The New Detroit Lions: Shrine Game Perspective
By Jeff Risdon
One of my missions in spending the week here in St. Pete for the East-West Shrine Game practices and festivities was to get closer to the new-look Detroit Lions. I wanted to see firsthand what has changed from prior years, both in terms of how the team presence conducts business here but also to pick the brains of players and agents who are learning about Bob Quinn, Kyle O’Brien and the new style and regime.
I’ve watched the Lions here before. The scouting staff has always been visible en masse, and Martin Mayhew was always here for at least two days of practices. That’s actually more than some other contingencies; the Cowboys and Seahawks, to name two, typically only send their travel scouts and maybe the Director of Collegiate Scouting shows up for a day or two.
Bob Quinn, the new GM, was not in St. Pete. He had some other business to tend, notably firing a couple of strength coaches and VP of Football Operations Cedric Saunders. He’s also replacing running back coach Curtis Modkins, who left to take the same job with Chip Kelly in San Francisco.
O’Brien, the new Lions second in command, was quite visible during practices and at Tradewinds Resort, the official hotel where all the teams and players stay. I got a chance to meet O’Brien for a couple of minutes but did little more than exchange pleasantries as we both had work to do. He looks you straight in the eye and has a self-assured presence.
I watched how others interacted with O’Brien, who most recently worked for the Jaguars but also has Patriots ties from years ago. A couple of opposing GMs here gave him hearty congratulations, and he spent almost all of one practice watching the action while talking with a national scout and scouting director of another team. That’s something Mayhew would never do; the old GM sat in the stands by himself, notebook in hand, and Lions scouts would ferry him info back and forth.
The scouting staff looks largely unchanged. I know one of them pretty well, and I asked him about what is different. His quick, curt response, “You’d better not talk to me during practice”.
When I caught up with him later for a cup of coffee, he said he really couldn’t say much. I pressed a little
, as this is someone who I have interacted with quite a bit in the past and never done anything to compromise his status or anonymity. He explained how there is a newfound emphasis on player intelligence, both on and off the field. The one light moment came when I asked, “so no more Nick Fairley?” Violent nod of approval and big smile ensued.
Message received. The Patriot way is in effect. Patriots scouts are sternly instructed to never talk to media and they almost uniformly obey that edict, even when out on the town.
Bottom line: expect the Detroit media, which is very well-respected around the league, to have less “insider” info and for the information to be more controlled and centralized. That doesn’t mean we won’t get information, but I highly doubt I learn how the team ranks offensive linemen or cornerbacks before the draft like I have in past years. O’Brien and Quinn will know and that might very well be the list of folks who have that info.
I also spoke to several players who interviewed with the Lions and other teams. And there was one buzzword which came up repeatedly.
One prospect talked in depth about his interview. He had just walked out of a meeting with an AFC South team, where one area scout asked him about 10 questions, mostly about his football style and experience with the coaches this week.
Then he walked into the Lions den. There were six or seven Lions staffers present, including O’Brien. They all had tablets or notebooks. O’Brien led things off, introducing everyone in the room and then starting off with a couple of general questions.
Inquiries flew from everyone in the room. It was persistent but not uncomfortable. The questions were more wide-ranging than he got with any other team except New England and (curiously) the Chargers.
“Why did you choose (a certain elective) in college?”
“Do your parents speak other languages?”
“Talk about how different your high school coaching was from your college coaches”
There were some pointed, football-specific questions too. This player said they knew his playing background quite well, from his best game to another where he made a critical error. As a counter example, he said most teams that he talked with didn’t know near the details of his playing career.
Other players echoed the sentiment. These Lions are prepared and organized far beyond what they have been in recent years. That’s not meant to be interpreted as a knock on Mayhew and his style either, it’s more about the intensity with the new regime.
In conversing with a couple of player agents here, it’s clear the Lions are approaching things differently. While good character is still a big emphasis, player intelligence is just as key. One agent tipped me off that O’Brien asked him about what sort of financial plan he would set up for the player should he be drafted in Detroit. Read that as Quinn and company want no off-field complications which take away from what a player might do on the field. That is not typical, and it’s not how the Lions have done things in the past.
Will all this work? We have to wait and hold judgment on that. But make no mistake, these are about as far as you can get from the Same Old Lions in such a short period of time. And that’s a positive.
Lions-centric scouting notes
Here are a few quick-hit observations from the practice fields and game itself, which I actually attended for the first time this year instead of fleeing town like 95% of the other practice observers do.
The search for a developmental backup QB to groom behind Matthew Stafford and push Dan Orlovsky off the roster once again did not go well. Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty and Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld both convinced me they are not the answer. Jake Rudock from Michigan offered some potential but he’s already as good as he’s ever apt to be.
The one QB in St. Pete with the most potential is Vernon Adams, the game’s MVP. The Oregon product was handily the best passer in practices. He also is a natural playmaker, elusive and dashing. If he were even six feet tall and 210 pounds, he’s likely be a first-round pick. Alas, he’s barely 5’10” and built more like a high school point guard than an NFL quarterback. I would absolutely take a chance on him in the middle rounds, but I doubt the NFL or the Lions do.
Aside from Rudock, two other Michigan Wolverines played this week. Center Graham Glasgow performed well enough to merit a call-up to the Senior Bowl despite a poor showing in the game itself. Linebacker Joe Bolden helped himself by showing great instincts and quick reactions. The Lions should look at him in the late rounds to help build depth at the position, but he’s too athletically limited to be more than an NFL reserve.
Michigan State had three players as well.
The most noteworthy was safety R.J. Williamson, who acquitted himself nicely despite limited opportunities with the poorly-coached West secondary. He’s quick to the sidelines and showed strong instincts versus the run.
Clark underwhelmed along the offensive line, though he played better in the game than in practice. Harris showed range and coverage ability but was overshadowed by both Bolden and Georgia Southern LB Antwione Williams on the East linebacking corps throughout practices. His lack of size is going to keep him from being drafted.
Williams is one to watch for Lions fans. He’s a hulking presence at 6’3″ and 246 pounds and he can really run. Unquestionably he laid the biggest hit all week, thumping 250-pound Marshall RB Devon Johnson in Wednesday’s practice hard enough that Johnson almost flipped backwards. Johnson did not take another rep the rest of the week. Williams should be in play for the Lions in the third or fourth round.
For those of us in West MI, Cincinnati OL Parker Ehinger played well enough to ensure he’s drafted. The Rockford graduate played tackle for the Bearcats but looked very solid at guard in East practices. His athleticism and tenacity stood out. He’s a fifth or sixth round potential Lion and a guy who can play every OL spot but center.
Finally, there were several Day Three corners that I know the Lions investigated. In my order of preference:
- Ken Crawley, Colorado
- Mike Jordan, Missouri Western
- Crevon Leblanc, Florida Atlantic
- LeShaun Sims, Southern Utah
- Lloyd Carrington, Arizona State
And I got the distinct impression the Lions will take a cornerback on Saturday, but not in the first three rounds.