Niyo: Rewriting history of Lions’ first-round picks over last two decades

Detroit News

Nowhere does the NFL Draft elicit feelings of regret quite like it does in Detroit, thanks to the Lions’ checkered history of what-ifs and outright busts. And while diehard fans have renewed hope in a new front-office regime, the last two decades offer a painful reminder of the opportunity costs involved in this business.

So while we look ahead to next week’s draft, here’s a look back at the Lions’ first-round picks since 2000, and a do-over.

It’s a sadistic exercise, to be sure, but one we’ll limit to players also drafted in the first round, eliminating options like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, or Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce. Yes, the Lions could’ve taken Tom Brady instead of Stockar McDougle with the 20th overall pick in 2000. But every NFL team shares a similar lament, several times over. Cleveland, another quarterback-starved franchise, actually made nine picks before Brady went to New England at No. 199. The last of those was a QB, too: Spergon Wynn.

(Note: We’re also omitting the additional first-round picks the Lions acquired during the draft in 2004 and 2010. In both cases, they traded up to acquire a running back, selecting Kevin Jones and Jahvid Best. And it went about as well as you’d expect.)

Anyway, on to rewriting history …

Player, Position, College, Original draft position 


The pick: Stockar McDougle, OT, Oklahoma — 20 

The one that got away: Keith Bulluck, LB, Syracuse — 30 

Injuries and conditioning slowed McDougle early in his career, but he did become the Lions’ starting right tackle and part of a solid offensive line in 2003. But Detroit let him walk at the end of his rookie deal, and he played just two seasons beyond that before an Achilles injury effectively ended his career. Bulluck was one of the more productive — and durable — three-down linebackers in the NFL during his 11-year career, with eight straight 100-tackle seasons and a streak of 127 straight starts.


The pick: Jeff Backus, OT, Michigan — 18 

The one that got away: Reggie Wayne, WR, Miami (Fla.) — 30 

Matt Millen’s first draft pick played 12 seasons with the Lions, starting 192 of 193 games as a tough, no-nonsense left tackle. But the Lions passed on another mainstay in nose tackle Casey Hampton, who won two Super Bowl rings and made five Pro Bowls after Pittsburgh traded up to grab him at No. 19. They also missed Wayne, who became a star in Indianapolis and ranks 10th on the NFL’s all-time receiving list. Drafting Wayne here could’ve saved Millen some trouble down the line.


The pick: Joey Harrington, QB, Oregon — 3 

The one that got away: Dwight Freeney, DE, Syracuse — 11 

The controversy surrounding this pick is well-documented. But aside from the lack of conviction here — Quentin Jammer was another possibility — it was a colossal mistake on Millen’s part. Harrington lasted just four seasons in Detroit and was out of the league after six. Meanwhile, the Lions could’ve added a future Hall of Famer in Ed Reed, but only one safety (Eric Turner) ever has gone that high in the draft. So the more realistic choice here is adding the spin move and elite sack production that Indianapolis got when they grabbed Freeney in the top half of the first round.


The pick: Charles Rogers, WR, Michigan State — 2 

The one that got away: Andre Johnson, WR, Miami (Fla.) — 3 

Rogers was a local star, which only added more pressure. But the Lions also had more reasons to heed the red flags. Beyond the injuries early on, it was immaturity and substance-abuse problems that derailed his career. Rogers, who died of liver failure in 2019, played just 15 NFL games and ended his career with 36 catches for 440 yards and four TDs. Meanwhile, with the third pick, Houston got a receiver in Johnson that put together a Hall of Fame resume: 1,062 catches, 14,185 yards, 70 TDs.


The pick: Roy Williams, WR, Texas — 7 

The one that got away: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Miami (Ohio) — 11 

This is how it went from bad to worse, with Millen spending premium draft capital on the receiver position to help prop up a flailing quarterback. Williams did spend four-plus seasons in Detroit and made the Pro Bowl in 2006, before getting dealt to Dallas by Millen’s successor, Martin Mayhew. But a far better bet would’ve been to land a true franchise QB in Roethlisberger, who went 11th to Pittsburgh and just retired as a two-time Super Bowl champ that ranks fifth all-time in passing yardage.


