Lions GM Candidates: Rick Smith

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Rick Smith is one of the leading candidates to take the Lions GM job. What has he done to be one of the Lions first interviews?


The Detroit Lions have told yet another regime of front office executives and coaches to take their show on the road and not to let the door hit them on their way out in 2020. Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia did a great job of building a tire fire, then pouring kerosene onto that tire fire in an attempt to put it out. They constructed a team that would have been very good in the 1990s and then tripled down on an antiquated mindset. I kid you not; this team would have been Superbowl bound if this was the 1997 season. I mean, if you look at these teams and their makeups, there is a lot of 2020 Lions DNA in there. Brett Favre and Drew Bledsoe are both comparables for Stafford in specific ways. The defense the Lions are running right now is a variant of the Patriots defense played in that game. Unfortunately, this is not the late 1990s. Even the great Patriots dynasty that followed those late 1990s teams appears to have run its course. The Lions are a complete train wreck, and they’re interviewing the next wave of candidates to end decades of futility.

I will begin this series with the person who is my pick as the front runner for the job. Rick Smith is a unique figure in the NFL. He is a former GM who has never been fired, and he quit on reasonably good terms with the organization he left. Smith has a decent record in the draft, even with a few somewhat controversial picks. He played the game at the Division I level before entering the coaching ranks immediately with his alma mater Purdue in 1992. He began his coaching career as the “strength and conditioning coordinator.” Four years later, he reached a level as a coach that had eluded him as a player. Smith joined the Denver Broncos as an assistant secondary coach. He remained on Mike Shanahan’s coaching staff through the Broncos’ two Superbowl victories in 1998 and 1999. It was in the year 2000 that Smith made the jump to the Broncos front office.

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Rick Smith the Broncos Pro Personnel Director

Smith served as the Broncos director of pro personnel from 2000 to 2006 under GM. That year the Broncos acquired Kavika Pittman from the Cowboys, Terrell Buckley from the Dolphins, Billy Jenkins from the Rams through various means. Pittman set a career-high in sacks that season, Buckley intercepted six passes and Jenkins four. Smith’s pro personnel department acquired three starters, and they turned in three terrific seasons. The team went 11-5 with a combination of Brian Griese and Gus Frerotte playing quarterback.

In 2001, the Broncos moved on from defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and brought in Ray Rhodes. Their defensive roster changed significantly. The Broncos brought in Chester McGlockton and Keith Washington on the defensive line. The 32-year-old McGlockton gave Denver a productive season despite his age. He intercepted two passes and defended five more from his defensive tackle spot in addition to 39 tackles. Keith Washington set a career-high in Pro Football Reference’s AV stat along with four sacks and a forced fumble. A journeyman, Washington was an acceptable fill in for his one year as a starter for the Broncos. Journeyman corner Denarw Walker joined the Broncos and recorded four interceptions in the next two seasons as a solid but unspectacular starter. Smith also dug up Bertrand Berry, who played the 2000 season in the CFL. Berry would record 20 sacks over the next three years in Denver.

The Broncos brought in receiver Eddie Kennison, who only made it eight games before he was released. Kennison was an established starting player in the league. He signed with the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks later and averaged 59 catches, 961 yards, and 5 TD catches over the next five years with that team. Kennison was not productive with the Broncos, but that is likely more on Griese, who put up a 78.5 rating in his 13 games as the Broncos starter, than on Kennison; a reliable pro before and after his time with the Broncos.

The 2002 season saw additions to the Broncos offensive line. Ephraim Salaam started for two seasons at left tackle, and his average AV from PFR was 10. AV measures whether positive or negative plays occur in the area that a player was standing. It is the best measure I have found for looking at pre-PFF seasons for less statistically oriented positions. I use it to look at spots like the offensive line and 3-4 nose tackles. In 2004 former Lion Reuben Droughns came on board and put up 1240 rushing yards, making every Lions fan livid. He signed with the Broncos in 2002.

Lionel Dalton and defensive back Izell Reese were the defensive starters added. They put in solid but unspectacular seasons as a defensive tackle and free safety, respectively. Reese was not retained, and 2002 was his best year in coverage, despite his previous turnover production. The practice squad, XFL, and NFL Europe veteran signed with Denver and started two seasons for the Broncos before going to Seattle for a couple more seasons. Herndon forced six fumbles, recorded five interceptions, and defended 40 passes in his two years as a starter with the Broncos.

