Niyo: No need for Lions GM Holmes to get Rams-y just yet

Detroit News

It’s fun to talk about the possibilities.

It’s even more fun when you’re talked about as a possibility.

And it has been a while since anybody talked about the Lions in that way, hasn’t it?

But, now that they are, it’s worth remembering that talk is cheap, free agency is expensive — trades can be, too — and the most common mistake NFL teams make when they first reach this point of contention is forgetting how they got there.

So, that’s the challenge facing general manager Brad Holmes, who arrived in Indianapolis for the NFL’s scouting combine this week to get a feel for the draft — player interviews began Monday, medical exams on Tuesday, and on-field workouts start Thursday — but also to get a better feel for the marketplace ahead of free agency.

The new league year officially begins March 15, but it’s preceded by a two-day negotiating window where teams are allowed to speak with prospective free agents. And well before that, the combine each year serves as the unofficial tampering grounds where front-office executives and player agents feel each other out.

Holmes probably won’t have much to say about any of that when he steps to the podium for his formal media availability late Wednesday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium. But, it’s safe to say he’ll have plenty of conversations this week that’ll help shape the Lions’ offseason plans and the next phase of this rebuild in Detroit.

And though he won’t be able to address some of the rumors that are already flying — including that trade speculation linking the Lions with All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey of the Los Angeles Rams — he will be asked about the bottom line.

Or more specifically, where he draws it.

Back in January, Holmes insisted the Lions would “stay the course” and “stay committed and disciplined,” even as that late-season surge in 2022 raised expectations for 2023, both internally and externally. Soon, we’ll find out just what that means, though.

The Lions have about $23 million in available salary-cap space right now, but they probably aren’t done shedding veterans and clearing room ahead of free agency. They’ll certainly look to re-sign several of their own pending free agents as well, and some of those conversations — some difficult, others not — are expected to take place this week in Indianapolis.

But, at the moment, Holmes’ greatest asset still has to do more with time than money.

He’s entering the third year of a massive organizational overhaul that his team’s owner, Sheila Hamp, just six months ago described as a complete teardown following the disastrous Bob Quinn-Matt Patricia tenure. (“We really had to take it down to the ground level,” she said.) And after laying what looks to be a sturdy foundation, Holmes is entering this offseason with the third-most draft capital in the league, trailing only Houston and Seattle in combined quality and quantity.

“And that just gives me juices, man, when that opportunity and those windows come up,” Holmes said back in January. “It’s exciting to have the capital that we have.”

Yet how will he choose to spend it?

‘Beautiful puzzle’

His former team in Los Angeles isn’t ready to start over after winning a Super Bowl only 13 months ago. But Holmes’ ex-boss and mentor, Rams GM Les Snead, is using the word “remodel” to describe his salary cap-strapped offseason plans. And after agreeing to part ways with veteran linebacker Bobby Wagner last week, the focus has turned to Ramsey, the shutdown corner who reportedly is on the trading block and was openly being courted on social media by some of the Lions’ players, most notably Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jerry Jacobs.

Holmes was still with the Rams in 2019 when they pulled off a blockbuster trade with Jacksonville to acquire Ramsey in exchange for two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder. And while Ramsey helped the Rams win a Super Bowl — Snead famously wore a t-shirt to the championship parade that read “F– them picks” — the Jaguars’ end of the deal hasn’t produced much yet: running back Travis Etienne and edge rushers K’Lavon Chaisson and Jordan Smith.

The price tag this time around wouldn’t be nearly as high for Ramsey, who’ll be 29 this fall and had the 11th-best coverage grade among cornerbacks last season, per Pro Football Focus. He’s still a No. 1 corner, however, and would fill a major need for the Lions in the secondary with his play, as well as his swagger. But here’s the catch: The five-year, $100 million contract he signed with Los Angeles in 2020 has no guaranteed money beyond this season. So, Ramsey undoubtedly will want a hefty new extension wherever he ends up this spring, adding to the cost in draft compensation a team gives up via trade.

And therein lies the biggest piece of what Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah calls the “beautiful puzzle.” In weighing the value of free agents versus draft picks, he said, “ultimately, you’re considering known versus unknown.”

“With draft picks, there are a lot of variants,” he added Tuesday during his media session at the combine. “They could be better than a free agent or they could be worse. And how does that fit into your time horizon?”

That may be where the debate begins among Lions fans who’ve been staring longingly at the horizon for decades. But, Holmes has to keep his eyes fixed there for now.

He already is presiding over the NFL’s youngest roster, so there’s no great concern about turning this roster into a retirement home with veteran signings the way Quinn and Patricia threatened to a few years ago. But, as the window is just beginning to open for the Lions, any big money is better spent on younger talent, I’d argue.

A free-agent cornerback like Tampa Bay’s Jamel Dean, for starters. His size, length and elite speed all seemed to come together last season, and he’s only 26, so even at market-inflated rates you’d be spending for his prime years, at least. Or maybe it’s an off-ball linebacker like the Bills’ Tremaine Edmunds, who turns 25 this in May, or the Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch, who just turned 27. The Lions also need a run-stuffing defensive tackle to continue building on an area Holmes has invested heavily in already.

But, what might make just as much sense, if not more, would be to spend some of that money re-signing the Lions’ own free agents (Jamaal Williams and John Cominsky chief among them) and then the rest on the margins, if you will. On a nickel corner and a right guard, perhaps. A better backup quarterback, too, and a veteran tight end.

And then keep squeezing more juice out of the draft, especially with the handful of picks Detroit currently holds, including two in the first round and four of the top 55 overall.

The fun is just getting started here in Detroit, after all. So why limit the possibilities?

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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