The two surprise teams that made the NFC playoffs last season did so largely because of sharp decisions in the draft a year ago.
Seattle went from 7-9 to 11-5 after taking quarterback Russell Wilson in the third round, 75th overall. Wilson gave the Seahawks a surprising dual threat and was arguably just as productive as higher-profile picks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.
Washington went from 5-11 to 10-6 after finding a hidden gem, running back Alfred Morris of Florida Atlantic, in the sixth round, 173rd overall. Morris certainly benefited from Griffin’s presence, but he was still an absolute steal, finishing with a franchise-record 1,613 yards rushing.
This is what needs to happen with the Detroit Lions, who are coming off a dismal 4-12 season.
Martin Mayhew, entering his fifth draft as the club’s general manager, helped turn the franchise around with quality first-round picks his first two years.
But they were basically no-brainers: quarterback Matthew Stafford No. 1 overall in 2009 and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh No. 2 overall in 2010.
Lions mascot Roary — or even Matt Millen — could have made those selections.
Mayhew hasn’t been as successful with some of his other middle- and late-round picks, which are so important for building depth and sustaining long-term success in the NFL.
Here’s a pick-by-pick look back at Mayhew’s work:
FIRST ROUND: Stafford is the franchise quarterback.
FIRST ROUND: Tight end Brandon Pettigrew was an unlikely choice with the 20th pick overall. Six picks later, Green Bay took All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews. Pettigrew is coming off a mediocre season that was plagued by injuries and dropped passes. He needs to show more consistency in 2013.
SECOND ROUND: Safety Louis Delmas gives the secondary an emotional lift, but he’s been hampered by knee injuries the last two seasons. Delmas, an unrestricted free agent, was re-signed for two more years. THIRD ROUND: Linebacker DeAndre Levy has been a starter all four seasons and was also re-signed last week. He’s decent but not a playmaker.
THIRD ROUND: Receiver Derrick Williams was waived in 2011 and is now in the Canadian Football League.
FOURTH ROUND: Defensive tackle Sammie Hill started as a rookie but was used mostly in a reserve role the last three years. He signed a free-agent contract last week with Tennessee.
SIXTH ROUND: Running back Aaron Brown was waived by Detroit in 2011 and by Cincinnati last year.
SEVENTH ROUND: Offensive tackle Lydon Murtha, linebacker Zack Follett and tight end Dan Gronkowski are no longer with the Lions, either. Murtha played nine games with Miami from 2009-2011, Follett gave up football in 2011 because of a neck injury, and Gronkowski is on Cleveland’s roster.
GRADE: C+. Five players were still contributing into their fourth season, but Pettigrew is up and down and Williams was a wasted pick.
FIRST ROUND: Suh has his share of critics, but he’s been an anchor on the interior for the Lions’ defensive line.
FIRST ROUND: Running back Jahvid Best was a risky pick because of the concussion he suffered late in his college career. Best was a game-changer for the Lions until another brain injury put his career in jeopardy. Twelve picks later, New England selected All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski.
THIRD ROUND: Safety Amari Spievey was re-signed to a one-year deal after being cleared for contact. A concussion ended his 2012 season early.
FOURTH ROUND: Offensive tackle Jason Fox, whose development was slowed by injuries, could get a chance to win a starting job in training camp.
SEVENTH ROUND: Defensive end Willie Young was easily Mayhew’s best late-round pick. He has shown flashes that he could make an impact but remains inconsistent. Young will compete for one of the two vacant defensive end spots in the starting lineup. SEVENTH ROUND: Receiver Tim Toone, who gained notoriety as Mr. Irrelevant for being the last player selected in the draft, was released in 2011 and is now on Atlanta’s roster. GRADE: C-. Mayhew took a gamble on Best and lost. This mark will go up slightly if Fox and Young win starting jobs and produce.
FIRST ROUND: Nick Fairley, following two offseason arrests, started to emerge as one of the top defensive tackles in the league before sustaining a shoulder injury late last season.
SECOND ROUND: Receiver Titus Young had some red flags for character issues in college. Those surfaced again with the Lions. Young was dismissed from the team last November and eventually released in February. Later in that same round, starting receivers such as Baltimore’s Torrey Smith, Cleveland’s Greg Little and Green Bay’s Randall Cobb were selected.
SECOND ROUND: Running back Mikel Leshoure missed his rookie year following surgery for a torn Achilles tendon. Leshoure was suspended the first two games last season because of two offseason marijuana arrests. He rushed for 798 yards and nine touchdowns, but lacked big-play ability.
FIFTH ROUND: Linebacker Doug Hogue was released last season and later picked up by Carolina.
SEVENTH ROUND: Offensive tackle Johnny Culbreath was the first in a series of Lions players to get arrested last offseason. He was eventually released.
GRADE: D+. Many teams passed on Titus Young because of the off-the-field concerns, but Mayhew took another chance and lost. Grade will improve considerably if Fairley and Leshoure stay out of trouble, Fairley becomes a Pro Bowl-caliber player and Leshoure shows more burst than he did his first season following surgery.
2012 FIRST ROUND: Offensive lineman Riley Reiff got some playing time in a three-tackle package and is in line to start at either tackle or guard. Minnesota took safety Harrison Smith (103 tackles, three interceptions, two touchdowns in 16 starts) six spots later.
SECOND ROUND: Receiver Ryan Broyles, a controversial pick because of the team’s defensive needs, is coming off his second knee surgery in as many years. Eight picks later, Green Bay drafted cornerback Casey Hayward, who made six interceptions and finished third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
THIRD ROUND: Cornerback Bill Bentley showed promise in training camp, but wasn’t himself after suffering a shoulder injury in a preseason game. He was eventually shut down and underwent surgery.
FOURTH ROUND: Defensive end Ronnell Lewis, expected to play a significant role on special teams, ended up being a real disappointment. He was inactive the last seven games.
FIFTH ROUND: Tahir Whitehead played on special teams as a rookie and could be in the rotation at linebacker this coming season.
FIFTH ROUND: Cornerback Chris Greenwood spent the entire season on injured reserve following abdominal surgery.
SIXTH ROUND: Cornerback Jonte Green played in 15 games and even made five starts. He was a pleasant surprise.
SEVENTH ROUND: Linebacker Travis Lewis, like Whitehead, played on special teams and could be in the mix at linebacker.
GRADE: D. The Lions didn’t address areas of concern defensively early enough to remain a playoff-caliber team. At this point, Ronnell Lewis is a wasted pick. Grade goes up significantly if Reiff can play left tackle effectively and Bentley becomes a playmaker in the secondary.
In all, there have been quality picks (Fairley, barring more off-field incidents, and Willie Young), bad picks (several) and even some tough-luck picks (Leshoure and Bentley).
Late next month, the Lions will have eight selections during the seven rounds of the NFL Draft. They need contributions immediately from the top choices, and they could also desperately use someone else to make an unexpected impact just like Wilson did for the Seahawks and Morris for the Redskins.