In a season full of satisfying moments for Detroit Lions fans, an amusing one occurred in mid-December, when coach Dan Campbell had a chance to gloat a bit about the team's most recent draft.
The players in question were running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta, both of whom became key contributors after the Lions took them in the first and second rounds.
“I’m just going to bring it back to (general manager) Brad Holmes, it’s a hell of a job by him, once again,” Campbell said. "Took a lot of criticism for those two picks, but they look like they’re OK, so I’m glad we got them.”
The criticism the Lions received was less about the players' talent than their positions, particularly in the case of Gibbs, who went 12th overall. But perhaps there's a lesson to be learned from Detroit's approach — and from the other three teams remaining in the NFL playoffs. The Lions, Ravens, 49ers and Chiefs have all reached this point after making significant investments at positions that aren't always prioritized around the league.
Detroit isn't the only team that's been willing to buck the league-wide trend of devaluing running backs. When Christian McCaffrey was available in 2022, San Francisco gave up a haul of draft picks to get him. He's the highest-paid running back in the league based on average annual value, according to overthecap.com.
It's fair to say the 49ers have no regrets after McCaffrey scored 21 touchdowns (14 rushing, seven receiving) during this past regular season. He's an MVP finalist.
“Whenever you have a back who’s a threat in the pass game like he is and a tight end, those guys are guarded by linebackers and safeties. It’s tough to put a safety on both of them, so you usually get linebackers and stuff,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “When you have guys who are built to stop the run but have to stop a running back who’s like a receiver, they usually need help. And so, when they’re in position to get beat, they get help and that still doesn’t always work but it definitely gives all the other guys no help, which helps the other four eligibles.”
Take a quick look at the highest-paid players, and it's easy to see where the league spends its money. Quarterbacks are at the top, obviously. Edge rushers, wide receivers and interior defensive linemen can earn big contracts too. On the offensive line, top tackles make more than guards and centers.
So it's been fascinating to watch Baltimore build a pass rush with players added not during a spending frenzy at the start of free agency, but in August (Jadeveon Clowney) and September (Kyle Van Noy). Those two combined for 18 1/2 of Baltimore's league-leading 60 sacks.
The Ravens did make a big trade last season to acquire inside linebacker Roquan Smith, whom they then signed to a five-year, $100 million deal. Baltimore's other star inside linebacker is Patrick Queen, a first-round draft pick in 2020.
“The middle of our defense especially are great players,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said. “They deserve a lot of credit for kind of forcing the ball out on the perimeter, which is part of our philosophy. They're just fun guys to work with for sure.”
In 2022, the Ravens spent first-round picks on a safety and a center. Kyle Hamilton is now an All-Pro, and Tyler Linderbaum is a Pro Bowler.
Kansas City took a running back in the first round in 2020 when the Chiefs drafted Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He rushed for more than 800 yards as a rookie, but managed only 223 this season. But Kansas City hasn’t totally shied away from spending at less-coveted positions. Guard Joe Thuney is one of the Chiefs’ highest-paid players, and he’s an All-Pro this season.
And of course, the Lions went ahead and took Gibbs amid plenty of howling. He and LaPorta have combined for 24 scrimmage touchdowns, including the playoffs, to set an NFL record for rookies on the same team since the 1970 merger.
After drafting Gibbs, Detroit actually had another first-round pick last year. The Lions took Jack Campbell — a middle linebacker. He’s the team’s second-leading tackler.
None of this is to say these teams won't spend big at some of the usual spots. Baltimore's Lamar Jackson is one of the highest-paid quarterbacks, and San Francisco defensive lineman Nick Bosa became the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history when he signed a five-year, $170 million deal last summer.
But the Ravens and 49ers also have two of the highest-paid inside linebackers in Smith and Fred Warner, and the advantage they have at that position over other teams is noticeable.
“I have zero to do with how we invest any penny that goes into the salary cap," Macdonald said. “We love having great players that can play great football and play the way we want to play.”
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow and AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed.
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