Allen Park — No need to reach, no need to dazzle. The Lions can’t screw this up, at least not in the first round. Oh, nothing is foolproof when it comes to the NFL Draft. But if we’re judging GM Bob Quinn on his two-year history, not on the Lions’ 60-year history, he appears to be a competent drafter, and mostly a safe drafter. And sitting at No. 20, that’s pretty much what the Lions need.
Fast and flashy? Not in the first round, not tonight.
Big, burly and even a bit boring? Yes please.
On offense, the Lions can’t run over anybody, and on defense, they’re liable to get run over by anybody. Until they get stronger on both lines – or either – they’re not legitimate contenders, just a 9-7 fringe team riding a good quarterback, Matthew Stafford.
That means Quinn likely has two choices in the first round.
He can take one of the best run-mauling guards (UTEP’s Will Hernandez or Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn), the prudent path. Or he could grab a versatile defensive lineman (Florida’s Tavon Bryan, Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne, UTSA’s Marcus Davenport, Boston College’s Harold Landry), a riskier route. Of course this depends on availability, and Landry and Davenport could be gone by No. 20.
Gotta have a back
One other option: Quinn could trade down for more picks to supplement the Lions’ total of six (tied for league-lowest), which would be ideal.
I’m even willing to let them pass on a running back in the first round, thanks to the signing of LeGarrette Blount. LSU’s Derrius Guice is tempting, but several intriguing backs — Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, USC’s Ronald Jones – should be available in the second and third rounds, and the Lions still absolutely have to add one.
The initial draft with Matt Patricia could be especially telling, because Quinn made it clear he thought the Lions’ talent was better than the 9-7 record. I’m not sure he’s correct but he’s certainly testing his theory, perhaps thinking he made his most-important defensive upgrade at head coach, hiring a highly respected scheme guy.
He hasn’t exactly added playmakers on defense. He made modest free-agent signings — notably linebackers Devon Kennard and Christian Jones — to build depth. He didn’t overspend for anyone, which allowed him to stomach the $17.1-million franchise tag for Ziggy Ansah.
The Lions were 20th in the NFL in sacks last season, and are counting on the injury-prone Ansah, as well as Kerry Hyder, their 2016 sack leader who’s returning from an Achilles injury. They still need another pass rusher and a run stuffer to replace Haloti Ngata, alongside A’Shawn Robinson.
But my goodness, do they ever need an offensive mauler, and that’s why Hernandez would be my choice. Left guard is the prime spot, which would allow Graham Glasgow to slide over to center. With Taylor Decker, T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, the Lions actually have the makings of an effective offensive line, when healthy. But one weakness can destroy it, and that needs to be plugged. Quinn doesn’t think fixing the run game is as simple as adding more big backs, although he finally made a slight concession by adding Blount, 31, on a one-year deal to join Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick.
“If we had to go play a football game today, I think we have enough running backs to be competitive,” Quinn said last week. “Now, is that saying I’m not going to take one? I don’t know, tell me who’s going to be on the board in the second, third, fourth round.”
Maybe line is good
Hmm. No mention of the first round, which could be a tell, or a simple oversight.
Or it could be further indication the Lions know the offensive line has to be stabilized, and coaching was a problem. Line coach Ron Prince was the first assistant fired along with Jim Caldwell. In free-agency, the Lions added depth linemen Kenny Wiggins and Wesley Johnson, who have been starters, although not good ones.
You can’t just chase trends in the NFL or you fall behind, but the shift toward power running is notable. The Eagles won the Super Bowl with the league’s No. 3 rushing offense, and Blount tallied 766 yards and eight touchdowns behind a terrific offensive line. No team made a bigger leap than the Jaguars, and they did it with the No. 1 running game.
The Lions, meanwhile, completely handcuffed their primary asset, Stafford, with the worst running game in football. It wasn’t just bad, it was awful when it was needed the most, near the goal-line and in short-yardage situations.
Don’t take my word for it, take it from analysts like those at Footballoutsiders. They have a calculation called “power success,” which measures how often a team converts on a third- or fourth-down run with 2 yards or less to go. The Lions ranked last at 45 percent. Another ugly number – they ranked 31st in the percentage of times their running back was tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
That’s why adding an offensive guard — or even a center-guard such as Iowa’s James Daniels — could be the preferred option in the first round. The crop of defensive ends is weak, and Landry and Davenport draw mixed reviews, although they’re coveted because of the premium on pass-rushers.
If Quinn didn’t gamble in free-agency, where players are more expensive but known commodities, I doubt he will in the first round. In fact, you could argue he’s only reached twice in two drafts, and probably regrets both. He took Baylor long-snapper Jimmy Landes in the sixth round in 2016, and he’s gone. He surprisingly grabbed Florida cornerback Teez Tabor in the second round last year, and Tabor barely saw the field until late in the season.
Gleaning clues from general managers is a fruitless exercise, almost as fruitless as guessing who’s picking whom. But Quinn uses the word “dependability” a lot when discussing players, and the Lions have fielded the least-dependable running game in the league. Big and burly may not be the most exciting path, but until the Lions get it right, that’s where they should head.
When: Thursday through Saturday
Where: Arlington, Texas
Format: Round 1 Thursday; Rounds 2-3 Friday; Rounds 4-7 Saturday
TV: NFL Network and ESPN all three days; on Fox Thursday and Friday
Lions: They have six picks: No. 20 (first round), No. 51 (second round), No. 82 (third round), No. 117 (fourth round), No. 153 (fifth round), No. 237 (seventh round).