Detroit teams haven’t always been star-crossed in drafts: The top classes for the Big 4

Detroit Free Press

When the Detroit Tigers selected high school pitcher Jackson Jobe with the No. 3 pick on Sunday, it kicked off an unprecedented run of draft for Motor City teams: Thanks to NHL expansion, COVID-19 delays to the seasons and MLB’s attempt to put its draft in the All-Star Game spotlight, Detroit teams will take part in four drafts over 19 days, covering the Tigers (July 11-13), Red Wings (July 21, 23-24) and Pistons (July 29). (Though the NHL expansion draft this week will see a player leave Detroit, rather than arrive here.) Only the Lions are left out; they made their picks back in April and May.

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There will be, to put it lightly, a lot of players entering the Detroit sports scene this month. The Tigers appear to have gotten it off to a good start, with the acquisition of two of the top four pitching prospects leading many analysts to praise general manager Al Avila (even if plenty of fans disagree). But it will be years before we know how much of an impact those players will make here. Still, it got us wondering: What was the greatest draft class for each of Detroit’s Big Four pro teams?

We broke down each franchise’s draft classes, dating back to the inception of the draft in each league and the arrival of the team in Detroit — 1936 for the NFL, 1958 for the NBA (when the Pistons moved from Fort Wayne to Detroit), 1963 for the NHL and 1965 for MLB. Similarly, we’re putting an emphasis on what they did in Detroit: The 1965 Lions get some credit for drafting Hall of Famer wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff in the third round, but not much, considering he spent his entire career with the Raiders. Here are our favorites, by franchise.

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Lions: 1967

The first combined draft after the AFL and NFL agreed to merge was all about quality, rather than quantity. Only seven of the Lions’ 16 picks made it to the NFL, but four of those had big impacts on the franchise. Start with the first round and UCLA running back Mel Farr, taken at No. 7. Farr was an instant success in Detroit, rushing 206 times for 860 yards and three touchdowns and catching 39 passes for 317 yards and three TDs en route to winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. Injuries limited Farr to seven seasons, and only two in which he played at least 12 games — he made the Pro Bowl in both. (Farr also had good taste in music, performing in the background on Marvin Gaye’s seminal album, “What’s Goin’ On” in 1971.)

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Round 2 brought cornerback Lem Barney, who intercepted the first pass thrown his way of his career, on Sept. 17, 1967, against the Green Bay Packers, and took it back 24 yards for a touchdown. Barney was the No. 34 overall pick, out of little-known Jackson State. But the Lions had their eyes on him for a while, as scouts Dick “Night Train” Lane and Will Robinson (also a longtime Detroit Pershing basketball coach and Pistons scout) approached him after a game: “Night Train said: ‘We’d love to have you in Detroit,’ ” Barney told the Free Press in 2017, “and Will told me: ‘You keep playing like this and you are going to play in the NFL someday.’ ” That he did, picking off 56 passes and forcing 25 fumbles over 11 seasons, all with the Lions. Barney had 10 interceptions (and three touchdown returns) as a rookie, as he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year and was named to the Pro Bowl the first of seven times. Barney also received All-Pro nods in 1968 and ’69.

In Round 3, at No. 60 overall, the Lions nabbed Tennessee linebacker Paul Naumoff, who played 168 games over 12 seasons with the Lions, made the Pro Bowl in 1970 and was named the team’s defensive MVP in 1975. Then, in the ninth round (No. 218 overall), the Lions found safety Mike Weger, out of Bowling Green. Weger didn’t start once as a rookie, then started 81 of the Lions’ next 84 games; he finished with 17 interceptions in 108 games as a Lion. He also had a big impact off the field; he became fast friends with Barney, and the two roomed together on the road. “And that just wasn’t done in those days,” Weger told the Free Press in 2008. “I can remember stories of teams cutting Black players just because a team had an odd number of Black guys on the road. They would rather cut him than put him with a white guy.” Said Barney the same year: “We broke a barrier. We were the first Black and white roommates in the NFL.”

