Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes’ real test begins: Can he find talent throughout NFL draft?

Detroit Free Press

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And so it begins.  

Unofficially, of course, as general manager, Brad Holmes, formally took the challenge of rebuilding the Detroit Lions a few months back and traded Matthew Stafford less than two weeks into the job

Since then, Holmes has signed a host of free agents, most of them on one-year deals, and traded for defensive tackle, Michael Brockers, giving us further hint of how he and head coach, Dan Campbell, will attempt to upend more than a half century of (mostly) unrequited love. 

Oh, there have been moments — the 1991 run to the NFC title game — and players –—hi, Barry Sanders — that were worth handing over your heart. Mostly, though, there has been pain. 

So, here we go again. And here they go again: A new front office. A new coach. A new staff. Already, a lot of new players. 

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But not drafted players. Not players that step into their NFL lives as … Lions. And while trades matter, certainly — as do free agent signings — neither come with the hope the draft offers. Which makes tonight feel like the true start of the new regime. 

The Lions have the No. 7 pick. They could do any number of things with it. They could trade it, as Holmes has said. They could select a quarterback, an offensive lineman, a receiver, no matter how much you don’t want to hear this. 

Reports suggested that Holmes tried to get Atlanta’s No. 4 pick last week so he could take LSU receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, who isn’t likely to be around at No. 7. Apparently, the price was too high, and while the thought that he considered chasing a receiver might give you fever dreams, know that he wasn’t willing to give up too much to do it.  

Though what constitutes too much is relative, no? 

To date, Holmes has made one bold move (Stafford) a solid move (Brockers) and a bunch of safe ones. Perhaps this mix will play out over the next three days.  

Whether he keeps the No. 7 pick or takes a chance on a quarterback or plays it (relatively) safe with an offensive lineman, this isn’t the pick that will tell you what kind of team he will build. Even the worst front offices find great players in the top of the first round. The best front offices, however, find playmakers in Rounds 2-4.  

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The previous Lions general manager, Bob Quinn, found good to great players in three of his first four first-round selections: Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow and T.J. Hockenson. He missed with Jarrad Davis. As for last year’s pick, cornerback Jeff Okudah, well, it’s too early to say, even though his rookie season didn’t look promising. 

The percentages suggest Holmes will find a good-to-great player in the first round, too, unless he takes a quarterback, a position that involves more risk. Still, Friday and Saturday are where Holmes must make a difference. 

He can’t have his own Teez Tabor — Quinn’s 2017 second-round pick. Or his own Jahlani Tavai — Quinn’s 2019 pick. Tavai, in fairness, has been a better player than Tabor, who plays for the Chicago Bears. But, like Tabor, Tavai didn’t show second-round-level athleticism. 

Quinn banked on their “feel” for a football field. That’s a trait that can win a football game. It’s also difficult to measure. Which makes such players high risk so high in the draft. 

Holmes has a system of evaluation, too, and will no doubt look for similar characteristics in the players he selects. The trick is narrowing the margin for error.  

Yes, it’s all a projection at some point. That’s true for every general manager and scout. But Holmes was brought in because he showed an eye for talent in his role with the Los Angeles Rams. And because he relies on analytics to bolster that eye. 

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If nothing else, it’s just about the opposite of what Quinn was trying to do. Holmes is less worried about what kind of system his draft picks will fit into and more interested in whether they can run … or tackle … or block … or shed a block … or make someone miss. 

And that can’t be bad, right? 

Maybe this approach will lead to the kind of draft weekend that you’ve watched so many other franchises put together year after year.  

Maybe these are the words, his words, that will finally, mercifully, change the direction of this team: 

“Obviously, scheme does play a part, but at the end of the day, if the player has certain standards of toughness, passion, if a player has grit, that doesn’t have to do anything with (whether) a guy’s a press corner or an off-zone quarters corner, or if a guy is a 3-4 rush ‘backer.” 

No, it doesn’t.  

What matters more is this: 

“Does a guy play hard, or he does not? Does he have a high motor or does he not? Does he take plays off, does he not? Does he love football, does he not?” 

Every coach wants every player to answer yes on every one of these questions. Amd asking them doesn’t make Holmes different from just about every front office in the NFL. 

But sometimes simplifying a task that involves guess work is the way to go. We’ll see where it goes from here.  

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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