Niyo: Lions brass draft for force and brawn

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Da’Shawn Hand was named second-team All-SEC by conference coaches as a senior at Alabama.

Allen Park — There was the 10-second runoff against Atlanta. And the Nine Men Out debacle in Baltimore. But the real story of the Lions’ disappointing 2017 season, at least in the eyes of their general manager, Bob Quinn, was the way other teams ate their lunch.

It happened again and again, but the real stomach-churner probably came a couple days before Halloween, when the Lions dropped a third straight game — this time on national TV against Pittsburgh — largely because of a disastrous 0-for-5 effort in the red zone.

Jim Caldwell's team piled up 482 total yards that night, which proved to be the third-highest total in NFL history for a team that failed to score an offensive touchdown. And the 17 plays the Lions ran inside the Steelers’ 20 produced a total of nine yards. Yet those were just numbers on a stat sheet. Watching it on film after the fact simply reinforced the ill feelings.

“When I look back at our team last year, all those critical situations — like, it’s goal-line, and we can’t run the ball half a yard — that bothered me,” Quinn said Saturday as he wrapped up his third draft — and arguably his most decisive one — as the Lions’ general manager.

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Just how much all those near-misses and no-gainers bothered him, we can finally see — and hear — for ourselves now, as Quinn followed through on an offseason makeover of his roster with a draft that didn’t offer any false pretenses. No more soft-pedaling the hard truths about what Lions fans have been grumbling about for far too long.

Ford Field tough?

If there was a recurring theme among the Lions’ half-dozen picks, from first-round center Frank Ragnow to last-round fullback Nick Bawden, it was toughness.

That’s something Quinn admitted “was lacking” in his team last year, and he got no argument about it from Matt Patricia, the New England compatriot he brought in to finally push this franchise over the top.

“I took it upon myself to implement some changes in terms of what we want to do, what we want to look at, what we want to look like as a team,” Quinn said Saturday night in his post-draft news conference. “And you know, when Matt came in, I said, ‘Listen, this is what I think we need to do,’ and he was on board. So, that’s kind of what our plan has been since February 5, or whatever day that was.”

And over this three-day draft, I think we saw a growing confidence from Quinn about this plan of his and how it might come together. There were some free-agent misses last month, sure. And there’d better be a veteran addition still to come, considering the notable absence of a pass rusher in this draft class.

But say this for the Lions’ brass: They’re pretty sure of themselves. And we saw it again with another trade up — and another targeted strike — Saturday in the draft. It was Quinn’s second such move in less than 24 hours, and maybe his third or fourth theft of a player coveted by a team right behind the Lions in this draft, though it's always hard to say.

The Lions didn't hesitate to move up Saturday to grab Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand, a versatile, big-bodied talent who’ll be reunited with his former defensive line coach, Bo Davis, in Detroit. Quinn called it a "value pick" even though he gave up a third-round pick in next year’s draft in the process. Hand seems like a natural fit for Patricia’s defensive scheme, which will feature more three-man fronts and two-gapping responsibilities up front. It’ll require more size and strength, too.

But that’s something Quinn and Patricia were looking for up and down the roster this offseason — running back, offensive line, linebacker, you name it.

Trench warfare

The way Quinn sees it — and you’ll hear a familiar refrain from 31 other GMs in the league as well — every NFL game comes down to a handful of plays. It’s why everyone talks about “situational football” and why coaches obsess about short-yardage play-calling and red-zone efficiency and third-down defense and hidden yardage on special teams.

But while success in all those areas depends on football fundamentals and precision and execution, it also comes down to something that sounds a bit nebulous but isn’t all that hard to find when you’re looking for it. At least the way Quinn and his staff did as they set their draft board this spring and then set about trying to fix the Lions’ annually-anemic run game, first and foremost.

“Something we looked at long and hard was guys finishing plays,” Quinn said. “I mean, you go through the highlights they show on Ragnow and you can watch (Tyrell) Crosby play against good competition out west and you see how Kerryon (Johnson) carries the ball and finishes his runs, that was something we talked about in February when Matt and his staff came in — about what we thought can make the team better.

“You know, you can really get specific into what you want — what you need — for the team. But in my mind (as GM), I’ve got to have a bigger, broader (view), like, ‘All right. What do we want the team to look like, OK?’ We want a big, strong, tough, physical team in the trenches.”

They’re still a long way from proving they can be that, obviously. But “it was an emphasis,” Quinn says, and they've at least made some gains here. And given what he saw last fall — what we all saw from the Lions — that's not nothing.