Niyo: Risky business has failed Lions before

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — The plan is the plan until it isn’t anymore.

Bob Quinn probably would do well to remember that as he gets ready for his second draft as the Lions’ general manager. And Lions fans probably should, too, if they’re clamoring for risk-taking early on, ignoring the red flags of this franchise’s own recent history.

Mistakes will be made. We know that about the NFL Draft. It’s a given. But given the apparent success of Quinn’s first swing at the most important part of his job, there’s every reason for him to keep doing what he has done to this point.

Go ahead and pull the trusted Louisville Slugger out of it’s case, the one you used to calm your nerves in the draft room a year ago. (“I think I’m gonna do that,” Quinn said, smiling.) Just don’t feel the need to swing for the fences right off the bat.

The Lions will be tempted to, no doubt. Especially sitting where they are, with the 21st pick overall in the first round. They’ll have a chance to take a chance, whether it’s on a running back like Dalvin Cook or a linebacker like Reuben Foster or maybe a defensive lineman like Malik McDowell.

But before they do, before they make a leap of faith, Quinn will have to ask himself this: Is it worth it?

“At the right time, to take a character risk, it has to be at the right price,” he said, artfully dodging most of the draft questions thrown his way Thursday. “And it has to be a player that you’ve done your due diligence and you’ve done your work on and you feel good about him being able to come into a situation with a support staff and the team ready to embrace a player like that.”

‘Case-by-case thing’

As for a player like Joe Mixon, the running back whose off-field issues include a damning video of him punching a female student at Oklahoma? Quinn said at the NFL Combine that Mixon — a first-round talent, to be sure — was still on their board. Now he’s no longer willing to say anything about it.

But Quinn, who was with the New England Patriots when they drafted Aaron Hernandez in 2010, did offer up an answer of sorts when he was asked about any lessons learned from that decision, or others like it.

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“I think it’s a case-by-case thing,” Quinn said. “You can’t clump all character or physical risks the same. You’ve got to take each individual player and prospect and do your due diligence in terms of how you think that player is going to fit off the field, and then you’ve got to evaluate how you think the fit’s gonna be off the field. It’s a really hard situation.

“The off-the-field things that a number of prospects have every year, you have to evaluate it and make the best decision you think for your football team.

“And it’s something we spend a lot of time on.”

But therein lies the danger, too. The Lions have spent a considerable amount of time building a roster with high-character players, team captains and the like. It was no accident, Quinn says, that his first draft class – one that played to rave reviews last fall eight of 10 rookies making contributions, led by left tackle Taylor Decker — was full of more of the same.

“That’s really important,” the GM said. “That’s something that we look at and we ask our scouts to go out and find the guys that are leaders on their team, high-character guys, guys that love football.”

So as much as he’d love to add an explosive, playmaking talent like Foster in the middle of his defense, or a dynamic back with Pro Bowl talent like Mixon or even Cook, he’ll have to weigh the consequences.

And maybe remember where things went awry for his predecessor in Detroit. Martin Mayhew got off to a pretty decent start himself as GM in Detroit, winning a blockbuster trade before he’d even gotten the job officially and then finding four NFL starters with his first draft.

But in his second swing, the Lions took a big chance on Jahvid Best’s concussion history. (Head coach Jim Schwartz had jokingly compared his love for Best’s highlight films to other people’s porn addiction.) And then Mayhew doubled-down on the risky business by selecting Nick Fairley, Mikel Leshoure and Titus Young with his first three picks in the 2011 draft. And the Lions never really recovered from that group’s collective bust – the arrests, the injuries, the insubordination.

‘Trust your teammates’

That’s always the easy mistake to make on the personnel side, remembering you’re building a program, not just a team. Or forgetting how hard it is to keep exceptions from becoming the rule.

“Listen, we’re not going to only draft perfect gentlemen,” Quinn told The Detroit News last August in an expansive interview in his office. “I promised Mrs. Ford that I’m going to bring the best character guys, off the field, that I can, knowing that it can’t be a perfect slate. But the more guys you bring in who can buy in to that culture, that character, it just makes a better team in the end.

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“Like when you’re in December, you’re playing Chicago and things are tough, you want to play for that guy next to you. This isn’t an individual sport and you have to be able to trust your teammates.”

He’s right about all that, of course. And whatever trust Quinn has built up in his short time here in Detroit, I think it’s too early for Quinn to risk damaging that. @JohnNiyo