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Signability is No. 1 factor for Lions

Draft day minus 12 days and counting, and everyone wants to know what the Detroit Lions are going to do with the first pick on April 25. Here's my read of where they are this morning. All things considered, I think they're going to handle it as well as any team hamstrung with this millstone of a pick can handle it.

I believe the Lions will target three players -- Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, Baylor left tackle Jason Smith and Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry. Detroit has the benefit of being the only team that can talk to any player in the draft about a contract, because the Lions are on the clock; it's their pick, anytime between now and 4:10 p.m. on the opening day of the draft. Sometime in the coming days, they'll talk to the agent for the player they favor (my guess is Stafford), and tell him it's paramount said player signs before the draft. If this player can't be signed by, say, the Thursday before the draft, the Lions would move on to their second choice, then their third.

That's the general idea. It's not new. Bill Parcells would have done it last year had he not been able to get a deal with tackle Jake Long three days before the draft. This year, it's going to be a slippery slope because I believe Stafford will be hard to sign -- and that may push new general manager Martin Mayhew to draw a line in the sand. He doesn't want to be cowed into signing a player who may carry a guaranteed money tag of $40 million.

Tom Condon and Ben Dogra are the agents for Stafford. They also are the agents for Jason Smith. This could be a weird story. Condon and Dogra could drive a harder bargain on Stafford because of the position he plays, and it's conceivable they could push the Lions to target Smith, if he's No. 2 on their list, because of the signability factor. Conceivable, but not likely. For an explanation, look at the guaranteed money handed to the last four No. 1 overall picks:

Williams, a defensive end, got 10 percent more guaranteed money than Smith, a quarterback. Russell, a quarterback, got 21 percent more guaranteed money than Williams -- and 34 percent more guaranteed money than the quarterback taken two years previously. Long got the premium of a five-year deal (and the ability to be a free agent at 27 at a position where he may be able to hit the free-agent jackpot twice) and an average increase of 12 percent per year over Russell.

So follow the money: A defensive end gets 10 percent more than a quarterback, a quarterback gets 21 percent more than a defensive end, and a tackle gets 12 percent more than a quarterback. To me, that says Condon/Dogra will want 20 percent more for the quarterback than what Long got last year. So Stafford, in that scenario, would want either $36 million guaranteed over five years, or $42 million over six. Let's say Condon/Dogra take a this-economy-stinks discount. Maybe they go to $34 million or $35 million over five, or $38-ish million over six. Maybe.

That's one factor in this. The other factor is which player makes more sense to the Lions.

Stafford had a very good pro day at Georgia and then a better individual workout with the Lions. He's a confident, commanding presence. If the Lions were interested in Jay Cutler, and they were, then it makes sense they'd be interested in the quarterback most like him in this draft.

There are some lingering questions about Stafford in Detroit because the Lions remember the ghost of Joey Harrington and they know there's a 50-percent washout factor with first-round quarterbacks. They wonder why Stafford never became the super phenom he was supposed to be coming out of high school. All logical concerns. But they also know they like him, and they know Daunte Culpepper is not their quarterback of the long-term future, and they may not have a chance to draft a quarterback as promising in the next few years.

Smith would cost a little less, maybe $33 million guaranteed over five years, and he'd probably be able to move in at left tackle immediately, or after one year, enabling the Lions to strengthen the line. They could team him with last year's first-rounder, Gosder Cherilus, as left and right tackles, or move Cherilus inside for a year or two and move left tackle Jeff Backus over to the right side. Smith's a feisty kid with a mean streak, like Long was last year, and the Lions wouldn't regret the pick. He's a safe pick.

I keep hearing Curry is the safest pick of them all, and there's something to it because of his athletic and physical gifts. Lions coach Jim Schwartz told me if Curry were the pick, he'd play middle linebacker and never come off the field. But Curry wasn't a sacker in college, so his pass-rush skills in the NFL are a projection. He does look to be a playmaker and braincenter of the defense. The question is, do the Lions make him the highest-paid linebacker in NFL history (Bart Scott would probably qualify as the highest-paid in terms of long-term deal now, at $8 million per) with at least an $11 million average and the most guaranteed money a linebacker's ever gotten? The Lions may say that, financially, a linebacker who doesn't get sacks shouldn't be a $11-million-a-year player (and that's the low end), and it'd be hard to argue with them.

