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How long could a Detroit Lions rebuild take?

Rebuilds aren’t taking as long as they used to

Jeff Nguyen of the Detroit Lions

The excitement is over for a while, at least until free agency rolls around in March. Now it’s time to sit down and think about the realities of the future. The Lions are going into a rebuild. New general manager Brad Holmes might want to call it a “retool,” but the fact remains that the Lions are now a team with a quarterback nobody is actually sure about, the worst defense in the league, next to no wide receivers and a completely new staff. We’re officially back to square one.

So how long is this going to take? The word “rebuild” alone seems to signify a long term project, something that could take five or 10 years. The Lions were a team that had to rebuild after the 2008 campaign, and they arguably still haven’t done that after three and half head coaches and two different GMs.

The biggest difference, at least on paper, is that the Lions appear to be doing things the right way for the first time in a long time, maybe ever. They have a new GM who has great experience in scouting collegiate talent. That works perfectly for a rebuild since they tend to build mostly through the draft.

The Lions have also surrounded Holmes with guys like John Dorsey and Ray Agnew, two experienced personnel executives that have a history of team building through the pro personnel route. Dorsey also has history in the draft. His resume includes the drafting of Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and some guy named Aaron Rodgers.

Detroit has also made the savvy move of shifting some of the more tedious general manager duties to Mike Disner so that Holmes and his associates can focus strictly on building this team. All those things together points to a rebuild that should go a lot smoother than the Lions previous attempts.

But again, how long will it take? That’s something that’s somewhat unanswerable. So let’s look at some of the most relevant and recent examples of a rebuild. We’ll start with the Rams, seeing as that’s where Holmes had some direct influence, and we’ll also look at some other recent examples to see how long it takes (spoiler: not that long).

Let’s start with the Rams. This is the team the Lions rebuild attempt will more than likely mirror due to the obvious associations. This was a somewhat fast rebuild. Let’s go back to 2014, Brad Holmes second year on the job as the team's director of college scouting. The Rams starting scouting exceptionally well and drafted Aaron Donald, a player that just won his third Defensive Player of the Year award. The next year they got Todd Gurley, Rob Havenstein, and in 2016, they got Jared Goff.

The Rams built themselves a foundation of young players and then hired the right coach in Sean McVay in 2017. They also had another great draft with guys like Cooper Kupp and John Johnson, and the players drafted previous to 2014 like Michael Brockers, Tavon Austin and Alec Ogletree hit their primes. Suddenly, the Rams are a playoff team.

From there, they started spending money and trading assets. They signed Ndamukong Suh and Sam Shields in free agency and shipped some draft picks for Brandin Cooks and Marcus Peters. The Rams then used their remaining mid-to-late round picks to get guys like Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen who contributed early and are now starters. In 2018, it got them to the Super Bowl.

I’m not saying things are guaranteed to work this way for the Lions, but this is probably going to be the blueprint for them. Look for the Lions to build almost exclusively through the draft in the first few years, and then, once a young foundation is there, they’ll start spending money and shipping assets. We had Jordan Rodrigue of The Athletic Los Angeles on First Byte last week and she alluded to this theory when she made a bold prediction that Brad Holmes would start trading picks by year three.

So in this likely scenario, pending that things work out of course, the Lions rebuild could take four years. With Dan Campbell under contract for six years, it certainly appears the Lions are going to take the long road and some patience will be required. The leg up that the Lions have over that Rams team, on paper, is that they at least have their coaching staff in place at the beginning of the rebuild instead of midway through.

I’m not saying the Lions are in the Super Bowl in four years. A lot of things have to go right for something like that to happen. But if enough things go right, it’s not out of the question to think the Lions could be a perennial playoff team within that time frame or potentially earlier.

The other situation that should be focused on is a team that’s currently in the midst of their rebuild and seems to be nailing it. The Cleveland Browns. The Browns were 0-16 just three seasons ago. In 2020, they were 11-5 and in the playoffs. How did they do it?

They did it in a way I don’t totally see the Lions adopting. They drafted well and immediately spent aggressively in free agency and via trades to surround those picks. In 2018, they had a great draft that included baker Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward (Thanks, John Dorsey, by the way). They then immediately surrounded those guys with Carlos Hyde, Jarvis Landry and Damarious Randall. The following year they gave up a haul for Odell Beckham, Oliver Vernon and Wyatt Teller. Then they kept throwing money in again in 2020 with Jack Conklin and others.

They also went through three different head coaches in that time and finally got one with Kevin Stefanski. The belief is that the Browns will continue to play well, but it seems as though their drafts have suffered a bit in lieu of spending money and trading assets. So really, we’re going to see if this works out for the Browns in a few years. But right now, it seems like they mortgaged their future for what could turn out to be just a few playoff appearances. Maybe that’s totally wrong.

Notice any connection here? Well we sort of laid it out for you. The Lions have two crucial guys from both of these rebuilds on staff in Brad Holmes and John Dorsey. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lions take elements of both teams’ rebuilds and put it towards the Lions attempt.

Ultimately, as outlined in the beginning of this piece, it would make the most amount of sense for the Lions to take the Rams’ route. They have the draft assets, and the money will be available down the road. Look for the Lions to be a young team for a while. It could wind up being the best thing the franchise has ever done.