The Detroit Lions just missed making the playoffs this season, but general manager Brad Holmes said he heads into the offseason feeling like the Lions “could have been in there and competed with” the teams at the top of the NFC.
“Obviously, it didn’t work out,” Holmes said in Allen Park at his annual end-of-season news conference Tuesday. “But yeah, I think we’re right at the cusp there. We made the improvement from three wins last year to being right on the cusp of possibly going into the playoffs, so yeah, I mean, that would be the next step is to get into the playoffs. And when you get in there, when you get into that dance, anything can happen.”
Holmes met with reporters for about a half hour Tuesday, two days after the Lions’ season came to an end with a 20-16 win over the Green Bay Packers. Holmes praised the job coach Dan Campbell did keeping his team together after a 1-6 start. He highlighted the work the Lions’ pro personnel staff did in finding key contributors Isaiah Buggs, John Cominsky and Justin Jackson after the first wave of free agency. He even noted the Lions’ “elite” grounds crew.
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Highlights from Holmes’ media session:
View at quarterback
Holmes echoed Campbell’s comments from the past two days that Jared Goff has established himself as the Lions’ quarterback of the future. Holmes insisted, “I never really deemed him as a bridge” quarterback, and made it sound like the Lions won’t be taking a quarterback with the No. 6 pick in April’s NFL draft.
“I think it’s a lot easier to get worse at quarterback than to get better at quarterback, in this league,” Holmes said. “And so, I think what Jared has done this year, he captained the ship of a top-three offense, and I want to say he was top-10 statistically in most of the passing categories. And again, you know how we approach the draft like we’re never going to turn down a good football player, so if there’s a football player we really love, we’re going to make sure every stone is unturned. But I do think that Jared has proven everybody that he is the starting quarterback for us.”
Holmes acknowledged there is merit to drafting a quarterback and letting him sit and learn for a season (or more), and pointed to Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers as examples of how that approach has worked.
But it seems highly unlikely the Lions will end up with Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud or Will Levis early in Round 1.
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Goff, of course, came to the Lions in the 2021 trade of Matthew Stafford, along with a 2021 third-round pick and first-rounders in 2022 and 2023. The Los Angeles Rams won a Super Bowl with Stafford at quarterback, so they got what they wanted out of the deal. But the Lions may have struck gold, too.
Along with Goff, who threw for 4,438 yards and 29 touchdowns this season, the Lions used the first-round pick they got from the Rams last year as part of their trade up for Jameson Williams, and have a top-10 pick from LA in April’s draft.
Holmes said he never anticipated getting a pick that high in the deal.
“Obviously knowing that the Rams were a really good team, I knew when we made the trade that, yeah, it was likely that that pick was going to be late in the first round, however far that they went,” Holmes said. “But yeah, I didn’t know about the pick this year. Obviously, being their track record and all the success they have, you don’t just obviously think that it’ll be a top-10 pick. But that’s what I say every year though when schedules come out and people say, ‘oh, he’s got an easy schedule.’ What do you mean easy schedule? Every year is different. So yeah, I guess you could say it’s fair to say it’s best case scenario.”
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Free agency approach
Holmes said the Lions will remain “strategic and selective” in their approach to free agency, and said he doesn’t see the team as being one player away despite this year’s success.
The Lions have been judicious in free agent spending in Holmes’ two seasons as GM. Jamaal Williams is the only unrestricted free agent who wasn’t on their roster the previous season they’ve signed to a multi-year deal, and they’ve been selective about who they’ve brought in and at what price.
“Regardless of how many resources you have, how much how much money you can spend, we always are very selective and strategic with how we go about free agency, and that’s upcoming UFAs on our team as well as external adds,” Holmes said. “But it’s always going to be the same approach. And I think we’ve kind of proven that.”
∎ Holmes did indicate the Lions would look to re-sign many of their unrestricted free agents for the second straight offseason. Last year, they made one decent-sized free agent splash, signing DJ Chark to a one-year, $10 million deal, but otherwise concentrated on keeping players like Tracy Walker and Charles Harris.
Asked specifically about Chark and Cominsky, Holmes said, “Those guys had good years and, look, as long as their fits for our culture and what we’re trying to build and where we’re going, yeah, absolutely.”
∎ The Lions do have one major non-free agent decision to make this offseason: whether to pick up the fifth-year option on cornerback Jeff Okudah’s rookie contract.
Okudah had an up-and-down season in his return from a torn Achilles tendon. He allowed an 87.6 passer rating on balls thrown his way, according to Pro Football Reference, but was benched late in the season for Mike Hughes, and was better as a run defender at times than he was in pass coverage.
Holmes said he will address Okudah’s contract later this offseason, but said he was not displeased with Okudah’s play.
“He showed some good things, but when I say basically like a rookie season, he’s going to have lumps,” Holmes said. “And he showed some good, he had some times that were not so good, but he’s a really young player. I think he’s still developing.”
Okudah’s fifth-year option, for the 2024 season, projects to cost a guaranteed $11.259 million, according to OverTheCap.com.
Dan the man
Holmes was effusive in his praise of Campbell, and how he held the Lions together after a 1-6 start during which the Lions traded tight end T.J. Hockenson to the Minnesota Vikings for future draft assets and fired popular secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant.
“He’s special,” Holmes. “He’s elite. I will say what Dan can do, and I don’t know if all coaches have it, but he has an elite ability to pull a team out of a dark place. And whether it’s from a record standpoint, whether it’s something from he has to make a tough decision on the staff, like it’s proven. Proof’s in the pudding. He had to make a tough decision on the staff last year, a decision I know he didn’t want to make but he had to. He knew he had to. He’s going to do what it takes for the team. He had to do it again this year at 1-6. And he just has a rare, elite ability to pull the team out and right the ship. And when you have that, I think that’s just, it’s God-given and you just either have it or don’t. That’s one of the many qualities I think makes him an elite coach.”
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Help for the defense
The Lions gave up the most yards in the NFL this season and tied for 30th in scoring defense. Holmes said he will be out to upgrade that unit this spring.
“It’s pretty obvious that we’re going to have to utilize some resources to try and improve that defense,” Holmes said.
Along with the No. 6 pick in the draft, the Lions have the 18th pick of the first round and currently have more than $20 million in projected cap space (with some of that needed to sign their rookie class). Holmes did say he expects young players like Malcolm Rodriguez, Derrick Barnes and Aidan Hutchinson to play big roles in what should be an improved defense next spring.
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Ahead of schedule
Holmes acknowledged the rebuild is a little ahead of schedule, though he didn’t sound all that surprised by the Lions’ success.
He said the Lions self-evaluated their plan during their slow start this season, but when they did, felt they were on the right track.
“We never really put an anchor, timestamp on, ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be a three-year thing, it’s going to be a four-year thing,'” Holmes said. “We really just concentrated on, ‘Let’s make sure that we’re chopping wood and doing our part every single day and working hard every single day to win a game and just make this place a winner.’ And that’s what we’re continuing to do.
“I think you could make a case that we’re ahead of schedule, but again, we don’t really dive into that really that much. I mean, obviously we look at it, we talked about it, just like I said earlier in this talk. We got to look at our plans at 1-6. Is our plan working or not? But along that 1-6, those dark times, we saw enough where it’s like, ‘Yes, no, the plan is working. We just need to get that one win, exactly what Dan was saying the whole time.’ We just got to get the one win, keep rolling and we end up doing that.”
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.