Niyo: Lions need to keep quarterback fires burning ahead of NFL Draft

Detroit News

Brad Holmes set the market this winter. Then some of his peers went ahead and set it on fire last week.

So now it’s a wait-and-see game for the Lions’ general manager, watching the smoke and wondering if there’ll be enough embers still smoldering in a few weeks to strike another match. Or if, in a way, he got burned by his own boldness.

What’s the value of the No. 7 overall pick now? Maybe not what it once was, that’s true. But it may yet be worth more to someone else than it is to Detroit. Finding out is Holmes’ task between now and the end of April, when the NFL Draft kicks off in Cleveland and the Lions’ new regime is officially on the clock.

Just how the events of this past week — an acceleration of things Holmes & Co. set in motion back in January — will play into that decision-making process is hard to say at the moment.

But as the Lions’ GM met with the media Monday, he didn’t sound at all flustered by what has transpired since the Matthew Stafford trade and the quarterback-fueled conflagration that followed.

Last week’s lightning strike out West fanned new flames, as the San Francisco 49ers paid a ransom to acquire the No. 3 pick from Miami in an attempt to land one of the coveted arms in this year’s draft. And then the Dolphins traded back up to No. 6 in a separate deal with the Eagles, further clouding the Lions’ prospects at the top of the draft.

But Holmes insists it doesn’t really alter his view, at least in part because he’d done his homework. And having been the first to market this offseason — the Lions put Stafford on the trade block shortly after Holmes and coach Dan Campbell were hired in January — Detroit’s new GM already had talked to each of his quarterback-needy colleagues across the league this winter. He’d fielded formal offers for Stafford from several of them, and Holmes had a pretty good sense of the level of desperation that was out there even before “the first domino fell,” as the 49ers’ John Lynch put it.

“Not saying that I knew things were going to happen,” Holmes said Monday, “but when they unfold, you’re not caught off-guard.”

Nor are the Lions caught empty-handed here, which was part of the plan all along in agreeing to that blockbuster deal with the Rams and Holmes’ former boss, Les Snead. Los Angeles gave up two future first-round picks and a 2021 third-rounder in the swap for Stafford that also brought a two-time Pro Bowler in Jared Goff back to Detroit.

“We weren’t scared to set the market first, and set it early,” Holmes said. “But it wasn’t just that.”

More coverage: Despite rebuild, cap limitations, Lions’ Dan Campbell says there’s no ‘free pass’

It was also that there’s “an unprecedented amount of question marks at that position,” he says. And even if Goff isn’t the long-term answer here, he’s a short-term solution to a problem that’s causing considerable anxiety — and action — elsewhere in the NFL.

Rather than pay heavily for Stafford, Indianapolis instead traded a 2021 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 pick — that’ll likely end up a first-rounder — to Philadelphia for Carson Wentz. The 49ers are another team looking to upgrade at quarterback, and now they’ll grab the top prospect left on the board after Jacksonville selects Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 and the New York Jets presumably go with BYU’s Zach Wilson at No. 2.

Atlanta, which owns the fourth overall pick, could make it four quarterbacks to start the draft, assuming the Falcons are ready to move on from veteran Matt Ryan after this season.

But that still leaves Carolina, Washington, Denver, New England and Chicago among the teams that might be willing to move up in the draft for a quarterback. And it still leaves the Lions in an enviable spot, with a handful of quarterbacks in this class carrying first-round grades – Lawrence, Wilson, Trey Lance (North Dakota State), Justin Fields (Ohio State) and Mac Jones (Alabama).

“There’s five guys that are kind of at this party,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday. “People are talking about them going everywhere. They’re all over in the first round. But our feeling was these guys were gonna go a lot higher than people realize.

“You hear a lot of teams all the way through the draft are in a situation where they really want a quarterback. That means those five guys are gonna disappear pretty fast.”

How fast? We may not know for sure until draft night. But Holmes, who isn’t about to rule out the Lions’ interest in joining that QB party, is keeping the lines of communication open until then.

“I can’t say that my phone was blowing up (Friday),” he said, “but obviously we’ve had discussions with different teams.”

And they’ll have more, no doubt. In the meantime, both Holmes and Campbell attended the recent pro-day workouts featuring Lawrence, Wilson and Lance. Fields will take part in Ohio State’s pro day today, but likely will hold another. And Jones is expected to throw for scouts again today at Alabama’s second pre-draft workout.

More: Lions GM Holmes shares funny story about Breshad Perriman’s ‘record-breaking’ Pro Day

That’s not play-acting on the Lions’ part, either, as Holmes explained Monday. He says it’s “very, very important to know the quarterback class” if you’re a team picking in the top 10 like the Lions are scheduled to for a third consecutive year. Just so you “have a very clear understanding of that position and things won’t really surprise you” when the pieces start moving around the chessboard.

“Making sure that we’re aware of what’s behind us, what’s in front of us,” Holmes said, “Knowing the class regardless of your circumstance, that all helps kind of make a better prediction or forecast.”

A month out, that forecast figures to change, too. But at this point, even what some might call the worst-case scenario for the Lions — staying put — seems like a pretty good one. If they can’t entice a team to trade up for the No. 7 pick, they’ll have some intriguing options.

There’s a trio of receivers who could be worthy of a top-10 pick in LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith. There’s an offensive tackle in Oregon’s Penei Sewell who could complete Detroit’s offensive line. There’s also a rare hybrid talent in Florida tight end Kyle Pitts — “a different bird,” Campbell called him Monday — who just might be the best prospect in this draft behind Lawrence.

“I mean, he’s talented,” Campbell said. “But there’s a number of guys up there that are talented, man. You look at the quarterbacks that are up there. You look at the receivers. You look at (Pitts). You look at the tackle. There’s a number of guys that you’d be fired up to have one way or another.”

He’s not just blowing smoke, either. Even if that’s the smartest thing the Lions can do right now, trying to keep the fires burning.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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