Wojo: Lions set Golladay free, and it actually makes sense for forlorn franchise

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Contrary to prevailing belief, the Lions haven’t started rebuilding yet. They’re still in full tear-down, right to the studs, and they’re even getting rid of the studs.

This is the painful reality, and also the painful necessity. We can debate whether Kenny Golladay qualifies as an elite stud receiver, but there’s no debating he was one of the Lions’ few offensive centerpieces. He’ll soon be a free agent after the Lions declined to franchise-tag him, and the exodus continues.

I know, I know, the last star athlete out of Detroit should hit the lights, right? Matthew Stafford, Blake Griffin, Golladay, not much left. No one said this would be easy, but you know the best thing about a complete rebuild? It’s so painful, you never want to do it again, so you’d better do it right.

You’d think when a team lets one of its best players walk, it’s a bad sign. With the overhauled Lions, it’s the appropriate sign, clearing salary-cap space and prepping for the future. New GM Brad Holmes isn’t interested in playing tag, chasing players with pricey, short-term contracts when they may not be around when it’s time to contend. The Lions also declined to franchise-tag defensive end Romeo Okwara, who led the team with 10 sacks and now will become a free-agent.

This is the clearest sign yet, even more than the Stafford trade, that the Lions are knocking down all walls and bulldozing the land. It’s the part (and path) of least resistance because the new front office gets a certain grace period. Heck, they can show progress just by doing everything the opposite of what was done before.

Yes, it would’ve been better if they were able to tag Golladay and trade him. We assume Holmes tested the market and found teams unlikely to deal. The Lions will get a compensatory draft choice in 2022 and that’s it for a third-round pick who showed great potential in four seasons but was oft-injured and seemingly eager to move on.

Negotiations with Golladay never got far under former GM Bob Quinn, and who could blame Golladay for wanting out. After Holmes dealt Stafford, who had the strong arm for a deep threat receiver, it made sense to part ways.

Golladay reportedly wanted $18-19 million per season, and his sterling 2019 numbers – 65 receptions, 1,190 yards, 11 touchdowns – should land him that. But he battled hamstring and hip injuries last season and played in only five games. The Lions would’ve owed him $16 million for one year, and if they had any designs on playoff contention next season, it would be malpractice not to tag him. But as we know, the Lions actually are in contention for the No. 1 pick in 2022.

It’s weird to agree with huge moves by this forlorn franchise, and it will take some adjusting. But the early returns on Holmes are promising. Of course, it’ll only last if draft picks and other acquisitions turn out better than the departures. That includes head coach Dan Campbell, who might never be as popular as right now, with a spotless 0-0 record in Detroit.

Holmes brings an aggressive approach from his scouting roots with the Rams, and that’s really the only way a reconstruction of this magnitude can be done. The Lions have adjusted on the fly many, many times the past half-century, changing a coach here, tweaking an offense there, historically handing the GM job to the first person who called.

Owner Sheila Ford Hamp is more involved than her parents were, and I don’t care if she wants to sit in on personnel meetings. Good for her, good for any owner. I only care that she’s fully committed to the task and fully committed to letting Holmes, Campbell and their staffs work without interference. The truth is, the Lions have never done a down-to-the-studs rebuild.

Jared Goff is the presumptive quarterback next season, and at 26 and two years removed from starting in the Super Bowl, he could be the guy going forward. But it’ll be difficult to evaluate him if the Lions’ receiving corps consists of Tyrell Williams, Quintez Cephus and the fading memory of Herman Moore.

There are plenty of high-end receivers in the draft, and at No. 7, the Lions will get a shot at one, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle or Heisman winner Devonta Smith. They might do it now that Golladay is gone, or even take a quarterback if the right one slips to them. There are valid reasons to give Goff a chance, but when you have an opportunity to land a touted quarterback prospect, you take it.

The draft class is top-heavy with them — Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Trey Lance. Recently on the “Huddle and Flow” podcast, Holmes was asked if the Lions are out of the quarterback market.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I don’t think when you’re picking this high that you can be out on any position. I just think it’s good drafting business always to be very, very thorough on the quarterback class, regardless of your situation. It is a good crop this year, definitely not a position that will be ignored by us by any means.”

Ah, the opposite of Quinntricia. Quinn made it clear the Lions weren’t looking for a quarterback, so they received no trade nibbles for the No. 3 pick. Holmes made it abundantly clear the Lions are always looking.

You can’t judge each new move in a vacuum. For instance, the Lions must massively overhaul their defense, and probably will bring in eight or nine new starters. That doesn’t mean they have to commit their first pick to defense at the expense of missing out on an elite offensive player.

Perhaps they can convince Okwara, 25, to stay. He’s just now emerging as a pass-rusher, and maybe he commits long term with a new coaching staff. Also, his brother, Julian, is on the roster.

There are so many intriguing decisions ahead for all four Detroit pro teams, who keep subtracting to make room to add. There’s an especially interesting parallel between the Lions and Pistons. Not historically, of course. The Pistons have won championships during most of our lifetimes, three in fact.

Both have fresh, young GMs that came from winning organizations, charged with the task of establishing or restoring a culture. Troy Weaver has dispatched veterans Griffin and Derrick Rose and could move more at the March 25 trade deadline.

Weaver has been impressively proactive in turning over the Pistons roster, and when he met with the media Tuesday, he didn’t promise more fireworks, yet. His fine rookie class is part of the foundation, as is Jerami Grant, an absolute steal of a signing.

Weaver, like Holmes, isn’t tied to the past here, isn’t hampered by mandates or sentimentality. I asked him if there were any untouchables on his team and he answered as Holmes likely would answer (although Grant, 27, might be as close as you can get).

 “Untouchables? No,” Weaver said. “I learned never say never, but there are some guys that are here to stay. … If I say this guy in untouchable, and somebody calls me and offers four first-round picks, OK, not untouchable.”

Few, if any, untouchables remain around here, certainly not on the Lions. That’s too bad, and if Golladay flourishes elsewhere, it’ll be painful for some. The theory in all rebuilds is, the pain will produce gain. The growing hope is, those in charge are shrewder and more committed than their predecessors.


Twitter: bobwojnowski

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