The pick: Mike Williams, WR, USC — 10 

The one that got away: Aaron Rodgers, QB, California — 24 

Another defining moment in Millen’s tenure? Turning in the card for Williams — one of the biggest top-10 busts — instead of the player he wanted: edge rusher DeMarcus Ware, who went to Dallas with the next pick and became a seven-time All-Pro with 138½ career sacks. And then there’s the quarterback who sat in the green room all night. Passing on Rodgers proved especially cruel for Lions fans, because the four-time NFL MVP has spent the last dozen years or so as King of the (NFC) North.


The pick: Ernie Sims, LB, Florida State — 9 

The one that got away: Tamba Hali, DE, Penn State — 20 

Sims started every game his first three seasons, but he was hardly a cornerstone piece for the Lions’ defense, admitting later in his career that he spent too much time partying in Detroit. The Lions could’ve drafted Haloti Ngata, a run-stuffing nose tackle they traded for near the end of his career. Or perhaps Millen should’ve taken note of what Hali did at his alma mater, Penn State, and added a hard-working edge rusher who made five Pro Bowls and racked up 89½ sacks in a 12-year career for the Chiefs.


The pick: Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech — 2 

The one that got away: None

The Raiders screwed this one up, so the Lions didn’t have to. Not that they would’ve, anyway. Because after the Raiders took quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the Lions had their pick of can’t-miss stars in Johnson, left tackle Joe Thomas and running back Adrian Peterson, all future Hall of Famers. Millen says he would’ve drafted Peterson if Megatron hadn’t still been on the board, for what it’s worth. (He also advised Raiders owner Al Davis not to draft Russell after a disastrous interview the QB had in Detroit.)


The pick: Gosder Cherilus, OT, Boston College — 17 

The one that got away: Duane Brown, OT, Virginia Tech — 26 

Millen’s final draft was like so many others, with a second-round reach (Jordon Dizon) that made little sense. And while Cherilus had a solid nine-year career as an NFL starter at right tackle — the first five in Detroit — the left tackle Houston took 26th, Brown, is still playing at age 36, fresh off his fifth Pro Bowl season.


The picks: Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia — 1 

Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Oklahoma State — 20 

The one that got away: Alex Mack, C, California — 21 

No revisionist history is needed here. The Lions found the franchise quarterback they were looking for in Stafford. And the extra pick Mayhew added in a steal of a deal with Dallas didn’t go entirely to waste as Pettigrew played seven seasons in Detroit and averaged 71 catches from 2010-12. But they could’ve upgraded the line with Mack, who went one pick later and made the NFL’s All-Decade team.


The pick: Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska — 2 

The one that got away: Trent Williams, OT, Oklahoma — 4 

Suh racked up 10 sacks as a rookie and was a game-wrecking talent in the middle of a dominant defensive front for the Lions when they made the playoffs in 2014. He’s also as durable as they come. But he bolted in free agency, leaving the Lions in the lurch. And it’s fair to wonder if the Lions would’ve gotten more bang for their bucks by drafting left tackle Williams, a nine-time Pro Bowler who is still one of the game’s best at a premium position.


The pick: Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn — 13 

The one that got away: Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina — 14 

Fairley was the first of multiple character risks Mayhew took in this ill-fated draft for the Lions. He was a disruptive tag-team partner for Suh, but struggled with conditioning and off-field issues and the Lions eventually declined his fifth-year option. Meanwhile, a player that was red-flagged by the Lions’ medical staff, Quinn, who was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor in high school, just topped 100 career sacks and earned second-team All-Pro honors with the Bears last season.


The pick: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa — 23 

The one that got away: David DeCastro, OL, Stanford — 24

Reiff has been a starter in the NFL for nearly a decade now. But the Lions, who hoped he’d succeed Backus at left tackle, ultimately let him walk in free agency. They could’ve opted for a hard-hitting safety in Harrison Smith, who has been a rock for the Vikings. Or they could’ve gone for more bite on the line with DeCastro, a guard who fell to Pittsburgh at No. 24 and became a two-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowler.


The pick: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU — 5 

The one that got away: DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Clemson — 27 

The top of the 2013 draft proved to be a minefield of wasted draft capital. So the Lions did well for themselves betting on Ansah’s raw talent and upside. He had 30 sacks in his first three seasons before injuries sidetracked his career. It’s a bit unrealistic here, but the second of three receivers to go in the first round in ’13 was a definite keeper: Hopkins has been one of the NFL’s most productive players over the last decade.


