It was tempting, that big board of best available veteran free agents, and as the Detroit Lions lost one key player after another to early-season injury — first Taylor Decker, then Jeff Okudah, then Frank Ragnow and Romeo Okwara — general manager Brad Holmes could have been coaxed into plucking a name off the list.
But the Lions went into the 2021 NFL season with a firm vision for their future and an appropriate sense of self, and Holmes and first-year head coach Dan Campbell made sure their priorities never changed.
“We stuck with our plan,” Holmes said at his end-of-season news conference Tuesday. “We let these young guys play and get valuable experience. At the end of the day, we did lay a good foundation. Now 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.”
The Lions (3-13-1) tied for the fewest wins in the NFL this season and had the second-worst record overall.
They lost eight straight games to start the year and did not taste their first victory until early December.
But by prioritizing building over winning — 10 rookies started at least one game this season, and draft picks Penei Sewell and Amon-Ra St. Brown look like future stars — Holmes and Campbell insist the Lions positioned themselves well for future success.
“The fact that these guys have continued to bang away and never lost hope and gave their best effort, best foot forward, and they believed in every game that we could win … I think that was important,” Campbell said at his end-of-season news conference Monday. “And so, because of that, we were able to finish out on a win. And I think that belief and the knowing of that and knowing that everything to this point, we bring in more competition and we’ll only be better because of it, it should give us a springboard. And now we’ll be a year into it, us as coaches, the players that are here, and we’ll be better. We’ll be better for it.”
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Holmes was clear in his messaging Tuesday.
Neither he nor anyone else in the organization was happy with this year’s record, but it was medicine the Lions needed to take.
“Look, I love how the season ended, but the reality is we won three games. That’s not good enough and it never will be,” he said. “Dan and I were aligned in a vision and a plan, and from the very get-go the big part of this plan was player development. What we are totally aligned with is we’re going to let these guys play. You guys have heard me talk about it. We’re going to let these guys play.”
The Lions’ youth movement this season was a product of both choice and circumstance, and Holmes said he will not change his approach going forward.
Winning games will become more important, and next season the regime will come under more scrutiny if the Lions don’t. But developing young players always will be key to sustaining success.
The Lions currently have nine picks in April’s draft, which Holmes said appears strong across the board. They return their entire offensive line for 2022, like the depth on their defensive front, and have quarterback Jared Goff under contract for three more seasons.
Holmes said the Lions need to “get better at the perimeter positions on both sides of the ball,” and the organization should have extra resources at its disposal in the coming months to help with that task.
Along with their trove of draft picks, which includes the Los Angeles Rams’ first-round choice, the Lions currently have about $40 million in available cap space, according to Spotrac, and could find a market more receptive to their cash.
“Hopefully the word will spread about what we’re building here, and I think it’s evident the culture that we have in place,” Holmes said. “I’m not sure if it’s a selling point, but hopefully that’s evident that everybody’s going to see that, and that word is going to be around about what we’re all about and I think it’s evident about how hard we play. We’re a gritty group that played really, really hard, but we have an outstanding culture here, so hopefully that bodes well for us in free agency.”
The Lions have 16 players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency in March, including defensive starters Tracy Walker, Charles Harris and Alex Anzalone, and will work to bring a several of those players back.
Harris and Anzalone were among of slew of free agents who signed one-year, prove-it deals with the Lions last offseason, when the team was looking to retain flexibility while building out a young roster.
This spring, with a foundation in place but lots of framework to be done, Holmes said he wants to add or re-sign players of a similar ilk.
That won’t preclude the Lions from splurging on high-dollar free agents, but Holmes said the most important thing is “to still find guys that fit.”
“Like, regardless of however much resources that we have, we’re still going to find guys that are aligned, that truly fit what we’re about,” he said. “You bring up like the guys that had chips on their shoulder and things to prove. Well, a lot of times experiences shape people often, and like I said, we’re a gritty group, so not saying that we’re looking for one-year deal guys, but we’re still looking at guys that fit who we are. We’ll just probably be able to get a little bit more of them.”