Inside the Penei Sewell pick and Brad Holmes’ tone-setting first draft as Detroit Lions GM

Detroit Free Press

For 12 or so minutes Thursday, on the most important morning of his professional life, Brad Holmes sat cross-legged on a bath towel beside his bed at The Henry Hotel in Dearborn — his temporary home for the past three months — and envisioned himself on a remote island surrounded by water.

Holmes had woke up about 15 hours before the start of his first draft as Detroit Lions general manager, his mind consumed by the enormity of the day.

He spent the previous night catching up with an old college friend and talked to three teams about potential draft day trades, including one significant move down that would have netted the Lions an abundance of future draft picks.

An early riser normally, Holmes planned to sleep in that morning; instead, he was up at 5:30 a.m. and spending the next two hours dozing in and out of sleep, while draft scenarios raced through his head.

What if three quarterbacks go in the first six picks? What if it’s four? Do I trade up? How far is too far to move back? What do I say when I call our first-round pick?

Finally, Holmes rolled out of bed, said his morning prayer, opened his “Calm” app and began a morning ritual that he started almost two years ago as college scouting director of the Los Angeles Rams, when he was looking to add a slice of me time to his day.

“I’ve always thought the challenge of meditation is just that, like trying to really control your thoughts,” Holmes told the Free Press in a Thursday morning interview from a first-floor conference room at The Henry. “They always talk about like, well, if thoughts race, just pop out of them and all that stuff. I’ve been probably heavy into it almost two years now and this morning when I finally just said, ‘look, I’m getting out of this bed,’ I just went ahead and started the meditation process, and it was a little more challenging this time.”

By 10 a.m., the “semi-offer” to move down in the draft from the previous evening that Holmes had been asked to make Wednesday night was deemed too rich for the other team’s liking. Instead, the Lions, after “strongly” considering another pre-draft offer to move into the 20s, were focused on an intimate cluster of five prospects — identified through weeks of draft meetings and months of draft preparation as players they liked — who potentially would be available with the No. 7 overall pick.

Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence was a lock to go No. 1 overall and BYU’s Zach Wilson seemed just as sure to go No. 2. Like everyone else in the NFL, Holmes was trying to figure out which quarterback the San Francisco 49ers would take after trading up to No. 3, and how that would impact his decision a few picks later.

“Dan (Campbell) and I were at the BYU pro day when the trade went down, so we were flying back, that was my first (thought). I was like, ‘(Maybe it’s for) Mac Jones,’” Holmes said. “I’ve said since last year, since last November, I would say, when I really started digging into the quarterbacks, I said if you needed a guy to just do it from the pocket, behind Trevor, obviously, but if you need a guy to do it from the pocket like right now, he can do it right now.

“On the other hand, if you’re keeping Jimmy (Garoppolo), it could be Justin (Fields). So I have no idea. They might have something worked out already with Jimmy. I heard they were asking for a one (in a trade).”

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Group of 5

Dressed in a gray Nike hoodie and khaki pants, Holmes peeled off his black North Face vest and draped it on the chair to his left, covering a bag whose contents included the Lions’ all-important draft board.

The Lions gave 162 players draftable grades this year, which is about the range Holmes was used to from his time in Los Angeles.

A former defensive lineman at North Carolina A&T who rose through the ranks of the Rams scouting department after starting with the organization as a public relations intern, Holmes spent part of Thursday morning scrolling through his board.

The Lions had their final draft meeting Wednesday to talk through scenarios and make final tweaks based on late-arriving medical information. A couple players got “resuscitated,” Holmes said, and for a handful of others the news was grim.

Holmes declined to shared his draft board, but he told the Free Press after Round 1 he considered only “a very, very small set of” prospects to be “truly, truly elite blue-chip players” in this year’s draft.

Lawrence and Wilson were widely considered among that group as the top quarterbacks in a draft that produced five first-round picks at the position. Asked Thursday morning under what circumstances he would take a quarterback at No. 7, assuming Lawrence and Wilson were gone, Holmes said, “There’s two of them that are interesting. Now that you’ve eliminated options.”

