Phoenix, Ariz. — The Detroit Lions had a plan entering free agency, but plans are always subject to change. And in this case, it led to two desired additions and a pair of welcome surprises.
Cornerback Cam Sutton was part of the initial vision. According to general manager Brad Holmes, as the team’s brass continued to meet ahead of free agency, Sutton’s name surfaced over and over as an ideal fit for the organization, making him a top target in the process.
“First of all, his versatility,” Holmes said Monday at the league meetings, when asked what about Sutton stood out above the other cornerbacks available on the market. “And I’ll probably say, even before his versatility — because he is a guy that can play outside, he can play nickel — you hear us talk about it all the time; he’s a football player, man. He’s a football player and he doesn’t mind doing the dirty work in both phases.
“He’s gritty, he’s physical. He’s a very smart football player and I think that’s gonna bode well for us. 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.”
Similarly, the Lions saw those same characteristics in Emmanuel Mosely, another cornerback the Lions targeted and landed early in the process. Holmes noted he’s a player that probably wouldn’t have been in Detroit’s price range had the veteran cornerback not suffered a torn ACL last season.
“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.”
But while the Lions’ initial vision involved landing Sutton and Moseley, the same couldn’t be said for running back David Montgomery and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
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With Montgomery, Holmes said the plan had been to bring back Jamaal Williams before conversations forced a pivot.
“Just like I told you guys at the combine, it was mutual interest, we wanted Jamaal back,” Holmes said. “Me and Jamaal had a good conversation at the end of the season about, you know, his desire to want to come back and that was legit. When we left the combine, we had a conversation with his agent probably like either right before or after I spoke to you guys there. Thought that it was heading in the right direction.”
But the Lions ultimately ended up with Montgomery, while Williams landed in New Orleans, where he told local media Detroit’s offer had been disrespectful. Holmes didn’t directly address those comments, choosing to praise the player he had made one of his top targets when he took Detroit’s GM job in 2021.
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“…Everything that you guys know about Jamaal, on top of his ability as a running back, those are all things that made us want to bring him back,” Holmes said. “You know, from a budgeting and planning standpoint of pre-free agency, you know, we had an allotment of resources set aside, really for Jamaal. Didn’t really even really consider another running back higher than that amount of resources that we set aside for Jamaal.
“Business happens and that’s part of this business. It just didn’t work. We tried, but when the market crystallized and it got to a point where David was in play, kind of within the range of resources that we had set aside (for Williams), that’s when we went ahead and went forward with David, which we’re extremely excited about.”
And with Gardner-Johnson, the Lions weren’t even in the market for a starting safety, but they also didn’t anticipate the 25-year-old would carry such a team-friendly price tag after leading the NFL in interceptions last season.
“First of all our grades from our pro personnel department were sky high through the roof with what he did as a safety and luckily with the ball production he had it was justified,” Holmes said. “Obviously, we invested in Tracy (Walker), and he’s going to come back from his injury and he’s on track and we fully expect him to be back. And Kerby (Joseph) showed a lot of progress last year, so it’s not like we were eager to acquire another starting-level, high-level safety.
“But with the position flexibility that (Gardner-Johnson) has to play safety and to play nickel, the way it all kind of went down, I kind of just saw the grades and ball production and was like, ‘OK, this guy is probably getting top-dollar safety money and we’re just not going to be in that market.'”
Yet a few days into free agency, with Gardner-Johnson still on the market, Holmes touched base with the player’s agent and things escalated quickly from there. By the end of the week, the two sides unexpectedly came together on a one-year deal.
“I was really, really excited,” Holmes said. “It was Sunday night, it was like 10 o’clock at night. The kids were sleeping upstairs, wife was sleeping, I basically woke the whole household up when we got that done. 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. I got a great text from (defensive coordinator) Aaron Glenn as soon as it happened. It was a good feeling and again, just another piece to add and bolster out back end.”