In 2003 the Broncos pulled off the impossible: they acquired a low-cost veteran quarterback that panned out. In 2003 Plummer had a bit of a rough time adjusting to the hard-nosed approach of Mike Shanahan. However, in 2004 he broke several Broncos records previously held by hall of farmer John Elway. The Broncos went 10-6 twice, 13-3 once, and 7-5 before Shanahan handed the starting job over to rookie Jay Cutler in 2006. Plummer was not Elway, but he had 11,631 passing yards, 71 touchdowns, and 47 interceptions for the Broncos in just over 3-1/2 seasons as their starting quarterback.
The Broncos also revamped their defensive line, bringing in journeymen Mario Fatafehi and Darius Holland. They performed adequately as starters in the middle of new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer’s defensive scheme that does not grant defensive tackles a lot of stats. Safety Nick Ferguson played for Denver until 2008 when Smith signed him again in Houston. Ferguson was a reliable backup strong safety who stepped into the lineup to start when other players went down with mid to low levels of proficiency.

The 2004 season saw the payoff of picking up Reuben Droughns, but that was not the most significant impact Smith’s department had on the team that season. Droughns was replacing the Broncos’ eccentric but spectacular running back Clinton Portis. The Broncos added Hall of Fame corner Champ Bailey as a return in a trade sending Portis to Washington. The Broncos also added future hall of farmer John Lynch to the fold.

In 2005 the Broncos went 13-3, and they were starting nine players acquired by Smith’s pro personnel department. They signed five of them during this offseason. Courtney Brown, Michael Myers, and Gerrard Warren all started on the defensive line. None were great players, but they fit the scheme and played well. On offense, former Lion Steven Alexander started at tight end, and fullback Kyle Johnson rounded out the group. Neither were great players, but they filled the roles that a great team needed them to fill.

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Rick Smith the GM

In 2006, coming off a 2-14 season, the Houston Texans hired Smith to be their GM. Smith hired Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak as his head coach. Kubiak’s coaching staff had both Kyle Shanahan (wide receivers) and Robert Saleh (defensive assistant as part of the coaching staff). Smith signed former Bronco Ephriam Salaam and current Texans defensive coordinator (then Texans linebacker) Anthony Weaver. In relevant decisions he made immediately: Smith did not replace David Carr at QB. He did not trade the Texans’ star wide receiver, Andre Johnson. He signed inexpensive receiver Eric Moulds to fill the gaping hole across from Johnson. He built with what the team had.

Where Smith made his mark immediately, however, was in the draft. The Texans had the number one overall pick and spent it on a shocking player. Well, it was shocking at the time. The looks on the experts’ faces covering the draft have yet to be matched in their level of shock when the Texans took Mario Williams over Reggie Bush and Vince Young. The Texans drafted the defensive rookie of the year, but no, it was not Williams. In the second round, they took linebacker Demico Ryans, current San Francisco 49ers linebacker coach, and a likely Robert Saleh pick for a defensive coordinator spot, who immediately stepped into the MLB spot and dominated.

In the third round, Smith selected Eric Winston, who started 127 games at right tackle in the NFL. In the fourth, Smith selected Owen Daniels, who manned the Texans tight end position until 2014. He finished his career with 479 receptions and 5661 yards receiving. Smiths’ other picks: guard Chris Spencer in round three, running back Wali Lundy in the sixth, and David Anderson made little impact, though Anderson did play 67 games in the league before retiring. Smith was known as a pro personnel guy, but he crushed his first draft. The team improved to 6-10 in 2006.

The 2007 offseason was the first attempt for Smith to replicate his Jake Plummer success. The Texans acquired Matt Schaub from the Falcons. Smith acquired Schaub and the Falcons (a playoff team the previous season) first-round pick. Smith paid the Texans first and second-round picks. The 2007 draft class was terrible. No player the Texans drafted in 2007 became a regular starter in the NFL. By far, Jacoby Jones is the best of them, and he only had 203 receptions in 8 NFL seasons. First-round pick Amobi Okoye played 87 games in the league and started 59. With that said, after his rookie season with 5.5 sacks, he never became anything better than a low-end starter or situational pass rusher. Okoye was 19 years old in his draft year but had washed out of the league by 27. The team was not active in free agency. They stabilized their quarterback situation for the games that Schaub actually played and promoted Kyle Shanahan to offensive coordinator. Minor changes lifted their record to 8-8.

In 2008 Smith added WR Kevin Walter, who put up 60 catches for 899 yards and 8 TDs. He also dipped into the Broncos pool and signed center Chris Myers. He added Jaques Reeves to the corner group and safety Eugene Wilson, who combined for six interceptions. The team drafted long time left tackle Duane Brown and running back Steve Slaton, who was very promising before a franchise legend replaced him. Other than Brown, the entire draft class was out of the league within five years. The Texans did not do much in 2008, and they went 8-8 again. The Texans fired their defensive coordinator and shook up their staff.

