Detroit — It was the strangest draft ever, with the nation peering into the basements and living rooms of GMs, coaches and players. We all became background snoops and décor snobs, didn’t we? In our new virtual reality, the NFL looked homey, not stuffy, as kids sat on coaches’ laps and weeping draftees jumped into family’s arms.
For a few nights, it was easy to forget teams were making life-altering decisions in the midst of a life-altering pandemic.
So maybe it was the rare feel-good mood that shaded perceptions. Or maybe it was something more tangible that produced this conclusion: I actually think the Lions did quite well with their nine picks over three days.
Yes I do, after a questionable start, mainly because GM Bob Quinn addressed the most-undervalued aspect of football, the running game. He added two running backs, including the top-rated one, Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, and two much-needed offensive guards. The Lions’ draft began with a Buckeye – first-round cornerback Jeff Okudah — and ended with a Buckeye – seventh-round defensive lineman Jashon Cornell. In between, they tried again to pump up their anemic running game.
But what about that awful defense, 31st in the league? Fair question. They did take Okudah and added Notre Dame defensive end Julian Okwara (brother of current Lion Romeo) in the third round. And of their 13 free-agent signings this offseason, nine have been defensive players. Also, in case you forgot, Matt Patricia is supposed to be a defensive guru, and he has a new coordinator, Cory Undlin.
Theoretically, there are lots of ways to fix a defense — sign and draft defenders, change the coaching staff, alter the philosophy. The Lions have tried variations of all. But another way to fix a defense is by fixing the offense, specifically the running game.
It’s always been a fallacy that Matthew Stafford simply needs more weapons in the passing game. Of course that helps, not nearly as much as ball control and balance. Stafford is a highly effective play-action quarterback, amazing considering how little defenses respect the running game. If opponents were forced to bite on run fakes more often, Stafford could be more productive without necessarily being more prolific.
You saw it when Kerryon Johnson was healthy, although he’s only played 14 games in two seasons. The Lions went 0-8 after Stafford went down with broken bones in his back, but that also coincided with Johnson’s exit, and with an offensive line that got worse as injuries piled up.
The Lions let Graham Glasgow and Rick Wagner leave via free-agency and paid handsomely for Eagles tackle Hal Vaitai. And then in the third and fourth rounds, Quinn made the unusual move of grabbing guards back-to-back — Ohio State’s Jonah Jackson and Kentucky’s Logan Stenberg. They were generally rated in the top five among interior linemen and could be plug-and-play rookies, although who knows when (or if) training camps will open.
Quinn just knew he couldn’t pass them up. He felt the same way when Swift was sitting there early in the second round. It wasn’t by design to focus on offense, not with holes everywhere, but the talent and opportunity kept presenting itself. In the fifth round, he took speedy New Mexico State back Jason Huntley.
Quinn has talked for a long time about having a stable of backs, but the running-back room always is barren by the end of the season. Now it has a decent blend of size and speed: Kerryon Johnson, Swift, Bo Scarbrough, Ty Johnson and Huntley.
“I think our offense is predicated on controlling the line of scrimmage, running the football, getting Matthew Stafford in the play-action game,” Quinn said. “(Offensive coordinator Darrell) Bevell always had successful run games wherever he was, and that really made his quarterback (Russell Wilson) better. That’s kind of our philosophy. We’re not going to sit back there with four wide receivers and in spread.”
When discussing Jackson and Stenberg, Quinn used the word “nasty” several times. Fans have dropped that word often to disparage the offensive line, but this is supposed to be a good type of nasty, a mauling snarl that allows a team to grind out first downs or touchdowns on third-and-1.
It’s been a long-standing beef of mine, the absence of beef on the Lions, 21st in rushing last season. Listen, the surest path to the playoffs is having an elite quarterback. If you land someone like the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, you can win a Super Bowl. That’s why I advocated a gamble on Tua Tagovailoa instead of sticking with Okudah at No. 3.
There is another way, although it’s harder and takes more pieces. Of the top 10 rushing teams in the NFL last season, seven made the playoffs. The Ravens were No. 1 (partly thanks to Lamar Jackson), and the Super Bowl runner-up 49ers were second, and nearly won it all with a non-elite quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo.
The Chiefs were 23rd in rushing, and they’ll remain an outlier as long as Andy Reid and Mahomes are there. As long as Stafford and Patricia are here — not an endless guarantee either — the Lions need a powerful running game almost as badly as they could use a powerful defense.
With the additions of Jackson and Stenberg, as well as a run-blocker in Vaitai and former first-round picks Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow, the Lions may yet unlock a good nastiness. Stenberg, who played in Kentucky’s run-dominant offense, is happy to oblige. He’s 6-6, 317 pounds and plays with an edge that can draw too many penalties, but also draws attention.
“I grew up with three older brothers, I’m the youngest, and I had to fight for everything, whether it be food or my place in line,” Stenberg said Saturday. “I think I really just grew up with that nastiness to fight for what I want, and it’s carried over to football. … I think the game is heading towards more skill players a little bit, ‘prettier football,’ and I can bring a nastiness to it, really bring it back to how it used to be played.”
He spoke from his family’s 150-acre cattle farm in southern Tennessee, and he sounded like he meant it. We shall see, of course. Once we got past the draft’s oddness (and coolness), from Roger Goodell announcing picks while slouching comfortably in his man-cave leather chair, to Bill Belichick sitting with his dog at the dining-room table in his Nantucket hideaway, nothing felt normal.
That includes the Lions’ picks, and that’s OK. In the most-important draft of his five-year GM career, Quinn appeared to get a solid blend of value, talent and need. He didn’t reach as he has in the past, and after failing to trade down at No. 3, didn’t play it overly safe the rest of the way. It’s a fool’s errand to grade any team’s draft, especially the Lions’, but I liked most of what they did.
One anomaly was all those Buckeyes, three of them headed to Detroit. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with plucking from a perennial power, and they’re all on the same snarl page, including the seventh-round defensive lineman who became more of a presence as Ohio State’s season unfolded.
“I think the one thing about being an Ohio State player is our transition to the next level,” Cornell said. “One thing we do at Ohio State is treat everything as if it’s an NFL team. I think that’s one thing we can transition to Detroit, us Buckeyes can come in and bring that competitive factor, that championship mentality we have at Ohio State.”
Well, if they actually can help pull that off, I think Lions fans will overlook their pedigree. And if Swift and those linemen can bring power and punch to the running game, fans just might enjoy a nice, nasty boost.