Different position, same philosophy for Lions

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Whether it’s the first pick in the draft or the last — and the Lions have had both — their philosophy has remained constant since Martin Mayhew became general manager five games into the 2008 season.

The Lions are sure to follow what’s been a successful plan in Mayhew’s tenure as they head to the NFL Scouting Combine this week in Indianapolis.

In short, they rely on their extensive scouting reports and don’t reach to fill needs at specific positions by drafting lesser-rated players.

At any point in the year, answers to draft questions sound like recorded messages. Just punch “2012” for this year’s announcement.

The message from coach Jim Schwartz after the Lions had been eliminated from their first playoff appearance since 1999 rings as true and familiar as ever more than a month later.

Improvement in the talent level and a 10-6 won-lost record might have lowered the Lions’ draft position, but the philosophy is at the same level.

“I think it’s a lot easier to see the needs that we have, but I don’t think it changes your philosophy,” Schwartz said.

There will be accelerated talk about free agency during this week, as well. The signing period begins on March 13, but the presence of agents allows for face-to-face communication and can speed up the process for teams seeking to re-sign their own free agents.

The Lions must make decisions on four veteran starters who are eligible to become unrestricted free agents: defensive end Cliff Avril, linebacker Stephen Tulloch, offensive tackle Jeff Backus and cornerback Eric Wright.

Free agency is looming in the background. But for this week, draft preparation is front and center.

After being in the draft spotlight with high picks for nearly a decade, the Lions dropped to 23rd overall for the first round on April 26.

The Lions will scrutinize players who might fall to them at that position and can upgrade primary needs, chiefly defensive back, linebacker and development on the offensive line.

They’ll be nothing more than interested spectators in what’s sure to be a hot debate in the next two months over which of two talented quarterbacks, Andrew Luck of Stanford or Robert Griffin III of Baylor, should be drafted first overall by the Colts.

The Lions will be drafting in their lowest position in 20 years, when they drafted defensive end Robert Porcher with the 26th pick in 1992.

They’ve had lower picks in the first round, but they were the product of trades. Most recently, they took running back Jahvid Best at No. 30 in 2010 with a pick acquired in a draft-day trade with the Vikings.

The Lions also had the second overall pick in 2010 and took defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

The combine begins Wednesday and runs through Tuesday, with players in various position groups arriving and departing in waves.

Offensive linemen, tight ends and kickers arrive on Wednesday to begin a series of height and weight measurements, physical and psychological exams and meetings with individual teams.

Free agency will make more of an impact on the draft than it did last year, when the owners’ lockout pushed back the signing period until just before training camps opened. Teams had no chance to fill needs before the draft with free agents.

With that in mind, here are some key issues and thoughts in advance of the combine — or  to modify a phrase used by former Lions head coach Steve Mariucci, the Pajama Olympics:
Lions’ salary cap

The Lions never make public their salary-cap status, and most reports have said they’re operating close to this year’s spending limit, projected to be about $120 million.

But Peter King of Sports Illustrated has reported that the Lions are $11.7 million under the cap, and there’s no reason to dispute his report.

That figure would give the Lions more leeway to sign free agents –- including their own — than most of us have thought.

They also can get additional cap space by renegotiating Calvin Johnson’s contract. His salary-cap hit in 2012, which is the last year of his contract, is more than $22 million.
Draft strengths

It’s a good draft for defensive backs, linebackers and offensive linemen.

The secondary and linebacker are primary needs for the Lions,  and they have to look at the offensive line because of the age of veterans such as left tackle Jeff Backus and center Dominic Raiola. Both are going into their 12th seasons.

The tackle position is solid in the draft. The top prospects all are in the range of 6-5, 6-6 and 6-7.

Such players as Matt Kalil of Southern Cal and Riley Reiff of Iowa will be long gone before the Lions draft at No. 23. But they might look at someone like Kelechi Osemele of Iowa State or Mike Adams of Ohio State.

Teams shy away from guards in the first round. The top prospects there include David DeCastro of Stanford and Cordy Glenn, a 6-6, 346-pound road-grader from Georgia.

Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama and Dre Kirkpatrick are talented cornerbacks who have character concerns. The interview process at Indy will be an important part of the week for both players.

Unless someone improves his position in the combine or workouts before the draft, it could be the middle of the second round before the first safety goes off the board.
State representatives

The Spartans lead the contingent of Michigan schools with five combine invitees.

Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy is rated by many as a first-round prospect, and quarterback Kirk Cousins has shown he has the poise and bearing to play in the NFL. Other Spartans are running back Edwin Baker, wide receiver Keshawn Martin and defensive back Trent Robinson.

Michigan has three players at the combine: defensive tackle Mike Martin, wide receiver Junior Hemingway and center David Molk.

Defensive back Jeremy Jones of Wayne State and wide receiver Jordan White of Western Michigan also have received invites.
Draft schedule

April 26, first round. April 27, rounds 2-3. April 28, rounds 4-8.