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Detroit Lions draft grade: Why we’re giving the Teez Tabor pick a ‘B-’

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Missed opportunities on the defensive line and some concerns about deep speed temper enthusiasm for an otherwise good choice

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Missouri v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Is Tabor a good athlete or not?

Prior to the 2016 college football season, Jalen “Teez” Tabor was regarded as quite an athlete. Back in September 2016, Ben Natan at Bleeding Green Nation wrote that “(t)he six footer has prototypical size for a cornerback and his athleticism is very good, maybe even excellent.” The tall defensive back topped NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein’s list of DBs to watch back in in June 2016: “His balls (sic) skills, length and athleticism will make him attractive to scouts.”

After another successful first-team All-SEC season in his junior year, three seasons’ worth of solid play against high end competition confirmed Teez Tabor’s status as an elite player in the draft pool. Displaying immense swagger at the Scouting Combine in March 2017, the prospect made a bold claim: “I feel like I'm the best overall player in the draft, not just the best cornerback. That's just the confidence I have in myself and my ability to play football.”

Then the NFL Combine scores came in, and they were not good.

A promise to do better at the University of Florida Pro Day went unfulfilled:

What happened to the so-called excellent athlete who cranked out three highly decorated seasons of cornerback play in the SEC? As noted by our Jeremy Reisman, Ian Rapoport investigated the mystery for NFL.com and reported about nagging hamstring injuries:

"Teams have been shocked that I ran that slow, because they know I don't play slow -- they watch the film," Tabor said during a phone interview. "It's ridiculous. I just want to let everyone know what was going on."

What Tabor means is this: Right before the combine, he tweaked his hamstring during training and it never fully healed.

Evaluating this draft selection depends on what you believe about that explanation and the relative importance of game film/production versus athletic test results. In light of Lions general manager Bob Quinn’s focus on improving team speed and athleticism, those 40-yard dash times need to be adequately explained. The stated emphasis on speed makes it unlikely the Lions would have selected Tabor if they truly believed a 4.7 second time on the 40-yard dash was representative.

Whatever information the team gathered at their private meeting and workout with Tabor convinced them he is not so ridiculously slow. Quinn talked about it at his Draft Day 2 press conference (hat tip to LogicalFallacy on posting this link). Per John Niyo at the Detroit News:

“Me personally, I probably watched more film on him than any prospect that I could ever remember watching film on,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said. “Because everyone said, ‘Well, he ran real slow.’ I said, ‘OK, well, the games that I watched I didn’t see him get run by.’ So we kept going back, ‘Well, let’s watch this game’ and ‘Let’s watch that game.’ Go back to 2016. Go back to 2015, when he was a young kid playing. I can’t sit here and say I’ve watched every play that he’s ever played at Florida …”

But he figures he watched more than a dozen games worth, several hours worth of video. And coupled with Tabor’s individual workout at his pro day in Gainesville — a 2-for-1 deal at the store for the Lions — they saw what they needed to see.

“Time speed is what it is,” Quinn said, nodding. “I take playing speed as a more important gauge than time speed.”

Excellent scheme fit

The title of Connor Howe’s article says it all: “Tabor adds ballhawking skills to Lions’ secondary.” The profiles from Pro Football Focus, Walterfootball, and CBS Sports mentioned good short closing speed, break on the ball, and the ability read and jump routes. Universally regarded as solid in off man and zone coverage, mirrors and stays with receivers in their routes very well, and plays short zones well. The most commonly mentioned area to work on is run support, especially in terms of avoiding or shedding blockers. Pride of Detroit’s Alex Reno mentioned this in a very early draft preview of cornerbacks in this draft class:

Tabor is a plus-athlete with good size for the position and will likely be selected in the first round. He can play man or zone, but will likely be utilized in a zone scheme to put his playmaking ability to better use. If he can show more willingness as a tackler and do a better job of taking the right angles and shedding blocks in the run game, he can turn out to be a great all-around corner in the NFL.

Run support is nice to have, of course, but the bottom line with any early-round cornerback is that Detroit needs that player to deliver the goods in pass coverage to fit the scheme. From that same article by Reno, “we know how often Austin loves to leave cushion between his DBs and opposing receivers.” It’s why our Ryan Mathews said of a different cornerback in his Mock 2.0 article that “ability to play off-man coverage fits the Lions scheme and (Houston CB Howard Wilson’s) knack for making plays on defense... would be a welcome addition to a defense that forced only 14 turnovers in 2016—the fourth fewest of any team in the NFL.” Remember, Tabor has a reputation for being a ballhawk and returned three of his eight career interceptions at Florida for touchdowns.

This discussion of scheme fit might sound a little familiar. Let us briefly turn back the clock to the third round of 2015:

Carter played mostly off-man or zone coverage in Stanford's defense, but when he was asked to play press he did a great job of being physical. He made several plays on the ball against Michigan State in their Rose Bowl defeat, including this one.

. . . may not have the desired long speed that some NFL teams are looking for, but he tested well in almost every other drill, and his SPARQ score was good for 23rd out of 220 qualifying CB prospects.

Although the Alex Carter experiment did not end well, the point is that Austin, Oden, and the rest of the staff have held a consistent idea of the kind of cornerbacks they are looking for. If you gave Alex Carter better fluidity and overall athleticism, improved instincts to attack the ball in the air, and more polished coverage technique, the end result sounds a lot like Teez Tabor. Former general manager Martin Mayhew was trying to deliver what the defensive staff wanted and admittedly whiffed by trading up to pick Carter. Current general manager Bob Quinn took those specifications from Austin and delivered a higher quality version with the Tabor selection.

Our Grade: B-

Finding a better outside option to line up opposite Darius Slay has been a challenge since Rashean Mathis’ magical 2014 season, and this is a genuinely good match to what the staff wants. In fact, just look at what NFL.com’s profile says about Tabor’s best NFL comparison (hat tip to POD reader Lions86).

Why the relatively low grade, then? Obviously the goodness-of-fit comes with an asterisk due to the bad speed results from timed runs. Most of the staff at Pride Of Detroit is willing to trust the process—clearly, the Lions did a thorough job checking it out—but the bad 40-yard dash times mean some lingering doubt remains, and cannot be completely dismissed until we see Tabor hits the practice field and preseason in August.

The other thing hanging over this pick is that cornerback was a need, but not necessarily the biggest need. It was disappointing to see the Lions pass over both defensive line positions, leaving the team with few viable options at edge rusher and interior line heading into Saturday’s late rounds. Between the 53rd pick and the 85th pick (which was then traded to the New England Patriots), ten players listed as either defensive ends or defensive tackles were selected. Solid players like Chris Wormley (who Ryan Mathews mocked to Detroit in a possible scenario for Day 2) and all seven of Alex Reno’s best Day 2 defensive end options were still available. By the Lions’ next pick, only Carl Lawson and Joe Mathis had survived the run on defensive linemen in the second and third rounds.