Analyzing the Selection of Laken Tomlinson

The Detroit Lions traded down in the first round, passing up some other options, and eventually drafted one of the best guards available in Laken Tomlinson. Was it the right move?

When the dust settled on day one of the 2015 NFL draft, the Detroit Lions had added two players to its organization, a third-day pick to be used later this weekend and another late-round pick for next year.

On the surface, this is a great start to a critical draft for the Lions. Of course, the centerpiece of all of this is first-round selection Laken Tomlinson, a guard out of Duke.

The Lions acquired Tomlinson after trading down from pick 23 to 28, swapping with the Denver Broncos while acquiring the 143rd pick in this year’s draft, Denver’s fifth from next year and guard Manny Ramirez.

Sounds great but this trade will only be measured by how successful Tomlinson is. So, let’s dive into that.

The Lions Point of View

The brain trust at Allen Park exited the 2014 season knowing that their offensive line needed to improve. Not only did the unit regress after a standout 2013, they weren’t bringing back veteran center Dominic Raiola and couldn’t count on the health of LaAdrian Waddle to open 2015. They also went on to lose Corey Hilliard in free agency and have cut Rodney Austin for off-the-field issues.

This is why the Lions, who actually had multiple trade offers to move out of 23, decided to dance with Denver. Adding Ramirez, whose true value may be as insurance to second-year center Travis Swanson, was the key.

“We look at our board, we see the players that we have available,” said Lions GM Martin Mayhew. “We have guys that we like that are available, how many spots can we go back? The opportunity to get Manny was pretty important for us.”

Mayhew called Tomlinson a “phenomenal talent”. The Lions had a first-round grade on him since the beginning of the evaluation process, with the scouting department – including college Director Scotty McEwen – and offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn contributing to the evaluation.

Why this was the right pick

It’s not hard to see some of the areas the Lions would have coveted in the 6-foot-3, 323-pound interior lineman. He’s powerful, he’s durable, he's intelligent and has top-end intangibles. He also plays in the trenches, which is a focal point for this organization.

“I truly believe that the offensive and defensive line are the heartbeat of your team,” said head coach Jim Caldwell. “It is a very important portion of the team and those two guys make a difference in terms of being able to run the ball. These two guys get us on the right track. We will see how we develop.”

Tomlinson models his game after Lions guard Larry Warford and specifically cited the similarities with their physicality, technique and feet.

There is no doubt that the Lions acquired a powerful guard who figures to be most effective in the run game where he could excel if put in a power running system. He is also able to be a solid pass protector, where he can leverage a low center of gravity to protect the pocket.

In addition to the positives around Tomlinson’s physical strengths, the Lions seemed to be highly attracted to his intangibles. In fact, after pointing to the versatility and smarts of both players the Lions added on Thursday, the first thing Caldwell had to say about Tomlinson was; “his intangibles are off the charts”.

The Lions seemed to prioritize an accountable, hard-working and physical presence for their offensive line, which they added. Tomlinson should be able to start as a rookie and instantly make Detroit’s offensive line better.

Why this was the wrong move

The fact that Tomlinson models his game after Warford is a pleasant fact that seems to add to the already high likability of the 23 year old. However, when you look deeper, this fact might point to the biggest flags with this pick.

First, Warford is a prime example that offensive line talent – at least on the interior – doesn’t need to come from the first round as he was a third-round pick himself.

It’s not to say that drafting a guard in the first round can’t work out, there are plenty of examples to the contrary. Still, many of the league’s best guards were selected in the third-round or later – including half of the group that made the Pro Bowl at the position.

Granted, he is the most ready prospect to hit the ground running at the position, but with the addition of Ramirez, the need for contribution becomes less urgent. Could the Lions have invested a later pick in a player such as Ali Marpet or Antoine Everett – among others – while securing someone to help out on the defensive line, where the Lions need depth and have limited long-term options, or at offensive tackle?

Also, the fact that Tomlinson emulates Warford stems from the fact that they are both right guards. When asked where Tomlinson would fit in on the line, Mayhew wouldn’t commit to a single side. This isn’t the type of problem that can’t be overcome but it’s clear that one of these two players will have to deal with the transition to the left side of the line.

Conclusion

The Lions did well by adding two fifth-round picks, insurance at both guard and center with Ramirez and a player who many consider to be the best guard in the draft.

Conventional wisdom doesn’t always point to the guard position as a wise first-round option but there are plenty of examples that prove this method can be successful.

The Lions will now need to address their other team needs; speed at running back, depth at offensive tackle and defensive tackle as well as youth in the secondary.

Many of the above mentioned needs are more typical of higher-round selections but if Tomlinson is able to help solidify the interior of the offensive line – where the Lions could be very strong if he is an immediate producer – this pick was the right move.


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