Niyo: Stafford trade talks raise pressure — and possibility — for new Lions GM Brad Holmes

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

Lions ownership didn’t even know who Brad Holmes was a couple of months ago. Now Sheila Ford Hamp is trusting a newly-hired, first-time general manager to trade away the most prolific passer in franchise history — and to get fair market value in return.

If that sounds like a huge leap of faith, it is. But it’s also a huge opportunity for the 41-year-old Holmes to prove himself, tasked with orchestrating a deal that’ll go a long way in charting this franchise’s future, to say nothing of his own.

Nearly three weeks ago, Matthew Stafford finally told management he was ready to move on, on the heels of an eighth losing season in his 12-year NFL career here. And that feeling is now officially mutual, with both parties agreeing to pursue a trade after the veteran quarterback spoke with Holmes and new head coach Dan Campbell late last week.

Yet as hard as that might’ve been for both sides, it really was the easy part. Now comes the hard part for Holmes, who never has done anything quite like this before but immediately becomes a pivotal player in what could be one of the wildest NFL offseasons in recent memory.

With MVP-caliber talents like Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers possibly joining Stafford on the trading block, and future Hall of Famers like Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger possibly joining Philip Rivers in retirement, the quarterback carousel is ready for a giant spin. And the Lions, who’ll have other major personnel decisions to make between now and the start of free agency in mid-March, will be in the dizzying middle of it all.

That’s one reason the Lions are bringing in a more experienced hand in John Dorsey, a former GM in Kansas City and Cleveland, to serve as a senior personnel executive in the front office. He’ll undoubtedly help Holmes, who spent the last eight years as the Los Angeles Rams’ director of college scouting, navigate some of the wheeling and dealing ahead.

Mind you, Holmes is no stranger to blockbuster trades, coming from a Rams organization that made several of them under GM Les Snead — Jared Goff, Jalen Ramsey, Brandin Cooks, and so on.

“There were a lot of what was deemed ‘bold moves’ that I was fortunate enough to be a part of,” the Lions’ new GM said — in a bit of foreshadowing — during his introductory press conference in Allen Park.

Williams windfall

There’s some precedent here in Detroit, too, for what that’s worth. Think back to the trade deadline in 2008, when then-interim GM Martin Mayhew dealt receiver Roy Williams and a seventh-round pick to Dallas for a windfall at the trade deadline, landing first-, third- and sixth-round picks.

To this day, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says it’s the one move he’d like to have back, as Williams proved to be a bust in Dallas after signing a hefty contract extension as part of the trade. But back in Detroit, it was the move that solidified ownership’s belief Mayhew was the right man for the full-time job later that season.

Williams, not unlike Stafford, wanted out of Detroit as things were in a death spiral early in that winless ’08 season. But Mayhew, who’d been named the acting GM upon Matt Millen’s firing only a few weeks before the deadline, didn’t have any concrete offers until the day before the deadline, and shortly after he’d said publicly he wasn’t shopping his No. 1 receiver. That’s when the Cowboys came calling again, following up on previous informal talks between Millen and Jones, who wanted a No. 2 receiver to complement star Terrell Owens.

Mayhew then started working the phones, drawing some interest from Philadelphia and Miami and ultimately a sweetened offer from Dallas that was viewed as a huge overpay around the NFL when the trade was announced.

Asked that day if he felt like he’d helped his cause to become the Lions’ GM, Mayhew replied, “There’s no ’cause’ here. This helps our franchise. That’s what this helps. And that’s all I’m trying to do is help our franchise get better.”

That’s all Holmes is trying to do now as he leads what is clearly a rebuilding effort in Detroit, even if he prefers to call it something else. (“Please don’t get mad at me if I don’t use the word rebuild,” he said, “if I just continue to pivot toward retool.”) Semantics aside, this Stafford trade request is arguably the best chance he’ll have to add significant draft capital during his time as GM.

It’s too soon to say just what the return might be, but at a bare minimum Stafford should fetch a first-round pick. The closest comparable deal probably was the Bengals’ trade of Carson Palmer to the Raiders in 2011 for a first- and second-round pick spread over two drafts. (The latter was a conditional pick that could’ve ended up a first-rounder had the Raiders made it to the AFC title game in either year.) But Stafford is more accomplished at the same age, and the NFL’s landscape is much different now.

Finding a partner

So it’s up to Holmes and the rest of the Lions’ front office to decide how much is enough, really. Because there’s no shortage of potential suitors, with a dozen teams — maybe more — looking for new quarterbacks this offseason and a handful of viable trade partners for the Lions.

It only takes one to make a deal, of course. But it takes two — or three or four — to make a really good one by creating a seller’s market.

Indianapolis seems like an obvious match, both in fit and finances, and not surprisingly, the media pressure on the Colts already is building on that front. The same will be true elsewhere, assuming this new Lions regime is smart about leaking and lying, when necessary. It remains to be seen how much say Stafford and his powerful agent, Tom Condon, have in the matter, though keeping the divorce proceedings amicable is important because wherever Stafford lands he’ll likely be working out an extension.

Everyone’s waiting to see what happens next in Houston, and whether Watson really is serious about demanding a trade. If he is, the Lions will have to consider making a big deal even bigger here. Beyond that, though, there’s Carolina and New England and Denver and San Francisco and, yes, Washington, where the new GM just happens to be Mayhew, the man who drafted Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. Others could enter the mix, too. Miami? Pittsburgh? And what about Dallas, Stafford’s hometown and a place the Lions could find a full-circle solution of their own with another trade.

Anything’s possible, at this point. And for the Lions’ new GM, that’s both the hope and the challenge. Just as it was for Mayhew all those years ago. He didn’t want the story to be about him that day, but it was, in a way, and the 42-year-old finally admitted after deal was done, “It’s good to make the decision, and have the ability to make it. You’re not making the recommendation: ‘This is what I think we ought to do.’ You can make the decision.”

Soon enough, Brad Holmes will be able to say the same.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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