Niyo: Why drafting pass rusher is Lions' best move

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Allen Park — It’s not that there’s no pressure, really. There always is for an NFL general manager when it comes to the draft.

But for the Lions’ Bob Quinn, there’s just not enough at the moment. And surely he can sense that, as he braces for next week’s big moment with a new contract extension in hand and a new coaching staff in place.

Quinn might not be feeling quite the same heat as some of his peers. He’s coming off consecutive winning seasons in his first two years in Detroit. And at his annual pre-draft press conference Thursday the Lions’ GM said he’s comfortable enough with his roster right now that “I don’t think I’m in a position to reach for any position of so-called ‘need.’”

Still, it’s not a reach to suggest he needs to use that first-round selection — the Lions own the 20th overall pick at the moment — on a player who can make opposing quarterbacks feel a little more uncomfortable.

Whether that’s an edge rusher like Harold Landry (Boston College) or Marcus Davenport (Texas-San Antonio) or a player like Lorenzo Carter (Georgia), or a wrecking ball inside like Da’Ron Payne (Alabama) — three of those four have direct ties to new assistant coaches on Matt Patricia’s staff, by the way — it feels like there’s an essential fit to be found up front.

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The Lions have other needs, to be sure. And when Quinn says he’s eyeing a handful of players at No. 20, it’s possible one is an offensive guard or a safety or a linebacker that can drop in coverage.

But there’s also this: The Lions’ defense ranked 27th in the league in pressure rate last season, per Football Outsiders. They were 30th the previous year. And in a 32-team league where all good teams come to pass, that’s no way to get ahead.

Quinn did make some investments with that in mind in free agency, most notably a three-year, $17.25 million deal for former Giants linebacker Devon Kennard, whose versatility as a pass rusher made him a top target.

The Lions also currently have the highest-paid defensive end in the NFL, after Ezekiel Ansah signed his franchise tag Tuesday, joining Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence with a guaranteed $17.143 million salary for this season. But that’s just a one-year deal, and it’s doubtful the Lions will pursue a long-term deal with Ansah before the July 16 deadline, if at all, given his age — he’ll turn 29 next month — and injury history.

That future uncertainty extends beyond Ansah, too, as only Anthony Zettel among the top four defensive ends on the roster is under contract beyond this season. And even Zettel is signed only through 2019 on his rookie deal. Same goes for the Lions’ interior defensive line, more or less.

Then there’s the fact that Patricia’s arrival means a bit of a scheme change defensively, as well, with more three-man fronts and two-gapping techniques expected.

So if there was anything revealing in what Quinn had to say Thursday, other than a possible admission the Lions aren’t seriously considering taking a running back in the first round, it might’ve been in the way he talked about balancing the team’s short- and long-term needs each offseason.

This is hardly revelatory stuff, the idea that a GM looks at both his current roster and future salary-cap outlays as he tries to marry plans for free agency and the draft every winter. But when Quinn mentions the difficulty in finding playmakers in free agency at premium positions — generally viewed as quarterback, offensive tackle, edge rusher, cornerback and receiver — it does count for something.

“I think, price-wise, it’s a much better way to do it, to do it in the draft,” Quinn said. “Because the premium positions in free agency, as you guys know, the prices are getting way up there. So you really have to make conscious decisions of where you’re gonna make investments in terms of free agency and then kind of fill in the gaps in the draft and hopefully take the best player on the board.”

It’s why five or six teams will go ahead and draft a quarterback in the first round this year, despite questions surrounding each of them.

It’s also why the three edge rushers who seem like first-round locks might go higher than expected, though most draft analysts agree there’s a considerable dropoff from Bradley Chubb – a likely top-five pick – to Davenport and Landry.

And, yes, it's why if one of them is still there when the Lions are on the clock, Quinn might feel pressured to make that his pick.

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