From 2000-2009, the Detroit Lions compiled a miserable 42-118 record for a .263 winning percentage. Over that same period, the New England Patriots boasted a far more marketable 112-48 record for a .700 winning percentage.
The Lions' loathsome winning percentage over the past decade has translated into an average draft position well inside the top ten of the league, with only two picks falling outside of that range. The Patriots, conversely, routinely have drafted outside of the top ten of the draft over the past decade, three times selecting in the bottom third of round one and once having no first-round pick.
Take away the names of these two teams and the casual observer might assume that team one, the Lions, had amassed a stock pile of talent, while team two, the Patriots, had had many more first-round misses.
Sadly, for Lions' fans and other fans similarly situated, quite the opposite has been true. Of the Patriots' first-round picks over the past decade, all are still in the league and all but two, Richard Seymour and Daniel Graham, the Patriots' 2001 and 2002 draft picks, respectively, are still productive NFL players.
Of the Lions' first-round picks since 2001, five are no longer with the team, two are no longer in the NFL, and one more is on his way out of the league.
Not surprisingly, the players that Detroit has selected high in the draft over the past decade and that have not panned out have, with the exception of Ernie Sims, been so-called "skill-position" players, playing either wide-receiver or quarterback. That's an argument against both drafting skill-position players high in the draft and making bad decisions, as Lions' GM Matt Millen routinely was wont to do.
The more glaring lesson, however, is found not in the Lions' failed picks but in the cost of those picks. Setting aside the high base salaries which are not guaranteed in the NFL, NFL teams that routinely select high in the draft, as the Lions routinely do, pay a far more handsome price for their picks than do the rest of the teams in the league.
From 2001-2009, the Lions spent approximately $157 million in guaranteed money alone on their first round picks. This year, they likely will add $26-32 million to that total in signing first-round pick and number two overall selection, Ndamukong Suh.
Compare that figure to that of the Patriots, which, during the same period, spent a far more earthly $43.52 million on salary bonuses for their first-round picks. That's nearly $114 million less over the decade that the Patriots had to guarantee than did the Lions.
The lavish bonus money that the Lions routinely have doled out to first-round picks over the past decade has cost the Lions not only in the pocketbook, but also on the field. With so much cap space devoted to high picks, the Lions, with the exception of uncapped years such as this year, annually are left wanting for cap space to sign players not selected by the team in round one. The Patriots, meanwhile, have ample cap space to sign whomever they wish and, because of their continuing success, are even able to sign some stars at clearly discount rates. The cycle, thus, deepens for the Lions while breezing along for the Patriots.
Add to this depressing disparity for Lions' fans the fact that the Patriots fared far better not only than the Lions but also than most other NFL teams in selecting their first round talent over the past decade, and there is serious reason to wonder why most teams do not spend their money on quality personnel evaluators and trade out of the top half of the draft. Presumably, that is yet another point of distinction between successful and unsuccessful franchises.