Honorable mentions

1953: Bonus points for unearthing Hall of Fame linebacker (and future Lions coach) Joe Schmidt in the seventh round out of Pittsburgh and getting Pro Bowlers G Harley Sewell, T Charlie Ane and TE Pete Retzlaff in the first, third and 22nd rounds, respectively — but points off for Retzlaff starring with the Eagles, not the Lions.

1957: The top three picks all made multiple Pro Bowls, but only two (HB Terry Barr and RG John Gordy) did it with the Lions. Five future Pro Bowlers, with the most famous — QB Jack Kemp, a 17th rounder out of Occidental College — making a name for himself with the Chargers and Bills in the AFL.

1960: Another five future Pro Bowlers, but only two — WR Gail Cogdill and DT Roger Brown — did it with the Lions, while Johnny Robinson, Jim Norton and Grady Alderman excelled with the Chiefs, Oilers and Vikings, respectively.

Pistons: 1981

Yet another loss finally turned the Pistons into winners.

It’s difficult to overstate how bad the Pistons were as the 1970s became the 1980s, but we’ll start with this: 179 losses over the ’78-79, ’79-80 and ’80-81 seasons combined. That’s an average of nearly 60 losses a season for three years. Finally, their 21-61 record in 1980-81 left them with the worst record in the East and in a coin toss for No. 1 with the West’s worst, the 15-67 Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs won the toss and got the No. 1 pick (Mark Aguirre); the Pistons couldn’t even win with 50-50 odds.

Another indicator: The night Kelly Tripucka was picked in the first round (No. 12 overall, as a pick from the Kings as compensation for signing Leon Douglas) out of Notre Dame — not particularly far from Detroit — he admitted how little he knew about the franchise: “I don’t think I know one player for them,” he told the Free Press. “But I know Isiah, and that’s all I need to know right now. He’s the man with the ball.”

Indeed he was. Isiah Thomas, selected No. 2 overall, had the ball and did a little of everything with it in his rookie year, averaging 17 points, 7.8 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals, all in just 33.8 minutes a game. It was also arguably his second-worst season, bettering only his last in 1993-94. Along the way, he made the All-Rookie first team, nabbed 12 All-Star Game nods — every season but that last one — made five All-NBA teams, won two All-Star Game MVP awards, led the Pistons to two titles and was the 1990 NBA Finals MVP.

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Tripucka made the All-Rookie first team in 1981-82, too, thanks to his averages of 21.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.1 steals. Suddenly, the Pistons were contenders, at least for the playoffs, with a 39-43 record that was just three games short of the NBA’s then-12-team postseason. After that first season, it seemed the Pistons had found a winning duo; as the Freep’s Charlie Vincent wrote just before the 1982 draft, “It doesn’t matter any longer who is No. 1 and who is 1-A.” And yet … over his first five seasons, Tripucka averaged 21.6 points, 4.5 boards and 3.2 assists, but the Pistons could only get as far as the Eastern semifinals. And so GM Jack McCloskey dealt Tripucka (and Kent Benson) to Utah for Adrian Dantley (and a couple picks) in August 1986. Dantley got the Pistons to the NBA Finals, where they lost in seven games (with a seriously injured Thomas) to the Lakers. And so McCloskey dealt Dantley (and a first-round pick) for … 1981’s No. 1 overall pick, Mark Aguirre. And the Pistons won back-to-back titles.

Honorable mentions

1970: The Pistons didn’t miss on their last No. 1 overall pick, nabbing Bob Lanier from St. Bonaventure. Their eighth-rounder (No. 122 overall) was pretty good, too: Dan Issel, who signed with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA instead, and played his way into the Hall of Fame with the Colonels and the Denver Nuggets. Also, 14th-rounder (No. 205 overall) Randy Smith played 12 NBA seasons (with two All-Star berths) — but most were for the Buffalo Braves/San Diego Clippers franchise, which drafted Smith in 1971 after he failed to sign with the Pistons.

1979: The Pistons had three first-round picks — Greg Kelser (MSU) at No. 4, Roy Hamilton at No. 10 and Phil Hubbard (U-M) at No. 15 — and five of their 11 total picks made the league, including UDM’s Terry Duerod, a third-round pick (No. 48 overall). But Hubbard and Kelser, at 10.9 and 9.7 points a game, respectively, were the top performers in a not-entirely impressive crop.

