Brad Holmes can’t fix Detroit Lions in one NFL draft. But here’s what he’s trying to do

Detroit Free Press

Brad Holmes told you. He was clear as water when he said it.

The. Best. Player. Available.

That’s the philosophy of the Detroit Lions new general manager. He showed this again Friday night, during Rounds 2 and 3 of the NFL draft.

Select a defensive tackle in the second round?

Cool. The Lions could use one. But nabbing Levi Onwuzurike with the 41st pick wasn’t going to keep Holmes from drafting another one 31 picks later. Some may call taking Alim McNeill with the 72nd pick foolhardy. I’d call it sticking to your beliefs.

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You can quibble with that belief. You can’t argue with Holmes’ consistency. Besides, he’s got time to worry about “needs” later.

He just wants the most talented player available on the Lions draft board. No matter the pick or round — at least so far.

As he said Thursday night after Round 1, when he was asked about adding an offensive lineman — Penei Sewell — to a position group already stuffed with talent:

“Hey look, it’s if another offensive lineman that’s a high-impact player …?”

They would take him.

Turns out they didn’t go that route again Friday. They took two defensive linemen instead. But the point was made. And keeps being made.

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This is how he and his staff and head coach Dan Campbell want to rebuild this franchise. If a player fits their profile, they will take him no matter what. Even consider trading up for him, as Holmes admitted he thought about with Onwuzurike, whom he worried might not be there at No. 41.

Fortunately, his staff convinced him to be patient. They didn’t have to give up any picks to get him.

Perhaps that is part of the learning curve for Holmes as he runs his first draft as in the big seat. But then he wasn’t hired because of his experience playing roulette during the draft.

He was hired because of his eye for talent, and for players who are willing to squeeze every bit of it out of themselves. You could hear that in Sewell’s news conference Thursday. You could hear it from the three players the Lions selected Friday, too.

Onwuzurike’s media session was so colorful and endearing, clips of it buzzed on social media.

“When I talk about how explosive he is — I heard his press conference was explosive as well,” Holmes said, chuckling.

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That would be one way of putting it. Here was a sampling:

“I like (expletive) people up. I like to get off the line and just put my helmet and my hands on an offensive lineman and (expletive) up an offensive scheme, pretty much. I like pushing them back 2-3 yards and just making them feel like (expletive).”

An example of his passion, Holmes said. A trait all football front offices and coaches want but made a priority by the Lions.

This shouldn’t be surprising, not after listening to Holmes the last few months. Not after watching him celebrate Sewell’s selection Thursday. Not after listening to Campbell’s introductory news conference in January, and his talk of biting kneecaps.

Much has been made of that glorious soundbite. But with two days of picks in the books, it’s easy to draw a line from kneecaps to the newest Lions. And while their final pick of the night sounded subdued by comparison, it wasn’t hard to spot a twinkle in the spirit of the one non-lineman they drafted the first two days.

Ifeatu Melifonwu still has plenty in common with his fellow draftees, however. Like Sewell, Onwuzurike and McNeil, the Syracuse cornerback was taken because of his versatility, physicality and athleticism. At 6 feet 2 and 205 pounds, Melifonwu is built like a press corner, and he is certainly capable of that.

But Holmes valued his ability to drop into zone coverage or even into the slot and run with speedsters — he clocked a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. In fact, his overall athleticism — according to Pro Football Focus — was as good as any corner in the draft.

And if there is another theme emerging from the Holmes and Campbell philosophy, it is the pursuit of guys that can run. And jump. And maul. And bolt once the ball is snapped.

Sewell runs like a tight end. Onwuzurike moves his feet like a dancer. McNeil arrived at North Carolina State as a linebacker, and played right field as a senior in high school.

“I was a go-getter,” he said. “I tracked the ball down and made plays.”

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The Lions are banking on that combination of quickness and power to buttress the weakest spot of their defense from a year ago: the interior. Onwuzurike will help there, too.

This is the plan, anyway. Yet that wasn’t the plan before they were drafted.

The truth is there wasn’t a plan. There was simply a draft board of the best players Holmes and his staff had identified. And that makes sense. He is not trying to build a team to win the Super Bowl next season. His vision is set further out on the horizon.

Remember that this draft is a beginning.

“You can’t get everything in one draft,” he said.

In a way, that is liberating, and it’s shown in how the first two days unfolded. Holmes and Campbell have been free to grab the kind of players that combine physicality, athleticism, passion and personality, no matter where they play on a football field.

“(We) try not to anchor ourselves into a position,” he said.

Expect to keep hearing this for a while.

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

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