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Detroit Lions’ ‘intentional’ roster construction has built a true contender

It’s taken three offseasons but the Detroit Lions front office and coaching staff have constructed a roster built for sustained success.

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

The Detroit Lions have been working for three offseasons to get to this point. General manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell have been striving for the perfect balance of talented youth and veteran leadership, and they believe they have what they need to maintain sustained success.

That belief was clearly represented when, after establishing their 53-man roster, the Lions not only didn’t claim another team's cut player, but they didn’t even put in a waiver claim to attempt to add another player.

From the moment Holmes and Campbell arrived in Detroit, the pair have shared a unified vision of what would make a successful roster and how they needed to get there.

“Man, we’ve got great leadership,” assistant general manager Ray Agnew said of Holmes and Campbell. “They’re on the same page. We’ve got a clear vision of what we want in a football player and what we want in our culture, and if they don’t have it, they can go play for somebody else.”

During his time as general manager, Holmes’ ability to find young talent players who can contribute early in their careers has been impressive. Of the 23 players Holmes has drafted, 22 of them are still with the team in some capacity—only 2021 seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson, who was let go at cutdowns with an injury designation, is no longer with the team. Holmes also added three undrafted players over that span, meaning that roughly half of the Lions’ current roster has been constructed of young players hand-picked by this regime.

“Every draft pick is very intentional,” Holmes told the media following this year’s cutdowns. “It’s not just, ‘Let’s find a talented guy.’ I’ve always (said) the talent piece is a very, let’s call it the ‘easy, coherent part of the process’ that’s been in my mind. But just getting the right players and so doing that, they’re team guys, they’re locker room guys, they fit us.”

The fit within the organization is a vital piece of the puzzle for this regime. Talent can only take you so far in a team game like football, and this regime has shown that constructing a roster is more about building a team, rather than only assembling a group of talented players that lack a common intention.

“Yes, there’s an upgrade in talent, but man, we really believe we have football players,” Campbell said. “We’ve got good football players on this team and that’s the game that we’re playing. We’re not acquiring talent, we’re acquiring football players and I feel like we’ve got the most amount of those that we’ve had in three years which gives me a lot of hope.”

Acquiring “football players” extends beyond the draft, of course, and that is where Holmes and Campbell have been able to fill important gaps in the roster.

“When (we) first (got) here, we (didn’t) even have a whole lot of money to spend in free agency,” Holmes explained. “But being intentional about getting a Kalif Raymond, being intentional about getting a Alex Anzalone, being intentional about getting a Charles Harris, those kinds of guys that you can keep around. And so that continuity, that growth, the offensive line, the continuity, so I think everybody growing together, I think makes us feel good.”

A common theme among Raymond, Anzalone, and Harris, is that they were all castoffs from other organizations. But in Detroit, coaches played to their strengths and put them in situations where they could find success. As a result, the players performed and all of them earned a second contract with the team. They also share a common mental trait that the organization targets during the acquisition process: A hunger to be successful.

“As a player, you want expectations,” Agnew continued. “You want people to think you’re going to be good. And the reason why we can be comfortable is because of the guys we have on this team. These guys are still hungry. They’re still hungry. They’re still hungry to prove that they’re great in this League. They’re still hungry to prove that we belong in the conversation, so I don’t worry about that. We’ve got a hungry group of guys. They come to work every day. You don’t see anybody slacking, laying off like we’ve figured it out, so I have no issues with that.”

Expectations are very high for the Lions in 2023. But the Lions feel like they’re prepared for the added pressure of high expectations because of what they have gone through as a group.

“Let’s call it ‘took our medicine,’ in the past couple of years,” Holmes explained. “Me and Dan (Campbell) talk about it all the time. We’ve coached the Senior Bowl. We’ve had to do Hard Knocks. We’ve done all that. We’ve gone through a lot of darkness to get to this point, but that’s where the grit comes in place in terms of just not really wavering or put(ting) your head down, or get(ting) discouraged. And so, we just kind of just put the focus in building the best roster that we can and really just getting the best football players.”

Together, the Lions have assembled a team of hungry players who have learned how to overcome obstacles through resiliency. They are loaded with talented youth and veteran leadership that fit seamlessly into the vision created by Holmes and Campbell. You will never be perfect in the NFL, and obstacles will once again present themselves for this team—but Campbell believes this group is built to overcome them.

“We won’t sacrifice our identity for anything, and I think we’re a pretty resilient group,” Campbell said. “I think that’s where I believe it all starts because for us, and for anybody that’s been around this game. Look, we’re going to hit some hard times, and it’s the teams that can come out of that the other way, and that can come out the other end unscathed. And I think that’s what this roster’s built for because every team goes through it and we’re going to have—I believe we’ll have our ups, but when we hit some rough spots, this team is built to handle it and will come out better.”

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.