In 2009, the Texans added Lions legends Dan Orlovsky and Shaun Cody. They also added hard-hitting Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard. Defensive end Antonio Smith came in, and he started every game but two for the Texans until the 2014 season. It was the draft where they really improved their team after a two-season drought. They drafted three future pro-bowlers in Brian Cushing, who eventually bumped Ryans out of the MLB spot, pass rusher Connor Barwin, and Lions legend Glover Quinn. The Texans jumped to 9-7 with the added talent. The legend that replaced Slayton, however, came in the form of undrafted free agent Arian Foster. Foster stepped in late in the year, only starting one game as a rookie; however, he finished his career in 2016 with 6527 yards rushing after several injury-riddled seasons. In 2010, Foster burst onto the scene with 1616 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 66 passes. Smith had plucked the best running back in the NFL for a brief period out of the 2006 UDFA group. Foster hit the 1000 rushing yard 1200 rushing yard plateau during every season that he played in nine or more games. His career was cut short by knee injuries. 2009 is also the year that Smith started stockpiling draft picks. He made eight or more picks in every draft from 2010 to 2015.

In 2010 the Texans lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to Washington. Rick Dennison replaced him. The team also named Frank Bush defensive coordinator. These changes did not result in spectacular results, as the team went 6-10. The 2010 draft class did not yield many star players, but three did play more than 100 NFL games. Corner Kareem Jackson, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, and special teamer Sherrick McManis all cleared the 100 game mark. The Texans had injury issues across their roster, and their depth players could not step up.

For 2011 the Texans added defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to the mix. This complete change in defensive philosophy led to Robert Saleh leaving, and current Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator to join the team as the secondary coach. Guard Wade Smith joined the team, and he did start every game for his four years with the Texans after spot starting for the Chiefs and Dolphins for most of his career. Corner Jonathan Joseph and safety Daniel Manning came on board as well. In the draft, Smith grabbed J. J. Watt with the 11th pick. That feels like a no brainer, but five of the next six pass rushers taken in the draft have at least made a pro bowl, as did all of the ones taken before Watt. At the time, nobody was surprised to see Watt drop out of the top ten picks. Smith also added Brooks Reed in the second, who started immediately at outside linebacker for the team. The team went 10-6, and the golden age of Texans football began. After winning the wildcard round, the team stalled out in the divisional round.

The 2012 Texans went 12-4, won their division, but got stomped by the Patriots in the divisional round. Cowboys Linebacker Bradie James replaced Demico Ryans in the lineup after Smith traded the poor scheme fit for a fourth-round pick. In this draft, Smith took four players who are still in the league eight years later: pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, guard Brandon Brooks, center Ben Jones, and kicker Randy Bullock. His only real miss was wide receiver Devier Posey in the third round, who only played 26 NFL games and was out of the league three years later. Nine Texans made the pro bowl, and all had been acquired by Smith during the previous six seasons.

The 2013 season went very poorly. Gary Kubiak left the team after suffering a mini-stroke. Wade Phillips took the interim spot to finish the season. With virtually the same roster that had dominated the prior season, the Texans faltered. Neither James, who had signed only a one-year deal, nor Cushing, who was injured, played in the middle of a linebacker-focused defense. Arian Foster missed eight games. The year was a mess, and Smith cleaned out the coaching staff. The draft class netted the team DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Swearinger, and TE Ryan Griffin, but the scheme changes made the rest of this class awful fits. The Texans started playing essentially the same defense Lions fans have been watching in Detroit, rather than Phillips’ much more aggressive defense. Undrafted rookie A.J. Bouye was one of the few average joes who survived the transition. He became a regular in the Texans’ corner rotation before signing a contract that was too big in free agency.

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Rick Smith and Bill O’Brien

In 2014 Bill O’Brien took over the coaching duties, and the struggle became real in Houston. Romeo Crennel became the defensive coordinator, and Smith had to rethink his defensive player selection. In the 2014 draft, the Texans selected ten players. Smith flipped Matt Schaub for a sixth-round pick somehow. Four of them were still in the NFL after four years. Pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo are still I the league. Quarterback Tom Savage is in the league somewhere, as is Running back Alfred Blue. They have not made it on to the field since 2017 and 2018, respectively. Ryan Fitzpatrick joined the team on a two-year deal. Still, O’Brien benched him for Patriots reject Ryan Mallett, who Smith had acquired for a conditional sixth-round pick. The Texans were starting an offensive line with one free agent and one each of their first, third, fourth, and seventh-round draft picks for most of the year. The team went 9-7 in a quick rebound from the disastrous final year of Kubiak’s term as head coach.

