HomeFootball DirtThe construction of a Super Bowl contender by Detroit GM Brad Holmes

The construction of a Super Bowl contender by Detroit GM Brad Holmes

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Brad Holmes’ first move as the general manager of the Detroit Lions was to ship Matthew Stafford out of town. His reward for giving the Los Angeles Rams a future Super Bowl winner? Two first round picks, a third round selection and a quarterback Holmes was plenty familiar with dating back to his 17 years in the Rams’ organization: Jared Goff. This was no small step in a long journey. It was a leap headfirst into a rebuild that paid off faster than anyone could have expected. And because of the moves he made, his Lions are one win away from the Super Bowl for the first time in more than 30 years. Holmes’ fingerprints were indelibly plastered all over Detroit’s first playoff winning streak since 1957.

Goff was behind center in a 31-23 divisional round win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, slinging a pair of touchdowns without a turnover in order to push his comeback to new heights. He got a dagger score on a brilliant 31-yard run from a rookie tailback he’d gotten slammed for drafting with the 12th overall pick months earlier.

His top 2022 draft pick had a sack and two quarterback hits. A 2023 second-rounder had a sack and two tackles for loss. The jewel in the middle of his free agent class intercepted Baker Mayfield days after lobbing inaccurate trash talk his way. The fourth-round pick he swiped on Day 3 of his first draft extended his All-Pro campaign with a touchdown catch. The Pro Bowl rookie tight end he’d drafted in the second round led the Lions in both receptions and receiving yards despite a bone bruise in his knee.

Holmes took a laughingstock and turned it into one of the NFC’s two best teams. It’s a rise that began with Goff, a player the Rams no longer wanted, pushing an immoveable boulder up a steep hill thanks to shrewd drafting and useful bargain free agent pickups. There’s still a long way to go before Detroit can rest easy at the top of that slope, but they’re on the precipice of the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Here’s how Holmes got them there.

Holmes started off his career by swapping out Stafford for Goff. But while the revived quarterback would become a sigil of Detroit’s resilience, his comeback came with plenty of help. It started with the first-year GM’s first class of additions. Holmes’ 2021 wasn’t all roses. He traded for, then extended Michael Brockers in hopes of bringing an impact Ram north, only for the veteran defensive lineman to record one sack and two quarterback hits in two seasons in Detroit. Second round pick Levi Onwuzurike missed all of 2022 and has yet to play more than 40 percent of the team’s defensive sacks in a season. Still, this was a great year to stock up on foundational talent. Here are the biggest additions to a squad emerging from the fog of the wasted Matt Patricia era. Drafted: OT Penei Sewell in the first round (two Pro Bowls, one first-team All-Pro honor in three seasons) DT Alim McNeill in the third round (two seasons as an above average starter up front) WR Amon-Ra St. Brown in the fourth round (averaging ~1,200 receiving yards, seven touchdowns per season and was a 2023 All-Pro) Signed: LB Alex Anzalone (a three-year starter with flaws, but an unquestioned leader in the middle of the field) RB Jamaal Williams (led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns in 2022, his first career 1,000-yard season) TE Brock Wright as an undrafted free agent (useful blocker capable of occasionally breaking your will — see his 29-yard catch vs. the Bucs)

That group went 3-13-1 in its first season together with head coach Dan Campbell. This included a 3-3 record in the Lions’ final six games, setting the stage for the rise yet to come.

2022 saw the start of Holmes’ payoff from the Stafford trade, but his early returns have been uneven. Aidan Hutchinson has played like the no-brainer pick he was. After that, things get dicey. No one’s quite sure what Jameson Williams or Josh Paschal are capable of. Malcolm Rodriguez was thrust into a tough situation as a rookie, then optioned to a depth role after Holmes was compelled to draft an off-ball linebacker near the top of the 2023 Draft. Still, there are familiar names in 2022’s additions who stood out in 2023. Drafted: DE Aidan Hutchinson in the first round (21 sacks in two seasons as a pro to date) S Kerby Joseph in the third round (allowed a 70.5 passer rating in coverage in his second season as a starter) Signed/re-signed: LB Anzalone WR Josh Reynolds (nearly 15 yards per catch as a Lion, a touchdown vs. the Buccaneers in the divisional round) S Tracy Walker (occasionally great, occasionally a mess)

Holmes did most of his work in the draft thanks to four picks in the first two rounds. That gave him the latitude to select four foundational players — even if the two biggest stars may have been the guys he selected in the second round. Detroit got a further boost from a free agent spending spree that saw 11 new arrivals come in via combined contract value of more than $100 million. Here are the players who made the biggest impact as the Lions jumped into the playoff race. Drafted: RB Jahmyr Gibbs in the first round (1,261 total yards, 11 touchdowns in 15 games as a rookie and one vitally important 31-yard touchdown run vs. the Bucs) LB Jack Campbell in the first round (12 starts, 95 tackles) TE Sam LaPorta in the second round (889 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns and a Pro Bowl invitation while earning legitimate rookie of the year consideration) S Brian Branch in the second round (13 passes defensed, three interceptions, seven tackles for loss while earning legitimate rookie of the year consideration) Signed/re-signed: RB David Montgomery (1,015 yards, 13 touchdowns in 2023) CB Cameron Sutton (started all 17 regular season games, was occasionally OK) S Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (spent most of 2023 injured but returned for the playoffs to immediately intercept Baker Mayfield) OG Graham Glasgow (15 starts of above-average play blocking) LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (one of the NFL’s most valuable special teams players) All in all, Holmes built a playoff contender by dismantling the 2020 roster; the only starting holdovers from the final year of Patricia’s mismanagement are Frank Ragnow and Tracy Walker. And because his team is so young, we can expect them to live at altitude for years to come.

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