Lions could take cue from Falcons in building O-line

Justin Rogers, The Detroit News

Indianapolis — A decade ago, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff was Bob Quinn’s boss in New England.  Although they haven’t worked together for nine seasons, there’s an opportunity for the Detroit Lions general manager to learn another lesson from his former mentor. 

In Dimitroff’s ninth season with the Falcons, the team rode the arm of MVP quarterback Matt Ryan, the fleet feet of backfield tandem Devonta Free and Tevin Coleman and the all-world receiving skills of Julio Jones to an unexpected Super Bowl berth. But the high-octane offense couldn’t thrive without a vastly improved offensive line. 

The Falcons have been investing in their offensive line for years, using a top draft pick on tackle Jake Matthews in 2014, developing and extending small school prospect Ryan Schraeder at right tackle and swinging a deal for veteran guard Andy Levitre. 

But the crown jewel of the group, the piece that turned the unit from average into one of the better groups in the NFL, was the addition of center Alex Mack in free agency.  The five-time All-Pro didn’t come cheap — a five-year, $45 million deal — but he proved worth every penny. 

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“The acquisition of Alex Mack was really, really big for us,” Dimitroff said. “It’s was really big for Matt (Ryan). It was really big for our team’s confidence, teaming him with Chris Chester, a veteran on the right side, and a veteran on the left side (Levitre).”

Signing Mack, Chester and trading for Levitre was a philosophical shift for Dimitroff, who had tried for years to build a young line from scratch.  

“Quite honestly, I learned my lesson in my early years, when I thought we could continue to develop young offensive linemen,” Dimitroff said the week leading up to the Super Bowl. “But that’s not always the case in the NFL right now. Rules are different. They’re not developing the same way because they’re not on the field the same way in practice. To have three guys create that pocket for Matt, to step up and ad lib in, it’s vital.”

And that’s where it ties back to the Lions. The team already has a young group up front, and it’s one that threatens to get younger with its two oldest members — Riley Reiff and Larry Warford — set to hit free agency. 

Asked about the risks of losing those guys in free agency and potentially replacing them through the draft, or even with young players currently on the roster, such as Joe Dahl and Corey Robinson, Quinn seemed to have a firm grasp on the potential pitfalls. 

Third-year offensive lineman Corey Robinson could have an expanded role if Larry Warford and Riley Reiff leave to free agency.

“You can’t have all rookies and second-year players on your offensive line,” Quinn said. “I think that’s something that is a philosophy of mine. You can’t go too young, so I agree with him (Dimitroff) on that.”

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After withholding comment on Warford and Reiff at his season-ending news conference in January, Quinn acknowledged interest in bringing one or both back during a news conference at the combine on Wednesday. 

“So in terms of our two guys, we’ve had discussions with both of them and we’re — don’t have anything to announce today — but we’re working toward that and I’m excited to kind of see what the offensive line looks like next year because inevitably the team’s going to be different,” Quinn said.

As it stands, the Lions’ projected starting offensive line, without Reiff and Warford wouldn’t have a starter with more than two full seasons worth of starts. Quinn did a nice job rebuilding the unit through the draft last season, adding Taylor Decker, Graham Glasgow and Dahl, but the group would lack a veteran presence in the room without Reiff, who is only 28. 

There are other free agent options beyond Reiff and Warford, who could satisfy the team’s need for a veteran. Baltimore’s Rick Wagner (27) might be the only clear tackle upgrade on the market. At guard, there are a number of options, including Kevin Zeitler (27), T.J. Lang (29) and Ronald Leary (27).

jdrogers@detnews.com

Twitter: @justin_rogers