My guess is that's how they fall in the Lions' pecking order right now: Stafford, Smith and Curry. But I caution you that it's only an educated guess, because the Lions aren't talking. There's a certain tea-leaf-reading you have to do in cases like this, and the most logical thing is the Lions, who can certainly survive over the next two or three years with a Backus-Cherilus tackle tandem, are thinking Stafford, then Smith, then Curry, for football and future and financial reasons.

"I have tons of questions. The beauty of being an outsider is I can hear people in the league say, 'Well, this is the way we've always done it.' And I can ask, 'What's the best way of doing it, not just the way you've always done it?'''-- NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, to me last week in Washington

"I don't think he was a nuisance at all to anyone. But the competitive nature that he has is he wants the ball. Now, the way he goes about it is a little different and a little bit hard to handle for people sometimes. That is the way he is. That is Terrell. So with the group of guys we have, we are going to be able to spread the ball around as a unit.''-- Dallas wide receiver Patrick Crayton, to Randy Galloway on ESPN radio in Dallas

"[Bleep] you. You can't open my [bleeping] door.''-- Unemployed wide receiver Plaxico Burress, as quoted by a Florida police officer, after the officer pulled Burress over for speeding and reckless driving and then opened the driver's door of the car Burress was driving because the window was so tinted he didn't know if he was getting Burress' attention

Granted it's still two weeks before the draft, but what does this say about the idiocy of the top of the NFL draft, and what a burden having one of the tops picks is? As of Friday, not one of the first six teams in the first round -- Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Seattle, Cleveland or Cincinnati -- was entertaining a serious trade proposal to move down in the draft ... and these six teams won 16 of their 96 games last year.

Just before Amtrak Acela Train 2172 left New York Penn Station on the continuation of its trip from Washington to Boston last Tuesday, a sultry, Barry White-type voice came over the PA system, and after a long exhale of breath, the voice moaned, "Ohhhhh baby,'' as though the voice belonged behind a closed door and not on a crowded train. My seat neighbor looked at me incredulously and said, "Are we on a train?''

There have been a few travel notes that you just can't make up over the years. The farter on the plane from Newark to Providence comes to mind, as does the yipping dog halfway across the country on the redeye from Seattle to Newark, and the woman clipping her nails on the jam-packed New Jersey Transit commuter from Montclair to Manhattan. This one joins the club.

One of the issues for new NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith is something I'd call "hidden seasons.'' It's an issue getting no attention out there, but I can guarantee you after talking to Smith that it's on his radar for the collective bargaining process facing the union.

(I'll have more from Smith at the top of my Tuesday column, and I'll have a good chunk about my time spent with him last week in Washington in the Scorecard section of Sports Illustrated this week.)

Let me preface this by saying I remember about 10 years ago talking to a prominent player about his team's marginal playoff chances late in a season. This team wasn't a great team, and this player didn't seem all that excited about making the playoffs. I asked why, and he said it's because in the playoffs he got paid a fraction of what he got paid during the season, and he hated the risk he'd have to take in the playoff game because of his non-guaranteed contract.

We never think of that, but I'm going to give you an illustration of that. Let's take the New England Patriots over the past eight years. In that time, they've played 17 playoff games -- an extra season. No one's crying for the Patriots; it's why you play the game, obviously, and playoff veterans see their careers advance in ways they wouldn't have had they not been successful in the postseason. But check out the money the players make in the postseason compared to what they make in the regular season, looking at the Patriots' year-by-year playoff résumé since 2001:

Let's look at how that compares to a player's regular-season money. I'll take Tom Brady and Mike Vrabel, for example. Brady's cap number this year, which combines the pro-rated portion of past signing bonuses and this year's salary and roster bonus, is $14.626 million. That means he played playoff games, including four Super Bowls, for $33,529 per game and will play for $914,125 per game in the regular season this year.

For his 2009 regular-season games, Brady will make 27 times what he made for playoff games.

Vrabel's cap number this year in Kansas City is $4.393 million, a per-game average of $274,563. That's eight times as much, per game, as he made in the 17 playoff games he was eligible to play in New England.

Vrabel was New England's player rep to the union, and a member of the 10-man Executive Board of player reps. The payout issue is something he's been bothered by for years.

"In the postseason, obviously, you're playing for the championship, the will to win, the love of the game,'' he said last week. "But the reality is that the most valued part of our season is when we're paid the least by far, and when the injury risk is greatest. It's a fine line we walk as players.''

Mike Pereira, the league's vice president of officiating, phoned to make a tremendous offer for the Dr. Z benefit. "I've got a football used in the Super Bowl this year, signed by Mike Tomlin and Dan Rooney. I want to donate it to the auction,'' he said. Whoa. Cool stuff. Much appreciated. "Well,'' he said, "Paul's written a lot of great things over the years, and he gave me a good suggestion. A couple of years ago, he was on me for the referee saying when he announced a false-start penalty, 'Prior to the snap.' He'd say, 'Of course a false start is prior to the snap!' So I told the refs they didn't have to say it any more, and now they don't.''

So Pereira's football, with an accompanying certificate of authenticity, will be up for bid at the auction; I expect to have it online within two weeks, and at the Zim benefit May 18, for the highest bid by, I assume, a Steeler fan who will have the absolute perfect gift he/she could never get anywhere else.

Mark Mulvoy, the former SI managing editor who lorded over Zim and sparred with him on a few occasions, called with a more than generous donation. "I heard someone asked him where he got the name 'Dr. Z,' '' Mulvoy said. "He said, 'Mark Mulvoy.' ''

Those were the days. Mulvoy gave Zim his ID. Mulvoy gave me my chance.

One other item I'm announcing this week: Two baseball fans will get something they'll never forget: Two tickets to a Red Sox-Yankees game (on one of the following dates: June 9, 10, 11, or Aug. 21, 22, 23), plus an insider's tour of the ballpark, plus a trip to the field for pregame batting practice. Fan of the column (and a Falcons fan who thinks Thomas Dimitroff is only slightly less important to the planet than Barack Obama) Corey Bowdre, Red Sox group sales director, is donating this ultimate-insider's gift for one of this year's episodes of World War III. (Minimum bid: $1,000.)

Updating those who've missed the news: Outstanding pro football writer Paul Zimmerman suffered three strokes in late November and is currently unable to read, write or speak coherently. We're trying to jump-start his therapy and road back to writing one day -- we hope -- by raising money to allow him to undergo some aggressive therapy in Michigan and New Jersey. We've lined up Giants coach Tom Coughlin and Jets coach Rex Ryan to star at a fundraising pro football 2009 preview dinner/roundtable/auction May 18 (open bar 6:15 p.m., dinner 7 p.m.) at Mayfair Farms in West Orange, N.J.

Tickets are $225 apiece, or $1,500 for a table of eight, and are available by sending a check, payable to "Dr. Z/Nothing is Impossible Foundation'' to:

Dr. Z/Nothing is Impossible Foundation21 Pine St.Suite 202Rockaway, N.J. 07866

All tickets are tax-deductible. Donations of any amount may be sent to that address as well. For further information, please e-mail me, in the box that comes with this column, or Barbara Neibart, at bneibart@yahoo.com.

For all the Zim fans out there, here's a blog update from Linda, his saint of a wife: "There is a certain peace that has come over our household. A certain rhythm, making all the difficulties easier. We've been ironing out all the logistics, managing all the new equipment. It took a few weeks to get used to the stair-gliders ... Paul is starting to say more than 'when.' He has actually said 'well' several times this week. And he blurted "get out" to Aaron, his physical therapist. Aaron was prodding him, making sure he was OK on the recumbent cycle. Aaron was so excited he called his wife, Paul's occupational therapist. We're still dizzy with therapy, a constant motion of activity. Paul loves it, but I have to admit when he realized it was Friday he sighed with relief! Thanks to Jill and Jim Steeg for the two gigantic boxes of workout clothes!! Paul won best dressed at Kessler [Rehabilitation Center] this week!!''

