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Grading Lions GM Brad Holmes’ first two free agency classes

Before we look ahead to 2023 NFL free agency, let’s look at the job Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes has done in his first two years.

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Before we head into the excitement of 2023 NFL free agency, let’s take a look back at how the Detroit Lions have built to where they are today. General manager Brad Holmes has garnered a lot of good will due to his draft picks, but how has he done finding and managing veteran talent in free agency?

Let’s take a closer look at the Lions’ moves over the last two years under Holmes and grade out how he did.

2021 free agency

Full list of moves here

Approximate spending money: Less than $1 million before restructures, cuts, etc.

Key re-signings:

  • Romeo Okwara — 3-year, $39M deal
  • Jalen Reeves-Maybin- 1-year, $2.4M

Unfortunately, the Okwara re-signing—one of Holmes’ first big moves—has not turned out to be a great move. Obviously, it’s hard to fault the Lions GM here, as an Achilles injury has held Okwara to just nine games played and three sacks since signing this deal.

Key additions:

Via trade

  • Jared Goff — Received Goff, two first-round picks, third-round pick by trading Matthew Stafford
  • Michael Brockers — Traded 2023 7th-round pick for Brockers — signed to 3-year, $24M extension

Free agency signings:

  • QB Tim Boyle — 1 -year, $2.5M
  • RB Jamaal Williams — 2-year, $6M
  • WR Tyrell Williams — 1 year, $3M
  • WR Breshad Perriman — 1-year, $3M
  • WR Kalif Raymond — 1-year, $1.1M
  • TE Josh Hill — 1-year, $1.2M
  • DE Charles Harris — 1-year, $1.75M
  • LB Alex Anzalone — 1-year, $1.75M
  • CB Quinton Dunbar — 1-year, $1.13M
  • S Dean Marlowe — 1-year, $1.13M

We start with the Jared Goff-Matthew Stafford trade, which has aged incredibly well. While Holmes’ hand was essentially forced by Stafford requesting the trade, the Lions GM not only did right by the player himself, but got himself a very solid deal in the process. Thus far, those trade assets have turned into DB Ifeatu Melifonwu, helped in trading up for WR Jameson Williams, and whatever the Lions will do with the sixth overall pick this year. Goff, himself, has possibly become the biggest asset of this trade so far, though his cap hit limited the Lions’ ability to do a lot in free agency, even after the Lions restructured his deal immediately.

History will not be as kind to the Brockers trade. While it cost Detroit next to nothing in draft capital, the Lions essentially paid Brockers $14 million over two years for little production on the field and a good locker room presence. Not a cap killer, but probably not what they were hoping for.

In free agency, the Lions took the scattershot approach, hoping to hit on a few free agents, and that’s exactly what they did. The unheralded signings of Jamaal Williams, Kalif Raymond, Charles Harris, and Alex Anzalone turned out to be pretty significant. But the misses with the other wide receivers and the secondary swings turned out to be costly on the field.

Key losses:

  • WR Kenny Golladay — 4-year, $72M deal with Giants
  • WR Marvin Jones Jr. — 2-year, $13.5M deal with Jaguars
  • WR Jamal Agnew — 3-year, $14.25M deal with Jaguars
  • G Oday Aboushi — 1-year, $1.75M deal with Chargers
  • LB Jarrad Davis — 1 -year, $7M deal with Jets
  • S Duron Harmon — 1-year, $1.2M deal with Falcons
  • K Matt Prater — 2-year, $6.5M deal with Cardinals
  • QB Chase Daniel — released
  • G Joe Dahl — released
  • TE Jesse James — released
  • DT Danny Shelton — released
  • CB Justin Coleman — released

Holmes did a good job shedding some awful contracts from the Bob Quinn era and made the smart, but difficult choice of letting Kenny Golladay walk. That turned into a third-round compensatory pick, which filled a long-term need at safety with Kerby Joseph. In hindsight, the Lions probably could’ve afforded to keep Matt Prater around. In Arizona, Prater went 52-of-62 over these past two years, including a solid 12-of-16 from 50+ yards.

