ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Their history says front seven. That's the best guess on what positions the Detroit Lions will target in the draft, based on where the people running the team come from. General manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia both grew up in the New England Patriots system. It’s the only NFL team either one had ever worked for before taking jobs in Detroit, and their mentor is the same: Bill Belichick.
And in both men's years there, about half the time the Patriots drafted a player for the front seven. And the front seven is a well-documented position of need for Detroit, from edge rushers to interior linemen to linebackers, even though the Lions signed two backers -- Christian Jones and Devon Kennard -- in free agency.
Quinn said Thursday that focusing on the front seven isn’t necessarily his philosophy. (Although, two of the team’s four picks under him in the first two rounds of the draft have gone to front-seven players -- Jarrad Davis in the first round last year and A’Shawn Robinson in the second round in 2016.)
But there’s another spot that is a realistic possibility for Detroit in Thursday's first round, and it's a position Quinn has specifically targeted for a massive makeover since being hired in January 2016: the offensive line.
With Travis Swanson off to the New York Jets, every current Lions starting lineman is someone acquired by Quinn, either through the draft (left tackle Taylor Decker, left guard/center Graham Glasgow) or by free agency (right guard T.J. Lang, right tackle Rick Wagner).
There’s four linemen listed. The fifth starter is still to be determined, and that’s where the first round of the draft comes in. The Lions have a few candidates for either the left guard or center spot already on the roster, in Joe Dahl, Kenny Wiggins and Wesley Johnson. But it’s possible that fifth starter will come from the draft, where some players could be available who are intriguing at No. 20 (or later).
“If he’s a good player and he’s at or near the top of the board, I have no problem taking an interior offensive lineman,” Quinn said. “I’d say in this year’s class there are a number of them. I think it’s a pretty well-rounded class, guys that have some position flex, guys that are maybe guards only or centers only.
“So, I think there is a good mix. I’d say it’s maybe a little deeper than the last two years, but not significantly.”
The player to watch most intently for Detroit’s purposes at No. 20 is UTEP guard Will Hernandez. He’s a massive human being at 6-foot-2 and 327 pounds. He put up 37 reps on the bench press and works hard. He could anchor the Lions offensive line, and combined with Decker and Glasgow, the Lions could have three-fifths of the line protecting Matthew Stafford set for the next half-decade.
There’s also a chance, of course, that Hernandez is gone by No. 20. If so, that could eliminate the position from the conversation until Day 2, since the best guard in the draft, Quenton Nelson, is highly unlikely to fall anywhere close to Detroit’s draft spot.
If the Lions were to wait until Day 2 of the draft to nab an offensive lineman, centers such as Iowa’s James Daniels and Ohio State’s Billy Price could be in play. Price seemed to be a potential first-round selection, until he was injured at the combine. There’s also Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn and Nevada’s Austin Corbett, both of whom could be Friday night options.
One thing that could make a difference for the Lions is what type of blocking scheme they plan to use up front. Quinn and Patricia have not offered any clarity there yet, but Quinn did acknowledge it will alter their draft board somewhat.
“When you’re looking at offensive linemen in particular, if you’re talking about a zone scheme -- and I’m not getting specific about what we’re doing, obviously -- but if you’re a team that says, ‘I’m looking for a zone blocking, say, center,’ well, his characteristics and skill set is going to be a lot different than someone who is going to be [in] more of a gap or man-blocking scheme,” Quinn said.
For zone, Quinn said, quicker players fit better. They have to be more athletic than perhaps an offensive lineman would in a man-blocking scheme, which calls for linemen who are larger and more physical. There, Quinn said, “You’re going to give up a little bit in terms of athleticism.”
So as the Lions go through the draft and make their selections, keep Quinn's words in mind as they draft offensive linemen. The picks could be a hint of what Detroit intends to do with its blocking.