How did Detroit Lions’ Brad Holmes lure C.J. Gardner-Johnson? On rides home from work

Detroit Free Press

PHOENIX — For Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes, the 30-minute car ride from his office in Allen Park to home is usually a “decompression space.”

Sometimes he listens to podcasts, occasionally it’s music, often he drives in silence. Anything to get away from the stress and bustle of work.

But during the first week of free agency, Holmes was burning the phone lines on his commute, and most of his calls were to one agent in particular — Kevin Conner, who represents defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

Holmes had no illusions of landing Gardner-Johnson at the start of free agency.

The Lions’ pro personnel department gave Gardner-Johnson “sky-high, through-the-roof” grades for his play with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, and while Gardner-Johnson had a previous relationship with Lions coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn from their days together with the New Orleans Saints, the Lions were not looking to add a top-of-the-market safety, the kind of money Holmes thought Gardner-Johnson would command after helping the Eagles reach the Super Bowl.

But as Gardner-Johnson lingered in free agency, his contract demands became more palatable. And as Holmes stayed in touch with Conner, a union between the two sides was born.

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“I just kept calling Kevin just kind of just checking in and saying, ‘Hey man, what’s going on?’ And that just kept escalating, escalating,” Holmes said Monday at the NFL’s annual spring meeting. “And then it escalated all the way up until I want to say Friday we had a good conversation, and then Saturday we followed up again, just internally as a group, and even Sunday morning it was just another one of those routine calls and it just happened to escalate till we kind of got in a position we could get it done.”

When the Lions and Gardner-Johnson agreed to a one-year deal worth up to $8 million about 10 p.m. on the first Sunday of free agency, Holmes said he “basically woke the whole household up” with his celebration.

“Just a player that caliber and how he fits like a glove in our defense and what he’s going to bring to our culture and out style and how we want to play,” Holmes said. “I got a great text from Aaron Glenn as soon as it happened. It was a good feeling, and again, just another piece to add and bolster out back end. It’s not just our back end but our defense as a whole. Just a certain way we want to play defense and he fits that to a tee.”

Gardner-Johnson is one of three new defensive starters the Lions added in free agency, all to a secondary that Holmes acknowledged Monday “was an area of emphasis” to improve this offseason.

He can play safety or slot cornerback, and along with fellow free agent additions Cam Sutton and Emanuel Moseley should help transform a defense that gave up the most yards and tied for the third-most points in the NFL last season.

“I told you guys at end of season, we’re going to add to our defense,” Holmes said. “We’re just very young at that position, so to add some guys with some more experience, add some guys with more versatility, but we just wanted to get better there.”

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Holmes praised Sutton, the Lions’ biggest addition of free agency, as “a football player” who “doesn’t mind doing the dirty work” as a run and pass defender.

Sutton played primarily as a slot cornerback in nickel and dime packages early in his career, but projects as a starting outside cornerback this fall. He set career-highs with three interceptions and 15 passes defensed last season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“He’s gritty, he’s physical. He’s a very smart football player and I think that’s going to bode well for us,” Holmes said. “But him just being just a pure football player just stood out for us in the process, and as you guys know, it’s just a lot of guys that we look at. But like I said, last year, with some more external adds — like last year, we added D.J. (Chark) and D.J. just kept popping up. It was the same way with Cam Sutton. Cam just kept popping up and kept resurfacing, kept being the topic of conversation throughout our meetings. So I’m very, very happy we got it done.”

While Sutton signed a three-year, $33 million deal — one of two external free agents the Lions added on a multi-year contract, along with running back David Montgomery — Moseley, like Gardner-Johnson, signed a one-year deal with hopes of cashing in bigger on the market next spring.

Moseley had one interception in five starts last season for the San Francisco 49ers, and missed the final 11 games with a torn ACL.

Holmes said the Lions likely would not have been able to afford Moseley had he not suffered the injury.

“Moseley was another one that he just fit our style, and he’s another kid that’s got versatility,” Holmes said. “He can play outside, he can play inside and, look, if Moseley didn’t get hurt last year, I don’t even know if we would’ve been able to really even be in the range to even acquire him. That’s how hot (of a) start that he was off to.”

In the case of all three free agents, Holmes said the Lions added players who were “the right fit for us.”

“What feels good about going back to the culture piece is that when we do a lot of work on the front end about their intangibles — people that they’ve worked with, people that have coached them in the past — we do all that and make sure that that’s in place and meets our standard,” Holmes said. “But when you get the feedback after you acquired those players and feedback from the teams that they’ve been with, knowing that, ‘Hey man, these guys are made of the right stuff,’ that really makes you feel good and makes you know that you got the right fits.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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