Niyo: Lions GM Quinn will be measured at combine, too

John Niyo
The Detroit News

They’re all gathered in one place this week, the 32 NFL teams and more than 300 prospective players, along with countless agents and other runners who won’t be drafted but certainly will be poked and prodded and tested in a variety of ways.

The league’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis is the place everyone goes to get measured. And hat’s as true for the Lions and their newly remodeled front office as it is for any of the players they’re quietly vetting — or coveting.

This week’s event offers the first real glimpse of what new general manager Bob Quinn has in store for the Lions. And though his 15-minute session with the media Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium was shallow on details — no timeline for Calvin Johnson’s retirement decision, no updates on negotiations with pending free agents, and so on — it did offer some depth, if only in the way he emphasized that word.

“I really want to build the depth of this team,” said Quinn, hired from New England six weeks ago. “That’s something that I really and truly believe in. We have some good players, but I think the depth really needs to improve. And that’s something I’m going to set out to do in free agency — hopefully.”

Hopefully, the plan involves more than wishful thinking and fingers crossed. And presumably it does, though with a first-time general manager and a neophyte team president calling the shots now in Detroit there’s certainly an element of the unknown here.

By all accounts, the 39-year-old Quinn comes well-prepared, after spending the last 16 years learning from Bill Belichick & Co. in the Patriots organization. And it didn’t go unnoticed that in a span of a couple hours Wednesday, three of Belichick’s former protégés stepped to the podium to speak as top executives for their respective teams.

“New England is a unique place,” said Jon Robinson, the new Titans general manager who spent more than a decade with Quinn climbing the ladder in New England. “It forces you to learn football and it forces you to learn more than just, ‘This player can do this.’ … It teaches you big-picture things when it comes to roster building.”

Talent level needs to rise

For Lions fans, this annual affair often paints an unrealistic picture of where their roster stands. Take last year, for instance, when then-general manager Martin Mayhew stood at that same podium and talked confidently about the Lions finding a way to keep All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in the fold. Mayhew said he was “very optimistic we’re going to get something done” — more than once — and added, “I feel good about it.”

The good feelings obviously didn’t last long for Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand. And though losing Suh didn’t necessarily do them in, the public-relations fiasco that followed Suh’s free-agent departure — “I think my relationship with the front office down here will be 10 times better than it was in Detroit,” Suh told Sports Illustrated last fall — certainly set the stage. Both on the field, where the Lions defense struggled out of the gate last fall, and off it, where the public outcry over a 1-7 start made things easier for ownership to sever ties.

Lions' Quinn: No talk of reworking Johnson's contract

Quinn has severed several more since taking over the football operations in mid-January, cutting loose tenured execs in the personnel and scouting departments — the business side has seen even more bloodletting — while also releasing veteran players such as Stephen Tulloch and Joique Bell.

And in a rare moment of candor Wednesday, Quinn didn’t hold back in his assessment of the current roster, either.

“I mean, this team didn’t make the playoffs last year — there’s a reason for that,” he said. “The talent level needs to improve. That’s why I’m here.”

Asked to identify positions of strength on this team, Quinn immediately cited his quarterback, which isn’t a surprise, considering Matthew Stafford is the face of the franchise. (Even more so once Johnson calls it quits.)

Quinn mentioned defensive line next, though, which suggests he likes some of the young talent there, even beyond Pro Bowl end Ziggy Ansah. And probably also that the Lions are confident they’ll re-sign veteran Haloti Ngata to play alongside Caraun Reid and Gabe Wright and likely a rookie from what everyone agrees is a deep, talented draft class at defensive tackle.

Busier than most

But where the draft offers hope and promise, the Lions, who should have 10 picks to play with this spring, are sticking to a win-now premise. Which means Quinn figures to be busier than most general managers this week, meeting with agents in Indianapolis and trying hard not to get caught tampering along with everyone else.

With perhaps $45 million in cap room to spend — assuming Johnson retires — the Lions should be shopping for free-agent help on multiple fronts. Safety, linebacker, cornerback, “you name it,” Quinn said.

“There’s lack of depth at a lot of positions,” he added.

Offensive line, too, of course. Quinn confirmed left tackle Riley Reiff, a former first-round pick, will be back, presumably on the fifth-year team option ($8 million) from his rookie deal. But Quinn didn’t rule out a position switch, to the right side or even to guard “depending on who else is on the team.”

That, in turn, depends on who is available once free agency begins in a couple weeks. Buffalo’s Cordy Glenn or Cleveland’s Alex Mack could be among the high-priced options if they hit the market.

That would go against the philosophy of the Patriots, but as Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman noted Wednesday, “We’re not getting instant oatmeal anymore.” It takes time to develop players in the NFL, particularly on the offensive line, and the Lions can’t afford to let Stafford feel the kind of growing pains he endured last season again.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Quinn said. “I have a list of players like everyone else does. But these guys are getting signed every hour right now. … So we’re prepared for all scenarios.”

Ready or not, though, here they are. The Patriots expatriates, unplugged.

“Oh, sure,” Robinson said Wednesday when asked if he and Quinn had talked about this day way back when. “You’re sitting there late night watching tape and you try to come up for air a little bit. And it’s like, ‘One of these days, if we keep working hard, maybe we can be (a GM).’ We’d talk about it.”

Now they’re doing it, and it shouldn’t take long to see how they measure up.