1. I think everyone out there -- and I have read four beat reporters or club officials speculating about Plaxico Burress joining their team, as well as Jay Cutler reaching out to him -- needs to understand one thing about Burress in 2009: The man is not going to play football.

Plaxico Burress is going to jail (I think for one year) and he is not going to be around to play football this fall. Even if Burress goes to jail for less than a year, commissioner Roger Goodell almost certainly is going to add to the sanction with an NFL suspension because of the discharging of an unlicensed weapon. So do you want to hitch your wagon to a player who will next play, probably, at age 33 in October 2010. You've got to develop your own big receiver, not pray that one is going to fall out of the sky or the New York court system.

2. I think the Broncos may trade up in the first round, but not for what you think. Not for a quarterback. Maybe for Tyson Jackson, the LSU defensive end who's the best-available 3-4 defensive end in the draft, or Texas pass-rusher Brian Orakpo. I'm not saying it's impossible they'll draft a quarterback, but believe me when I tell you Josh McDaniels likes Kyle Orton a lot.

3. I think Marshawn Lynch deserved three games off, and it's right that he won't be playing 'til October.

4. I think the NFL is really ticking me off with the timing of the schedule-release tomorrow. By unveiling the schedule (in what -- 30 million homes, or whatever NFL Network hits right now?) Tuesday at 7 p.m., the league is depriving legions of drive-time sports-talk-radio fans the ability to dissect the schedule on the way home, or at the work water-cooler in the afternoon.

I remember listening over the years to WFAN in New York, when (since-divorced) Chris Russo and Mike Francesa would go over the local teams' slates, analyzing who had the week-by-week edge, and which teams around the league got creamed by the NFL's schedule. Now it'll be on a fraction of the nation's TV homes, and there won't be any time for debate 'til Wednesday, if it's even on radar screens by then.

5. I think I have two issues with the late-afternoon start of the NFL draft. Why, oh why, is the start of Round 1 at 4:05 p.m. Saturday? Did anyone in the league say: Hey, pretty good baseball doubleheader slated for that day on Fox -- Yanks-Red Sox and Cubs-Cards. And both games start at 4:10, the same time Roger Goodell will be walking to the podium to kick off Round 1? Why take the momentum that's been building up for months and fractionalize it against two of the best rivalries in sports, bashing ratings in the biggest northeast markets and throughout the football-mad Midwest?

If it's a brisk first round, the way it was last year (3 hours, 30 minutes), the Jets' first pick ought to come around the top of the sixth, the Patriots' first pick an inning later, and the Giants' first right about the time Papelbon or Rivera is coming in for the save as the sun sets on Fenway. If the draft drags, it's a good excuse for channel-flipping.

Just stupid. And what was wrong with a noon start anyway, which is the way it was 'til last year, when the league pushed the start time to 3 p.m.? Noon is perfect for a two-round draft. With the draft starting at 4, the thing could last until midnight. It probably won't, but the maximum amount of time for the two rounds is nine hours and four minutes, which technically makes it possible the draft's first day could end at 1 a.m. ET.

Obviously that's not going to happen, but what if the draft really drags and ends around 11 p.m.? The Cardinals, with the second-to-last pick of the second round, would choose at 8 p.m. local time, then adjourn for post-draft meetings to fine-tune their draft board for Day 2, then be back in the draft room at 6:45 the next morning for a 7 a.m. local time start (10 a.m. ET on Sunday). The Seahawks would be on the clock around 7:20 a.m. local time Sunday with a vital third-round pick, the fourth of the second day of the draft.

The time crunch is unnecessary tail-wagging by TV networks (ESPN, NFL Network) that would telecast the draft aggressively no matter what time it began.

6. I think Byron Leftwich went to the best team for him Sunday, Tampa Bay. I like him to beat out Luke McCown and Brian Griese if he reports to camp in great shape. The shame for Leftwich, and the Redskins, is he would have been a great fit there and gotten to play in his backyard. But he did the right thing, obviously, because he should be good enough to win the job in Tampa. In Washington, he'd only play if Jason Campbell got hurt or struggled like he did in the second half of last season.

