Niyo: Lions' sales pitch could use some guesswork ahead of NFL Draft

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — On the one hand, it’s too early for smokescreens. On the other, it might be too late.

But as Lions general manager Bob Quinn and his staff began the two-month juggling act that runs from now until the NFL draft — through the start of the new league year in March and all the nonsense that’ll follow — they sound a bit reluctant to get in the game.

The Lions’ No. 3 spot would interest teams who want to trade up to draft Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.

And maybe it’s as simple as the way head coach Matt Patricia explained it Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine, moments after he and Quinn tried to snuff out the last embers of any trade speculation involving Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“We’re not really in the gossip business, you know what I mean?” Patricia said.

Fair enough. But it wouldn’t hurt to try at some point, manufacturing a market for their most-tradeable assets, including that coveted draft pick they earned with a miserable performance in 2019.

And maybe they will, eventually. Maybe they already have, for that matter, when it comes to another asset in Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay, who is now officially on the trading block — it’s been a game of charades for some time now — and seems increasingly likely to be dealt in the coming weeks.

Slay hasn’t been shy about wanting a contract extension — he’s due to make $10 million in the final year of his current deal — and there hasn’t been much, if any, progress on that front with the Lions over the last 12 months. So a split seems inevitable, assuming Detroit can find a suitor willing to give them a decent return for their No. 1 corner.

“What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to explore a trade,” Quinn acknowledged Tuesday. “That’s not saying we are definitely trading him. We’ve had some conversations with other teams.”

And they’ll probably have some more this week in Indianapolis, he added, “and see where it goes.”

Of course, what goes on here in Indianapolis often involves spreading misinformation or feigning interest, and quite frankly, the Lions should be happily doing both on multiple fronts.

But they’ve steadfastly refused to engage in any subterfuge when it comes to Stafford’s status. Quinn vehemently denied a WDIV report two weeks ago that the Lions were engaged in trade talks involving their veteran quarterback, calling it “100 percent false!!” and saying Tuesday, “If I need to add a third exclamation point, I will.”

“When the story came out, I called Matthew and I said, ‘Listen, I haven’t had one conversation. We’re not trading you, period,’” Quinn said.

Added Patricia: “I really think it’s just all unfortunate. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Doesn’t it, though? It’s one thing to tell Stafford privately, and another to shout it publicly. And I’m not so sure the latter helps their cause, in the grand scheme of things. Not if the Lions are looking to generate more interest in that No. 3 pick by insinuating they might use it on one of the top two quarterbacks in the draft.

When asked about that Tuesday, Quinn shrugged and said it simply wasn’t necessary.

“I think the value of the No. 3 pick is always very high — it doesn’t matter what the prospect is or what the year is,” Quinn said.

“I mean, there’s always gonna be five or six guys, year to year, that are just like really, really top prospects that anybody from No. 7 through 20 would love to have. It’s all about the cost, right? What would they have to give up to get there?”

Focus on Burrow, Young

And with consensus building around LSU quarterback Joe Burrow and Ohio State defensive end Chase Young going 1-2 to Cincinnati and Washington at the top of the draft — Burrow dismissed rumors he doesn’t want to play for the Bengals on Tuesday, while Redskins GM Kyle Smith endorsed his own quarterback in Dwayne Haskins — that puts Quinn in the catbird seat at No. 3.

There could be a few teams — most notably the Miami Dolphins — interested in trading up to draft Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, provided he gets a clean bill of health.

But this draft’s biggest mystery won’t be solved anytime soon. Tagovailoa, who suffered a fractured and dislocated hip in mid-November, said Tuesday he’s awaiting a March 9 checkup to receive full medical clearance. And while he won’t participate in any drills on the field here this week — and probably won’t at Alabama’s pro day on March 24, either — he’s planning to hold his own pro day April 9, two weeks before the draft.

“After March 9, when I get clearance from my doctors, then it’s full go up until my pro day,” said Tagovailoa, arguably the most talented quarterback in this draft. “I’ll be ready to go.”

If he is, then the Lions could be in business, with the teams at Nos. 5-7 — Miami, the Los Angeles Chargers and Carolina — among the possible suitors.

“I’ve never seen a GM go into a draft and say, ‘I’m not going to trade up’ or ‘I’m definitely trading up,’” Chargers GM Tom Telesco said.

“ I mean, yeah, of course you could possibly trade up for any player, or trade back. I don’t know. It’s way too early to determine that.”

Benefits in blowing smoke

Maybe so, but it’s never a bad time to start blowing smoke, even if you’re in a spot where you feel like you can’t go wrong.

The Lions know they can stay put and add a defensive playmaker in Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown or even Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, a player Quinn raved about at the podium Tuesday. But they’re also incentivized to advertise that fact, aren’t they?

“This year, there’s a couple quarterbacks, there’s a couple other positions that are, in my opinion, are really good players, too,” Quinn said. “If I do get calls, it might not be for a quarterback. It might be for another position. So I think I have to look at that, too, and see what the overall value of all those positions are, because I’m not eliminating position right now.

“We’re just trying to make our team better. And if that’s taking the best player at No. 3, great. If that’s moving back and acquiring extra picks this year or in the future, that’s something you’re gonna have to consider, too. So everything’s kind of on the table right now.”

If he’s smart, he’ll keep it that way. And make sure everyone knows it.