Niyo: With Tabor, Quinn believes his Lion eyes
Allen Park — There’s nothing wrong with being predictable.
Especially in a year like this, and an NFL draft that began the way this one did, with rowdy crowds in the streets of Philly and a night full of random acts of blindness.
But if the Lions finally took a leap of faith Friday, at least they did it with their eyes wide open.
Their second-round choice, Florida cornerback Jalen “Teez” Tabor, was once viewed as a potential first-round pick. Maybe even a likely one. Then he showed up at the NFL Scouting Combine and slowed his own roll, running a surprisingly pedestrian 40-yard dash time (4.62) that raised some eyebrows.
His pro-day performance was supposed to answer those doubts. But Tabor, a 6-foot, 200-pounder, proceeded to run an even slower time (4.75 unofficially) — he blamed a sore hamstring — that had scouts going back over their notes.
Tabor’s response? He told anyone who’d listen to go back and watch the film.
“Just press play,” he said.
And look at the production he showed throughout his career playing cornerback against top-level competition. Tabor was twice named first-team all-conference in the SEC, a league that had an NFL-record number of players drafted in the first two rounds this year.
The Lions liked what they saw, apparently.
“Me personally, I probably watched more film on him than any prospect that I could ever remember watching film on,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said. “Because everyone said, ‘Well, he ran real slow.’ I said, ‘OK, well, the games that I watched I didn’t see him get run by.’ So we kept going back, ‘Well, let’s watch this game’ and ‘Let’s watch that game.’ Go back to 2016. Go back to 2015, when he was a young kid playing. I can’t sit here and say I’ve watched every play that he’s ever played at Florida …”
But he figures he watched more than a dozen games worth, several hours worth of video. And coupled with Tabor’s individual workout at his pro day in Gainesville — a 2-for-1 deal at the store for the Lions — they saw what they needed to see.
“Time speed is what it is,” Quinn said, nodding. “I take playing speed as a more important gauge than time speed.”
So when the phone rang at Tabor’s draft party, where friends and family were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with that same “Press Play” message, it was Detroit on the line. Just as it was a night earlier for Tabor’s teammate, Jarrad Davis, who was selected 21st overall by the Lions.
The T-shirts were his mother’s idea — “She didn’t really like everybody talking about the 40 time,” he said — after hearing all the criticism over the last couple months.
“He’s got really good tape in probably the best conference in college football,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “But corners who run a 4.75 raise a major red flag.”
Red flags of a different kind were flying everywhere again Friday night, as teams like Seattle (Malik McDowell), Minnesota (Dalvin Cook) and Cincinnati (Joe Mixon) gambled on talented players with well-publicized character concerns.
The Lions, for their part, have largely avoided those prospects under Quinn. And while some questioned Tabor’s maturity — he was briefly suspended twice for violating team rules at Florida, once for refusing to take a drug test and another time for fighting with a teammate in practice — there’s a lot to like about that aforementioned tape.
Ditto some of the highlights receiver Kenny Golladay put on film at Northern Illinois. The big, athletic receiver (6-4, 215) flashed plenty of potential, with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and 18 touchdowns in 13 games. And though it requires some projection when it comes to fitting him into the Lions’ offensive system, Quinn said his staff was more than a little intrigued. Same goes for Golladay, who got in plenty of work with receivers coach Robert Prince.
“It was all good vibes,” Golladay said.
For Lions fans, it has been mostly good vibes with Quinn in the draft, starting with last year’s early success and continuing, for many, with Thursday’s no-nonsense addition of Davis at arguably the team’s neediest position.
Friday, then, provides the first real test, where fans are forced to trust the GM’s vision. The Golladay pick probably looks like a reach to some, even after the Lions opted to trade back from their original third-round slot, picking up an extra fourth-rounder in the process.
“So that was a good move by us,” Quinn said.
As for the second-round pick, the move certainly made some sense. Tabor’s physical attributes allow him to match up with bigger receivers, and Tabor, a starter at Florida since his freshman season, figures to be a comfortable fit in the Lions’ coverage schemes. He’s a fluid corner with good ball skills — 33 pass breakups in three seasons — and if you listened to general manager Bob Quinn talk this offseason, one of his oft-repeated criticisms of last season’s defense was the dearth of takeaways. (Only six teams had fewer than the Lions’ 10 interceptions.)
Tabor had nine interceptions in his career, and he returned three of them for touchdowns. So if he’s lacking speed, he’s got something else that’s harder to quantify, perhaps. Vision, instincts, and confidence as well.
Tabor brashly called himself the “best player in the draft” this spring. He’s not that, but it never hurts to believe that, particularly at his position.
And for the Lions, that’s probably true as well. The team has two starting cornerbacks returning in Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson, a new free-agent signing in D.J. Hayden and another backup in Quandre Diggs, along with special-teams ace Johnson Bademosi. But only Slay and Diggs are signed beyond 2017, and given Quinn’s draft philosophy, it’s obvious he thinks he has found a long-term starter opposite Slay in Tabor. Tabor, meanwhile, said Slay has found a new shadow.
“One of the things I said I wanted going into (the draft) was somebody that I can come in and learn from and pick his brain,” Tabor said. “And I watch Slay’s game … I love his game, man. He’s one of the top corners in the league. So when I go in, I’m going to be connected to him like his phone clip. I’m just going to be on his hip everywhere he goes. I want to study what he does and what makes him so good because I have a lot to learn.”
How quickly he does, and how well, may tell us something, too. Something about the team that studied him, and trusted what it saw.