Wojo: Lions load up on defense, and in the process, defend Jared Goff

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Lions pretty much did what they said they’d do. In a tidy twist, they also did what they needed to do.

They recognized their defense required help, lots of it. They didn’t fool around, grabbing defensive players with six of their eight draft selections including, arguably, the best pass-rusher at No. 2, Aidan Hutchinson.

They recognized their offense had potential with its stout line but lacked someone who could turn a 12-play drive into a one-play drive. So GM Brad Holmes leapt up in the first round for Alabama’s Jameson Williams, arguably the most dynamic receiver in the draft.

But the subtle message of Holmes’ and Dan Campbell’s second draft was in what they didn’t do. They didn’t take a quarterback — nobody in the league was overly interested in this thin class — and didn’t feel compelled to prop up current starter Jared Goff. If this truly is the season to find out whether Goff is the guy going forward, the Lions didn’t rig the outcome either way. They added enough — including free-agent receiver DJ Chark — not to hamper it, but not too much to stack it.

Williams should be an excellent piece, but he may not be fully recovered from his torn ACL until after the season starts. The only other pick on offense was tight end James Mitchell, who played two games last season at Virginia Tech before tearing an ACL.

A markedly improved defense is a better way to help a quarterback, and by most measures, the Lions accomplished that. One theory was, strengthen your strength, turn a solid offense into a great one. The more logical theory is, strengthen one of the worst defenses in the league and your quarterback generally will be put in better situations. It should provide a fairer assessment of Goff. And if he doesn’t excel, hey, he had his shot, and the Lions can revisit the position next draft.

Recognizing what they were trying to do — build depth but sneak in a couple game-changers — I’d give them a B-plus. Bold when necessary (trading up 20 spots for Williams) and patient when appropriate. They didn’t waver and they didn’t waffle on Goff, who was very good the final six games in a 3-13-1 season. And oh by the way, he did take the Rams to the Super Bowl with a similar formula and a strong defense. As every living Detroiter knows, the Rams then loaded up on big shiny pieces, including Matthew Stafford, and won the Super Bowl.

Help for Goff

Holmes didn’t want to frame it as a “no excuses” season for Goff. But with center Frank Ragnow returning from injury to anchor a line with plus-plus tackles in Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell, and tight end T.J. Hockenson back from an injury-marred season, and Williams and Chark joining breakout receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, and D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams manning a versatile backfield, let’s just say Goff should be able to make his case.

“We think he’s a quarterback we can win with,” Holmes said. “I don’t want to say, ‘No excuses,’ but I do think the more weapons and the better resources you surround your quarterback with, it helps. He will obviously have more coming into this year.”

Only one quarterback was taken in the first round — Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett to Pittsburgh. The others dropped steadily, as predicted by draft gurus. Desmond Ridder, Malik Willis and Matt Corral all went in the third round. North Carolina’s Sam Howell plummeted to the fifth round. The final slap: Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy went to the 49ers with the last pick of the draft, the traditional Mr. Irrelevant.

Obviously, quarterback is the most relevant position, and a few of the nine selected will have surprisingly good careers. The Lions didn’t feel compelled to grab one, although they can’t avoid it forever. Next year’s class is expected to be better, but we’ve heard that before.

The Lions get contract relief if they want to move on from Goff after next season but they have nobody to take over (apologies to Tim Boyle and David Blough). No ambiguity, it’s all Goff for another year. Hearing Holmes’ frank assessment, it’s apparent he wasn’t interested in any of this draft’s prospects.

“I looked at the quarterbacks and I thought they were taken where we thought they should have been taken,” Holmes said. “I didn’t see it as they were being mistreated or not being taken fairly. I think they were evaluated properly.”

Character counts

The Lions stuck to the principles repeatedly espoused by Holmes and Campbell. Near as I can tell, they drafted, in no particular order: “Motor guys,” “Locker room guys,” “Character guys,” “Grit guys.” Also, “FOOTBALL guys.”

All but one of the picks were captains in college (Williams the exception on a stacked Alabama team). Most were versatile with big-play numbers, whether it was Williams’ 11 touchdowns of 30-plus yards, or sixth-round end James Houston, who piled up 16.5 sacks last season at Jackson State after spending four years at Florida.

“We heavily scrutinize the intangibles of every football player,” Holmes said. “I’ll always believe this until the day I die. You can have all the height, weight, speed in the world, but if the game doesn’t mean everything to you, and you don’t have a high football character, it’s going to be hard for you to find success in this league.”

In the third round, the Lions grabbed Illinois safety Kerby Joseph, who was first-team all-Big Ten with five interceptions. They kept stacking play-making defensive linemen, starting with Hutchinson and continuing in the second round with end Josh Paschal. He played all across the front at Kentucky, totaled 15.5 tackles for loss last season and was rated a top-five edger rusher.

Several of the Lions’ selections were lauded by analysts. After Holmes landed Paschal, after already taking Hutchinson, after already taking two defensive linemen in the first three rounds last season — Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill — after adding Sewell to a punishing offensive line, former ESPN radio host Mike Golic Jr. offered the following assessment on Twitter: “Detroit is determined to start kicking the s— out of people up front on both sides.”

That’s not quite the same as kneecap-biting, but a suitable variation. You don’t build a franchise culture and identity just by talking about it, and the Lions again supported their words with their picks. Their defense was next-to-last in the league in sacks and I wouldn’t be surprised if they jumped a dozen spots. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn desperately wanted Hutchinson and could scarcely contain his excitement even before they added Paschal.

We have no idea how this draft will pan out. (Dirty little secret: We never have any idea but we predict anyhow). The best thing the Lions did was, they didn’t get cute. They didn’t fall in love with any of the unheralded quarterbacks. They seemingly didn’t reach for need because they needed lots of defensive players and lots were there.

“We don’t go into it anchored by saying, ‘Hey, look man, we have to just draft defense,’” Holmes said. “If that’s the best player, then that’s the best player. We had a sense that with all the things we wanted to do, it might tilt a little toward defense.”

They got two of the best players on both sides in Hutchinson and Williams. And they stuck to the plan of giving the ball to Goff and seeing what he can do with better weapons and a better defense. If the Lions indeed believe strongly in Goff, they were wise to level the playing field.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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