Wojo: Lions' Pat answer to critics — bigger will be better

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
The Lions took Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant (7) with their fourth-round pick.

Allen Park — There’s no question what the Lions are trying to do, and there never was. After three days of drafting a few unconventional players in unusual spots, the buzzwords tumbled out again and again.

Versatility. Multiplicity. Size. Culture. Leadership. Competitiveness. Those are slightly different than the words that tumbled out of some fans’ mouths: Who? What?? Why???!

Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia are trying to mold a team in the Patriots’ image, in case you haven’t heard, and they believe in foundational concepts, not flash. I appreciate the theory behind their nine-member draft class, even if some of the players’ measurables are underwhelming. The question is whether it can be recreated here without key components such as, you know, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.

On defense, I think it’s working, and might work well enough to buy time.

On offense? Gotta see much, much more under new coordinator Darrell Bevell.

The Lions have Matthew Stafford, not Brady, and rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson, not Rob Gronkowski. To make a leap from a 6-10 record, of course Stafford has to be better and the running game has to be consistent and Kerryon Johnson has to stay healthy. Hockenson should help considerably, even though he comes at a steep cost, No. 8 overall in the NFL Draft.

Quinn and Patricia have done a good job rebuilding the defense, and added five more draft picks to it. The Lions steadily improved last season, and after the acquisition of Damon “Snacks” Harrison, they were top five against the run. This season, it can, and must, be even better.

The defense will have to carry the team until the offense — 24th last season — finds its footing. This will be Quinn’s fourth year and Patricia’s second, and the pressure should mount. That’s partly why they grabbed Hockenson instead of one of the gifted defensive players available. Duplicating the Patriots’ offensive model is problematic, because as noted, there’s only one Brady. It needs a push.

Filling the mold

Following the Patriots’ defensive model is actually doable, since Patricia helped mold it as an assistant there for 14 years, and it’s more scheme-specific than star-specific. So while others howled when Quinn selected Hawaii linebacker Jahlani Tavai early in the second round — he was projected to last until the fourth or fifth — Quinn was happy to explain it.

Tavai is big (6-foot-2, 250 pounds), physical and competitive, a tackling machine, even if most of America didn’t personally witness his tackles. Third-round safety Will Harris is big (6-1, 207), physical and a captain at Boston College. Fourth-round defensive end Austin Bryant is big (6-4, 270), versatile, an underrated force at Clemson who can play anywhere on the line. Penn State’s Amani Oruwariye is a big cornerback (6-2) who was expected to go higher than the fifth round.

Four of the Lions’ first five picks were defenders, and they added another one late that, oddly enough, was large. Seventh-round defensive tackle PJ Johnson is a really big (6-4, 335) potential run-stuffer.

The hole in the Lions’ draft was offensive line, choosing no one to fill their opening at right guard. They even took a second tight end, Georgia’s Isaac Nauta, who is — say it with me! — big.

“Bigger is better, right?” Quinn said at the draft’s conclusion. “Bigger, longer, if they’re athletic enough, that’s what you want to build.”

There’s also greater emphasis on smarts and adaptability than raw ability. Tavai’s size for a middle linebacker made him unique, and according to reports, the Lions suspected he was going to be snapped up by New England two picks later.

Quinn admitted he felt more comfortable drafting for Patricia’s defense the past two years than he did with the staff he inherited. If that’s the case, perhaps he shouldn’t have stuck with Jim Caldwell and his staff, although they made the playoffs in Quinn’s first season and earned a second year.

There’s no doubt Quinn has upgraded the Lions’ toughness on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. Acquiring Harrison from the Giants for a fifth-round pick was absolute thievery. Signing Trey Flowers was the type of expensive move you make for an established talent.

Picking with conviction

One thing I’ve concluded after another Quinn draft — his definition of “playmaker” is different than others’. You or I might think of speed receivers or sack-happy ends. Quinn likes guys whose big play might be catching a third-and-6 pass or stuffing a third-and-3 run.

The Patriots’ connection can get tiresome but it’s real, and Quinn isn’t hiding it. He’s made seven trades with New England in his four years here. His prototypical defensive player is a big guy who can play multiple positions and roles, including special teams, and not necessarily be a star. In the past 15 years the Patriots have had five players named first-team All-Pro multiple times, four of them on offense — Brady, Gronkowski, receiver Wes Welker, kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The lone multiple honoree on defense — Richard Seymour.

With current Lions such as Harrison, Flowers, A’Shawn Robinson, Da’Shawn Hand, Jarrad Davis and Darius Slay, might this defense rise into the top 10?

“Trying to put me to a number, aren’t you?” Quinn said with a smile. “I think our defense, when I look at it, has a lot of pieces that the coaches can use in different spots. A lot of guys that can play two positions, and we’ve got some guys that can play three positions.”

That’s why the Patriots could swipe underutilized linebacker Kyle Van Noy from the Lions and turn him into a productive player. Quinn made that deal while stocking a different defense, and made the Tavai move specifically for this one.

So, he can’t really care if outside experts view some of the Lions’ choices skeptically.

“If we go into this process being scared about what other people think about our team and our evaluations, then we’ve got a long way to go,” Quinn said. “We’re convicted on the guys we take.”

Sticking to conviction while defying convention. Nothing wrong with doing something the way that worked elsewhere. Until it works here, the questions will persist.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

Detroit Lions draft picks

First round (No. 8 overall): Iowa TE T.J. Hockenson

Second round (No. 43): Hawaii LB Jahlani Tavai

Third round (No. 81): Boston College S Will Harris

Fourth round (No. 117): Clemson DE Austin Bryant

Fifth round (No. 146): Penn State CB Amani Oruwariye

Sixth round (No. 184): Old Dominion WR Travis Fulgham

Sixth round (No. 186): Maryland RB Ty Johnson

Seventh round (No. 224): Georgia TE Isaac Nauta

Seventh round (No. 229): Arizona DT PJ Johnson