By Ashley Dunkak
ALLEN PARK – Over the three days of the 2015 NFL draft, the Detroit Lions stayed true to general manager Martin Mayhew’s philosophy of taking the best player available, and they filled needs along the way, bringing in three offensive linemen, a running back, two cornerbacks, a defensive tackle and a fullback.
“This was a case, I think, a lot of times, where the need met up with the right grade on the player,” Mayhew said. “For example, in the first round there were a lot of good offensive linemen and defensive linemen around that time in the draft. We ended up getting a pretty good guard, we think. And throughout the draft, the need frequently matched up with the grades on our players, so we checked off a lot of things that we thought that we needed.”
The Lions wanted to beef up the offensive line after quarterback Matthew Stafford took 45 sacks last season and the run game ranked 28th in the league, so they took Duke guard Laken Tomlinson in the first round. By trading back in the first round, Detroit also acquired veteran guard Manny Ramirez. With their seventh-round pick, the Lions added South Carolina tackle Corey Robinson, who will provide depth at the tackle spot, which is a bit of a question with LaAdrian Waddle returning from injury.
Mayhew said durability factored into Detroit’s decisions on which offensive linemen to bring in, especially in light of the way injuries affected the unit last season. Tomlinson, Ramirez and Robinson all have great records of, as Mayhew put it, the most important ability – availability.
“You want guys who are available, who are able to play, and who can fight through minor injuries and find a way onto the football field,” Mayhew said. “Those guys, they are that kind of guy.”
The injuries the Lions had at cornerback last season also had a role in how the team picked. The team saw two players, Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson, put out of action early last year with season-ending injuries. That was in mind when they took Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs in the sixth round after already having picked up another cornerback, Alex Carter of Stanford, in the third.
“Obviously the injuries at nickel last year, I can tell you for a fact that when we’re sitting there in the sixth round and we have an opportunity to draft a corner we really like, I felt like it’s better to have too many than not have enough,” Mayhew said, “so Quandre was a great pickup for us. Outstanding player, great, great kid, great guy, hard worker, had an outstanding Senior Bowl, I thought, so he’s a really good fit for us, playing nickel for us.”
In addition to offensive line, an area of serious need for Detroit was defensive tackle. The Lions had already traded for Haloti Ngata and acquired Tyrunn Walker in free agency, but since Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen all left, Detroit still needed depth there. The Lions addressed that need by trading into the fourth round to take Gabe Wright of Auburn, giving up a 2016 third-round pick to do so.
That move, Mayhew acknowledged, was an example of filling a need rather than taking the best player available.
“When you trade up, obviously you’re not waiting for the best player available, so when you trade up, you see a player who fills a need and you’re going and getting that player,” Mayhew said.
The Lions felt comfortable giving up the third-round pick to move into the fourth round, Mayhew explained, because they anticipate receiving a compensatory third-round pick next year due to the departure of Suh in free agency, and Detroit valued Wright as a third-round player.
In another step to strengthen the run game, the Lions took Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah with their second-round pick. Detroit had room for a running back after releasing veteran Reggie Bush earlier in the offseason. Another boost to the run game could come from Rutgers fullback Michael Burton, whom Detroit took in the fifth round.
Both Abdullah and Burton come to the Lions with significant special teams experience in college, and that element of their games was one Detroit found compelling.
“So many times you take these guys who have been, say, four-year starters at safety or linebacker and have not played on special teams, and we bring them here and try to teach them how to do that,” Mayhew said. “It’s so much better to get a guy who at least did that for a period of time in his college career who knows what you’re talking about as far as how to cover a kick, how to cover a punt, so we tried to get some guys who had some experience in that area.”
With the three-day marathon of the draft concluded, the general manager could hardly offer a verdict on how the class would turn out, but he liked it as much as he could without knowing what will be next.
“Obviously we feel good about all these players,” Mayhew said. “We drafted them for a reason. But as we talked about before, these guys have to come in and perform now. We’ll see how the guys perform when they get here.”