Wojo: Lions GM Brad Holmes trusts his gut with surprising picks

Detroit News

Allen Park — Brad Holmes has built plenty of trust equity in three seasons as Lions GM, constructing with shrewd, aggressive moves. In the first round of the draft Thursday night, he tested the depths of that equity.

It takes guts to trust your gut, and Holmes sure did that, as he should. On other draft boards, the Lions’ choices might be considered odd, or even reaches. On Holmes’ board, and with Dan Campbell’s coaching style, passion and fit matter more than draftniks’ projections.

Holmes didn’t exactly play it safe, trading down from No. 6 to No. 12 to take Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs. He followed by selecting Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell at 18, both selections higher than most projected.

“We’re absolutely thrilled with how tonight went,” Holmes said. “It’s no disrespect to the mock drafts. Frankly, we don’t care. We feel really confident about the work we put in. I think our fans are going to be really, really proud and excited about what they see. I’m not saying in a year or two years; we believe these guys are ready to go right now.”

Immediate impact is one factor for a team expecting to make the playoffs. Character is another factor, as always with Holmes and Campbell. It’s why I never believed Georgia’s polarizing Jalen Carter was on their board. And the Lions’ belief in Jared Goff made it highly unlikely they’d take a quarterback in the first round.

If not for his previous two stellar drafts, Holmes might be accused of unnecessary gambles. I’m not willing to make that accusation, not yet, although I admit he’s pushing the boundaries. Clearly the Lions are doubling down on their offensive strengths, giving Goff and coordinator Ben Johnson another dynamic weapon. They respect the importance of the running game, especially with their powerful offensive line, and value running backs higher than most. It’s part of the reason they had the No. 4 offense in the league and concluded a 9-8 season with an 8-2 flurry.

Of course they can’t ignore the weaknesses on their bottom-rated defense, and they haven’t. They did take Jack Campbell, a 6-4 old-school bruiser who led the country in tackles and was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year. He should boost a linebacking corps that started sixth-round rookie Malcolm Rodriguez last season. The Lions also overhauled their secondary with three free-agent acquisitions.

If Gibbs looks like a luxury, you might want to look closer. He’s a 5-9 speed back who led Alabama in rushing yards and receptions. If he looks suspiciously like D’Andre Swift, that’s not a coincidence because the Lions have been concerned about Swift’s injuries and inconsistencies. There could be a Gibbs-Swift competition in the backfield alongside newcomer David Montgomery, but more likely, Swift will get traded.

“D’Andre is still on our roster, he’s still a part of our team, he’s still under contract,” Holmes said. “He’s a dynamic football player. So, it hasn’t really changed the math there, yet. But it is early.”

Unable to count on Swift’s availability, and unable to count on big-play receiver Jameson Williams for six games due to his suspension, the Lions adjusted quickly. They plugged in another Alabama speedster at No. 12, which happened to be the exact spot they landed Williams last year.

Another interesting twist — Holmes said he grew enamored with Gibbs after attending the Alabama-Texas game last fall, which featured Gibbs and Texas’ touted Bijan Robinson, who was taken eighth by Atlanta Friday night.

“Between Bijan and Gibbs, I actually think they’re different players,” Holmes said. “One guy is probably more of a bell-cow running back. I think our guy Gibbs is a very, very talented player, they’re just different flavors. Both were really high-impact players. I look at Gibbs and I saw he was mocked in the 50s. Now that one I did laugh at because if you look at the talent, that wasn’t remotely close.”

Different teams have different rosters and different boards. The Lions obviously value high character and football passion. Campbell was a two-time captain at Iowa and tested off the charts, showing more versatility than just a hulking middle linebacker.

The Lions rated Gibbs highly for similar reasons, even to his own surprise. In one season at Alabama after transferring from Georgia Tech, Gibbs was durable and versatile. Most projections had him going late in the first round.

“I feel great,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t know I would get picked as high as I did because you know running backs don’t really get picked as high. It was pretty shocking to me.”

Gibbs already is excited about all the ways he can be used in Johnson’s offense. He’s more than just a running back, and in Williams’ early absence, he should get the ball in space a lot.

“We had players we loved in that spot (No. 6), but when the trade came up, it was just too good,” Dan Campbell told Fox 2. “We all fell in love with this guy a long time ago. He pops out on the tape. He’s dynamic and explosive, and he’s an unbelievable human being and worker.”

Do not underestimate that. You don’t have to value all the intangibles the Lions value, but it has led to excellent draft hauls so far. The Lions were interested in a couple of players before their pick at six, but when Alabama’s Will Anderson and Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon went in the top five, Holmes moved quickly. His trade down with Arizona also netted a second-round pick, 34th overall. The videotaped reaction in the Lions’ draft room was pure exultation, as Campbell and Holmes hugged, then Holmes misfired on a wild high-five with team president Rod Wood.

The reaction elsewhere was not nearly the same. At a draft party in Ford Field, fans booed. On social media, some wondered why the Lions passed on higher-rated talents. Holmes knows how it’s viewed, and often says he respects mock drafters but knows they don’t have all the information the team does. Holmes said he believed a team was going to nab Gibbs, which is why he couldn’t wait until No. 18 to take him.

If you believe they have an impact for you on the field, then you just go ahead and take them,” Holmes said. “With Jahmyr, we didn’t feel great about (waiting until 18). … When we selected Jack, he was our highest-rated player left on the board, actually by a good margin. Especially in this draft, if you try to get cute and say, ‘Oh, well let me get’ – no. We find players that fit us and what we’re about from a culture standpoint, a character standpoint, an intangible standpoint, an intelligence standpoint.”

The Lions admit they get enamored with the player more than the projection. It’s how they found starters such as Amon-Ra St. Brown (fourth round), Kerby Joseph (third) and others. For every obvious pick such as Aidan Hutchinson or Penei Sewell, many require more intense legwork. Jack Campbell was one they instantly identified.

“The thing that jumps him above some of the other guys is his passion for the game,” Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard said. “The way it drives him. You see it, he speaks it, he lives it. He is a Detroit guy. He is a Dan Campbell guy, a culture fit immediately.”

Obviously, culture fit only works if the players have talent, and no matter how they were rated, Gibbs and Jack Campbell have unique physical traits. Holmes trusted his gut, and we haven’t seen a solid reason yet not to do the same.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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