Reading clues from Brad Holmes and John Dorsey’s past to decipher Detroit Lions’ QB plan

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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In the weeks before the 2017 NFL draft, the Kansas City Chiefs brought six of the top quarterback prospects in for visits, including all three who went in the first round.

Each quarterback spent four to five hours with coaches whose job it was to “discern their mental ability, what can they pick up and regurgitate,” then Chiefs general manager John Dorsey explained at the time.

When all the meetings were finished, Dorsey, one of Brad Holmes’ top lieutenants in the Detroit Lions new front office, had his coaches sit down and rank the quarterbacks mentally.

“All the guys that came here, they were awesome,” Dorsey said after the draft. “They all did a really nice job. I had the coaches rank them on their ability to learn the game, retain it, do the whole things. (Patrick Mahomes) was No. 1, of all the guys.”

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The Chiefs made a bold move to trade up for Mahomes in the draft, and next week the NFL’s best quarterback will play in his second straight Super Bowl.

Mahomes, 25, is the standard for quarterbacks entering the league today, and Dorsey’s pursuit of him and Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who he took with the first pick of the 2018 NFL draft, plus the Los Angeles Rams’ selection of Jared Goff with the No. 1 pick in 2016, when Holmes was the team’s college scouting director, provide clues as to what direction the Lions might go at the quarterback position this spring.

The Lions opened trade talks for Matthew Stafford this week and could look to take his replacement with the No. 7 pick in April’s draft.

As was the case in the 2016-18 drafts — Goff and Carson Wentz went 1-2 in 2016; Mitchell Trubisky went ahead of Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson went after him, in 2017; and four quarterbacks went in the top 10 in 2018 in Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen — this year’s draft appears to have several quarterbacks held in similar regard as prospects.

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is the consensus No. 1 player in the draft and a lock to go to the Jacksonville Jaguars with the first pick, but Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and perhaps Alabama’s Mac Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask could go in the first round.

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It is too early to say how Fields, Wilson, Lance and the rest of the class compare to Mahomes, Mayfield and Goff as prospects, but both Dorsey and Holmes’ old boss and mentor, Rams GM Les Snead, shared similar philosophies when describing what attracted them to the quarterbacks they picked.

Neither man focused on their quarterback’s arm strength or mobility, though both Dorsey and Snead mentioned those traits as being factors.

Primarily, they talked about smarts, decision making and leadership, with upside and a few a deeper-than-the-box-score stats mixed in.

“Ultra competitive,” Dorsey said after the draft when asked what attracted him to Mahomes. “He is sharp now. This guy loves football, but he is mentally sharp and very quick (thinking), and that’s a good trait to have when you’re at the quarterback position.”

Though he has developed into a generational player now, Mahomes was no sure thing coming out of Texas Tech, when he was seen as talented but raw, with questions about how his success in an Air Raid offense would translate to the NFL.

Dorsey admitted both before and after the draft Mahomes was not a “surefire bang” Day 1 starter, but his upside was too tantalizing to pass up.

The Chiefs, who fired Dorsey before the 2017 season, ended up sitting Mahomes for most of his rookie year before turning the team over to him for his MVP campaign in 2018.

“He has got unbelievable talent,” Dorsey said. “He has got the skill set to be one of those truly great players. And I think sometimes when you make an aggressive move like that, that’s why you do it because these players, very few, they don’t come by too often. So you have to take a shot at it, and that’s kind of what we did.”

Of the non-Lawrence quarterbacks at the top of this year’s draft, Lance is perhaps the most similar to Mahomes in terms of untapped potential.

Lance threw for 2,786 yards, without an interception, and ran for 1,100 in his only season as starter in 2019. But the 20-year-old may need a year of seasoning in the NFL after North Dakota State postponed its 2020 season due to COVID-19.

Lance hails from the same school that produced Wentz in 2016, when the Rams had their choice of the consensus two best quarterbacks. Snead opted for Goff, who played his college ball at Cal, though he never said publicly he was concerned about Wentz’s level of competition.

Instead, Snead said he liked how Goff elevated Cal from an afterthought program in the Pac-12 to one of the league’s best by the time he was done, and lauded the quarterback’s ability to process information on the field.

“If you looked at his college film, I think there’s a natural instinct to anticipate, to get the ball out quickly, read overages quickly, get to the second, third read,” Snead said in 2016. “People that can do it as fast as he can, I don’t want to say you’re born with it, but mom, dad, God, somehow there’s some DNA that just comes natural. I think whether you’re in Air Raid or whatever offense or however we’re going to name it, I think you kind of notice that in players, whether they have it, that special quality or not.”

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Like Mahomes, Goff spent a large portion of his rookie season on the bench, replacing Case Keenum as starter midway through the season. And like Mahomes, Goff helped the Rams reach the Super Bowl in his third season thanks to a strong supporting cast.

Snead touted Goff’s red-zone ability in college, noting he threw 49 touchdowns against two interceptions inside his opponents’ 20-yard line over his career, and said the Rams were set up to allow their quarterback to similarly manage a game.

“I think as (then-Rams coach Jeff Fisher) mentioned, probably to both (Goff and Wentz after their pre-draft visits), ‘Don’t worry about throwing the ball, you got to learn to turn around and hand it to (Todd Gurley),’ ” Snead said. “I think what we’ve done last few years is try to address the OL, let that thing evolve, let those guys grow together, become that basketball team and not just a bunch of individuals. The running back helps. We’ve got a nice weapon at (receiver and tight end). We’ll keep trying to get that thing better and putting weapons and solid players around him.”

With Mayfield, Dorsey said questions about his height and physical stature were overblown. He said Mayfield’s 9¾-inch hands were big enough to succeed in the NFL — measurements for this year’s top prospects will come this spring at their pro days — and said Mayfield had fewer passes batted down at the line of scrimmage than other prospects because of his exceptional footwork.

More than anything, though, Dorsey lauded Mayfield’s intangibles, including his intellect and leadership ability.

“With Baker Mayfield what we have is who we talked about, who wins the game of football, is ultra competitive, is revered by his teammates and anybody who has ever been around him,” Dorsey said. “This is a guy that, everything he has ever had from high school to college and now up here, he is a winner, he’s competitive, he really is.”

Mayfield, like Goff and Mahomes, did not start Week 1 as a rookie, which may be the ultimate takeaway from the quarterback decisions Holmes and Dorsey have been a part of.

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Fields, who led Ohio State to the national championship game this season, Lance, who won an FCS title with North Dakota State in 2019, and Wilson, who helped BYU to an 11-1 record, all have a winning pedigree. But if one them comes to Detroit, he may not play much as a rookie.

“This is a quarterback driven league,” Dorsey said in 2017. “And you have to have a system in place with a veteran and a younger guy who’s willing to develop. You have to have these quarterbacks to succeed in the National Football League.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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