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Mailbag: What have we learned about Lions GM Brad Holmes’ draft strategy?

Jeremy and Erik break down things we’ve learned about Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes after two drafts.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

We’re back with Part 2 of our first post-draft Detroit Lions mailbag. If you missed Part 1 of the mailbag, we talked about the team’s decisions at the linebacker position, injury expectations for 2022, and “Hard Knocks.”

For Part 2, we decided to have a longer discussion on a single question. It’s an important question surrounding Lions general manager Brad Holmes. Let’s get into it.

Jeremy: I’ve got three takeaways from Brad Holmes’ two drafts.

Erik: I have five but I bet there is some crossover.

Jeremy: Let’s go through them individually and alternate ideas.

1) He’s going to value high-character players. I probably don’t need to explain this one, but football character—more so than off-the-field character—is absolutely essential to this regime. I thought it was telling that the moment Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell were sold on Jameson Williams wasn’t when he outran someone or scored all those 50+ yard touchdowns, but when he made a big tackle on special teams as a gunner.

Erik: I agree with you 100-percent. When you’re changing culture and building a foundation, you need leaders in the building early and in abundance.

2) I think Holmes covets players with positional versatility or the ability to do multiple things. Every player he has drafted can play at multiple spots, and to a man, every Day 3 player is coming in shouting from the rooftops how they plan on contributing on special teams.

Jeremy: It’s funny, my first reaction to this was, “This year, yes. Last year, not so much.” But you’re right. It’s obvious to see with this year’s class, but Penei Sewell can play either tackle spot (obviously). Levi Onwuzurike has experienced pretty much everywhere on the line. Ifeatu Melifonwu was a high school safety who excelled as an outside corner in college and even has nickel potential.

We’ve heard the word “versatility” before here in Detroit, but Holmes (and the coaching staff) appear to be actually walking the walk. Next one:

3) Athleticism. Detroit’s 2021 draft class was the second-most athletic class from the Lions in over a dozen years. The Lions’ draft class this year was even more athletic—and one of the most athletic among all NFL draft classes this year. They want to get faster on both sides of the ball.

Erik: Elite Athleticism, right? My goodness, what a change.

4) Non-stop motor. Holmes’ loves guys that can run, but he really loves guys who will run for 60 minutes a game, for all 17 games of a regular season, regardless of if the team is winning or not.

Jeremy: There’s certainly some overlap with football character here, but it’s worth reiterating. If you’re taking plays off in college, Holmes will find you and take you off his draft board.

5) This is the only one that concerns me a bit: Brad Holmes will latch onto players and aggressively pursue them. They ran up the card on Aidan Hutchinson and Penei Sewell. They traded up 20 spots in the first round for Jameson Williams. Holmes said he was going to be mad if they didn’t come away with Josh Paschal.

On one hand, conviction is a good thing. You want a confident general manager and a front office willing to work together for a common goal. On the other hand, falling in love with an individual talent is a dangerous game to play. All general managers—every single one—regularly misses on draft picks. If Holmes continues to fall in love with guys, and subsequently passes on trade-down opportunities, there’s a very good chance he will not be maximizing the Lions’ draft capital, and eventually—if he hasn’t already—he’s going to get burned. I’m not saying the Lions passed on trade-down opportunities this year—I have no evidence of that. But in two drafts now in the middle of a rebuild when you’d think this team was desperate for as many good players as possible, Holmes has twice decided to trade up in the first four rounds of the draft, and traded down just once... in Round 6.

That is, at the very least, a bit curious.

Erik: This is a point you and I have differed on all offseason: I love the conviction.

This collective front office spends an extraordinary amount of time and resources scouting players. If they fully believe that they have done a thorough enough job identifying and stacking talent, I embrace the idea that they trust their judgment enough to go get a difference-maker. Because that’s something this team desperately needs: talented difference-makers.

Now, as the core of this team gets more established, and the depth is shored up enough to help fill holes, I would expect a shift in philosophy—similarly to the Ravens—where they simply take the best player available, every time. Right now, the Lions are not there and I appreciate the aggressiveness of Holmes to go after a player he feels strongly about.

Jeremy: That is the part that gives me some solace. I have gone on record saying, too, that the Lions need blue-chippers because they have a bunch of mediocre players and need, as Holmes called them, “game-changers.” Sometimes you have to be a little bold to get that elite talent, especially if there was a significant drop-off in a tier of talent, like there was at the wide receiver position after Jameson Williams went off the board.

I hope you’re right about the Lions changing philosophy a little bit down the road, but consider me a little skeptical. When Brad Holmes told the media a week before the draft, “if there’s a player that we have buy-in and we want, I’m going to try to get that player. That’s just bottom line,” I got a little nervous.

Erik: I totally get that. But...

6) I also think Holmes really understood how each of the last two drafts would play out, and he did an underrated job at projecting where players would be selected.

In 2021, they figured Sewell or Ja’Marr Chase would be there at No. 7, and they knew if one was, then it was an easy choice. Same in 2022 with Hutchinson: if he was there, he was the pick, no need to wait.

Additionally, Holmes absolutely nailed how the wide receiver class would play out in both years. We all remember the 2021 Lions draft room video where owner Sheila Hamp asked him about taking a receiver and he said they’d be ok because they expected the “USC kid” (Amon-Ra St. Brown) to be there when they picked in the fourth round. In the 2022 draft, he knew there would be a run on receivers early and accurately projected he needed to get ahead of Philadelphia to get one of the elite prospects. That’s why he had called the Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah days before the draft to set up the trade parameters to go up and get Jameson Williams.

The more I step back and try an assess Holmes’ plan, the more I like the decision-making.

Jeremy: At the very least, Holmes has clearly put himself in a position to get the players he really likes, and that means something. If he’s as good of a scout as his 20 years of experience would suggest, that’s good news for Lions fans.

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