After the draft, he told the Free Press that once North Dakota State’s Trey Lance rounded out the top , he knew the Lions would be taking a different position at No. 7.

For many teams, the three best non-quarterbacks in the draft were, in no partciular order, Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase and Oregon left tackle Penei Sewell.

“That’s safe to say,” Holmes said.

Pitts, a unicorn of a talent with a 7-foot wingspan and suction cups for hands, was the first of those prospects off the board, going No. 4 to the Atlanta Falcons in the draft’s first real pivot point.

As Holmes considered different scenarios, before and after his morning meditation, he knew that Atlanta — or another team — going quarterback at four would leave at least one of that trio of blue-chip players on the board at No. 7. If the Falcons took Pitts, it could send the whole draft careening another direction.

“We pretty much knew like what we talked about earlier, the three quarterbacks were going to go, didn’t know which one,” Holmes said after the draft. “I wouldn’t say it was like we had butterflies (when the Falcons were picking), but I will say after Atlanta made their pick, then that’s when it was like, ‘OK, all right. Now we got to make some decisions,’ and kind of see how this thing’s going to fall.’”

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‘What’s going to be our beast?’

Newspaper-selling narratives aside, it is rare that single draft picks are franchise-altering. Winning in the NFL usually requires a confluence of correct decisions that bring good people and players aboard.

But Holmes and the Lions were in a unique position heading into this year’s draft.

Coming off a 5-11 season, the Lions started anew at the three most important positions in football: GM, coach and quarterback. Holmes, the new GM, had a blank canvas, and he already had made one forward-thinking move in trading Matthew Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff and three draft picks, including first-round choices in 2022-23.

At No. 7, in a deep quarterback draft, the Lions had the chance to get a top position player, a young quarterback to build around, or load up on more draft picks.

No matter the choice, Holmes saw an opportunity to change the fortunes of a franchise that has not won a playoff game in 30 years.

“That’s the hope,” he said Thursday morning. “And again, I don’t put too much pressure on myself because I truly trust the work that we’ve done. I hate to say this cliché term, ‘trust the process,’ but we really do. And whoever we pick, I do think that player will impact the franchise.”

One point that Holmes and Campbell talked often about during pre-draft meetings was adding a player who could be “impactful across multiple areas of our team.”

A quarterback could change the entire dynamic of the offense, for instance, but Holmes said there were other positions where that also was the case. Taking a top-10 cornerback — for the second straight year — would give the Lions the makings of a pretty good secondary. Or adding a top offensive lineman could make an already-good unit elite.

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Holmes recalled his time as a young scout with the Rams, when his bosses began pouring resources into the defensive line. Billy Devaney took defensive end Robert Quinn with his 2011 first-round pick (No. 14 overall), and Les Snead followed a year later by making defensive tackle Michael Brockers his first draft choice, also at No. 14.

In 2014, the Rams spent another first-round pick on the defensive line, taking star tackle Aaron Donald, and in 2018 — after fortifying the line with high-profile veterans Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler — the Rams were in the Super Bowl.

“It was just like, that was the beast,” Holmes said. “And (talking with Campbell), it was like, ‘OK, well, what’s going to be our beast?’ Is it going to be adding a wide receiver for the speed that we already have? Adding more vertical speed? Do the guys got to start backing off making it better for Jared and everybody else? Or do you add a piece on the offensive line and how much does that help? Or do you add a corner and how much does that improve the secondary? So those are the scenarios.”

And coming out of this year’s draft with the makings of “a beast” was important.

“It’d be nice to have one,” Holmes said. “It’d be real nice to have one.”

‘Authentic, genuine emotion’

When Pitts came off the board at No. 4, Holmes called the Cincinnati Bengals — who possessed the No. 5 pick — and had “dialogue” about moving up. Though pre-draft reports pegged the Lions as targeting Chase, the talented receiver out of LSU, Holmes’ indicated his call Thursday night was about Sewell.

