Niyo: Quinn's drafting freely, but Lions can't rest easy

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Detroit Lions first-round draft pick, Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson, joins Lions executive vice president and general manager Bob Quinn during Friday's news conference.

Allen Park — They’re back in their comfort zone now.

And how does it feel?

“Very comfortable,” said Bob Quinn, after he’d finished up another draft as the Lions’ general manager.

If that makes you uncomfortable, well, tough. In a way, that’s the essence of the so-called Patriot Way, isn’t it? Executing a plan that keeps everyone else guessing?

It’s certainly the idea behind this tag-team partnership sitting atop the Ford family’s football hierarchy, with Quinn feeling more at ease stocking a roster for his like-minded head coach, Matt Patricia.

And freely admitting it, finally.

“Growing up in the business, at my previous team,” Quinn continued, well aware that team — you know, the one in New England — need not be named anymore, “this is the kind of player — defensively, at least — that I always kind of knew how to scout and grew up learning how to scout.”

That’s why we should’ve known going into this draft that these were the kind of players the Lions would select, working off a smaller crib sheet than most NFL teams and routinely ignoring conventional wisdom. Or at least what passed for it around here for the longest time.

Take Friday night, when the Lions surprised many with their second-round selection of Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai — a player many draft analysts projected as a fourth- or fifth-round pick, and a decision that left fans screaming on social media.

Yet as a big, versatile linebacker who could fill a hybrid role similar to Dont’a Hightower or Kyle Van Noy in New England, Quinn had no hesitation about taking him with the 43rd overall pick. Particularly since he had a strong suspicion Bill Belichick and the Patriots were eyeing Tavai a couple picks later at No. 45.

'City' word

But mostly because that’s the new prototype in Detroit, where “multiplicity” is the word of the day — every day — and as Quinn noted with a smile Saturday night, “Bigger is better, right?”

Right or wrong, that’s the thinking now. Just as it was a year ago when Quinn drafted four immediate contributors with his first four picks: Frank Ragnow, Kerryon Johnson, Tracy Walker and Da'Shawn Hand.

“Bigger, longer … if they’re athletic enough, that’s kind of the way you want to build,” Quinn said.

That’s not quite the way he started, of course. And whether that’s an indictment of the way the Lions went about this latest transition — bringing in a new GM in 2015, but keeping the head coach — the reality is some of Quinn’s initial draft picks (Jalen Reeves-Maybin, for example) and free-agent signings no longer fit the new profile.

The ones he added over the last couple days do, from Tavai and Will Harris — a "big nickel" safety from Boston College — to Clemson's hybrid edge rusher, Austin Bryant, and Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who comes with long arms and a short learning curve.

“When I came here in 2016, our defense was obviously quite different in terms of the style,” Quinn said. “So, I tried to adjust as best as I could. And then when Matt came along, we kind of quickly went back to this style. So to be completely honest, I feel more comfortable grading and evaluating players for this system, just because I’ve done it for so much longer.”

Now then, that's not an excuse Lions fans are likely to accept. And whether familiarity finally breeds winning around here remains the larger question. A 6-10 record last season certainly doesn’t buy either the GM or the head coach much leeway, and Patricia himself admits he’ll have be better in front of this group than the "first-year teacher" he was a year ago.

That's why the first order of business in Quinn's second draft alongside Patricia was to fill the seats in the classroom with students who were better prepared -- and more willing, in some cases -- to tackle the assignments, week in and week out.

“Because as we all know, it's the best team that wins — it's not necessarily the most talented team,” Patricia explained last month at the NFL owners’ meetings. “So we're trying to find the best team.”

To that end, Quinn brought in a new offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell, who shares a similar philosophy with Patricia. He also bought a family-size package of tight ends for Bevell and Matthew Stafford — including another top-10 pick in T.J. Hockenson — that’ll help them implement it. There’s a new veteran slot receiver in Danny Amendola, too, and more depth at running back behind Kerryon Johnson. And while the Lions didn’t add an offensive lineman in the draft, Quinn insists “we’re happy with what we have” up front, even after T.J. Lang’s retirement. (We’ll see how happy they are with the options at right guard — Oday Aboushi? Kenny Wiggins? — once training camp rolls around.)

The changes are even more dramatic on the other side of the ball, though. Last summer, Quinn admitted he was only part way through the process of overhauling the defensive roster to fit Patricia’s vision. But Saturday night, the fourth-year GM sounded more confident in what he sees.

'Getting there'

“I think we’re getting there,” he said.

A moment later, Quinn went a step further, saying, “We’re there.”

The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle. But as Quinn reminded everyone again — and again — this weekend, “In this defense, versatility is key.” And after the last six months, Patricia should have enough of the interchangeable pieces he needs to prove he's as smart as advertised, what with Trey Flowers in a Lions uniform and Damon Harrison around for a full season and most of the rest of the projected starters — role players, too — having a full year under their belts in his scheme.

That’s the way they see it, at least. And for now, at the end of another draft that’s bound to be viewed differently from the outside looking in, that’s all that really matters.

“If we go into this process being scared about what other people think about our team and our evaluations, then we’ve got a long way to go,” Quinn said.

Fair enough. And if they feel comfortable with where they're at, I suppose all that's left is to sit back and see if they're right. Everyone knows how uncomfortable it'll get if they're not.

Twitter @JohnNiyo

Detroit Lions draft picks

First round (No. 8 overall): Iowa TE T.J. Hockenson

Second round (No. 43): Hawaii LB Jahlani Tavai

Third round (No. 81): Boston College S Will Harris

Fourth round (No. 117): Clemson DE Austin Bryant

Fifth round (No. 146): Penn State CB Amani Oruwariye

Sixth round (No. 184): Old Dominion WR Travis Fulgham

Sixth round (No. 186): Maryland RB Ty Johnson

Seventh round (No. 224): Georgia TE Isaac Nauta

Seventh round (No. 229): Arizona DT PJ Johnson