Birkett: Lions clearly steering clear of bad apples

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Laken Tomlinson (Duke) is selected as the number twenty-eight overall pick to the Detroit Lions in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Tomlinson has aspirations to be a neurosurgeon when he is done playing football.

Their first pick plans to be a neurosurgeon when he is done playing football.

Their second, one scout told, got the highest character grade that scout had ever given a player coming out of school.

Their third, a psychology major at Stanford, got baptized by the same pastor who baptized his father's longtime friend, Lions general manager Martin Mayhew.

On and on it went.

In a draft where so many high-profile players came with so much off-field baggage, from top pick Jameis Winston to undrafted offensive lineman La'el Collins, the Lions added a virtual Boy Scout troop of players to a roster they expect to contend for the NFC championship next year.

Good guys with talent, they hope, don't finish last.

"I think that when you have guys with the right sort of moral fiber, when the going gets tough then they're ready to step up and they're not going to back down, they're not going to go into their own individual thing," Mayhew said. "They understand it's a team, we have to try to accomplish something together. And I think that works better when you have guys with solid character."

Targeting high-character players in the draft is nothing new, though this Lions regime seems especially intent on keeping bad seeds out of the locker room.

Coach Jim Caldwell said this spring he is "a pretty hard liner" when it comes to character issues, and Mayhew has clearly had a more discerning eye for dopes since a couple of risky picks in the 2011 draft led the Lions briefly down a path of self-destruction.

In the past two years, the team has drafted four players who were engaged or already married, including Stanford's Alex Carter this year, and a number of other squeaky-clean prospects like this year's top-two picks Laken Tomlinson and Ameer Abdullah.

Last month, they cut backup offensive lineman Rodney Austin after he was arrested on a domestic-violence charge he denies, and they've shown little inclination to bring back free-agent defensive tackle C.J. Mosley after his team-issued marijuana suspension last year.

"We look at character, we look at all types of different things," Caldwell said. "Obviously, their physical capabilities to see if they fit within the system. Some do and some don't. Not every guy that we take's going to be a guy that's perfect."

Talent, of course, is the first and most important part of any player's résumé, and every pick Mayhew made over the weekend checked off that box.

But as the Lions enter Year 2 of the Caldwell era and try to improve on last year's 11-5 season, several things are clear.

They believe in building through the trenches, hence the plethora of upgrades to the offensive line. They want a reliable running game to complement Matthew Stafford's big arm, and they have a defense that ranked second in the NFL last year. And they won't take any shortcuts in the locker room.

That has become too important a place to tempt with anything toxic in recent years, and a big reason the Lions were so successful last season, players say, was the homely atmosphere Caldwell fostered.

There is no guarantee Tomlinson, Abdullah or any of the five other draft picks will fit seamlessly in the mix this fall, but given their backgrounds and the makeup of the rest of the roster, that is certainly the expectation.

There are organizational reasons the Lions have made a point to target high-character players, too. The Ford family that owns the team was dismayed by events of the 2012 off-season, when three members of the 2011 draft class were arrested (or cited) a combined total of five times, and the explosion of social media makes future incidents more likely to come to light.

"I think in this day and age, I mean, with the camera phones and the media access and Twitter and those things that we have, I think it's much more of an issue than it was 10, 12 years ago," Mayhew said. "I can tell you for a fact that people did things in the NFL, players did things that never saw the light of day. And now every time somebody does something, it's all over the Internet and social media. So, I think that's an important factor that's changed the nature of this game and college football as well."

While plenty in the NFL believe a few dogs can go a long way toward turning an average team into a winner, the Lions are out to prove you can win with high-character guys, too.

"You can have great character and you can have an edge, and that's what I want," Mayhew said. "I want a great character guy that has an edge to him as well. I mean, there are a lot of players in this league that have great reputations and are great in the community ... but they're excellent players and they have an edge to him. They have a great competitive nature about them. And so, I want those guys."

Contact Dave Birkett: Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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