The pick: Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina — 10 

The one that got away: Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh — 13 

One of Mayhew’s biggest mistakes as GM was using a top-10 pick on an athletic tight end who flashed talent but also immaturity. Fans saw some of both during Ebron’s time in Detroit, but what they also saw was an “undersized” defensive tackle in Donald who quickly developed into one of the game’s best players for the Rams. Brad Holmes lobbied for Donald as the Rams’ college scouting director, and now that lucky 13th pick is a three-time defensive player of the year, a perennial All-Pro and a Super Bowl champ.


The pick: Laken Tomlinson, G, Duke — 28 

The one that got away: None 

Given where Tomlinson was drafted — and the restrictions on this re-draft — there’s no player you’d take over him. There were second-rounders (Landon Collins, Eric Kendricks) that would’ve helped the Lions’ defense. But Tomlinson proved his worth after a frustrating start to his career in Detroit under then-Lions line coach Ron Prince. He was traded to San Francisco for a fifth-round pick — the GM who drafted him, Mayhew, was part of the 49ers’ front office then — and developed into a Pro Bowl guard last season as part of the NFL’s best rushing offense.


The pick: Taylor Decker, OT, Ohio State — 16 

The one that got away: None 

There’s a case to be made for another offensive lineman here, as the Colts’ Ryan Kelly has been one of the league’s better centers since entering the league. Kenny Clark has been a dominant nose tackle, at times, for the Packers in the NFC North. But Bob Quinn’s first pick as GM in Detroit has been what the Lions hoped for, becoming a quality starter at left tackle and emerging as one of the team’s veteran leaders.


The pick: Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida — 21 

The one that got away: T.J. Watt, LB, Wisconsin — 30 

Linebacker was a glaring need for the Lions at the time, and Quinn made the right choice in selecting Davis over Reuben Foster, who already is out of the league after a series of arrests. But while Davis’ athleticism and work ethic were never questioned, his coverage and durability have been. And just imagine how different things might’ve been if Quinn had drafted Watt, a three-time All-Pro and reigning defensive player of the year just entering his prime.


The pick: Frank Ragnow, C, Arkansas — 20 

The one that got away: Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville — 32 

The Lions aren’t about to give this one back, as Ragnow has established himself as arguably the league’s best center. But it’s an intriguing thought for every team in the NFL, wondering what they passed up in Jackson, who went 32nd overall to Baltimore. The Heisman Trophy winner out of Louisville was the league MVP in only his second year and already has more 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Ravens than the Lions have in the last 17 years combined.


The pick: T.J. Hockenson, TE, Iowa — 8 

The one that got away: Brian Burns, DE, Florida State — 16 

Injuries have kept Hockenson from putting up truly elite pass-catching numbers thus far, but he’s one of the better receiving threats at his position. The question, then and now, is about positional value. The Lions could’ve grabbed an edge rusher in Montez Sweat (26th) or Burns, who went 16th to Carolina and made his first Pro Bowl last season. Still only 23, he has 25½ sacks, 55 quarterback hits and six forced fumbles in three seasons with the Panthers.


The pick: Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State — 3 

The one that got away: Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon — 6 

This was shortsighted thinking from a regime facing a playoff mandate. The Lions could’ve jump-started their rebuild a year earlier — and at the most important position — if they’d opted for one of the quarterbacks at the top of this draft. Okudah, the highest-drafted cornerback since 1997, has one INT in 10 games, while Herbert stepped in immediately as the Chargers’ starter, was named offensive rookie of the year in 2020 and then made his first Pro Bowl last season after passing for over 5,000 yards.


The pick: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon — 7 

The one that got away: None 

Or maybe it’s too early to say. Micah Parsons looks like a steal for the Cowboys with 13 sacks and an All-Pro nod as a rookie, while another offensive tackle, Rashawn Slater, looked dominant protecting Herbert for the Chargers. But Sewell, the second-youngest player in this draft, allowed just one sack over the final 12 weeks of the season and finished as a top-10 run-blocker, according to Pro Football Focus. All that despite switching from right tackle to left and back due to Decker’s preseason injury.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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