Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes had fine debut. Now he must go from playing checkers to chess

Detroit Free Press

The first stage is over.

When Brad Holmes took over as the general manager of the Detroit Lions, he had a long to-do list:

1. Clean up the mess left behind by Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn;

2. Revamp the front office by  bringing in Ray Agnew as the assistant general manager;

3. Instill a new culture, focusing on grit, toughness and tenacity;

4. Trade Matthew Stafford, the face of the franchise — a process that went far more smoothly than expected;

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5. Bring in all kinds of young players;

6. Play those kids even if it would have been far easier to bring in veterans;

7. Keep coach Dan Campbell from nibbling on somebody’s kneecaps — human resources frowns on that kind of behavior in an office setting.

So how’d he do?

Overall, it was an encouraging debut. This franchise is positioned for the future far better than under Patricia and Quinn. Considering this was a first-year general manager working in a pandemic, Holmes did a pretty dang good job; and the Lions won three of their last six games.

“Look, I love how the season ended, but the reality is we won three games, and that’s not good enough and it never will be,” Holmes said Tuesday at his season-ending news conference.

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Just like every other GM in history, Holmes had some hits and misses.

His free-agent pickups ranged from fantastic (edge rusher Charles Harris had 7½ sacks) to productive (running back Jamaal Williams, who had more than 600 yards in 13 games) to holding a key role until injury (linebacker Alex Anzalone, who was fourth on the team in tackles). Six of his seven draft picks started games. He brought in several undrafted free agents who produced, including cornerbacks Jerry Jacobs and A.J. Parker and tight end Brock Wright.

“I mean, those guys started games for us,” Holmes said. “So, that’s valuable experience for those guys. It makes the future bright.”

Holmes also had his share of misses, too. He struck out with Breshad Perriman, who didn’t make the 53-man roster. The Lions got only two catches out of wide receiver Tyrell Williams, who suffered a concussion in Week 1 and was later waived with an injury settlement. And then, Holmes doubled down, trying to cover up those mistakes while making another, trading for Trinity Benson, who caught 10 balls in eight games.

But Holmes struck gold by taking Amon-Ra St. Brown in the fourth round; and you can live with a few free agent misses if you nail a fourth-rounder who looks like a stud and foundational piece.

“He reminded me of some of the guys that we had when I was back in LA and I believed that he showed that in his own way,” Holmes said of St. Brown.

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Holmes also got a foundation piece by drafting Penei Sewell. Before the draft, I wanted the Lions to take Micah Parsons, and I’ll still hold to that. Parsons has had an unbelievable rookie season. I thought the defense needed more help. But now, the offensive line is now this team’s strength. And it’s actually one of the reasons for hope for this franchise.

“Yes he is what we thought he was going to be, and Penei is only going to get better,” Holmes said.

Bonding and building through adversity

You get a sense that Holmes and Campbell are not only on the same page, they are finishing each other’s sentences.

“We’re aligned in a vision and a plan, and from the very get go the big part of this plan was player development,” Holmes said. “He’s been phenomenal. … He’s got an it factor, that you either have it or you don’t, and he has that. He’s been a joy to work with.”

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The Lions finished the season strong, even though the injured reserve featured half a team: Anzalone, tight end T.J. Hockenson, center Frank Ragnow, linebackers Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers, cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye, wide receiver Quintez Cephus and kicker Austin Seibert.

“Let’s call it a season with a lot of adversity,” Holmes said. “A trying season.”

Tons of young players gained experience. The Lions played 34 players who were either rookies or had one year of experience. But the numbers were still ugly. The Lions finished with the second-worst scoring defense, 28th rush defense, 24th pass defense and had only 30 sacks — the third-fewest in the NFL. That’s hardly encouraging.

And the defensive stats are somewhat deceiving, considering 26 different players started a game on defense. Only safety Will Harris and defensive Nick Williams started all 17.

“I have a — let’s call it, an available free agent board with veterans that would be available to come in and help,” Holmes said. “We stuck with our plan, we let these young guys play and get valuable experience. At the end of the day, we did lay a good foundation. Now, you know, it’s hard to practice the patience at times to stick with the plan, but it’s a multi-year plan, it’s for sustained success and I believe we did lay the foundation.”

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Yes, you can see the foundation.

But the first phase was easy in comparison to what comes next. The Lions had so many holes that any kind of move made sense.  Now they must plug the remaining holes, while juggling the draft, free agency, the quarterback situation and future picks.

This is where it goes from checkers to chess. But Holmes exudes confidence.

“Everything will be better than it was this time last year,” Holmes said. “Free agency will be better, we’ll have a little bit more resources at our disposal. The draft will be even better. I thought our draft was good, but it will be better. We have a little bit more capital, so we’re real excited about that, starting the next phase of this journey. “

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The next to-do list?

1. Get a stud wide receiver;

2. Get some play makers on defense — hmm, I wonder if there’s an edge rusher at the top of the draft?;

3. Get even more play makers on defense, think defensive backs and linebackers;

4. And keep Campbell from biting those kneecaps.

That part of the job will never change.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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