Niyo: As Stafford departs, Lions new GM Brad Holmes announces his arrival

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

So for Brad Holmes, the Lions’ new general manager, this really was the grand introduction.

And this blockbuster trade — dealing veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for another former No. 1 overall pick in Jared Goff, a pair of future first-round picks and a third-rounder this spring — was quite the “How do you do?”, wasn’t it?

It’s a seismic move not just for the Lions’ franchise — following up a regime change with even more headline-grabbing news — but also for the NFL, which already was bracing for a wild offseason of unprecedented quarterback movement.

And for Holmes, in particular, it’s a trade that moves the needle in perhaps incalculable ways, barely two weeks after the 41-year-old former college scouting director was hired as a first-time GM — one of the least-heralded of a dozen candidates that Lions ownership interviewed for the job this winter.

You want to buy yourself some goodwill with a beleaguered fan base? Well, massive trade haul like this is a pretty good way to start. And make no mistake, this was a fair ransom the Lions got here, particularly when you consider that Stafford was always going to have some influence over his ultimate destination.

Sure, maybe there was a deal out there that offered more instant gratification from, say, San Francisco or Indianapolis or Denver or Carolina or Washington. But this one is bigger in total, no doubt, and that’s arguably better in the long run for a Lions team that’s clearly looking at things through a wider lens these days.

Maximum value

The league-wide consensus since word leaked last week — rather conveniently and strategically, which was an encouraging sign — that Stafford and the Lions had mutually agreed to part ways was that the asking price would start at a first-round pick coming back to Detroit in any trade. A third of the league called the Lions to inquire — maybe more — and, according to a source, as many as seven or eight teams put forward aggressive offers that matched that first-round asking price.

But in order for the Rams to join the fray, it was going to take more, both because they didn’t own a 2021 first-round pick and because they needed to offload Goff’s contract, which includes more than $43 million in guaranteed money over the next two years. So more is what the Lions got in return, agreeing to take on Goff’s deal in exchange for first-round picks in 2022 and ’23, as well as the Rams’ third-round pick this year. Only one other NFL quarterback in the last 20 years (Jay Cutler) has been traded for multiple first-round picks, in case you’re wondering.

Holmes, of course, had a front-row seat as the Rams organization pulled off some major trades in recent years, including the one that GM Les Snead orchestrated to land a franchise quarterback in Goff at the top of the draft in 2016. And it’s probably not a complete coincidence that Snead’s desperation here met with a sympathetic ear from his protege. 

But whatever the machinations were, this move was foreshadowed earlier Saturday when the Lions’ new head coach, Dan Campbell, spoke with The Detroit News about his vision for a post-Stafford era.

“I mean, honestly, we’re going to get him into a home and we’re going to get the most value for it,” Campbell said. “And we wish him the best, unless we’ve got to play him.”

As it turns out, they likely will play him, because the Lions are now scheduled to face Stafford and the Rams this fall at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. That’ll be doubly awkward, too, as it’ll be a not-so-friendly homecoming of sorts for Goff, the former No. 1 overall pick who’d clearly lost the confidence of his head coach, Sean McVay, after the past two seasons fell short of the expectations set by a Super Bowl berth in 2018.

Trading places

The lukewarm endorsements following the Rams’ divisional playoff loss to Green Bay were an ominous sign for Goff’s future there. When asked about Goff, who threw for just 42 touchdowns with 29 interceptions the last two years, McVay would only say he was “the quarterback right now.” Snead said much the same days later, and when pressed about Goff’s weighty contract limiting the Rams’ options, the GM, who’d signed him to a $134 million extension only 17 months ago, noted that “anything can be done,” even with the NFL’s salary cap.

Holmes clearly understood that, and now Lions fans do, too, though I’m sure some were hoping for a cleaner cap sheet whenever the team finally decided to make a clean break with their own franchise quarterback. Still, after years of pondering the possibilities of what a Stafford trade might bring, now we know, at least.

Stafford leaves Detroit as the Lions’ all-time leader in passing yards (45,109) and touchdowns (282). But his powerful right arm wasn’t enough to lift the Curse of Bobby Layne, even though he hailed from the same Dallas-area high school. Stafford led Detroit to the playoffs three times — in 2011, ’14, and 16 — but the Lions lost in the wild-card round each time and still own just one playoff win since 1957.

In Los Angeles, where Stafford and his wife own a home, he’ll be expected to do far more than that, joining a team that’s won 43 games, two division crowns and an NFC title in the last four years. The soon-to-be 33-year-old is due to make $43 million over the next two years, but likely will sign an extension with the Rams this offseason. (That’s why Stafford’s input was always going to carry some weight in this process.)

Goff, meanwhile, will get a second chance to prove himself as the Lions’ presumptive starter in new coordinator Anthony Lynn’s offense this fall. 

But what the Lions get is what they really need. More chances for Holmes to prove his scouting acumen in the draft — five first-round picks in the next three years is a pretty good starting point — and less pressure now to use his first of those on a quarterback.

They may yet decide to spend the No. 7 overall pick in April on a quarterback, casting their lot on a talent like Ohio State’s Justin Fields, if he’s still on the board, or possibly North Dakota State’s Trey Lance, the kind of high-upside raw talent who might best be served with a rookie-year apprenticeship.

With Goff as the No. 1 for now — and no doubt determined to prove himself all over again at age 26 — the Lions don’t have to force anything here. If there’s not a quarterback they like early in this year’s draft, they’ve got time, if not all the money.

And the way Campbell talked, only hours before the trade was formally agreed to — the deal won’t be official until the league year begins in mid-March —  it was obvious that’s sort of a liberating feeling.

“This is kind of fun, man,” he said. “This is uncharted territory a little bit. I told Brad, ‘You may never get another trade like this. This may be the one, right? So let’s make the most of it and just do what you feel is right.’ “

Right or wrong, I get the feeling every Lions fan is quickly forming an opinion on their new GM, though.

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