On Tuesday during the NFL’s owners meetings in Florida, Detroit Lions' general manager Brad Holmes had his first opportunity to explain his process after the first two weeks of free agency. The Lions have been relatively quiet in adding external players, choosing, instead, to focus their efforts on bringing back most of their players who were set to become free agents this year.
The reaction to that strategy has certainly been mixed. While some have applauded Holmes and the Lions for remaining disciplined and not overspending in the free agency market, others have expressed frustration about maintaining a roster that finished as the second-worst team in football.
Holmes addressed some of those criticisms on Tuesday. Here were his three main arguments.
Most re-signed players had career seasons in 2021
One of Holmes’ major points was that many of the players brought back deserved it. Detroit offered many of these players a one-year, prove-it deal in 2021, and those players followed through with their play.
“You could argue they had some of the best years of their careers, if not the best year of their career, with us last year,” Holmes said.
For the most part, that rings true. Charles Harris—who earned a two-year, $13 million deal with the Lions this offseason—tallied 7.5 sacks in 2021, more than the previous four seasons combined. Tracy Walker, re-signed to a three-year, $25 million deal, played his best football last year. Kalif Raymond set career highs, while Josh Reynolds, in his seven games in Detroit, averaged more yards per game than in any other span of his professional career. Evan Brown established himself as a reliable backup center with starter potential.
That case is a little harder to make for other re-signed players like Alex Anzalone and Tim Boyle, though.
Still, Holmes insists they did their research in free agency and came out more comfortable with the players they brought back.
“We do our work, we do our due diligence, and those guys had great years for us. They played really good football, we know them, we deem that they’re fits.”
Internal players offer familiarity with culture, scheme fit
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
That’s the cynical way to look at the Lions’ situation, but there is some truth to that when it comes to free agency. When bringing in a new player, you’re never sure how they’re going to fit in the locker room nor how they’ll play in your scheme. Holmes highlighted this point in a far less negative way.
“When I hear that people wanted us to get more external help, the grass is not always greener, and (internally) you kind of know who the culture fits are, and who aren’t,” Holmes said.
One major positive Holmes took from many of their re-signings was their desire to want to come back to Detroit. From a player’s perspective, it makes sense that many of the players who enjoyed career years would want to come back and reproduce those results in 2022. From a team perspective, it represents the player buying into the culture and affirms their staff is doing a good job creating a working environment conducive to happy, productive players.
Continuity leads to improvement
Last year, the Lions took on a strategy in free agency of avoiding veteran players so that they could develop their young players. Or, as Holmes put it on Tuesday, “we kind of held back from adding all these veteran free agents to maybe help us get another win or so, and we kind of took the time to develop.”
While Holmes had previously said the team is now entering the “talent acquisition phase” this offseason, the Lions' general manager saw progress in those plans towards the end of last season. Many of those young players improved and the Lions finished the season strong.
“As much work as we put into the production that those players had in our system, and then having the continuity with our coaching staff coming back as well, there is a lot of optimism for that,” Holmes said. “And it’s still being aggressive. It’s just that it’s not always saying you’re not being aggressive if you’re not going the external route.”
So by bringing back some of those players, and keeping the franchise stable, further improvement is expected from Holmes.
“When they have seasons like they had and (were) productive, and to have the continuity that we’re bringing back with the coaching staff and relatively same system, I think it’s going to be an advantage for us,” Holmes later added.
So while many will look at the roster and understandably wonder why so little was changed from a team that went 3-13-1 last year, Holmes sees a team that improved as the season went on and expects that improvement to continue into 2022. The players are improving, the continuity allows players to become familiar and comfortable with the scheme and their teammates, and when looking at some of the other options in free agency, it’s clear the Lions felt more comfortable with the players they knew already.