Allen Park — Welcome to the next stage of the Detroit Lions’ rebuild.
If you were unsure anything would be notably different this offseason — at least compared to the previous two under general manager Brad Holmes’ stewardship — you were served official notice a little before 10 p.m. Tuesday night, when the team reached a three-year agreement with running back David Montgomery.
The Montgomery addition isn’t some major splash that will consume the national news cycle for anything more than a couple of minutes, but it established two things. First, combined with the three-year agreement reached with cornerback Cameron Sutton a day earlier, Holmes is no longer patching the roster with a bunch of one-year prove-it deals. Those still and will forever have a place with this regime, but the team is now clearly looking to add more established pieces on multi-year contracts as it rounds the corner of contention.
The second thing the Montgomery addition signifies is Holmes won’t allow the team to rest on the laurels of its presumed trajectory by only dancing with those who got them to this point. In this case, it’s the most bittersweet of transactions, moving on from Jamaal Williams, who provided unmatched emotion and passion on the rocky road the team traveled the past two years.
But, let’s go back to 2012. The Lions were coming off the franchise’s first playoff appearance in a dozen years, emerging from the darkness of the Matt Millen era with legitimate promise, led by rocket-armed quarterback Matthew Stafford, who had just become the fourth quarterback in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season.
But, instead of building on that promise, the Lions sat tight in free agency the following year, opting to run it back with largely the same group. In fairness to former GM Martin Mayhew, he didn’t have much of a choice. The team was in cap hell, with half of its available space tied up in four players — Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch. With almost nothing to spend on the open market, the team’s only signing of consequence was cornerback Jacob Lacey, who had started 10 games for Indianapolis a year earlier.
The regression was swift and brutal. The Lions went from 11 wins in 2011 to four in 2012, leading to a coaching change that offseason. And while the next man up in that role, Jim Caldwell, restored the team to 11 wins in his first season, the Lions never took the next step, failing to win a division title or a postseason game.
Holmes, the first-time GM, is trying to chart a different path than the one Mayhew did. There have been no attempts at quick fixes, such as when the team gave Vanden Bosch a big deal in free agency to help establish that cultural overhaul. Instead, Holmes has been unquestionably patient for two years, slowly building through the draft and focusing his free-agency spending on retaining pieces like Tracy Walker, Charles Harris, Alex Anzalone and John Cominsky, who the GM knows fits the current cultural vision.
Now, the roster-building process is expanding. Sutton, the cerebral corner, is coming off his best season as he enters the prime years of his career. Along with cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, who is getting one of those prove-it deals coming off a torn ACL, they’ll be tasked with bringing some physicality and playmaking to Detroit’s secondary, after the team allowed 7.9 yards per pass attempt in 2022, ranking only ahead of Chicago.
With Montgomery, once you’re able to move past the understandable emotional view of the swap, you should recognize he’s a better player than Williams — and two years younger. The new addition is one of the league’s best tackle-breakers at the position, bringing far more to the passing game as a refined route runner, all while possessing similar durability and leadership intangibles as the man he’s being asked to replace.
Sutton and Montgomery are two upgrades who bring longer-term stability to the roster, without altering Detroit’s healthy cap situation. And the draft, where Holmes has had plenty of success in his first two years on the job, will continue to be the centerpiece of his rebuild strategy. Through the GM’s earlier maneuvering, the team holds two first-round choices, two second-round selections and five overall picks in the first 81 of the event.
Of course, the draft is another place where Holmes has separated himself from Mayhew’s mistakes, particularly by avoiding high-risk prospects. Whether taking on injury concerns like Jahvid Best or Ryan Broyles, or ignoring character red flags with Nick Fairley and Titus Young, Mayhew squandered many of Detroit’s best draft assets this way. Holmes has been more conservative in this regard, outside of last year’s selection of Jameson Williams, who like Broyles, was coming off an ACL tear.
With similar success to Holmes’ previous classes, paired with these new additions (and whomever else the team might add), everything points to these Lions avoiding the massive step back the 2012 version took.