On the heels of trading away the organization’s most prolific passer in its history, Brad Holmes was faced with his next challenge: Who would he make his first-ever draft pick as general manager of the Detroit Lions?
With the seventh pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, there was plenty that could happen before the Lions were on the clock, but one thing was for certain: Holmes needed to nail the pick if he was going to get this rebuild off on the right foot.
It just so happened that Penei Sewell, the perfect player for this regime’s vision, would fall into Detroit’s lap, setting up the Lions to be power players sooner than most expected. Drafting an offensive tackle isn’t the sexiest pick to make for a team at the onset of a rebuild, but it set the tone for an organization that was committed to making decisions with the long game in mind.
But it didn’t stop there. Holmes would go on to collect players like Amon-Ra St. Brown, Alim McNeill, and Derrick Barnes on Days 2 and 3 of the draft, three more starters for the 2023 team all in the same draft — and that’s been the key to Detroit’s rebuild. It’s all about home-grown talent handpicked by Holmes and his scouting team, and the development of said talent by Detroit’s all-star coaching staff.
In 2022, the Lions added two more starters in Aidan Hutchinson — already one of the premier edge defenders in the NFL just seven games into his second season — and safety Kerby Joseph. And in 2023, the Lions added two more starters in tight end Sam LaPorta, who got off to one of the hottest starts in history at his position, and defensive back Brian Branch, already a defensive stalwart in his first season. And that goes without mentioning all of the rotational and part-time contributors they’ve added along the way through the draft.
When added all together, the key to the Lions’ success in just the third year of a rebuild that started with tearing everything down to the studs has been their ability to identify talent and football character during the pre-draft process.
A prerequisite to a rebuild is patience, and it’s up to the owner of a franchise to stay committed to the process. Sheila Ford Hamp spearheaded the search for Detroit’s next regime after she took over as principal owner of the organization when Martha Firestone Ford, her mother, stepped down in the summer of 2020. The team certainly took its fair share of lumps in a debut season that netted just three victories after an 0-8 start. Despite a disappointing 1-5 start to the 2022 season, her frustration didn’t lead to impulsive decisions, and a candid response to last season’s slow start let everyone know just where she stood with the team’s direction.
“I’m sure you have a few questions for me but wanted to open with a couple comments,” Hamp said after six games into last season. “I know this is difficult. Our rebuild is hard, but we really believe in our process. We really believe in — we’re going to turn this thing around the right way, through the draft. It requires patience. It’s frustrating. Am I frustrated? Absolutely. Are the fans frustrated? Absolutely. Are you guys frustrated?
“But I think we really are making progress. We’ve seen it. It’s just—this was a huge teardown and then turnaround. We’re only a third of the way through the season. We’ve got 11 more games to go, so I just don’t want everyone to push the panic button and give up the ship, because I think we’ve got the right people in place to pull this off. And I truly believe that, and I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe it.”
The progress happened. The Lions went 8-2 over the final 10 games of the season, and now they’re off to a hot start in 2023, leading the NFC North nearly halfway through the season.
For the first time in a long time, the Lions’ brass have stuck to a process with encouraging results, and it feels like it’s only the beginning for the team’s power player era in the NFL.