Wojo: Lions stick to their plan — like it or not

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — You can question the Lions’ draft decisions and be perplexed by their talent evaluations, and we often are. But man, you can’t challenge their devotion to the plan, no matter how peculiar it sometimes looks.

GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia are going to do it their way — yes, a variation of the Patriot way – and they will not be dissuaded, not by perceptions or projections. Quinn drafted decently enough his first three seasons to earn credibility and some benefit of the doubt, although the Lions haven’t won enough to earn blanket endorsements.

Hawaii Warriors linebacker Jahlani Tavai (31) was projected by many as a fourth- or fifth-round pick.

I don’t know if they know exactly what they’re doing, but I’m positive they believe they do. I truly hope they’re as smart and confident as they sound.

Quinn did it again Friday night, taking two more players higher than they were projected, not that mock projections mean much these days. Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai was considered by many a fourth- or fifth-rounder, and the Lions grabbed him in the second round. Then they took Boston College safety Will Harris in the third round, trading a sixth-round pick to the Vikings to move up seven spots.

One night earlier, the Lions grabbed Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson with the eighth pick in the first round. That wasn’t a reach from a talent standpoint because Hockenson is a gifted receiver and blocker. It looked like a reach from a position standpoint because tight ends rarely are drafted so high.

Grasping a bit

And sorry, but Tavai absolutely looked like a reach, a linebacker who missed half of his final season at Hawaii with a shoulder injury, which dropped him off some radars. He was so lightly recognized, it was hard to find evaluation videos of him. So why would the Lions feel compelled to grab him in the second round when it seemed – from a distance – he’d be available much later? Why wouldn’t they trade down and wait for their guy to fall to them?

Quinn’s answer in a nutshell: When they identify someone who fits their specific system, they won’t risk losing him. Tavai is the big linebacker (6-2, 250) that Patricia craves, and brings the versatility and physicality required by this Lions regime. You hear the word “culture” so often, you figure they’re serious about instilling it.

That means character and toughness over flashy talent and big names. Each of Quinn’s first-round picks — Taylor Decker, Jarrad Davis, Frank Ragnow, Hockenson — was safe and sound, with skill sets that don’t stray from the foundation.

Myself, I’d be more tempted by raw talent. And I absolutely would be more prone to trading down for extra picks, something the Patriots do. Like most people, I was baffled when the Lions tabbed Tavai, less so after Quinn explained himself.

“I thought we had a really, really good second day of the draft,” Quinn said. “Tavai is a really versatile player, four-year starter, two-time captain, can play the run, can rush, can blitz, can cover. (He’s a) very unique player. Just because he plays in Hawaii, he’s probably off the radar a tiny bit, but not for our scouts.”

It spawned the expected social-media outrage, reminiscent of the reaction to last year’s third-round selection of relatively unknown safety Tracy Walker, who now looks like a good pick. That doesn’t mean Tavai will be a good pick. But Quinn wouldn’t characterize it as a reach or a risk, and said the bigger risk would’ve been to trade down.

“You have to weigh who else is on the board at that position, and (linebacker) was a position we wanted to address,” Quinn said. “Linebackers that play in this defense that are very, very good natural fits, there’s only a couple every year. You wait a year, you don’t get one, you might not get him next year, you might not get him the year after. … We like thick, built linebackers, really thick guys that can take on blocks. These guys are hard to find. We really felt fortunate to get him because there was some interest around our picks, and we were getting pretty nervous there.”

Quinn said he fielded a couple trade calls, and gauged interest in Tavai based on other teams’ defensive profiles. For instance, the Patriots like bigger linebackers, and reportedly were considering Tavai.

When Quinn identifies his guy, he generally doesn’t get cute about it. Last year, he moved up eight spots in the second round to nab Kerryon Johnson, an excellent choice. We’ll see if his latest jump pays dividends. As for the impetus to leap for Harris, guess what traits Quinn likes in the 6-2 safety?

“His leadership ability,” Quinn said. “His love for football, this guy’s a passionate football guy.”

There’s no consensus on these picks at all, but from the Lions’ standpoint, there’s no ambiguity. You don’t have to like it, just understand it. Being unorthodox doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, but for Quinn, it raises the pressure to get it right.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski