Jahlani Tavai’s fit in Matt Patricia’s defensive system made it impossible for the Lions to pass him up in Round 2.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — When Bob Quinn took over as the Detroit Lions‘ general manager in January 2016, everything was a bit unfamiliar. He had never run a football organization before, and he never had a significant conversation with Jim Caldwell, Detroit’s coach at the time.
And after spending his entire career in New England, preparing for the draft and figuring out the type of players then-defensive coordinator Teryl Austin wanted was unique for him as well, in part because Austin’s preferred players differed greatly from the types of players Quinn was used to scouting for the Patriots.
That contrast is why the past two drafts have been easier for Quinn, at least in figuring out the type of players he needed to acquire on defense. That’s because he hired Matt Patricia, who was also exclusively versed in the New England nomenclature and brought a defensive style similar to what Quinn had sought out for more than a decade.
“This is what I — growing up in the business at my previous team, this is the kind of players, defensively at least, that I’ve always kind of knew how to scout and grew up learning how to scout for,” Quinn said. “When I came here in 2016, our defense was obviously quite different in terms of the style, so I tried to adjust as best as I could. When Matt came along, we kind of quickly went back to this style.
“To be completely honest, I feel more comfortable grading and evaluating players for this system just because I’ve done it for so much longer.”
It also why the Lions selected certain defensive players the past two drafts higher than outside sources had rated them. Last year, safety Tracy Walker thought he’d be a third-day pick. Detroit took him in the third round — and he contributed as a third safety in his rookie season.
This year, the outlier pick was second-round linebacker Jahlani Tavai, who was well off the radar when Detroit took him at No. 43 overall. Quinn explained after he took Tavai that the combination of position versatility and the body type Tavai has — he’s 250 pounds as a likely inside linebacker — was unique enough to make him a natural fit.
“Linebackers that play in this defense that are very, very good natural fits, there’s only a couple every year,” Quinn said. “You wait a year, you don’t get one, you might not get him next year, you might not get him the year after.”
What Quinn and Patricia look for is a “thick, built” linebacker that can handle blocks but also has the strength and length to handle being on the outside. He has to contain and disrupt the outside of the pocket or limit the edge a ball carrier can hit. Having off-ball skills is also critical, Quinn said, turning the desired player into almost a hybrid.
And yes, those are rare.
Whether or not Tavai pans out will be one of the benchmarks from this draft, but Quinn clearly has defined his type. He knows it, too. It has been part of the transition the Lions have made from Austin’s defense to Patricia’s, and doing so has given Quinn more of his scouting confidence back.
He can look at Romeo Okwara, Devon Kennard and Da’Shawn Hand and deem them immediate success stories. Walker has proven to be valuable so far. And the trade with the Giants for Damon “Snacks” Harrison was thievery, in part because deciphering Harrison’s fit in this defense was not hard.
“I think we’re getting there. I think we did a good job this last offseason with free agency with guys like Kennard and Christian,” Quinn said. “It’s really unique, and fortunate, I’d say, that we were able to get Jarrad Davis a couple drafts ago and he can really play in any defense, which is great. We drafted him for the previous defense, but he’s a really good fit for what we do now.
“We’re there. I think we’re pretty much to the point where we have good players.”
He’s going to keep searching for improvement, but Quinn found some high-level potential defensive players throughout this draft. Will Harris (third round) is a hard-hitting safety who fits the three-safety packages Patricia likes to run. Defensive end Austin Bryant (fourth round) was probably sitting there because of an injury he played through last season and could be on Hand’s level as a rookie, albeit with less immediate production need due to Trey Flowers and Okwara.
Fifth-round cornerback Amani Oruwariye — a player Quinn said they considered in Round 4 when they took Bryant — is a long, rangy player who could have an opportunity with questions opposite Darius Slay. But he also should have time to develop while having an immediate special-teams role due to his body frame.
The defensive players Quinn has acquired for Patricia possess the desired quality of positional flexibility and are parts that can make a cohesive unit whole.
“When I look at it, it’s a lot of pieces that the coaches can use in different spots,” Quinn said. “We have a lot of guys that can play two positions and some guys that can play three positions. So it’s going to give us a lot of options come week-to-week game plans that coach will put together with the defensive staff and give us a lot of options.
“In this defense, versatility is key.”
That has been a mantra for Quinn since he started running things in Detroit three-plus years ago. That hasn’t changed, but his comfort in the type of players he’s drafting and who he’s drafting them for has.
So he has his plan. As does Patricia. Now they just have to see if it works in the fall. Every team is excited after the draft. How that plan comes together in a few months is all that really matters.