Niyo: Lions hope to rewrite history with top picks

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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A'Shawn Robinson manned the middle of the line of Alabama’s national championship defense.

Allen Park — The Lions rookies got a history lesson Tuesday.

But they’ll learn soon enough — once they’ve been released into the wild — that’s a remedial course in Detroit.

What they’ve already started to grasp, though, is that not much else is in the NFL. And of all the things the top two picks said after their first weekend on the job as newly minted millionaires, this was the probably the most important acknowledgement.

“We have to play catch-up, right now,” said Taylor Decker, the team’s first-round selection and the newcomer who’ll undoubtedly face the most scrutiny between now and the end of training camp in August.

Decker, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound bookend for the offensive line, is being asked to tackle more than one position for now. And he’s smartly straddling the fence when asked to choose sides — left or right — regarding his immediate future, though we’ll start to get a better glimpse of it in a couple of weeks when the Lions hit the practice field for full-squad OTA workouts.

At present, though, Decker’s too busy trying to get a handle on the Lions offensive concepts — and all the new vocabulary — to worry about replacing incumbent starter Riley Reiff on Matthew Stafford’s blind side or stopping the revolving door at the other end of the line.

“If I don’t become a better football player, I can’t play either position,” he said Tuesday. “I need to become a lot better football player to play either side.”

And after last weekend’s rookie minicamp, Decker and the rest — 10 picks in all, plus another dozen or so undrafted free agents — are getting their first introductions to some of the veterans as part of the offseason workout program.

“You can learn a lot just from watching them, see how they control themselves and just go about their business,” said rookie defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, the Lions’ second-round pick out of Alabama. “I’m just going in and trying to work as hard as I can, honestly. Trying to learn as much as I can from those guys.”

Depth charge

Tuesday, they learned a little about the Lions’ franchise, though admittedly it wasn’t the unvarnished truth. Or even the abridged version of it.

“It was just the history,” Decker said, “and obviously, around here, it’s going to be positive things.”

But there’s a famous saying that predates even the Portsmouth Spartans about those who ignore the past being condemned to repeat it. And that’s where general manager Bob Quinn enters the picture here with this organization, and this rookie class in particular.

Lions rookies immersed in team's history

Quinn is operating with a relatively clean balance sheet, if not a clean slate — something the Lions haven’t honestly had in a generation. But rather than getting distracted by shiny objects, or skill positions — with the exception of free-agent receiver Marvin Jones — he has spent most of his first offseason focused on improving his roster’s depth. And it’s no accident Quinn invested heavily in the offensive and defensive lines with his first draft, selecting five linemen in all — the most for the Lions in one draft since 1989.

Yet, while it’s easy for a general manager to say “the bigger, the better,” as Quinn did at the draft’s conclusion, it’s also true that old George Young “Planet Theory” sounds a lot better when those big guys pan out.

In Decker’s case, that probably entails locking down a starting job as a rookie, and preferably something more than the sixth-lineman role Reiff grew into as a rookie.

“Obviously, a first-round pick, you expect him to come in and be a contributor,” Quinn said Monday on Pro Football Talk Live.

Many candidates

Center Graham Glasgow won’t face the same expectations as a third-round pick, but he’ll certainly have a similar opportunity. Same goes for fifth-rounder Joe Dahl and sixth-rounder Jimmy Landes. That’s how you build depth, really. You start with competition. And it can’t hurt that so much of this 2016 draft class comes from major programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Baylor.

On the other side, Robinson, a 6-4, 310-pound specimen, figures to start as Haloti Ngata’s understudy. But even in that role he’ll be counted on to help transform that second defensive line unit from a liability into a strength again, one of the underrated parts of that league-leading run defense in 2014.

Quinn says he and his scouting staff were surprised to find Robinson still available in the middle of the second round. The Lions figured he’d go in the bottom half of the first round. Robinson did, too, but he said Tuesday he’s already put that disappointment behind him. And he’s genuinely excited about the Lions plans to utilize him — likely as a 1-technique, but maybe more than that — in an aggressive front four.

“I love it,” he said. “Honestly, I think it’s a great defense for me to be in, to come from two-gapping and to have the opportunity to attack. To really just come off the ball and explode into offensive linemen, it’s gonna be cool.”

It’s gonna be something to watch, for sure, as the Lions finally start putting all these pieces together, and we start to see how they stack up. But if history is any guide, the best bets to make an impact among the rookies are the biggest ones. And the Lions certainly stocked up.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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