Only the Lions have the master plan

When it comes to the NFL draft, speculation is relatively uneducated when compared to Detroit's actual plan. Lions insider Mike Mady provides analysis on the team's formula for success.

The marquee free agents have signed and are no longer on the free agency market.

Teams have aggressively pursued their free agent targets - some obtaining the large-contract trophies they were seeking while others still have voids to fill – and the once vigorous pace of free agent signings has significantly slowed across the league.

This is the time of year when teams shift their attention from verified veterans to promising prospects.

This is the time of year when #mockdraft could start trending on Twitter and a player's 40-yard dash results are more discussed than any of his on-field accomplishments.

The NFL draft is on the horizon and, with each passing day, it becomes more of a burning topic.

For those who follow the Detroit Lions, this year's draft is viewed as an opportunity to transform from up-and-coming to here-and-arrived.

With speculation swirling regarding the potential direction the Lions may take with each pick – they have a pick in each round, save for the sixth, with two in the seventh (23, 54, 85, 117, 158, 219, 230) – speculators and spectators alike must be reminded that the Lions won't abide by any mock drafts or expert predictions.

"I've always said that the easiest headlines in the NFL are the ones you can get in March and April when you go sign whoever conventional wisdom suggests is the hottest free agent and draft according to whatever the ‘draftnicks' say you do," said team president Tom Lewand on a conference call last month. "And that gets you great headlines and good draft grades and all those other things but it doesn't necessarily translate to wins."

General Manger Martin Mayhew has surprised with selections over his first three drafts.

In 2009, after an 0-16 season where the defense and offensive line seemed to be the biggest areas of need, Mayhew selected tight end Brandon Pettigrew with the team's second pick in the first round (no. 20). Many questioned the selection of a tight end over available offensive linemen and linebackers, however Pettigrew has proven to be a valuable asset and key contributor in the Lions offense.

Similar curiosity – if not scrutiny – arose when the Lions used a second-round selection on receiver Titus Young last year. Young proved to be a shining example of the Lions' ability to identify players who fit their scheme and can contribute.

As a rookie, Young caught 48 passes for 607 yards and six touchdowns. Not bad for a 21-year-old, No. 3 receiver. Those two examples are only part of a larger list of surprising selections, many of which panned out and some that did not (see Derrick Williams).

What is important to understand is that the Lions have a plan.

They don't draft a player based on combine performance or collegiate production. They don't even draft a player solely on skill level.

Rather, they identify the players that best demonstrate the ability to execute the gameplan that they will be a part of.

Essentially, the coaching staff (led by head coach Jim Schwartz) develops a profile that they are looking for from particular players. That profile is given to the scouts, who identify players that would fit based on the expectations and desired skill sets.

The scouts, front office and coaching staff are all important cogs in the process but, ultimately, the team will have thoroughly examined the draft class and obtained an understanding of which players suit them the best.

When it comes time to make a pick, the Lions will select based on that information with some consideration to team need.

Meaning, the Lions – to an extent – will take the best player available. Although, it may not necessarily be that simple.

"We generally take the best player available but I don't know that's an absolute given for us," said Lewand. "I think that's an over simplification of a strategy. What we try to do, when it comes to the draft, is take a comprehensive look at the draft eligible players and those players who fit into our schemes and how they fit into our schemes… what if there is a quarterback there? We're sure as heck not drafting a quarterback in the first round."

As the football world attempts to guess what the Lions will do in this year's draft – and there is no doubt that some of that ‘educated guessing' will come from me – the only ones with a truly accurate expectation are Lewand, Mayhew, Schwartz and Co.

That is fitting, because they are the ones with the plan.

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