Spicoli … but he’s a member of the All-Big Sky academic team who’s quick and super-productive and might replace Follett as our fan favorite.”)
What I can report is that the post-Millen Lions are in it to win it, and the amped-up Schwartz is the one setting the tone. Consider the way the franchise approached free agency this year, targeting two players, Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes) and Seahawks wideout Nate Burleson(notes), and going after them the way Suh terrorized quarterbacks in college.
Admittedly stealing a page out of Jets coach Rex Ryan’s playbook from the previous year, Schwartz flew to Nashville hours before the official start of free agency last month and plotted out an in-person pitch to Vanden Bosch, one of his top defenders during his time as the Titans’ defensive coordinator. At the same time he dispatched offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to fly to Seattle to recruit Burleson, a wideout he’d coached in Minnesota from 2003-04.
Prohibited by the league’s tampering rules from contacting Vanden Bosch before 11 p.m. Central time, Schwartz showed up outside Vanden Bosch’s gated community in suburban Nashville a half-hour early, staking out the front gate to make sure none of his rival coaches tried the same ploy.
“I wasn’t throwing pebbles at his window,” Schwartz said. “But I know the way Kyle is – he’s a night owl, and he wasn’t going to be asleep at 11 o’clock on the first night of free agency. At exactly 11 I sent him a text: ‘I can be anywhere in the country right now, going after any player, but I’m here in Nashville for you.’
“Now, he could’ve turned out the lights and pretended they weren’t home, but luckily, he answered and let me in. In that situation, you can’t be afraid. There’s a lot of people in the world who wish they’d asked that one girl to dance back in school before some other jackass jumped in. That wasn’t going to be the case with Kyle Vanden Bosch.”
Not surprisingly, as he walked through Vanden Bosch’s front door, Schwartz was armed and dangerous. “I brought a bottle of ’05 Opus One Cab,” he recalled. “If I’m going in, I’m going in blazing. I had stuffed animals for the kids – my daughter and Kyle’s daughter used to play on the same soccer team – and T-shirts and a Kyle Vanden Bosch nameplate with the Lions’ logo and number 93.
“So I go in, and while his wife’s uncorking the wine in the kitchen, I’m laying out maps of Detroit on the kitchen table and talking about neighborhoods and schools. Both of our cell phones were on the table and buzzing like crazy, and we turned them off and talked till 2:30 in the morning.”
A couple of thousand miles away Linehan closed on Burleson, and he and Vanden Bosch became part of an offseason haul that included four players acquired in trades: defensive tackle Corey Williams(notes) (formerly of Cleveland), cornerback Chris Houston(notes) (Atlanta), guard Rob Sims(notes) (Seattle) and tight end Tony Scheffler(notes) (Denver).
The presence of Vanden Bosch, Suh and Williams should make the Lions’ defensive line much more of a force than it was in 2009. “Corey was Green Bay’s franchise player two years ago and led all defensive tackles in sacks over a two-year period [14 between 2006-07],” Schwartz said. “He really fits well with what we want to do. We’re not just papier-macheing spots on this team; we’re cementing them …
“That’s how you get better as a team.”
If nothing else the Lions should be far more exciting. Coming off an impressive rookie season, Stafford should have many more weapons to complement star wideout Calvin Johnson(notes) in 2010. Defenses will have to contend with Burleson’s speed and ability to shake defenders out of the slot formation, and Scheffler is a polished pass catcher who can create matchup problems.
Best, in Schwartz’s eyes, is a matchup nightmare for opponents. “We can line him up as a wide receiver – he’s got amazing speed and great hands,” the coach said. “We can get him matched up with a safety or run him off and get him with a linebacker. It’s funny – I’m a defensive coach, and here I’ve drafted all these offensive players up high the past two years. Well, I know how hard it is to try to match up with these guys.”
Since joining forces, Schwartz and Mayhew have prided themselves on going after the best players available, regardless of need. Yet Best fell into both categories, and not getting him would have been a shame. So when the Chargers traded up 16 spots to snag Mathews with the 12th selection, three picks after the Bills took Spiller, the Lions’ draft room grew exceptionally tense.
“We got a little bit worried: ‘Oh no, there’s too much space between now and [the 34th overall pick],’ ” Schwartz said. “We had traded away a couple of fives and a six over the offseason, so we didn’t have a whole lot of firepower. It helped us that some of the 3-4 linemen like Dan Williams(notes) and Jared Odrick(notes) fell, which created a market at that spot. And Kyle Wilson(notes) being available for the Jets also helped us, because they might have taken [Best].