7. I think the real story of the Kellen Winslow contract is it is hardly the biggest contract ever for a tight end, as was advertised. Winslow will earn $11.8 million guaranteed his first two years of the six-year deal, but he was already on course to earn $10.5 million in the next two years of his existing contract. In year three with Tampa Bay, Winslow is to earn $8.2 million, and the year is guaranteed for injury only. If Winslow's performance in year two is mediocre, the Bucs can cut him without paying him another dime.

But let's say he makes all of what he's supposed to make in the first three years of his deal. Winslow would make $20.1 million. In the first three years of Colts tight end Dallas Clark's deal, Clark makes $27.5 million. For my blood, the Bucs have too much guaranteed money in the deal for a guy who's been hurt so much. But after paying second- and fifth-round picks for him, they also had to justify it with some new money in a contract.

8. I think, in the words of one executive on a top 10-drafting team, Michael Crabtree's stress fracture in his foot is not a grave concern. "It's not an issue to us. I view it as less worrisome than the stress fracture [Carolina running back draftee] Jonathan Stewart had last year. Crabtree might be the best player in the draft. He hasn't been marked down by us because of the injury.'' Crabtree, of course, played with the stress fracture all season at Texas Tech and had a productive season.

9. I think Matt Hasselbeck's back feels fine and is passing all the tests, but he knows he'll have the tight chest if Matthew Stafford's still there when the fourth pick rolls around and Seattle's on the clock.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. I think I am absolutely sick about the injustice that is the death of Nick Adenhart. How can a 22-year-old kid with a suspended license even possess car keys, never mind get behind the wheel of a car and drive again? Shouldn't there be some state law in California that says a driver with a suspended license has to surrender the plates on his car until he gets his license reinstated? And shouldn't there be charges filed against the owner of the car the 22-year-old drunk was driving if it was not his own, for somehow allowing the kid to get behind the wheel of a car, any car?

b. Sox-Angels. April baseball that looked far more like October baseball over the weekend. I did not much like Josh Beckett throwing the ball a foot over Bobby Abreu's head when time was called (late) in the first inning Sunday, and I especially didn't like Beckett coming off the mound like some tough guy when Abreu, rightfully, looked out and started gesturing at Beckett. Beckett should have held up both hands as if to say, "Hey, sorry, one got away from me there.''

c. I fear Ortiz is not Ortiz anymore.

d. If Evan Longoria and Matt Garza are not in the top three vote-getters for MVP and Cy Young this year, I'll be stunned. Longoria hits good pitches 400 feet. Garza has the Red Sox totally figured out.

e. Keep your Saturday night job, Amy Poehler.

f. I'm pretty much on board with everything about The Office, with a couple of exceptions: A season or so ago, Ryan was about to be profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Now he's a shiftless, no-account bum. How'd that happen?

g. For a quasi-famous restaurant, Sibling Rivalry, you can do far, far better than you did Friday night.

h. Coffeenerdness: So everyone in Boston kept telling me to try Sibling Rivalry. And as annoying as the microscopic five-bite, $25 cod entrée was, the bitter espresso was worse.

i. Dying to Tweet. Rumor has it I'm going to be taught how by my SI.com people this week, when I'm town for some high-level (ha-ha-ha) meetings in midtown Manhattan. (The real high-level meeting, I think, is seeing Citi Field on Thursday night.) Sounds like I'm missing everything in Tweetland.

j. You put on the best Easter spread in the world, Pam Whiteley.

k. Jack Bowers, you've got a lot of people from a lot of places pulling for you this week. Good luck.

l. You cannot be serious about shuttering the Boston Globe, you NewYork Times people. That's unjust and ridiculous and will be a black mark against anything you do journalistically in the long-term. How do you walk into the flagship journalistic institution in a six-state region and say, "Unless everyone in the building takes a monstrous pay cut, and a few of you walk away from your jobs forever, we're closing the place?'' What kind of management style is that?

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