Combine will put Lions in focus

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The situation begins to focus this week. At some point, Detroit officials will find themselves face-to-face with Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. They'll size up Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith. They'll get a better sense for the handful of blue-chip players who could be the No. 1 overall pick of a draft that as of Tuesday is 67 days away.

The Lions are approaching a franchise-altering decision: Because of their 0-16 record in 2008, they will have their choice of any college player in the nation. There are no obstacles, no reasons to cross their fingers and no "if-then" scenarios to consider. It's the rarest of opportunities, even for a team with the Lions' recent history. In fact, nearly 30 years have passed since the Lions last owned the No. 1 pick.

(For the historically minded: Running back Billy Sims, 1980.)

The top pick annually carries a combination of opportunity and fear. You can choose anyone -- so don't make a mistake.

Occasionally, the choice is obvious. In 2001, for example, few people faulted the Atlanta Falcons for targeting Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick. Sometimes there is a handful of players who seem equally worthy. In 2007, you could have made an argument for LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson or Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas at No. 1.

Then there are years when it seems no one might be qualified. Wouldn't it be the Lions' luck if that were the case in 2009? Media analysts have tabbed Stafford as the likeliest overall pick because he is the top quarterback prospect, but that might not have been the case had Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford not returned to Oklahoma. The Lions must determine whether Stafford is worthy of the No. 1 pick -- or if, like Utah's Alex Smith (2005) and Fresno State's David Carr (2002) before him -- he's merely the best quarterback in the draft.

If it's the latter, where would the Lions turn? Would it be Smith, whom Alabama coach Nick Saban kicked off the team last season? Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree? (The Lions history with drafting wide receivers works against Crabtree in this case.) Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry? Or would they trade the pick altogether?

With the annual scouting combine set to commence later this week in Indianapolis, let's take a closer look at the Lions' options. The Lions, after all, aren't just deciding whom to select. They must determine when they want to pick as well.

The franchise quarterback
Even at this early date in the draft season, it seems clear that 2009 is not a banner year for so-called "blue-chip" quarterbacks. ESPN.com analyst Todd McShay has four underclassmen at the top of his quarterback rankings: USC's Mark Sanchez, Kansas State's Josh Freeman and Ball State's Nate Davis. The senior class of quarterbacks, McShay notes, "ranks among the worst in NFL draft history."

This set of circumstances has several implications for the Lions. Historically, underclassman quarterbacks are less likely to develop into NFL stars. That inherently makes Stafford a more difficult and potentially riskier prospect to evaluate. But conversely, it means the Lions will have less to choose from if they bypass him and target a lesser-known quarterback lower in the draft.

(The wild-card might be USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who hasn't generated much No. 1-pick buzz. Sanchez could change that if he decides to work out fully at the combine, as has been reported.)

Knowing they need to address the quarterback position in some way, the Lions have been working for months to evaluate the lower portions of the class. Starting with the combine, they'll be able to address the Stafford question more directly. Stafford isn't expected to work out, following a long-h
eld pattern of top quarterback prospects, but he will be scheduled to conduct interviews with team officials.

How smart is he? Does he display leadership attributes? What about his character? Those are questions the Lions can begin answering at the combine.

The fallback
If drafted No. 1 overall, Stafford figures to exceed the $30 million in guaranteed money that Miami gave offensive tackle Jake Long last year as the top pick in the draft. If anything concerns the Lions about Stafford's physical or mental makeup, they will have to consider possible fallback options to minimize the financial risk.

The Dolphins took that path with Long, opting for a talented but grounded player who could fill a hole for the next decade. In doing so, Miami passed over Virginia defensive end Chris Long, Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan and Arkansas tailback Darren McFadden, among other higher-risk but potentially higher-reward choices.

Houston followed a similar pattern in 2006, tapping NC State defensive end Mario Williams rather than a pair of offensive playmakers: USC tailback Reggie Bush and Texas quarterback Vince Young.

Does a "safe" pick exist for the Lions at No. 1? Could it be Curry? What about Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who would fill a tremendous need and probably accept less guaranteed money than Stafford? Those questions, too, the Lions will explore in Indianapolis.

The trade
Thanks to the October trade of receiver Roy Williams, the Lions already own five of the draft's top 82 picks. They could further speed up the rebuilding process by trading out of the No. 1 pick if they determine no player is worthy of that slot.

A quarterback has been involved the last two times the No. 1 pick has been traded. In 2004, San Diego moved down three spots in the draft so the New York Giants could have Eli Manning. For doing so, the Chargers received third- and fifth-round picks in 2004 and the Giants' first-round pick in 2005.

In 2001, the Chargers moved down four spots in the draft so that Atlanta could grab Vick. San Diego received kick returner Tim Dwight, a third-round pick in 2001 and a second-round pick in 2002 for its trouble.

So it stands to reason that the Lions' best hope for a trade is if another team falls in love with Stafford and is willing to pursue him aggressively.

With any luck, it's an option the Lions won't have to make again for a long time.