Detroit — On one hand, there’s the safe and obvious. That’s the hand Lions general manager Bob Quinn generally plays in the first round. That’s why most mock-drafters have them choosing Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah at No. 3.
The Lions need a corner. Okudah is one of the best prospects in years. Bam. Done. Right?
Ahh not so fast. Never has a pick looked so right and felt so wrong. Let me explain.
With the top two selections Thursday night seemingly set — LSU quarterback Joe Burrow to the Bengals, Ohio State defensive end Chase Young to Washington — the draft essentially starts with the Lions at No. 3. And this is no draft to play it safe, not when the Lions’ logical pick is at a position almost never taken so high, for a variety of reasons. Since 2003, only four cornerbacks have gone in the top five, and no one as high as third since Ohio State’s Shawn Springs in 1997.
That’s why this selection, more than any in Quinn’s five seasons here, has to be about maximizing value and being creative. It’s about finding a trade that lands a slightly lower pick but garners another asset or two, no matter how difficult it might be to pull off.
You know who agrees, without exactly saying it? Bob Quinn agrees.
“(Trading) is a constant conversation,” Quinn said Friday. “But like I said at the beginning, you can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to trade.’ You need a trade partner. You need somebody that wants to come up, and those conversations are happening.”
Jobs on the line
Not to heap the pressure, but what Quinn does at No. 3 — and with nine picks overall — could determine whether he and his regime keep their jobs. Okudah might be a great player, but not necessarily the best value in a draft loaded with cornerbacks. You’d feel a lot better if the Lions moved down and got him at, say, No. 5, and received another pick in return. It’s also troubling they’d spend a huge asset on a self-inflicted need, created by their trade of disgruntled cornerback Darius Slay.
Quinn’s risk-averse strategy and Matt Patricia’s inflexible ways have left the Lions low on impact talent. Unfortunately for Quinn, circumstances and a shallow quarterback pool muddy the chances of a big trade. He’ll have to push, and push hard.
The primary reason a GM ever moves into the top 10 is to land a quarterback. And this year, just the Lions’ luck, the rare time they’re in position to deal, the prime prospects after Burrow are an injury risk (Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa), a bust risk (Oregon’s Justin Herbert) and an under-the-radar risk (Utah State’s Jordan Love).
A lot changed last November, when Tagovailoa suffered a dislocated hip during Alabama’s blowout at Mississippi State. At the time, he was pegged the No. 1 overall pick, the most dynamic quarterback prospect in years. He was going to be Burrow, before Burrow became Burrow.
Now Tagovailoa is a controversial option, even though the healing process, by most accounts, has gone very well. The Lions apparently have little interest in taking him and easing away from Matthew Stafford, which is no surprise, although it doesn’t seem smart to discard leverage by declaring themselves fully tied to Stafford. A little bluffing never hurts, unless the Lions are bluffing by not bluffing.
We’ve wearily debated this for months, and again, I would gamble on a possible franchise-changer. I would take Tagovailoa and figure out a transition plan, but I understand the reticence. I also understand the Ford family’s quasi-ultimatum (be better than 3-12-1 or else!) resonates with Quinn and Patricia, who are counting on a healthy Stafford to regain form.
In the past four drafts, 10 quarterbacks have gone in the top 10, and seven were taken after a team traded up. Tagovailoa’s injury dampens his appeal to some. And Quinn’s reputation for first-round conservativeness won’t help convince teams to deal for the No. 3 pick.
Would Okudah, Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown or Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons be tempting enough to lure a trade-up partner? There’s no hint of that. If Young slid to No. 3, he’d get Quinn’s phone ringing, but the Lions would be compelled to take the pass-rusher, right?
The Dolphins have the fifth pick — as well as 18, 26 and 39 — and need a quarterback. They have the assets to jump up — the Lions would need at least 5 and 39 — but might figure they can stay put and get their guy, Tagovailoa or Herbert.
The Chargers have the sixth pick and need a quarterback. They also might figure they can sit and get their guy. Jacksonville at No. 9 could sniff around, but the Lions would rather not move down that far.
Does Quinn see a scenario where he’d trade back outside the range of top-tier talent?
“I could see a scenario, yes, but ideally no,” he said. “What kind of player are you going to get at seven, eight, nine, 10, five? … If there’s a great variance in those six players, and you only feel really good about three or four of them, then you can’t go back as far.”
Solid, not spectacular
Quinn’s first-round pattern has been to identify a sound player at a position of need without any notable character flaws. In his first draft, he grabbed Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker at No. 16, and he’s been solid. The following year he took Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis at No. 21, a good leader but an average performer. The following year he selected Arkansas center Frank Ragnow at No. 20, an unconventional choice that has worked out nicely. And last year at No. 8, it was Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson, who can’t possibly live up to the slot he was taken.
Safe and sound players, but not impact guys. That’s a problem. It feels like the Lions have been trying to build depth for a while, without adding difference-makers. When Quinn has strayed from the slow right lane and taken a chance in later rounds, he’s done well with players such as Kenny Golladay and Kerryon Johnson (when healthy).
Complicating matters is the unprecedented circumstance created by the pandemic. I think it’s good the NFL is going ahead with the draft, a glimmer of hope that doesn’t bring an accompanying health risk. The draft will be conducted virtually, with GMs and coaches at their homes and commissioner Roger Goodell in his basement.
Everyone’s in the same situation, but as the team with the highest pick for sale, the Lions could be affected more than most. Like other teams, they had limited in-person evaluations, and couldn’t do their own medical testing on Tagovailoa. And because no one knows how the draft logistics will work, Quinn admitted the Lions probably can’t wait until they’re on the clock to make a trade.
I suppose that’s fitting. Quinn and Patricia have been on the clock, virtually or otherwise, since last season ended. Their trade options may be limited at No. 3, and there are no virtual certainties in any draft, but this is their hand, and their time to deal.