Detroit Lions short on kneecap talk and star power in NFL free agency — and that’s OK

Detroit Free Press

So much for biting kneecaps.

The Detroit Lions wrapped up their first wave of NFL free agency with a decidedly more muted tone than the one that kicked off the introduction of this new regime.

Because let’s face it, the Lions’ free-agent haul this year has generated all the excitement of buying a discounted muffler. And that’s especially tough to take when many of your 31 other neighbors are splurging on Corvettes and Broncos.

In Detroit, we get Tyrell Williams. In New York, they get Kenny Golladay. In Detroit, we get Michael Brockers. In Arizona, they get J.J. Watt.

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Something else we got in Detroit on Monday, when coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes discussed the free-agent haul, was a lot of talk about the process behind personnel decisions.

What we didn’t get was more talk about chewing on anyone’s anatomy. There was no fire from Campbell or Holmes. There was just the slow burn and prosaic talk about the business of putting together a football team. Stuff like this coach or personnel guy vouched for that player. Boring stuff.

There’s nothing wrong with that, because Campbell’s early, unsustainable off-the-charts enthusiasm was understandable for a first-time coach. It wasn’t going to last because it never does, and winning the press conference matters only so much.

But this is how the business of the NFL gets done, in quiet offices with guys drenching their eyes with Visine and drowning their sleep-deprived souls with coffee as they scour film. Who’s good and why? How much does he have left?

What we don’t have in Detroit after the first round of free agency are stars. Be honest with yourself. Which new player are you truly excited to see in a Lions uniform? Brockers? Jamaal Williams? Jared Goff?

That’s not to say these players won’t be good pieces that lead to better days further down the road of this rebuild. But you just have to follow the money to know the truth. Many of the players were signed to one-year contracts, partly due to their production and partly due to a lower salary cap that limited their options.

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But one-year contracts also go by another name: prove-it deals. It means the player has to prove he’s worth more in order to earn a more lucrative contract next year.

It was refreshing to hear Campbell speak honestly about that, when he drew a comparison between himself, the organization and the players the team is acquiring.

“They’ve got a little bit of a chip on their shoulder,” he said, “whether it’s ‘I’m coming off an injury’ or ‘they were trying to reduce my salary’ or ‘I’m a guy that they didn’t want anymore’ or ‘I’m a guy they think is washed up.’ All these guys have something to prove and man, so do we. I mean, Brad’s got something to prove, I’ve got something to prove. My staff has something to prove.

“I mean, everything we’ve kind of done (owner Sheila Hamp’s) got something to prove has been a little bit unorthodox, I guess you could call it. But that’s a good thing, man. We want hungry people here that want to be there, they all wanted to be here and wanted to win.”

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I’m going to pause here for a second to underscore something that’s important. Campbell said Hamp has something to prove, and he’s right, because she’s a fairly new owner. But in most organizations, it’s considered taboo for an employee to say anything about the owner that isn’t unadulterated adulation. I just hope Hamp takes Campbell’s words in the best possible spirit of honesty, because whether it’s stated or not, that’s the only way this franchise can move forward, by being honest about where it is and how it’s going to get to where it wants to go.

And yes, that means no stars. Not right now. Probably not next year, either.

Other than Matthew Stafford craftily engineering his way out of Detroit before the Great Quarterback Migration of 2021 began, the Lions’ other big free-agent move came from letting Kenny Golladay walk. It was left to Holmes to navigate and explain the decision that will likely net him just a third-round compensatory pick next year.

“It was a few different factors that went into it,” he said, “but at the end of the day it was just making the right decision for the Lions, both not only short term, but more importantly long term.”

Long term. Yep. That, my friends, is the definition of a rebuild. It’s going to be the kind of slow, plodding grind for the Lions that’s become a way of life for all our Detroit sports teams. And it’s necessary.

That doesn’t mean we can’t take pleasure in watching players develop and prove themselves worthy of bigger contracts here or elsewhere. While we would all like to believe in miracles and hope for a quick fix and sudden success, that’s far less likely to happen than the incremental improvement that goes into constructing something the right way.

And don’t worry. When it finally starts to come together and the Lions are ready to sign some stars, we can talk about kneecaps again.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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