The Bengals took Chase, leaving Sewell, the mauling tackle from Oregon, as the last of the big three on the board, and Holmes picked up the phone again.

“We actually talked to Miami,” he said. “We actually talked to them about possibly even going up and just to secure him to see if, just in case somebody else went up to them.”

The Dolphins, most believed, were targeting a pass catcher, though Holmes worried Sewell might prove too good a prospect for Miami to pass on. When the Dolphins took speedy Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, the Lions’ draft room broke out in genuine celebration.

In video captured by the team’s draft cam, Holmes clapped his hands, turned and hugged team president Rod Wood and dragged him a few steps towards the back of the room. After a fist pump came another rowdy hug, this one with special advisor Chris Spielman, and more unbridled joy.

“I kind of saw the video and I didn’t even realize till I saw it on replay that I just kind of drug Rod Wood across the room,” Holmes said. “Like, I didn’t even know it was him. I didn’t know who I was hugging. I was hugging somebody and after I hugged them, I just was starting to just drag them across the room like just so happy. And I saw that I hugged Chris and kind of had a jolt there. I was just like, wow, I didn’t even realize that. But that’s the authentic, genuine emotion.

“Dan made a fascinating point. Dan and I were talking in his office after it went and he said, he was like, ‘Brad, man, you were calling Penei, I could just feel the energy coming from you.’ All the emotions just kind of come out. It was kind of cool because Sheila (Ford Hamp) was in there and I’m sure Sheila was like, ‘I’ve never seen Brad this animated before.’ And I told her, I said, ‘I’ll try to be better on the next picks,’ and Sheila was just like, ‘No, no. Don’t, don’t. I want you to be exactly like you were.’”

Holmes was so excited, he called Sewell immediately when the Lions went on the clock, disregarding a league request to hold off on phoning the prospect so it could get footage from his draft party.

The call, which Holmes had rehearsed with his wife the night before, went largely as expected, except for a tinny connection on the other end that quickly went away.

“You ready to be a Lion?” Holmes asked. “We’re about to pick you here, man. Congratulations, man. It’s ‘One Pride’ over here, man. We want you in this pride, all right? You’re going to be a big part of what we’re doing going forward.”

The aftermath

About 2:30 a.m. Friday, as he approached the end of his work day, Holmes lay in his bed at The Henry, perusing his draft board and making some final notes about his plans for Rounds 2 and 3.

The high of landing one of the top players available, and doing so while surrendering the results to the process — something his former boss in L.A., Snead, used to say, and a concept prevalent in many of the decision-making books he’s read — still hadn’t worn off.

“I did get feedback after the pick that, yeah, there was a legit competition to get that kid,” Holmes said. “And so that actually made it even cooler, to kind of hear that. And Dan got a lot of positive feedback he was telling me. There was a team that had (Sewell) in their top three players on their board. So he’s just, to get a talent like him is just, yeah, just ecstatic.”

Sewell is expected to start at right tackle for the Lions this fall and, if he is as good as advertised — and at 20 years old, he still has plenty of growth ahead — the Lions could have their “beast” soon. Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow turns 25 later this month. Left tackle Taylor Decker will play this fall at 28. And second-year guard Jonah Jackson is 24.

On a personal level, as much as he was focused on making the right pick for the Lions, Holmes said the experience of running his own draft, something he’d been dreaming about since eighth grade, was better than he ever imagined.

“You see most draft rooms and they’re just kind of shaking hands and doing the high fives and, ‘We got our guy,’” Holmes said. “But, you got to think, it was not only my first draft, but it was Sheila’s first draft, it was Dan’s first draft. It was pretty cool in that regard. The way the emotions exploded was just, it was just very, very cool. And it actually exceeded what my pre-conceived thoughts were, about what I thought was going to happen when I was meditating, and those thoughts started creeping into my head that weren’t supposed to be there that I was trying to push out.

“It actually exceeded that in a very positive way.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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