Overall, though, the focus here was clear: shed bad contracts and ineffective players, and I don’t think Holmes regrets letting any of these players go.

Overall grade: B

This offseason will be defined by the Stafford trade, and even with some other tempting offers out there, it’s seems like Holmes optimized his return there. There were some swings and misses in free agency, but with limited cap space, Holmes set the Lions up well for the future by not tying himself to bad contracts and finding a few key pieces of the future.

2022 free agency:

Full list of moves here

Approximate spending money: Around $20 million

Key re-signings:

  • QB David Blough — 1-year, $1.35M
  • QB Tim Boyle — 1-year, $2M
  • FB Jason Cabinda — 2-year, $4.1M
  • WR Josh Reynolds — 2-year, $6M
  • WR Kalif Raymond — 2-year, $5M
  • C Evan Brown — 1-year, $2M
  • EDGE Charles Harris — 2-year, $13M
  • LB Alex Anzalone — 1-year, $2.25M
  • LB Josh Woods — 1-year, $1.55M
  • S Tracy Walker — 3-year, $25M
  • S C.J. Moore — 1-year, $1.75M

The approach to this offseason was far different. Rather than tearing down the previous regime, they were focused on retaining the players who had earned their keep. The backup quarterback situation was a mistake—and one that Holmes owned up to this offseason. Unfortunately for Holmes, his two biggest re-signings—Charles Harris and Tracy Walker—both faced serious injuries in 2022.

That said, the Lions got significant contributions out of Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Evan Brown, Alex Anzalone, Josh Woods, and C.J. Moore—and they didn’t spend more than $3 million per year on any of those players. That’s strong, wise spending.

Key additions:

Free agency signings:

  • WR DJ Chark — 1-year, $10M
  • DT Isaiah Buggs — 1-year, $965,000
  • LB Chris Board — 1-year, $2M
  • CB Mike Hughes — 1-year, $2.25M
  • S DeShon Elliott — 1-year, $1.1M

Detroit again went the fiscal route here, and pretty much all of these signings were worth it. Again, Holmes was victimized a bit by the injury bug with DJ Chark, but a $10 million cap hit spread over two years is hardly the kind of deal that will cap strap this team. There were a few misses not listed (TE Garrett Griffin, TE Devin Funchess, LB Jarrad Davis), but each of their deals were for about $1 million or less, so the cap impact was almost nothing.

Overall, this was very wise spending, and it’s hard to imagine Holmes truly regretting any of these additions.

Key losses:

  • DT Nick Williams — Signed 1-year, $1.1M deal with Giants
  • LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin — Signed 2-year, $7.5M deal with Texans
  • S Dean Marlowe — Signed 1-year, $1M deal with Bills
  • DE Trey Flowers — released

The Lions didn’t lose any key players and Holmes shed himself of another bad contract (Trey Flowers) from the previous regime.

Overall grade: A-

2021 was all about continuing to build the team’s culture by rewarding solid performances from Year 1 of this regime. Most of those re-signings turned out to be smart, and Holmes again added a few solid contributors in free agency at discounted prices.

Over two years of free agency, all of Holmes’ “mistakes” can be fit into two categories: players who didn’t work out but cost next to nothing and players who signed big contracts but got injured. Holmes obviously can’t control the latter, and he did his best to make sure the signing mistakes remained minor in impact. Really, the only move that doesn’t fit into that category is the Brockers trade, but there was at least some intangible value to that addition.

I expected to go into this exercise a little more skeptical and pessimistic about Holmes’ free agency history. But it’s hard to have a lot of complaints about what Holmes has done. That’s because Holmes has done a good job minimizing risk with almost all of these moves.

Of course, the one thing not addressed here are the moves they didn’t make. Each year, some fans have complained that the Lions didn’t make a splash signing. But let’s look back on some of those names:

So while Holmes has been praised widely for his skills in the draft, he deserves almost as much credit for managing two years of free agency in a wise way.

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