What Chris Spielman’s philosophy of building ‘outside in’ could mean for Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press

Chris Spielman made headlines Tuesday when he told WXYT-FM (97.1) he and Detroit Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp were sitting in on scouting meetings and that Hamp was “giving her opinion” when the Lions discussed their plans for free agency.

That news was not totally unexpected — Hamp owns the team and can do what she wants, and no one believed Spielman was giving up a broadcast career to come glad-hand corporate sponsors. While the comment shed some light on the goings-on in Allen Park, it was not the most revealing part of Spielman’s interview.

At least not when it comes to dropping clues about what the Lions will do this offseason.

Spielman shared his philosophy on free agency and the draft, and though he made it clear he was not speaking for new general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell, it’s fair to assume he, Holmes and Campbell share similar philosophies since he led the searches that resulted in the Lions hiring both men.

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So just like Dan Orlovsky was not speaking for his good friend Matthew Stafford when he tweeted about the quarterback’s lack of a future in Detroit, only to have Stafford ask for a trade out of town once the regular season ended, there is enough of a mind meld between Spielman, Holmes and Campbell (Spielman, after all, has been sitting in on the Lions’ draft and free agent meetings) to think he was, consciously or not, hinting about what lies ahead when he shared his thoughts on team-building.

The Lions have rarely been market-setters in free agency, though they did dole out big-money contracts to players like Rick Wagner and Trey Flowers in recent years, and Spielman said he very much prefers to build through the draft.

“In any philosophy, you can fill in voids in free agency, but you can’t buy a locker room,” Spielman said. “That’s been a philosophy for a lot of teams. And generally, what I believe is that you want to build your team through the draft. So it’s kind of, draft, develop and re-sign. And I think that’s hopefully the direction that I think the Lions will take.”

The Lions are about $8 million over the projected salary cap of $180.5 million, according to overthecap.com and will have to clear room in the coming weeks to add quarterback Jared Goff via trade with the Los Angeles Rams and to keep receiver Kenny Golladay if they intend to give him the franchise tag.

As tight to the cap as they are, no one was expecting the Lions to be major players in free agency next month, however, Spielman said there may come a time when that changes.

“Everybody understands that the most successful teams usually build through the draft… your core nucleus of players and you try to re-sign those guys for a second contract,” he said. “Then when you get to a certain point, if you want to be active in free agency, a la the Super Bowl world champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and you go out and get (Leonard) Fournette and (Tom) Brady and (Rob) Gronkowski, then that’s something you can do. But right now, you want to establish a core group of guys, it has to be done through the draft, in my opinion.”

The Lions have operated with a draft-centric approach under Holmes, who dealt Stafford to the Rams for Goff and three draft picks in his first major act as Lions GM.

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The Lions acquired two future first-round picks in the deal and could be looking to pile up more picks in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Golladay’s case is an interesting one, as the 27-year-old receiver could fall into the category of players the Lions want to re-sign to a second contract.

At his best, Golladay is one of the most imposing receivers in the NFL, and someone Spielman spoke positively about Tuesday.

“I think Kenny is a, he’s a competitive guy and the thing that I’ve always admired most about Kenny when doing the games on TV is his ability to win the 50-50 ball,” Spielman said. “I just think his size and what he can bring to the table is something that a lot of people liked about Kenny Golladay, including me.”

Golladay also fits into another philosophy Spielman espoused Tuesday, that having good receivers are crucial to winning in today’s NFL.

“I’ll have to ask Brad or Dan this theory, but I have a theory that you kind of, back when I played … you used to build from the inside out,” Spielman said. “Well, today’s league, I think you build from the outside in.”

Spielman went on to say the Lions have “two really good young corners” that “both I think have improvement in their future,” and praised Holmes’ ability to identify top defensive backs during his days as the Rams’ college scouting coordinator.

The Rams took safety Jordan Fuller in the sixth round of last year’s draft and saw him start 12 games in 2020. Holmes also was a big proponent of undrafted defensive back Darious Williams in the 2018 draft, who the Rams claimed off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens as a rookie and who was a key member of their defense last season.

Extrapolating Spielman’s build-from-the-outside-in comments, that could put the Lions firmly in play for a wide receiver with the seventh pick of this year’s draft (or in a trade-down situation).

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While there are dueling, widely held beliefs that the Lions need to overhaul their defense (Spielman also said there is “talent” at linebacker and that the Lions need more depth on the defensive line) and find a quarterback of the future, receiver is considered one of the strongest positions in the draft with three blue-chip potential top-10 picks in LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and the Alabama duo of DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.

The Lions have one receiver under contract who caught a pass for them in 2020, Quintez Cephus, and need to upgrade the position regardless of what they do with Golladay.

Spielman said the Lions’ offseason roster-building process won’t be overly complicated “as long as everybody is constantly communicating and understanding what the philosophy is moving forward.”

To execute the philosophy, he said, takes discipline — which, given where the Lions are, may be code for patience.

“Sometimes there’s a lot that goes into making a decision on whether you sign a player or not sign a player, and there’s a lot of things that you have to take into consideration. ‘Well, just go trade for that guy.’ Or, ‘Go trade for this guy,’” he said. “Everything has to fit. First of all, you have to put fit is the same thing as what Brad Holmes calls football character, and to no surprise, Dan’s definition of football character is grit. And oh, by the way, let’s bring in (Mike Disner) and make sure that all these things fit numbers-wise so we don’t get ourselves in a box in the future.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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