May 6, 2014 at 1:05 am

John Niyo

Game plan for NFL draft always involves a little misdirection

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, right, says defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will not be traded. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Allen Park — The first rule of the NFL draft is to trust nothing you hear.

But trust me when I tell you we learned nothing about the Lions plans when general manager Martin Mayhew met with the media for his annual pre-draft news conference Monday.

Even though we knew that going in, Mayhew warned us again by preemptively asking and answering the first question about his team’s needs. He rattled off several — even threw in backup quarterback and kicker for good measure — before concluding, “Besides the punter and long-snapper, we’re open to taking just about any position.”

That, in itself, is a smokescreen, I suppose. But in the game of liar’s poker that the NFL draft has become — especially over the last decade or so — Mayhew’s one of the few guys at the table who doesn’t seem all that willing to open his wallet and play.

And when I asked him why, he simply smiled and insisted it’s because he has better things to do.

“I think I can spend my time in more valuable ways — watching tape, evaluating players, talking to our new coaching staff and getting a feel for what those guys are trying to find,” he said. “There are better ways for me to use my time than that, so I don’t spend time on that.”

Others do, clearly, floating trade rumors and leaking draft targets and encouraging all sorts of speculation through player agents and scouts and, of course, reporters. Over the weekend, the buzz centered on the Texans shopping the No. 1 overall pick. Monday it was all about Johnny Manziel being a lock for the Browns at No. 4 and the Rams searching for Sam Bradford’s replacement.

As Bills GM Doug Whaley, who is slotted to pick directly in front of Mayhew in Thursday’s first round, explained last week, “It’s finally one time where we can use you guys to our advantage.”

“There are things that you put out there to see if someone bites and there are some things you put out there that are true,” added Whaley, who spent years working in the Steelers front office — but only after a brief stint as a stockbroker on Wall Street. “You have people read between the lines and you don’t want to show your hand. I’m sure everyone is doing the same thing.”

Trust no one

Mayhew insists he’s not, believe it or not, though he and his staff have done their share of palm-reading as they try to make sense of this year’s draft, one with no clear-cut pecking order at the top.

“You’ve got to do that,” Mayhew said. “You spend some time on that, and you talk to people around the league and other GMs who you have a good relationship with, and try to decipher that.”

But when I asked him how many GMs in the league he trusted, he laughed.

“None,” Mayhew replied. “You can listen to what they say, though. It’s a very competitive business. We’re all trying to win, so I understand that. But no, there’s not a whole lot.”

All the more reason, then, to prepare for every scenario, which is what Mayhew and his staff have spent the last few weeks doing, setting their board and then running through mock drafts. Mayhew said he also started making the more-formal calls about possible draft-night trades Monday, and he said he has a “range” where he’s comfortable either way — moving up or down — and still finding the right value with his first-round pick.

The Lions GM did acknowledge this draft might be a bit deeper than others — “the grades are higher longer into the process this year,” he said — perhaps due to the huge number of early-entry candidates in the pool.

But beyond that, he didn’t have much else to say, aside from acknowledging the team’s lingering concerns about cornerback Chris Houston’s health.

Mayhew called Clemson’s Sammy Watkins — the consensus top receiver in the draft — a “very talented” player who “would fit us.” Then again, that was right after he admitted, “All the players that are really, really good, I’m enamored with all those guys.”

As for draft profiles, he says he’s looking first for “competitiveness” in cornerback prospects — advantage Darqueze Dennard over Justin Gilbert — and “good hands” in the receivers. (I still think there’s a decent chance they end up with Mike Evans, by the way.)

Sock it to me

Oh, and Mayhew also scoffed at the reports suggesting the Lions were considering trading Ndamukong Suh, his All-Pro defensive tackle and offseason absentee.

“I did get a call from a team that had an interest,” Mayhew said of Suh, whom the team is trying to sign to a long-term contract extension this offseason. “They offered me a box of old tube socks, and I said ‘No, thank you.’ ”

Now, if you’re going to take Mayhew at his word there, be my guest. But if only one team called about Suh, there are several GMs out there that probably should be fired.

And remember, this is the same guy who in his first official news conference as GM — the day before the trade deadline in 2008 — announced he had no intention to trade receiver Roy Williams. A day later, he did just that, striking a blockbuster deal with the Cowboys for Williams, whom he’d told only a few hours earlier that “nobody had really blown my socks off and he should plan on being here.”

Conspiracy theorists could seize on the conspicuous sock reference, I guess. But to me, it smells less like smoke and more like Mayhew simply trying to douse a fire.

Then again, this time of year, with the draft only a few days away, who knows?

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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