Niyo: Quinn sticks to blueprint in building Lions

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Every year, the talk surrounding the NFL draft and its prospects tends to focus on floors and ceilings.

But what about the walls?

A year after he began laying the foundation for another rebuilding effort in Detroit, Lions general manager Bob Quinn got to work on Phase 2 of this project with his second draft class. And while it’s too soon to stand back and judge any of his work at this stage, it’s comforting, at least, to see the original blueprints he showed the fans haven’t been scrapped yet.

If this year’s draft felt a lot like Quinn’s 2016 debut — solid but unspectacular, orderly and far from audacious — that’s probably a good thing. As Mike Mayock, the NFL Network analyst, noted Sunday as the final day of the draft got underway, “I think Bob Quinn and his staff are doing a great job in Detroit of establishing a consistency in their philosophy that we maybe haven’t seen in prior years.”

Now, that’s not entirely fair to the last guy, even if the fans don’t want to hear Martin Mayhew’s tenure as GM rationalized. And it’s too early to give Quinn more than an affirmative nod.

But eventually that consistency should translate into results. And already you can see where they’re headed, with a franchise quarterback in place — Matthew Stafford’s contract extension is the next big task — and improved depth across the roster.

Quinn’s first year on the job certainly felt like a success. The Lions made the playoffs, they got immediate contributions from his first draft — eight of the 10 rookies played, most notably first-round left tackle Taylor Decker — and the offseason overhaul of the offensive line looks promising. (Consider that the Lions’ 2017 salary-cap number for both their starting tackles — Decker and Rick Wagner — is less than the Vikings’ hit for Riley Reiff, the player Quinn let walk.)

Getting defensive

The Lions’ GM insisted he was coming into this draft with an open mind. But despite what he says, I don’t think it’s an accident that six of the nine picks in 2017 were on the defensive side of the ball.

It’s also no coincidence we kept hearing words like “instincts” and “playmaker” and “productive” as Quinn talked about some of his new additions. Those were things that were in shorter supply the past couple of years as the defense deteriorated from a dominant unit in 2014 into one that ranked last in opponent pass efficiency, 31st in third-down percentage, 30th in sacks and 28th in takeaways last season.

To turn that around, the Lions knew they needed an infusion of young talent on defense. And for all the talk of the Patriot Way with Quinn in charge, a better template probably can be found with the reigning NFC champs from Atlanta. (A team run by another Bill Belichick-tutored GM in Thomas Dimitroff.) Nine of the 11 starters on Atlanta’s defense last season were drafted by the Falcons in the last four years.

Linebacker was the position where the Lions felt they had the biggest need, and after adding an immediate starter in first-round pick Jarrad Davis — a player some scouts deemed their favorite in the entire draft — they found another early contributor in fourth-rounder Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

He’s a special-teams ace who brings some speed and explosiveness that was lacking in the middle of the Lions’ defense. And assuming he can stay healthy, it’s not hard to envision him as a starter alongside Davis and last year’s rookie fifth-round pick, Antwione Williams, in 2018. Tahir Whitehead is entering the final season of his contract, while veteran Paul Worrilow signed a one-year deal in free agency.

In the secondary, a similar overhaul is underway. Quinn drafted two more defensive backs with specific roles in mind. Second-round pick Jalen “Teez” Tabor should compete for the starting job opposite Darius Slay — the Lions desperately need another ballhawk back there — while fifth-round pick Jamal Agnew, one of the fastest cornerbacks in this draft, could find a role as the team’s nickel back. Maybe sooner rather than later, too, with both Nevin Lawson and free-agent pickup D.J. Hayden on contract years and Quandre Diggs trying to rebound from injury and a disappointing 2016 campaign.

If there’s a surprise from this draft, other than the absence of a running back in the Lions’ nine picks — and injuries were the problem there in 2016, not a lack of young talent — it’s that Quinn didn’t opt for a pass-rushing lineman earlier than he did. Saturday’s two selections — Jeremiah Ledbetter, who’ll work at a defensive tackle initially, and seventh-rounder Pat O’Connor out of Eastern Michigan — won’t see the field this fall. But Quinn insists he feels “good” about where things stand up front.

Better safe than sorry

Fans can argue he played it safe again, though I’d argue that’s selling Davis’ talent short at middle linebacker, where leadership traits aren’t merely a bonus. But safe is better than sorry when it comes to roster construction and high draft picks. To wit, Decker already has more career starts than Jahvid Best, and more than half as many as Nick Fairley, two recent first-round picks who flopped for different reasons.

“If you pass up a great player, I think you’re always gonna look back and probably regret that,” Quinn admitted.

But not as much as you’ll regret the mistakes you end up paying for on your own roster. And this is a roster Quinn clearly feels he upgraded this offseason, shoring up the most glaring deficiencies he identified in his first year on the job.

“You look at the roster, it’s probably more on the defensive side of the ball, just in terms of pure numbers that we’ve added,” Quinn said. “But I think with the offensive linemen we added (in free agency), and the tight end and the receiver today in the draft, it’s pretty well-rounded. We still have a ways to go to really complement the entire roster. It’s a never-ending process for us, and we try to improve the roster every day.”

Lions know all about the never-ending process, of course. But the good news here is the plans haven’t changed, and today things do look a little better than they did.