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Brad Holmes transformed the Detroit Lions’ draft strategy in plain sight

For the Detroit Lions, one thing is for certain in this draft: expect something unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For as long as the NFL Draft has existed, the movement of draft picks from one team to another has been standard practice, and it’s only become more prevalent over time. Teams are always looking to make a move to better position themselves for the players they’ve set their sights on in the draft, and they’re willing to go to great lengths to get it done. Players, current draft picks, and even future draft picks are all on the table when it comes to negotiations—even coaches can be part of the calculus when it comes to outfitting your draft board.

Brad Holmes, entering his third season as general manager of the Detroit Lions, has shown how unafraid he is to pick up a phone and find out what it will cost to make a move for the guys he has circled on his draft board.

When the Lions were picking seventh overall in 2021, Holmes’ first season as GM, he checked in with the Atlanta Falcons ahead of the draft to see what it would cost to move up for Ja’Marr Chase. Ultimately, the price was “too high” for Holmes, but no harm and no foul in finding out. As that same draft was rolling along, Holmes reached out to a number of teams to see if there was a way Detroit could move up from the second round and select someone they deemed a first-round talent in defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. Again, Holmes didn’t end up making a deal, but still ended up with the player he wanted when the Lions practiced patience and selected Onwuzurike with pick No. 41. And in last year’s draft, Holmes finally found the right price with the Minnesota Vikings and jumped at the opportunity to move up 20 spots in the first round to select wide receiver Jameson Williams.

On one hand, you might not appreciate the conviction Holmes has in targeting specific players in the draft. By standing pat in 2021 and waiting for the board to fall to him, he mitigated the damage that could have been even more costly had he moved up to select Onwuzurike, a player whose injuries prevented him from playing football at all last season. On the other hand, you could appreciate the trust Holmes has in his and his scouting department’s ability to evaluate football prospects and wait for the right deal to make a move—like when he actually gained value by moving up in the aforementioned deal for Williams.

Regardless of which way you lean, it’s best to prepare yourself for news and rumors on the horizon for a general manager with a proclivity to make phone calls this time of year; Holmes has five draft picks in the top-81 selections of the 2023 NFL Draft, and hardly any perceived holes that absolutely need to be plugged with rookies. He could easily maneuver around the board with all that draft capital on hand this year to grab any player he wants with the exception of the quarterbacks the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans are going to select first and second overall respectively, and that, in and of itself, is an extreme example of the freedom to select the best player available.

Holmes and Co. could choose to use their bevy of draft picks to create contingency plans and long-term solutions for spots on their roster by prioritizing value over need. It’s an uncomfortable spot for fans who have followed this team closely for the past few decades, but what Dan Miller said before Week 14’s game against the Minnesota Vikings last season is as poignant as it was then: “Let’s get comfortable with being uncomfortable because you know what uncomfortable is? It means you’re good. It means you have expectations upon you—and now this team does.”

For so long, the draft has represented an opportunity for the Lions to fix their problems in the here and now. It would provide a false sense of security for fans, and a heap of expectations on young players. In 2020, Jeff Okudah filled the team’s need for a starting cornerback after Matt Patricia chased Darius Slay out of town. T.J. Hockenson was the upgrade the Lions needed at tight end in 2019 after they moved on from Eric Ebron, who filled that same void in 2014. In 2017, Jarrad Davis was going to hold down the middle of a defense that was missing the impact of players like DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch. All of them overdrafted to fit a pressing need.

MLive’s Kyle Meinke highlighted this shift in draft strategy from Holmes and his comments during this year’s NFL owners meeting:

“When you’re approaching the draft and you’re just looking to fill those question marks, fill those holes, I do think that that can equate to some mistakes,” Holmes told reporters on Monday at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix. “I say back in St. Louis even, it got to a point where we had a pretty strong defensive line and we had some concerns elsewhere, but we just kept adding to our defensive line. And it just turned into this beast that was just a strength of the football team. So again, when you’re trying to stick to that depth chart, you’re trying to fill every hole, I just think that’s not the way that we do it. We just try to take the best player for us.”

Get comfortable with the Lions drafting the best player available at any given time under this regime, whether it fills a need or not. In reality, they’ve been doing that all along; in their first two drafts, because they inherited a roster so devoid of top-end talent and depth, it didn’t stick out so obviously because the best player available filled a need. But after shrewd drafting and talent acquisition in free agency, get ready for a Lions draft unlike any other you’ve experienced.

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