Bill O’Brien’s hatred of Fitzpatrick carried over into the 2015 season. Smith traded the quarterback his coach did not want to the New York Jets for a late-round pick. So the Texans were now relying on two terrible former Patriots, Brian Hoyer and Mallettto take their team to the next level. O’Brien couldn’t decide which bad QB to stick with until Hoyer went on IR. Smith added Cecil Shorts from Jacksonville in an attempt to replace Andre Johnson, Vince Wilfork from the Patriots to anchor Crennell’s defense, and Quintin Demps to fill out the secondary. Brian Cushing finally managed to stay healthy, and first round pick Benardrick McKinney stepped in as an immediate starter. Again, Smith found McKinney in the second round. Of his seven picks five years ago, three are still in the league. It was another lousy draft. He took Kevin Johnson in the first round. Johnson has started only 24 games in six seasons with three teams. McKinney was a hit in the second, but the only other player to hang on was sixth-round defensive tackle Christian Covington. The Texans went 9-7 again.

The Texans’ 2016 Draft class was an attempt to fix the offense. It started with wide receiver Will Fuller, who has been an overall disappointment, managing to stay on the field for only 53 games in five seasons. Second-round center Nick Martin is a solid starter. Ohio State QB Braxton Miller was the third-round pick, and they tried (failed) to turn him into a wide receiver. That’s a high pick for a position switch of that nature. Miller was out of the league in 2018. Running back Tyler Ervin in the fourth round has compiled 186 rushing yards despite an injury-riddled Texans backfield. Seventh-round defensive tackle D.J. Reader had been a solid starter for the Texans before signing a four year $53 million contract with the Bengals. Smith traded for Brock Osweiller, signed Lamar Miller, brought in guard Jeff Allen and Tackle Chris Clark. The Texans went 9-7 again, though that was enough to win their division (must be nice).

Smith’s final season in Houston was 2017. He grabbed Deshaun Watson with pick 12, linebacker Zach Cunningham in the second, and then a group of guys who have been good enough to stay in the league for four years but bad enough or injured enough to be kept off the field. Third round running back D’Onta Foreman has been on a roster every year… But he’s only actually played 17 games as a pro. Cunningham signed a massive deal with Houston before Bill O’Brien was relieved of his duties this year.

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Why Has Rick Smith Been Out of the NFL Since 2017?

This is a simple question to answer. Smith left the Texans to take care of his family during his wife’s battle with breast cancer. Smith is a family man, and did not believe that he could give the Texans what they needed from him and also give his wife what she needed from him. January 31, 2019 Tiffany Smith passed away. A year and a half later, Rick Smith’s agent must have started talking to reporters, because Smith was suddenly being mentioned as a possible GM candidate. He has interviewed with the Lions and the Atlanta Falcons so far.

Smith has shown a few tendencies. The first is that he hit on a lot of dudes in the draft. A dude, for those who do not know the term (TM Wisco in the Slack chat you can join HERE), a dude is a player that the opposition needs to game plan to try to stop, and will still often fail to stop despite their best efforts. In twelve drafts Smith drafted Deshaun Watson, Will Fuller, Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Reader, J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Duane Brown, Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, and hit on Arian Foster as a UDFA. They may not have met the qualification for being a dude for their entire careers, but each of those players at their peak was a dude. That is not even including Glover Quinn, who qualified for a time after signing in Detroit. Smith did find a lot of good players in the draft despite having been a pro personnel guy in Denver. He has shown a mastery of both sources of players, even digging a starter out of the CFL.

He showed a huge blind spot for the importance of the quarterback position, however. He continually tried to spackle over the gaping hole in his roster with middling free agents. At one point the Texans had to include a draft pick with Brock Osweiller to get rid of his contract. Examining the franchise history of the Texans, it is very possible that Smith’s continual settling for what he considered “good enough” at the quarterback position cost the franchise a Superbowl berth or two.

Rick Smith has some warts as a GM candidate for the Lions, but anyone with a run longer than a decade as the GM of an NFL franchise is going to have hits and misses. The Patriots have been the greatest franchise in the salary cap era, and they have entire drafts full of busts in their 20-year run at the top. What Smith never did was get stuck in an ideology. He rarely stuck with hid veterans for too long, and he only handed out big free-agent deals at important positions. He would be an excellent hire for the Lions, and that is why every team looking for a GM is going to interview him. He is widely considered to be at the top of the GM candidate list because of his 17 years as a successful executive at or near the top of a team’s power structure.

Ash Thompson is a sometimes teacher, sometimes blogger living in Canada. You can find him in the most intelligent Lions chat on the internet for as little as a dollar a month HERE

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About the Author

Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He enjoys maple syrup and tacos, but never at the same time.