Now that the dust has settled on the 2021 NFL Draft and over a dozen UDFAs have signed, it’s time to take an assessment of what the Detroit Lions did this past weekend. Going into the draft, there was a wide consensus from Lions fans that the team is not going to be good in 2021. While it’s easy to say that, it was harder to face it until after the draft.
Going in, the Lions roster had plenty of holes. They needed a top receiver, a starting nickel corner, at least one safety, and all the linebacker help you could ask for. Some crazy Lions fans wanted the team to use its first pick on a quarterback. What the Lions actually got was a team chock full of value, with absolutely no sex appeal.
It was as if Brad Holmes walked into a completely-empty kitchen with only $20 for the bare necessities to live and spent that on cheap food you can turn into delicious cuisine. It’s like in my early 20s when I used to make creamy chicken ramen noodles with some cut up pieces of chicken and Italian seasoning. Fine dining for $3.50. Holmes made a fancy dish out of nothing. The best part of this dish is that it will feed you for a long time.
The Lions filled the cupboard with athletic talent that, if things work out the right way, can contribute at a high level for some time. By the way, when I say athletic, I mean athletic.
Having said all of that, the clearest thing we learned from the NFL Draft is that the Lions rebuild is not going to be a quick rebuild, and despite what Brad Holmes said early on in his tenure, this isn’t going to be a retool, either.
There’s a reason Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell have such long contracts. It’s because they’re going to take it slow, like Usher. This going to be all about building a team piece-by-piece. The Lions have decided to first fix the pressing issues away from the ball with picks like Penei Sewell, Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike. All of these guys will work in the trenches and away from the ball. Then there’s value with options in Derrick Barnes and Ifeatu Melifonwu. Both guys are capable of doing multiple things with the athleticism they bring.
There was no bigger sign that this team’s focus is on the future more so than the present than with their Day 2 selections. With talented players at bigger positions of needs, the Lions stuck with their board and took two defensive tackles. Those positions were long-term needs, but the players may not make the team that much better in 2021. Holmes explained his actions several times, saying simply he refuses to pass on a talented player because of needs elsewhere.
“We try not to anchor ourselves into positions,” Holmes said. “We try to make sure that we get the best football player.”
On Day 3, Holmes clarified this is a philosophy he holds no matter what the Lions roster looks like, but admitted, say, if an offensive tackle is staring them in the face in next year’s draft, they may look elsewhere with Taylor Decker and how Sewell firmly entrenched as the team’s tackles for the future. In other words, there aren’t many positions you can avoid right now. In the future? We’ll see.
Speaking of the future, as it stands right now, the Lions have at least seven draft picks, including two first rounders in 2022 (plus three compensatory picks likely to come) and another two first-round picks in 2023. There’s time to go out and get the playmakers that can assist Jared Goff or the defensive studs that can help bolster the defense.
The Lions will also have upwards of $30 million to spend next offseason after taking their lumps with over $40 million in dead cap this year.
Speaking of Jared Goff, perhaps the last thing we may have learned this past weekend and after free agency is that Jared Goff is the Lions quarterback of the future and they fully plan to build a team around him. Every move the Lions have made this offseason has shown they are attempting to build a Rams-like team that absorbs the potential blows if Jared Goff doesn’t show the improvement that some think he might show under Anthony Lynn and Mark Brunell.
If Goff doesn’t work out, the Lions are fully set up for a contingency plan. They can simply draft a quarterback next year or they can get in on the latest quarterback trading fad that's sweeping the NFL. I mean, even Aaron Rodgers may get traded. We’re all focused on getting the next Lions quarterback through the draft, but it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.
Before we get out of here, we need to address the pessimists in the room and sympathize with their thoughts. What if this doesn’t work out? It’s certainly not the status quo that everyone is used to. So many other teams focused on getting their playmakers and potential superstars while the Lions were beginning their slow-burn build. If things don’t work out here, are the Lions left even further behind in the dust than before? It’s a hard question to answer at this point.
You can’t help but feel like the Lions front office has the time and the understanding of the owner on their side. With that in mind, there’s still opportunity to go back and correct whatever mistakes may have been made in this draft.
With that out of the way, it’s hard not to be optimistic about this draft, especially when so many experts like Joe Marino or Ross Tucker are loving what Detroit did. It’s going to be fun to see how this all pays off. The Lions made one hell of a first step. Let’s see what they do next.