Joey Harrington and Charles Rogers were traded and cut, respectively, last year. Mike Williams might not make it to a third season in Detroit.
"You invest a lot of time and money into people you pick high and they're supposed to be game- changing players," Millen's first No. 1 pick, offensive tackle Jeff Backus, said Thursday. "You need them to pan out and be worthy of the pick.
"Nobody gets first-round stars every year, but we've had to go to free agency to fill some holes because at some point you need draft picks to develop."
Millen will have at least one more chance to get it right in the first round on April 28, when the Lions make the No. 2 pick overall or trade down to add picks and fill many needs.
If Detroit sticks with its spot, no one seems to know what Millen will do because arguments can be made for drafting any of the following: Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson; LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell; Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn; Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas; Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams; or Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson.
All of those players have recently visited the Lions, except Peterson, who is scheduled to be at the team's headquarters today.
"This is one of the most interesting drafts of all time," NFL draft analyst Gil Brandt said. "Everybody knows who the top 10 players are, but nobody knows what team is going to take them and in what order they're going."
Draft-day misses, particularly in the first round, have led to Detroit posting an NFL-worst 24-72 record since Millen became the team's chief executive in 2001.
The only other stretch of futility in league history that compares is Tampa Bay's 12 straight double-digit loss seasons from 1983-94.
Millen got off to a good start in his first draft after leaving a low-stress, lucrative job as a TV analyst.
Backus was selected 18th overall in 2001 and has been durable and effective enough to start every game - and get a new contract. Second-round pick Shaun Rogers turned into a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, and another second-rounder, Dominic Raiola, has started each game at center the last five seasons.
Wide receiver Roy Williams and running back Kevin Jones were drafted with savvy moves in the 2004 first round. Linebacker Ernie Sims had a solid rookie season last year, making Millen feel good about taking a defensive player for the first time with a first-round pick.
Millen's first three picks - Backus, Raiola and Shaun Rogers - bolstered the lines, perhaps fittingly for a player that won Super Bowls as a tough linebacker. Then, Millen invested millions of William Clay Ford's money in some picks who didn't appear to fit his image as a gritty player.
Harrington was taken third overall in 2002 to end a decades-long search for a quarterback. Rogers was added with the second pick the next year to give Harrington a go-to receiver.
Millen stunned everyone by taking Mike Williams 10th overall two years ago, making him the first executive to take wide receivers in the first round three straight years since the NFL and AFL merged drafts in 1967.
"The league now is like the AFL was from 1965-69 - it's a throwing, wide-open game," Millen said, explaining his reasoning in a 2005 interview with the AP. "That all points to catching the football."
The experiment failed miserably, helping to create a bleak present and questionable future for a franchise with only one playoff victory since winning the NFL title a half-century ago.
"If you miss too much with the draft, like the Lions have, it's hard to overcome," said Brandt, who was vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89.
Millen clearly missed on Harrington and Charles Rogers and all signs are pointing toward Mike Williams being another draft-day mistake.
Harrington was traded after four lackluster seasons to Miami for a fifth-round pick. The Dolphins cut him this offseason and he's now in Atlanta.
Charles Rogers was released just before last season and is still looking for work. His career in Detroit ended with just 36 receptions for 440 yards and four touchdowns, along with two broken collarbones and a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
"Looking back on it, and I've told Joey this, it would've been hard for him to succeed because he was thrown right in the mix and had the weight of the team on his shoulders," Backus said. "Charles obviously had off-the-field issues, but I'll always wonder if he would've avoided them if two broken collarbones didn't take him away from the team for basically two seasons."
To be fair, taking Harrington and Charles Rogers was hailed almost universally. It simply didn't work out for them in Detroit, just like first-round picks each year don't pan out for other teams.
But taking Mike Williams was regarded as indefensible at the time and still is today. He had to sit out the 2004 season at USC after trying to enter the draft as an underclassman and giving up his eligibility. Detroit has fined Williams for being overweight and played him sparingly in just eight games last season, hoping to motivate him, but nothing seemed to work. Williams has skipped voluntary workouts, making it closer to a lock that his future is elsewhere.
"It's hard to figure why he's missed on some of the players he did and why he took (Mike) Williams in the first place," Brandt said. "To me, Matt is like Charles Rogers because they both have talent and seem to work at it, but I can't put my finger on why it hasn't worked out for either of them."