1986: Six picks, but only first-rounder John Salley (No. 11 overall) and second-rounder Dennis Rodman (No. 27) made the league. They combined for 13 seasons with the Pistons, basically embodying the Bad Boys era.

Red Wings: 1989

This draft class doesn’t just qualify as the Wings’ greatest; it might be the best in the history of the NHL draft, up there with the Oilers’ hauls in 1979 and ’80 (in which Edmonton landed Hall of Famers Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson in Rounds 1, 3 and 4 in ’79, then nabbed Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Andy Moog in rounds 1, 4 and 7 in ’80.) But about those Wings … together, the Wings’ Class of ’89 played in 5,955 games, with 1,227 goals and 2,367 assists.

Let’s start with the pair of Hockey Hall of Famers: In the third round (No. 53 overall), the Wings landed defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, followed by center Sergei Fedorov in the fifth round (No. 74 overall). Neither made it to the NHL that year; Lidstrom spent two seasons developing in his native Sweden, while Fedorov had to be smuggled away from the Russian team at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Portland, Oregon. But when they arrived in Detroit, they were instant successes, with each making the All-Rookie first team.

Fedorov had 31 goals and 489 assists in 77 games as a 21-year-old in 1990-91; he finished second in rookie of the year voting behind goalie Ed Belfour. A year later, Lidstrom had 11 goals and 49 assists as a 21-year-old in 1991-92, making the All-Rookie team and finishing second in the rookie of the year voting (behind 20-year-old Russian Pavel Bure). Lidstrom would spend his entire career with the Wings, with seven Norris trophies, 12 All-Star nods, four Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy (the first European player to win playoff MVP) and six seasons as Red Wings captain (which included becoming the first European player to captain a Cup winner).

Fedorov’s run with the Wings was rockier, as he spent only 13 seasons with the franchise before leaving in free agency in 2003. But before then, he had 400 goals and 554 assists, three Stanley Cups, both MVP awards in 1993-94 and two Selke trophies (given annually to the top defensive forward).

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But there were four other players drafted by the Wings who had successful careers as well. First-round pick Mike Sillinger (No. 11 overall) only spent parts of four seasons in Detroit, but he would last 17 seasons in the NHL, with 240 goals and 308 assists over 1,049 games with the <deep breath> Wings, Ducks, Canucks, Flyers, Lightning, Panthers, Senators, Blue Jackets, Coyotes, Blues, Predators and Islanders. Second-rounder Bob Boughner (No. 32 overall) didn’t make his debut until 1995, but still played 630 games on defense; he’s now a head coach with four seasons in the NHL. Sixth-rounder Dallas Drake, selected at No. 116 out of Northern Michigan, used his decent scoring touch (177 goals) and a tough approach (885 penalty minutes) to last 1,009 games over 15 seasons, finally winning a Cup in his final season and a return to the Wings in 2007-08.

Finally, there was 11th-rounder Vladimir Konstantinov (No. 221), another Russian defector who had just started to develop into a crushing defenseman in 1997, when he finished second in Norris voting. A week after lifting the Cup with the Wings, a limo accident ended his career and left him mostly confined to a wheelchair. He finished with 175 points and a plus-185 rating in 446 games.

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Honorable mention

1963: In the first year of the NHL draft, things were a little different. With most of the talent still tied up in juniors teams owned by NHL franchises, just five of the 21 picks would make it to the NHL. (Another oddity: All five had last names starting with “M.”) The Wings quit picking after Round 2. But their Round 1 pick — the No. 2 overall selection — ended up doing pretty well (albeit mostly with Montreal): Center Pete Mahovlich, who had 288 goals, 485 assists and four Stanley Cups (yes, with the Habs) over 18 seasons.

