Niyo: Holmes has shown the right stuff to keep Lions’ rebuild moving forward

Detroit News

Allen Park — We were told Brad Holmes had a keen eye for talent.

But now we’ve seen for ourselves in Holmes’ first year as the Lions’ general manager. And if you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about this team’s future — some years you really have to squint, I know — that’s probably the best place to start.

Start with Holmes’ inaugural draft class, a group that flourished in spite of — or because of — all the losing Dan Campbell’s team endured in 2021.

Take first-round pick Penei Sewell, who was the second-youngest player in last year’s draft and became the youngest in NFL history to start a game at left tackle in the Lions’ season opener. Or Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was the 17th receiver taken in the draft but posted better rookie numbers than all but a few who were top-10 overall picks. Or even Jerry Jacobs, the undrafted free agent who won a roster spot in training camp and then turned heads as a starter for nine weeks before suffering a torn ACL.

More: Lions ‘lay the foundation’ in first season under Brad Holmes, Dan Campbell

Honestly, though, you have to start even before all that. You have to go back to the plan Holmes and Campbell shared before the season kicked off in September. And an idea Holmes says he picked up from his old boss, Rams GM Les Snead, who used to say of young players, “You’ve got to let them cross the street by themselves.”

“We’re not scared to let young guys play — we’re just not,” Holmes said Tuesday, as he looked back on Year 1 and assessed where they’ll go from here, which is presumably up. “I think I’ve said it to you guys before: You just can’t be on the driving range all day. You’ve gotta go out there and play. That’s what we do.”

And that’s exactly what they did, beginning the regular season with the second-youngest roster in the NFL (behind the New York Jets) and finishing it as one of the league leaders in rookie snap counts. In all, the Lions had 10 rookies play 250 snaps or more in 2021, and eight that started four games or more. And, not surprisingly, that was one of the points Holmes wanted to hit on before he hit the road to look for more of the same.

“A lot of it was by circumstances,” the GM acknowledged. “A lot of it, we didn’t have a choice at certain times.”

But much of this was by design, he added. When injuries hit (Tyrell Williams, Jeff Okudah) or veterans were cut loose (Breshad Perriman, Jamie Collins), Holmes took a long look at the list of available free agents he and his staff had compiled in Allen Park and then chose to promote from within instead, more often than not.

“We stuck with our plan,” he said. “We let these young guys play and get valuable experience. And at the end of the day, we did lay a good foundation.”

Some of it already was in place, obviously, with a core group of roster holdovers in Frank Ragnow, Taylor Decker, Romeo Okwara, Tracy Walker, T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift, among others.

But Sewell, who only turned 21 in October, appears to be another cornerstone piece. The athletic 330-pounder rated among the NFL’s top 10 tackles in run blocking this season, per Pro Football Focus, and allowed just one sack in more than 400 pass-blocking snaps over his last 11 games.

And taken together with St. Brown, who had the most productive season of any Day 3 pick last spring — he set franchise rookie records for catches (90) and receiving yards (912) — it’s a bit of early validation for Holmes’ aptitude in the most important part of his job.

He found at least three NFL starters in his first draft with Sewell, St. Brown and defensive tackle Alim McNeill, who quickly impressed teammates in camp and proved to be a stout run defender as a rookie.

We’ll need to see more from second-rounder Levi Onwuzurike and fourth-rounder Derrick Barnes, and so will Campbell and his staff after rookie years that were hampered by injuries early on. (Detroit may regret not drafting Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the Browns’ playmaking linebacker taken 11 picks after Onwuzurike.) But both players are still relatively new at their respective positions and each flashed the athletic traits that drew the Lions to them in the first place.

Same goes for cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu, who missed nearly three months with a severe quadriceps injury but returned to start the final two games and was asked to cover the likes of D.K. Metcalf and Davante Adams.

Throw in some of the undrafted rookies — Jacobs, A.J. Parker, Brock Wright and Tommy Kraemer all showed they belonged in the NFL -— and it’s an even more impressive haul.

Particularly when you consider what a strange draft year it was, with prospects coming off opt-out years or abbreviated collegiate schedules in 2020 and with Holmes and his staff getting a late start, relatively speaking.

“Everything will be better than it was at this time last year,” Holmes said Tuesday. “Free agency will be better: We’ll have a little more resources at our disposal. I thought our draft was good, but it’ll be better: We have a little more capital.”

More: Lions’ Walker earns team’s third player of the week award of the season

After making seven draft picks last year, the Lions are expecting to have nine this year, including five of the first 100 overall. They have two first-round picks — their own (No. 2 overall) and the Rams’ pick from the Matthew Stafford trade — as well as second- and third-round selections. And the first of three likely compensatory picks they’ll earn from last offseason’s roster purge in free agency should be the first selection after the end of the third round, thanks to Kenny Golladay’s four-year $72 million signing with the Giants.

The Lions will coach in the Senior Bowl opposite the Jets’ staff next month, giving Holmes another possible scouting advantage — “There’s a lot of gold to be found there,” he said — prior to college pro days and the NFL scouting combine.

And while he’s not about to drop any hints about which way the Lions might be leaning at the top of the draft, where a pair of edge rushers in Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon) and Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan) could be in play, he hopes to add another linchpin there, and maybe a few more than that.

“We’ll see when the smoke clears. I do think it is a good draft, though,” Holmes said. “It is a good draft pretty much at all positions, really. I think that we’ll be in a good spot.”

Already, though, I think it’s safe to say they’re in a better spot now than they were a year ago. And for the Lions, that’s something we often don’t say, or see.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @JohnNiyo

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