As Detroit enters the next phase of its rebuild—the “player acquisition phase” as general manager Brad Holmes called it in his end-of-the-year press conference—it’s critical for the team to identify and add talent to take the next step; to start putting together a winning product, it’s really as simple as that. Acquiring talent, be it through free agency or the draft, and supplementing that talent with dependable depth is the winning formula that’s obvious to imitate, but the most difficult to replicate.
Tasked with cleaning up the mess left by the previous regime, it’s tough to imagine Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell being able to get the roster quite where they want it after just a second offseason. In that aforementioned press conference, Holmes pointed out how the Lions are better equipped with more cap space and more draft capital than the team had a year ago—Detroit has a projected nine selections in the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft and roughly $35 million in cap space.
A year ago, in his first few weeks on the job, Holmes faced some decisions that would have been incredibly tough for even seasoned GMs. Finding a trade for Matthew Stafford that benefitted both the player exiting and the team was paramount as the franchise sought to rebuild its team and reputation. Then it was deciding on the futures of both Kenny Golladay and Romeo Okwara. And as the dust settled from those decisions, Holmes and Company had to figure out what to do with the seventh-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Now, the team is faced with its next franchise-defining decision: what to do with the second pick in the 2022 NFL Draft?
Detroit finds itself in a unique situation on the precipice of this offseason. Ownership seems committed to a complete rebuild, giving both Holmes and Campbell lengthy contracts last offseason—a five-year deal for Holmes and a six-year contract for Campbell. When Holmes traded Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams, he reportedly had an offer from the Carolina Panthers that would’ve netted Detroit the No. 8 pick in the 2021 draft and Teddy Bridgewater. A deal like that could have fast-tracked the rebuild in a sense, but Holmes had to strike that precarious balance between return and reputation. Stafford wanted to play for a team ready to compete for a championship, and the Rams were ready to commit to him to the tune of two first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, a third-round pick in 2021, and quarterback Jared Goff.
For a general manager and coach with patience from ownership on their side, the Rams’ package made the most sense. It took advantage of what was being afforded to Holmes and Campbell: time.
Entering year two of this new era in Detroit, time is still on their side. For as much fairy dust being glittered on the Cincinnati Bengals and their improbable Super Bowl run, it still took them three years to do it after they hit the reset button. For the NFL’s previous example of worst-to-first, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s San Francisco 49ers went through a 6-10 and 4-12 season before they made the leap in year three and came up short in Super Bowl LIV.
For now, Detroit just needs to take another step in the right direction this offseason. And figuring out a plan at the game’s most important position now, rather than later, seems like a prudent move given the circumstances.
Enter this year’s quarterback class, a group written off for lacking a “sure-fire” prospect, having more questions than answers, and containing a collection of players who draftniks almost universally agree need some time before they’re ready for the NFL.
The Lions, well, they have just that.
As mentioned, Detroit is expected to enter the 2022 NFL Draft with nine selections should the projections from Over The Cap bear out. Five of those top picks are in the top 100—value-wise, a great place to be making picks in the NFL Draft—and three of those picks are in the first 34 selections. At the top of this year’s mock drafts, you’ll find the top five assorted with some mix of offensive tackles and defensive ends, two positions highly coveted and valued by NFL teams. The problem? There really isn’t a consensus as to how this group shakes out. Dane Brugler of The Athletic mentioned to fellow employee and Lions beat writer Chris Burke at the beginning of January that it’s “... just not a great year to have a top-5 pick.”
The Lions are not in the market for an offensive tackle at the top of the draft after they selected Penei Sewell and wisely held onto their franchise left tackle Taylor Decker last season. Another name at the top of the draft that’s earned the admiration of Lions fans is Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, but Erik Schlitt broke down the value, or the lack thereof, in taking a safety with the No. 2 pick. That leaves the EDGE position, a spot where the Lions face a ton of uncertainty heading into free agency.
Does Holmes write the check to have Charles Harris return after a breakout season? Does Romeo Okwara recover from an Achilles injury in time to be counted on for the 2022 season? Is Trey Flowers a part of this roster moving forward? Depending on the answers to those questions, the Lions could justifiably choose a player like Kayvon Thibodeaux or Aidan Hutchinson with their top pick.
But what if the Lions decided to get their quarterback right now? What if, instead of waiting to see if Goff is more the quarterback from the first three-quarters of the season instead of the one that flashed down the stretch, the Lions start preparing themselves for 2023 with their second overall pick?
Again, the Lions have the luxury of time on their side in a couple of ways. If someone they view as a potential franchise quarterback is available at No. 2, what better time to draft that player than at the top of this upcoming draft? Expectations for this team to be a playoff contender isn’t where Detroit is quite yet, so there isn’t a pressing need for the pick to come in and contribute immediately. As far as moving down the draft board, trading down is a pipe dream this year, especially when you consider Brugler’s comment about the top of this class—and the notion of trading down when there’s a player you have your eyes on is equally as foolish. Detroit has a quarterback capable of handling the load right now in Goff, but do they have a guy capable of carrying the load? Goff affords you the time to let that quarterback develop without the pressure of starting—think of a situation similar to the 49ers when they drafted Trey Lance a year ago.
And no, Detroit doesn’t have a roster with the talent and depth like San Francisco yet, but they're only one season into their rebuild. That's what their cap space and other eight draft picks are for this year. That’s part of why Holmes looks wise to have grabbed the Rams’ 2023 first-round pick, too—he has additional resources to continue building this team into the future. But when the opportunity to draft a quarterback presents itself, you can’t shy away from it for the sake of some paint-by-numbers, hypothetical scenario that seems more conducive to team building.
If opting to draft a quarterback in the 2023 draft class is your ideal scenario, consider this: do you think the Lions will be in a position to draft one of those top players next season? If they don’t land a top-three pick, they’ll likely have to trade up for one of those players, and the cost to trade up for a franchise quarterback is more than costly, it can be impossible. In late January, Ian Rapoport reported the Miami Dolphins were willing to part with their three first-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft (5, 18, and 30) and potentially more to move up to No. 1 and select Joe Burrow. Cincinnati hung up the phone and they were right to do it. Sometimes, even if you have the assets, you just aren’t lucky enough to have the pick.
Right now, the Lions have the pick, the luck of having a franchise ahead of them in the draft who just drafted Trevor Lawrence, and time on their side to make the pick if they see their quarterback available at No. 2.