1983: You know the name at the top of this one: Steve Yzerman. But after taking The Captain, then-GM Jim Devellano must have made the rest of his picks from the penalty box. He selected Bob Probert in Round 3 (No. 46), Joe Kocur in Round 5 (No. 88) and Stu Grimson in Round 10 (No. 186). (Grimson went unsigned and would be redrafted two years later by Calgary.) Each member of the trio topped 2,000 penalty minutes, for a combined total of 7,932. (Oh, and Yzerman, second-rounder Lane Lambert and fifth-rounder Petr Klima combined for 2,116 PIMs, putting this draft’s total at 10,048 — that’s just over 167 hours, or seven days’ worth, of time in the box.)

Tigers: 1976

If ever there was a year to finish last in the majors, it was 1975. The class of 1976 was arguably the most talented in the 12 years of the MLB draft. Nine of the top 24 picks went on to play at least a decade each, the second round featured a future World Series MVP and a future Cy Young winner and the fourth round featured the greatest base stealer ever. About the only thing the Tigers did wrong was finish last in a year in which it was the NL’s turn with the No. 1 overall pick. And so the Houston Astros landed Arizona State star Floyd Bannister (who would make 431 appearances over 15 seasons) and the Tigers, picking No. 2, ended up with Indiana high school pitcher Pat Underwood. (He would have the best first start by a Tiger in franchise history, allowing just one hit in 8⅓ innings in 1979, but make only 34 starts and 79 relief appearances over four seasons in the majors.)

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The fireworks started in the second round, when scouting director Bill LaJoie selected a San Diego high school shortstop named Alan Trammell at No. 26. The Freep quoted an anonymous scout in the next day’s edition saying Trammell “has good running speed, a good arm, great hands and fine instincts — all the tools to become a major league regular at shortstop.” Indeed. Trammell was in the majors by late 1977, and the Tigers starter by 1978, when he hit .268 as a 20-year-old and finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting. He spent 20 seasons with the Tigers, and won three Silver Slugger awards, four Gold Gloves, six All-Star berths and was named MVP of the 1984 World Series. (He also should have won AL MVP in 1987, but that’s a topic for another time.) Trammell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018, selected by the Modern Baseball Era committee approximately 21 years after his final at-bat.

The fourth round brought another Californian at No. 74, right-hander Dan Petry, who was just 17 at the time of the draft. He made the majors by 1979, starting 15 games with a 3.95 ERA. An All-Star in 1985, Petry also had two top-10 finishes in Cy Young voting, including a fifth-place finish in 1984. He pitched in the majors for 13 seasons — 11 of them in Detroit — and finished with a 125-104 record and 3.95 ERA in 2,080⅓ innings.

In the fifth round, with pick No. 98, the Tigers grabbed their first college player of the draft: BYU righty Jack Morris, who was in the majors by 1977 and the franchise ace by 1979, at age 24. That season, Morris posted a 3.28 ERA with nine complete games and 113 strikeouts and 59 walks in 197⅔ innings. He went on to make four All-Star games as a Tiger and lead the majors in wins in the 1980s. Morris retired in 1994 with a 3.90 ERA in 3,824 innings, inadvertently becoming the symbol of the clash between analytics and scouting in baseball as his Hall of Fame merits were seemingly endlessly debated. Finally, he was picked for the Hall of Fame in 2018, also by the Modern Baseball Era committee.

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The Tigers went back to California for another shortstop with their seventh-round pick at No. 146, creating one of the biggest “What If” moments in franchise history. Cal Poly junior “Osburn Smith,” as he was listed in the Freep the next day, and the Tigers couldn’t agree on a bonus, and so he returned to college for his senior season. A fourth-round pick by the Padres in 1977, he was the Opening Day starter by 1978 in San Diego introduced by another name: Osborne Earl Smith, or, as his Hall of Fame plaque would read in 2002: “Ozzie.”

Honorable mention

1974: This one had a quick payoff, in 10th-rounder Mark Fidrych (No. 232 overall) — a major leaguer by 1976 — and a long-term one in first-rounder (at No. 16) Lance Parrish, who played 10 seasons with the Tigers from 1977-86.

2002: The road to the 2006 World Series started here, with third-round outfielder Curtis Granderson (No. 80 from UIC) and 11th-round high school fireballer Joel Zumaya (at No. 320).

Contact Ryan Ford at Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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