Niyo: After this draft, Lions should be thinking playoffs — and beyond

Detroit News

Allen Park — With the sixth pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Detroit Lions will select … a player in the top 10 for the fifth consecutive year.

That’s the longest current streak for any team in the NFL, by the way. It’s the longest stretch for the Lions since a six-year run of league-rewarded futility in the middle of Matt Millen’s tenure as general manager. And, quite frankly, it’s to Brad Holmes’ credit that it lasted this long.

The No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft belongs to Detroit only because Holmes, in one of his first acts as GM three years ago, opted for short-term pain and long-term gain, agreeing to trade Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for Jared Goff and a package of draft choices that included two first-rounders.

This year’s first-rounder is the last of those. And the underlying point here is that this has to be the end of that run.

No matter what Holmes decides to do with that No. 6 pick — whether he keeps it or trades it, whether he uses it to add a premium defensive talent, a dynamic running back (Bijan Robinson might be the best player in this draft) or even a potential franchise quarterback — this should be the last time the Lions are in this position for a long while.

All those jokes about the NFL draft being the Lions’ Super Bowl should be in the past, too, now that this franchise and its fanbase are eagerly talking about the present instead of being forced to focus on the future.

Fresh off last year’s second-half surge and playoff near-miss, there’s considerable optimism surrounding the Lions, who are the betting favorite right now to win the NFC North for the first time in 30 years.

“I think it’s just understood, there’s not much to be said,” receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said as players returned to Allen Park to begin offseason workouts earlier this month. “We know what we did last year. The media knows. Everyone saw what we did. And for us as a team, we feel like it’s only up from here.”

Assuming that’s true, though, it’s only down from here when it comes to the draft order.

There’s no guarantee of that, obviously. Just prior to the draft in 2019, I asked then-Lions GM Bob Quinn about the pressure that came with owning a top-10 pick. It’s something he hadn’t really experienced in his time in New England, and when I started to suggest it wasn’t something he planned on doing again the next year, he interrupted me with a smile and said “ever.”

Well, so much for that plan: Quinn drafted T.J. Hockenson eighth overall that year, took Jeff Okudah with the third pick in 2020, and none of those three are around anymore.

Holmes is in a much better spot now, though, largely because of all the young talent that has been accumulated over the last several years. Some of it was brought in by Quinn, including three-fifths of Detroit’s dominant offensive line in Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Jonah Jackson. The previous regime also brought in D’Andre Swift, Tracy Walker and Jack Fox, for what that’s worth.

Yet, it’s Holmes’ scouting acumen, along with Dan Campbell’s leadership and his coaching staff’s ability to develop and deploy that talent, that seemingly has gotten the Lions over the hump. And now they find themselves in a position similar to Seattle and Philadelphia, the other two teams that posted winning records last season but own multiple first-round picks in this draft, including one in the top 10.

In Detroit’s case, they’ve also got an extra second-round pick from last fall’s Hockenson trade, so Holmes is armed with five of the top 81 picks and no glaring needs to fill — at least among the starters — on either side of the ball.

“So, they’ve got a chance to add some real, real help to their roster,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said, “and the way that their lineup is set up right now … that allows them to take the best available player.

“Brad Holmes, I give him a lot of credit. He took a lot of grief after the Stafford trade, and (the Rams) went on and won the Super Bowl. He knew the timing, but he nailed it because they weren’t ready to win yet. He was able to still get a quality quarterback in return and load up with all these assets, and now they’re in great shape. I don’t know that there are many teams you would rather be than them right now, with where they are as an organization and the assets they have to go ahead and take that next step.”

Holmes sure sounds like he understands that as he prepares for his third draft. That’s why he keeps talking about sticking to the process and “surrendering the results” to it. And he’s well aware of the stumbles that preceded him here in Detroit, which partly explains why he was referencing the first book of the New Testament last week, saying, “We’re kind of used to taking the hard road and through the narrow gate,” He knows there are still forks in the road yet to come.

“You definitely want to take advantage of having this kind of capital,” Holmes acknowledged in his pre-draft press conference. “You’re not going to put too much pressure on yourself, but it is a unique opportunity. Those opportunities don’t come every year.”

They shouldn’t, anyway. And if Holmes can make the most of this one, next year should be a different story. The draft still will be a huge deal for Lions fans in 2024, but not because they’re holding another premium pick. Instead, it’ll be because they’re hosting the draft here in downtown Detroit. Maybe even as the reigning Super Bowl champions, just like the Chiefs are in Kansas City, where the draft is being held this week.

OK, that’s probably taking it too far, I know. But, you get the idea, right?

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