After Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes offered his thank yous to various people in the organization in his post-season press conference, he led into his opening statement with a strong, powerful message.
“I love how the season ended, but the reality is we won three games and that’s not good enough and it never will be,” Holmes said.
With that statement alone, he managed to group together all Lions fans, the optimists and the pessimists.
We can all agree that when a football team is 3-13-1, that is not something to celebrate. But finishing with a 3-3 record in the final six games after going 0-10-1 in the first 11 is an improvement worth acknowledging. Holmes wasn’t eager to pat himself on the back, but he did believe the Lions succeeded in laying the foundation in Year 1 of his employment.
“It’s hard to practice the patience, at times, to stick with the plan, but it’s a multi-year plan, it’s for sustained success, and I believe we did lay the foundation,” Holmes said. “Went through some hard stuff and I was kinda saying–we’re going through these hard things, but I will say at this point the foundation is laid.”
That foundation was predicated on a very specific initial plan: Find and develop young players. Detroit managed to get significant playing time out of all seven draft picks this year. Six of those players started at one point in the season, along with four other undrafted rookies (Jerry Jacobs, AJ Parker, Tommy Kraemer, Brock Wright). Holmes admitted it wasn’t always easy to stick to that plan. As the losses mounted and injuries and COVID thinned the roster, Holmes considered going to his omnipresent list of veteran free agents available. But both he and head coach Dan Campbell never gave up on the plan.
“We’re going to let these guys play. A lot of it was by circumstances. A lot of it, we didn’t have a choice at certain times,” Holmes said. “But I will say when we got hit with adversity–whether it be injuries or other stuff–look, I have a, let’s call it an ‘available free agent board’ with veterans that would be available to come in and help, and we stuck with our plan. We let these young guys play and get valuable experience.”
This is all just the beginning, though, and Holmes knows that. The work is far from done, but they’ve already got a head start on this offseason compared to last year, plus they now have the benefit of coaching the Senior Bowl at the end of the month.
“That’ll be a good place to start to get eyes on those guys,” Holmes said. “Our overall process, we’re so far ahead at our overall process at where we were a year ago, whether it’s free agency, draft prep, all that stuff. We’re in a much better position.”
They’re also in a better position to acquire more talent this offseason. Obviously, they have the second overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft, along with an extra first and third-round pick, plus a compensatory pick or two. They have a lot more projected cap space for free agency, too.
“Everything will be better than it was at this time last year,” Holmes said. “Free agency will be better. We’ll have a little more resources at our disposal. The draft will be even better. I thought our draft was good, but it’ll be better. We have a little more capital. So we’re really excited about that. Going into the next phase of this journey.”
That starts with taking care of his own players on expiring contracts. While Holmes didn’t reveal who he’d be interest in re-signing this offseason, he spoke quite highly of soon-to-be free agents Tracy Walker, Charles Harris and Alex Anzalone. Walker, “played good football for us” and “really bought into everything we’re doing. Harris “arguably had his best year” and “loves it here.” Anzalone and Kalif Raymond both “did very, very well” in their year in Detroit.
Detroit may have more resources in free agency, but Holmes said their approach may not change much. Last year, they found a lot of chip-on-their-shoulder players with much to prove and signed them to one-year deals. This year, their priority remains culture fits.
“We’re still going to find guys that truly fit what we’re about,” Holmes said. “You bring up the guys that have chips on their shoulders, things to prove. Well, a lot of times experiences shape people, often, and we’re a gritty group. Not saying we’re looking for one-year deal guys, but we’re still looking for guys who fit who we are. We’ll just probably be able to get a little bit more of them.”
It won’t be long for the whole process to get into gear. They’ve already signed nine players to futures deals and even added a guy via the waiver wire. But after a full year on the job, Holmes is confident he and his staff are ready for it all.
“We feel really good where we are at this point heading to the all-star circuit.”