“And, let’s face it, if he’d hit his back instead of his neck and head against Oregon State, he’d have done some big things his last few games, and he probably would have been long gone by the time we picked [in the second round].”
About two-thirds of the way through the first round, Lewand began working the phones to set up prospective trades. The Lions’ brass worried that the Patriots or Jets might select Best and had heard rumblings that the Colts, who had the 31st overall pick, or the Rams, with the top pick in the second round (33rd overall), were candidates to take him off the board. The Lions, Schwartz knew, “had a big old target on our back – everyone knew we needed a running back.” Thus other teams interested in Best would be motivated to swing a trade to get in front of Detroit.
“Especially with the new format,” Schwartz said. “If he wasn’t picked in the first round, we didn’t want to give people 12 hours to jump ahead of us.”
So the Lions got proactive, even if Lewand was a bit more deliberate in his delivery than the hyper Schwartz could bear.
“It was like slow motion,” the coach said, laughing. “Even when Tom called the deal into the league and I finally called Jahvid and got him on the phone, there was like a three- or four-second pause, because the trade hadn’t been announced and he didn’t know what was going on. But we got it done … “
The highlight of Detroit’s draft, unquestionably, was when the trade became official – the Lions swapped fourth-round picks with the Vikings, moving down 28 spots, and threw in a seventh-rounder – and the team’s designated representative in New York handed in the card with Best’s name on it. For a franchise that hasn’t had a whole lot to celebrate for the last decade or so, the raucous scene in the draft room was rather remarkable.
“We weren’t shy about throwing hugs around,” Schwartz said. “Look, we don’t know how this will play out in the end, but we went after what we wanted, and that’s a great feeling. When you feel really good about a player, when you have a specific role in mind, it creates more urgency. Just like showing up at someone’s house in the middle of the night at the start of free agency – you’re not afraid to go hard.”
I think the Lions’ aggressive offseason has pushed them farther up the NFL food chain than they’ve been in awhile, as reflected in my wholly subjective, postdraft edition of the list you love to lambast during the season.
As is our custom at 32 Question headquarters (32QHQ), the defending Super Bowl champions occupy the top spot as a sign of respect. After that, it’s a series of stream-of-consciousness conspiracies against the respective teams you worship:
2. Green Bay Packers: Was any draft crop less sexy than Ted Thompson’s &ndash and when a team is this young and this good, how can anyone legitimately complain?
3. Baltimore Ravens: Didn’t the mere sight of Ray Lewis(notes) striding to the podium to introduce second-round draft pick Sergio Kindle(notes) give you the distinct impression that Kindle will be a really good NFL pass rusher really soon?
8. Tennessee Titans: After having one of the best coaches on the planet for the past 16 years, and conspicuously failing to appreciate him, shouldn’t Bud Adams be sentenced to a couple of years of Tom Cable &ndash and a middle-fingered salute from every Titans fan – by the High Court of Football Justice?
9. Minnesota Vikings: How much more do I enjoy the sight of Toby Gerhart(notes) in purple than in red – and why do I get the impression Minnesota running backs coach Eric Bienemy (and Vikings fans) will feel similarly?
11. New York Jets: With an all-out travel ban to Revis Island officially in effect, how many opposing quarterbacks’ passes will end up in the vicinity of first-round pick Kyle Wilson?
15. Pittsburgh Steelers: I know it sounds crazy, but if my guy Dennis Dixon(notes) tears it up in September, would Mike Tomlin consider handing Ben Roethlisberger(notes) a clipboard and seeing how things play out from there?
17. Arizona Cardinals: If the Cardinals were looking for minimal national exposure, could they have picked a better time to unveil their new, alternate uniforms than the middle of Thursday’s first round?
24. New York Giants: Miss Michael Strahan much?
25. Cleveland Browns: Hey, Browns fans: How much better does it feel with Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert running the draft than it did when Eric Mangini, Phil Savage or Butch Davis was in charge?
27. Seattle Seahawks: Even if you believe the Seahawks had the best draft weekend of any of the league’s 32 teams, you do realize that they’re in store for some humbling autumn Sundays, right?
28. Buffalo Bills: Will C.J. Spiller play quarterback, too?