In 2008, the Detroit Lions hit absolute rock bottom.
After seven straight losing seasons, they became the first team in NFL history to go 0-16. Head coach Rod Marinelli was fired one day after the season ended, and GM Matt Millen didn't even make it to Week 5. Martin Mayhew stepped in as acting GM after Millen's ouster, and the rest is history. From 0-16, the Lions climbed to 10-6 in just three seasons, earning their first playoff berth since 1999. If the 2011 season is any guide, the Lions should be playoff contenders for as long as Matthew Stafford is throwing to Calvin Johnson.
How did Mayhew turn things around so quickly?
The Lions' 2009 draft was a masterpiece. After picking Stafford with the No. 1 overall selection, the Lions added TE Brandon Pettigrew later that round. They got safety Louis Delmas in the second round, then traded back 11 spots and picked up OLB/MLB DeAndre Levy. Three years later, all four of these players are above-average starters and part of the Lions' core.
2010 was equally impressive. After drafting star DT Ndamukong Suh at No. 2 overall, the Lions traded back into the first round for Jahvid Best. The jury is out on Best because of his history of concussions, but the Lions also found a decent strong safety in Amari Spievey.
Free agency was where Mayhew and his head coach, Jim Schwartz, shone that year. The Lions signed or traded for a stunning 20 veteran players, most of them for peanuts. Although many of them didn't stick, Mayhew and Schwartz got a solid No. 2 WR (Nate Burleson), a good starting DT and DE (Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch), a starting left guard (Rob Sims), a Pro Bowl-level return man (Stefan Logan), one of the league's best backup QBs (Shaun Hill), a corner who started 28 games in '10 and '11 (Chris Houston) and solid backups Tony Scheffler (TE) and Lawrence Jackson (DE).
For picking players off the veteran scrap heap, that's an unbelievable haul.
The Lions didn't get much from their 2011 draft class during the playoff run. Although second-round WR Titus Young caught 48 passes for 607 yards, first-rounder Nick Fairley missed most of the season with foot issues, and second-round RB Mikel Leshoure missed all of it with a torn Achilles' tendon. Many of Mayhew's top picks have been injured quite a bit--Stafford, Best, Fairley, Leshoure, 2009 third-round WR Derrick Williams--but when they're on the field, their talent is undeniable. Mayhew has a great eye for that talent. And although Calvin Johnson was a Matt Millen pick, Mayhew deserves a ton of credit for crafting the Lions' explosive passing offense.
Mayhew has been a savvy trader. He fleeced the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, trading WR Roy Williams for a first, third and sixth-round pick; Williams proved to be washed up in Dallas, while Mayhew got Pettigrew with that first-round pick. Corey Williams, Houston and Scheffler were all acquired via trade for low-round picks. And by trading back in the '09 draft, Mayhew picked up an extra fourth- rounder, which became rotational DE Sammie Lee Hill.
Mayhew has also been willing to take risks on talent. Suh got a two-game suspension in '11 for stomping on Evan Dietrich-Smith. Fairley was arrested in April for marijuana possession, and again in May for a DUI. Leshoure has been cited for possession twice this offseason, and seventh-round OT Johnny Culbreath has been cited once. Young was booted from the Lions' facility during OTAs for punching out Louis Delmas. And Schwartz himself nearly started a brawl with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh after the Lions' Week 6 loss to the Niners.
What does it all mean?
Mayhew inherited the league's best WR and built an offense that ranked fifth in the league last year. Stafford, Johnson, Burleson, Young, Best, Leshoure and 2012 second-rounder Ryan Broyles make the Lions as strong at the skill positions as any NFL team. Suh leads a strong, deep and nasty defensive line that should only get better, once Fairley gets himself on the field consistently. If the Lions can sign DE Cliff Avril to a long-term contract this offseason, it'll be another coup for Mayhew.
The Lions have drafted for talent above all other considerations, including injury and off-the-field behavior. Sometimes it's bitten them in the rear, but when everything goes right, the Lions are one of the best teams in football. They've done an excellent, New England Patriots-esque job of picking up veterans who flopped with other teams and turning them into capable starters. If Mayhew's offensive stars stay healthy and out of trouble, there's no reason why the Lions can't stay in contention for years to come, thanks to Mayhew's model.