Subtract, subtract, subtract, subtract, subtract, then subtract some more. The Lions are subtracting players and salaries and mindsets. Drive past their Allen Park facility and you’re likely to see recycling bins overflowing with jerseys, shoes, playbooks and lightly used defensive players.
GM Brad Holmes has made a ton of moves in less than two months on the job, and can you honestly say you hate any of them? He’s doing what he and coach Dan Campbell said they’d do, and what they needed to do. Although in many ways, wheeling the green carts to the curb is the easy part.
This new regime will not be judged on the enormous amount of subtractions. Holmes will be judged on the additions, and so far, they’ve been prudent and precise.
After the initial purge, the Lions have added pieces that might seem contradictory to the rebuild, until you look closer. They agreed to a trade with the Rams, giving up a seventh-round pick for strong and dependable defensive tackle Michael Brockers, a run-stuffer whom Holmes knows well. They signed Packers free-agent Jamaal Williams, 25, a strong and dependable running back who can block and catch the ball effectively.
Sense a pattern here? Brockers and Williams are fine pickups who bring competitive credibility, and who excelled doing the dirty work in the shadow of star teammates (Aaron Donald for the Rams, Aaron Jones for the Packers).
Defensive end Romeo Okwara, 25, wasn’t an addition or subtraction but an important retention, re-signed for $39 million over three years. He had a career-high 10 sacks last season and has missed three total games the past three years. Essentially, the Lions chose him over their other prime free-agent, wide receiver Kenny Golladay, 27, who played in only five of 16 games because of injuries.
There’s another strategic twist. The Lions’ biggest untapped asset is cornerback Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick last year. It’s reasonable to believe Brockers and Okwara – and new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn — will boost the pass rush, which could boost Okudah’s development.
Okwara said Wednesday he stayed in large part because his brother, Julian, is on the Lions. He also sounded excited about the possibility of Glenn’s defense generating more pressure on quarterbacks.
“It’s a combination of everything,” Romeo Okwara said. “You gotta rush the quarterback, but you gotta earn that right by stopping the run. I think it’s gonna look real special.”
We’ve heard that before, I know. But at the very least, the defense will look real different.
I always thought the Lions needed Okwara more than Golladay, and others around the league seem to agree. Golladay was considered a premier free-agent but has yet to sign anywhere, after the Lions declined to use the franchise tag on a one-year, $16-million salary.
Prudent. Precise. And even proactive, with Golladay’s lingering injury issues, including a hip pointer that sidelined him the final nine games last season.
Also this week, the Lions signed the Saints’ Josh Hill, 30, a strong and dependable tight end who specializes in – you guessed it! – blocking, and played for Campbell in New Orleans. They signed wide receiver Tyrell Williams, 29, from the Raiders, not because he’s necessarily dependable – he missed last season with a torn labrum – but because he’s a deep threat who can help mitigate the departure of Golladay, who went from indispensable to unreliable.
Even if you’re not expecting to contend anytime soon, you need experienced players to fill out the roster while you hunt for stars in the draft. You also need guys who fit your mold, and Holmes and Campbell haven’t hidden their hunger for players passionate about football.
“With the Rams, we used to always talk about, let’s invest in reliability and let’s invest in reliable players,” Holmes said when introduced in January. “And obviously, we’re not overlooking talent, a baseline of talent is very necessary. It is the NFL. But I truly believe that the separator of success is those players that do have those high intangible traits.”
In fact, if Holmes and his staff determine North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance possesses those traits, along with superior talent, I don’t think they’d hesitate to grab him at No. 7. Lance reportedly graded extremely well at his pro day.
Let’s be clear here. This doesn’t mean all the departures were weak, unreliable players. But try this exercise. I’ll list the prominent players who were released or signed elsewhere, and you tell me who the Lions should’ve kept: Jarrad Davis, Jamal Agnew, Marvin Jones Jr., Joe Dahl, Danny Shelton, Jesse James, Justin Coleman, Chase Daniel, Christian Jones.
Could’ve kept Agnew and maybe Jones Jr.? Agnew is a Pro Bowl return guy but otherwise limited, and signed a three-year, $21-million contract with Jacksonville. Jones Jr. is productive and tough but is 31, and he also signed a moderately expensive two-year, $14.5-million deal with Urban Meyer’s Jaguars.
Obviously, Matthew Stafford is the largest subtraction and brought the most additions – Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick. Again, familiarity was a factor. Holmes knows Goff from their Rams days and presumably knows what the Lions are getting. The plus-minus on that transaction was a no-brainer for a team undergoing a massive overhaul.
Now, before we name Holmes the Lions Executive of the Century, let’s see how his staff drafts. And let’s see how the players respond to Campbell. Remember, Matt Patricia also brought in lot of his favorites and some fit briefly, while others tired quickly of his caustic ways.
That’s the cautionary pause in these early days. Yes, I think this front office is different because it has experience evaluating talent with successful franchises like the Rams and Saints. But any regime looks good simply discarding broken pieces. The better judgment will come when it’s time to draft high-end talent or sign high-end free-agents. The subtractions and additions don’t add up yet, as far as the math goes. But they certainly add up as far as the logic goes.