Matt Patricia’s rebuild scheme for Lions goes inside-out

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — Ask Matt Patricia, the Lions’ new head coach, for his philosophy about building an NFL roster and he’ll start right about where his team is at the moment. He’ll start in the middle.

“What I’ll tell you is this: When you build — and this is on both sides of the ball — you want to build from the ball out,” Patricia said this week at the NFL scouting combine. “So, starting in the middle and working out.”

That’s probably worth remembering as the Lions and the rest of the league spend the weekend watching big men —really big men — try do all the little things right, whether in agility drills on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium during the day or individual interviews at the hotel across the street each night.

The Lions have needs in the middle of their offensive and defensive lines. And while they’ll likely address some of those issues in free agency this month, they’re also keenly focused on interior linemen at the combine. The good news for Detroit is it appears there are plenty of talented ones from which they can choose.

More: 'Deep' running back class offers Lions draft options

“This draft offers a lot of linemen that will be starters and good players,” said Duke Tobin, the Cincinnati Bengals’ director of player personnel.

Likewise, NFL draft analyst Mike Mayock says he sees good depth at the guard and center positions, “and the interior defensive line — it is stacked early.”

The offensive linemen took their turn for on-field drills Friday, with all eyes on Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson, who figures to be a top-10 pick. Nelson opted not to run the 40-yard dash due to a hamstring pull, but there were other impressive performances.

Iowa’s James Daniels, a possible second-round pick at center, also skipped the 40, but showed off his smooth footwork in drills. And UTEP guard Will Hernandez, a 327-pound mauler that Mayock calls “a Day 1 starter in the NFL,” followed his impressive strength numbers — a combine-best 38 reps on the bench press — by showing good explosion and movement Friday.

“If you want get in a fight in a phone booth,” Mayock said, “that’s your guy right there.”

And who knows? Maybe he’ll be the guy for the Lions with the 20th overall pick in the first round of April’s draft.

More: Conklin, Okorafor take divergent paths as NFL hopefuls

The Lions are expected to move on from center Travis Swanson, a pending free agent who struggled with inconsistency in 2017 and finished the season on injured reserve due to a concussion, just as he did the year before. And third-year pro Graham Glasgow could be the in-house replacement there — that was part of the plan when general manager Bob Quinn used a third-round pick on him in 2016.

But the Lions also could opt to bring in a veteran free agent like 33-year-old John Sullivan, who could hit the market after a bounceback season with the Los Angeles Rams. Jeff Davidson, the Lions’ new offensive line coach, spent five years with Sullivan in Minnesota and raves about his football IQ.

If not, the Lions still would need to find a backup center. And they’d have to fill the hole at left guard. Another ’16 draft pick, Joe Dahl, could get a serious look there. But there will be free-agent options as well.

Carolina’s Andrew Norwell figures to cash in with a deal similar to the record-setting five-year, $60 million contract Cleveland’s Kevin Zeitler landed a year ago. And the Bears’ Josh Sitton will be in demand as well, much like his former Green Bay teammate, T.J. Lang, was last March before eventually signing with the Lions.

More: Lions add Derius Swinton as offensive assistant

Can teams really afford to invest that kind of money in interior linemen? Watching the likes of Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox wreak havoc in the NFL, the better question might be: Can they afford not to?

“You look at when New Orleans was having that great run — part of it was the Super Bowl win — and what did they do?” New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman said. “They had two hog molly guards. Because there isn’t a quarterback alive who is going to get in the huddle and say, ‘OK, boys, let ’em up the middle and I’ll deal with it. At the end of the day, it’s keeping your quarterback upright and out of the hospital.”

And by the end of Day 2 of the draft next month, it’s a safe bet the Lions will have added at least one 300-pounder, if not two or three.

The Lions also have a glaring need for help along their defensive front.

They used the franchise tag to keep defensive end Ezekiel Ansah from testing free agency. But Quinn knows he needs to find another edge rusher.

More: Ex-Wolverine Mason Cole sees versatility as his NFL ticket

There’s also a decision to be made on veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is scheduled to be a free agent.

Ngata’s best years are behind him at age 34, but the Lions’ run defense cratered last fall when a torn bicep ended his season in mid-October.

Whether he’s back for another year or not, though, the Lions still need to find another pocket-collapsing tackle. Either in free agency, where Dontari Poe, Star Lotulelei and Sheldon Richardson are among the top candidates, or in the draft, where the Lions certainly will have options as well, though as Mayock notes, “I think the guys that can rush the quarterback are going to be gone quickly.”

At the top of that list are Washington’s Vita Vea and Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne, who started his college career playing for new Lions defensive line coach Bo Davis. But Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, who checked in at a bulked-up 292 pounds Friday, is another potential first-round selection who could be available.