Durability key component in Lions' draft approach
NFL franchises try to always think about how to build a team that can have long-term success. To do this, they have to strike a delicate balance between fixing problems from the previous season while not being too reactive.
Though Lions general manager Martin Mayhew's approach in the 2015 draft was to draft the best players available while also filling long-term needs, it became clear after the selection process that a couple things from 2014 played a role in the decision-making process.
Among the top issues plaguing the Lions last season were injuries on the offensive line and at cornerback. Adding to the problems at cornerback were the lack of versatility with some of the backups as the Lions struggled to find consistent play at the nickel spot after Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson suffered season-ending injuries the first two weeks of the year.
To address the offensive line struggles, the Lions drafted former Duke guard Laken Tomlinson in the first round, acquired guard and center Manny Ramirez, and selected former South Carolina tackle Corey Robinson in the seventh round.
Tomlinson never missed a game during the last four years at Duke, making 52 starts at right guard. Playing for the Denver Broncos, Ramirez started all 32 games the last two years. Robinson made 35 starts the last three years for the Gamecocks, including all 26 the past two seasons.
In 2014, the Lions had seven different starting offensive line groups, including the postseason loss to the Cowboys, and left guard Rob Sims was the only player who started all 16 games.
Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle missed six games and ended the year on injured reserve with a December knee injury that could hold him out of the start of the season. Right guard Larry Warford missed three games, left tackle Riley Reiff missed one with a knee injury and center Dominic Raiola missed one with a suspension.
"It always does from my perspective," Mayhew said when asked if durability played a role in the offensive line selections in 2015. "Especially on the offensive line, you want guys who are available, who are able to play and who can fight through minor injuries and find a way onto the football field."
Though injuries are impossible to predict, the Lions must feel more confident that they can avoid the mishmosh of lineup changes up front in 2015. In addition to Tomlinson, Ramirez and Robinson, Warford, Reiff and center Travis Swanson have shown they can be durable, too. Reiff has missed just one game in his career, Warford started 29 games the last two years and Swanson started 50 games at Arkansas and was healthy his rookie year until suffering an injury in the playoffs.
The Lions' offense played much better in 2013 than 2014, and two years ago four of the five starters played every game, with right tackle the only spot suffering from injuries. The 2013 group, which included Sims and Raiola, who won't be back, allowed just 23 sacks, second-best in the NFL.
At cornerback, the Lions took Stanford's Alex Carter in the third round and Texas' Quandre Diggs in the sixth. Carter played 40 games with 33 starts the last three seasons, and Diggs played 52 with 49 starts.
After Lawson (foot) and Bentley (knee) went down, the Lions had to rely on some combination of cornerbacks Cassius Vaughn, Danny Gorrer and Mohammed Seisay in the slot.
The 6-foot Carter profiles as an outside cornerback, but with the Lions utilizing a three-safety nickel look at times with Isa Abdul-Quddus or Don Carey, they showed that physicality could be a trait as important as speed covering the slot. Though Lawson, Bentley, the 5-foot-9 Diggs or the 5-foot-9 Wilson is most likely to handle nickel duties, Lions cornerbacks coach Tony Oden said the team will teach players how to play both inside and outside.
Though Diggs has the typical frame of an inside cornerback, his 4.56 speed isn't great. However, he had 65 tackles and two sacks last year and could be a physical option like Carter.
"Well, obviously, we had the injuries at nickel last year, and I can tell you for a fact that when we're sitting there in the sixth round and we have an opportunity to draft a corner who we really liked, I felt like it's better to have too many than not have enough," Mayhew said. "So, Quandre was a great pickup for us — outstanding player; great, great kid; great guy; hard worker. (He) had an outstanding Senior Bowl, I thought, so he's a really good fit for us playing nickel for us."