If Brad Holmes is nervous preparing for his first draft as a GM, this might calm him: He can’t possibly do any worse than any of his predecessors in Detroit.
OK, a pretty low bar. It takes consistent, confounding bungling to do what the Lions have done, with one playoff victory in 64 years. We can gripe about ownership (legitimate complaint), poor luck (whiny complaint) and erratic quarterback play (true enough). But it all starts in the same spot, in the draft. Not free-agent signings, not trades, not in-game strategy by overmatched coaches. It’s the draft, where the Lions’ “plan” historically has consisted of a dartboard, a bent dart and beer.
I do think Holmes has a chance to be different. He appears smart and organized and comes from a winning organization. His maneuvering to replace Matthew Stafford with Jared Goff and a couple No. 1 picks was impressive. The real evaluation begins Thursday, with the Lions holding the No. 7 pick, and six selections total. Ideally, Holmes finds a trade partner and moves down, but if he stays at No. 7, he’ll have some interesting choices. (I’m sticking with the safe one, Oregon tackle Penei Sewell).
Holmes has no links to the Lions past and should neither be guided nor intimidated by it. He needs to be open-minded and trust his support staff – John Dorsey, Ray Agnew, Chris Spielman — and make decisions without consideration to how the public views them. I can’t prove it, but I’m fairly certain some of the Lions’ high-profile choices over the years were fan-fantasy picks executed by Matt Millen, Martin Mayhew and Bob Quinn, at the passive-aggressive urging of ownership.
This is the most-vexing question in Detroit sports: Do the Lions ruin solid football people (GMs, coaches, quarterbacks) or have those men helped ruin the Lions? Of course it starts with the passive, inept Ford ownership, but the GMs deserve tons of blame.
Now there’s a new owner, Sheila Ford Hamp, a first-time coach, Dan Campbell, and a first-time GM. The slate is clean. If Holmes wants to alter the course of a franchise (no pressure!), I’m here to help. I inspected the Lions’ drafts since 2001 — let’s call it the Millen line, as his arrival launched the Modern Era of Lions Mediocrity — figuring it’s an ample sample size for the biggest busts, as well as a few gems. I didn’t have the energy to go back farther, so hold off on your Andre Ware anger.
Despite all their high picks in two decades, the Lions drafted precisely three perennial “stars” – Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh. So what went wrong and what must Holmes do to make it right? I found clues, although it wasn’t easy narrowing the bustiest busts of the past 20 years to a top (bottom) five:
► 1. Mike Williams, USC wide receiver, No. 10 overall in 2005. It’s not just that Williams was Millen’s third first-round receiver in three years, spawning a joke that will never, ever die. It’s not just that he sat out his final college season, added weight and lost speed. It’s that he was drafted for the singular reason of creating red-zone mismatches for struggling quarterback Joey Harrington, who needed much more than that. Williams had 37 receptions and two touchdowns in two seasons with the Lions and was out of the league by the age of 27.
► 2. Joey Harrington, Oregon quarterback, No. 3 overall in 2002. This was a public-pandering pick, a grab for a franchise face as the Lions moved into Ford Field. It was a bad fit in every way. Harrington didn’t have the arm strength or mental fortitude for one of the toughest jobs in the NFL. I give the guy credit for dealing with over-the-top criticism, and I blame the Lions for pinning such enormous hope on him. Harrington was 18-37 in four seasons and completed a meager 54.7% of his passes.
►3. Charles Rogers, Michigan State receiver, No. 2 overall in 2003. The most-tragic tale of all. Rogers was another public-pandering pick by Millen, chosen one spot before Miami standout Andre Johnson. Rogers was brilliant for the Spartans, but there were off-field concerns and a red-flagged drug test at the combine. I still think he could’ve been a star in the NFL, which is why I don’t place him higher on the list. He broke his collarbone five games into his rookie year and broke it again on the third play of 2004, which sent him into a spiral that led to a drug suspension. He caught 36 passes in three seasons with the Lions and was out of the league by 26. He died of liver failure in 2019.
► 4. Eric Ebron, North Carolina tight end, No. 10 overall in 2014. It’s not just that the Lions are the only team in NFL history addicted to drafting tight ends in the first round, or that Aaron Donald, a future Hall of Famer, went to the Rams three picks later. It’s that Mayhew billed Ebron as a unique talent, fast enough to stretch the field, big enough to block. Turns out he was an unwilling blocker and an occasional malcontent with poor hands. That he was decent with the Colts and Steelers is evidence the Lions ruin others as often as vice-versa.
► 5. Teez Tabor, Florida cornerback, second round in 2017. I couldn’t leave Quinn out because he was notably sloppy in second rounds, a common malady of Lions GMs. This was a prime example of his smarter-than-you mentality, as Tabor was the slowest cornerback at the combine. Quinn said he watched more tape of Tabor than any player he’d ever scouted, and yet somehow overlooked the glaring deficiency. Tabor played two seasons in Detroit, was released in 2019 and hasn’t played another game in the NFL.
► Honorable mention: DE Kalimba Edwards (second round 2002), LB Teddy Lehman (second round 2004), DE Ikaika Alama-Francis (second round 2007), LB Jordon Dizon (second round 2008), WR Titus Young (second round 2011), WR Ryan Broyles (second round 2012), LB Jahlani Tavai (second round 2019).
Note to Mr. Holmes: Please don’t treat the second round like a free spin on a roulette wheel. Also, don’t reach for positions of need, and watch out for sheep in linebacker’s clothing!
And now, the rare gems:
► 1. Frank Ragnow, Arkansas center, first round in 2018. An unconventional choice but Quinn’s biggest hit. Ragnow is strong and durable and should anchor the Lions’ line for a decade.
► 2. Kenny Golladay, Northern Illinois receiver, third round in 2017. This was the pick that gave fans hope for Quinn. Golladay had two 1,000-yard seasons, then was dogged by injuries and departed, signed by the Giants to a hefty contract.
► 3. Darius Slay, Mississippi State cornerback, second round in 2013. Superb pick by Mayhew, as Slay made the Pro Bowl three times in seven seasons. Then he clashed with Matt Patricia and was traded to the Eagles, reminding Lions fans they can’t have nice things such as Pro Bowl players.
Note: Johnson (No. 2 overall in 2007), Stafford (No. 1 overall in 2009) and Suh (No. 2 overall in 2010) were excellent, but sorry, a GM doesn’t get credit for plucking a plum that high.
Holmes’ task is to break the franchise’s nasty habits. Quinn’s final first-round gifts weren’t complete gaffes – tight end T.J. Hockenson and cornerback Jeff Okudah – and Hockenson might prove to be worth the gamble. We don’t know yet if Holmes is the gambling type, but if he merely busts the bust pattern here, that’s good enough for now.