Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes handled NFL draft 2023 like a chess grandmaster

Detroit Free Press

We won’t know for a year or three whether Brad Holmes made the right picks in the 2023 NFL draft. He landed five of the draft’s top 60 or so prospects, but eschewed positional value in Round 1, and took on injury risk to do so on Day 2.

But in his third year as Detroit Lions general manager, it’s clear Holmes has gotten more comfortable with the mechanics of drafting, and his deft maneuvering all weekend is another promising sign for the Lions’ future.

Holmes made six trades over three days: five while he was on the clock to go up or down for draft picks, and a sixth early Saturday when he sent oft-injured running back D’Andre Swift to the Philadelphia Eagles for a 2025 fourth-round choice.

Like a chess grandmaster working the boards in Central Park, Holmes handled the chaos of draft weekend with calm and foresight. He made two trades to move backwards in one eight-pick span, and ended up with a quarterback many predicted would go in the first round. He traded one pick twice, acquiring Pick No. 168 as part of a first round deal with the Arizona Cardinals to go down from No. 6, then sending it back to Arizona late on Day 2 when he moved up to draft nose tackle Brodric Martin. And he was at the front of the line for runs on tight ends (Sam LaPorta) and defensive backs (Brian Branch) early in Round 2.

“I felt a lot more comfortable doing that this year,” Holmes said late Friday. “Obviously, we made a couple trades last year, but this year, especially when you’re getting into Day 2 and being able to maneuver around, you just learn as you go and as you get more experience, you get more comfortable at it in terms of just kind of reading it and feeling it and making calls.”

Holmes had plenty of help hopscotching the board. He said Friday chief operating officer Mike Disner, senior personnel executive John Dorsey and senior director of football administration Brandon Sosna laid the groundwork for several of the Lions’ draft day deals by working the phones with their contacts around the league.

Whether you agree with his evaluations or not, it’s clear all that maneuvering helped Holmes leave the weekend with a handful of the players he valued most.

He started the draft by taking a running back (Jahmyr Gibbs) at a spot (No. 12) no one saw coming. He followed by taking the only off-ball linebacker (Jack Campbell) to go in the draft’s first 66 picks. He passed on a popular tight end at the top of Round 2 (Michael Mayer) to take another one (LaPorta) less favored in mocks. He traded up to get slot cornerback in Branch, the first nickel defender off the board, at Pick 45. And he waited through two trade downs to take quarterback Hendon Hooker at the first most realistic chance he had to draft a backup.

Holmes proved adept at evaluating talent the past two years while building the Lions into playoff contenders. He hit batting practice fastballs out of the park with Penei Sewell and Aidan Hutchinson as top-seven picks, and adroitly landed players like Amon-Ra St. Brown and James Houston on Day 3.

Holmes hasn’t been perfect with his drafts, and he surely will get mixed reviews for his picks this week. But in his third draft as GM, he showed the shrewdness he’ll need to help the Lions succeed.

With this year’s draft in the books, here are five more thoughts on the Lions’ three-day haul:

TONY GARCIA: Winners and losers from the Lions’ 2023 NFL draft

Branch-ing out

I thought the Lions’ Day 2 pick of Branch, the slot cornerback/safety from Alabama, was their best of the draft. He may not be a Day 1 starter, depending on how the Lions want to configure their secondary, but he’s at a minimum the heir apparent to top free agent addition C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

“If you just had football players — as football player in caps, in just black and white, that’s what he is,” Holmes said. “His nickel stuff is really good and he’s one of the better tacklers that I saw on film this year from a defensive standpoint, especially for a DB. But he just plays the game like how we play and like the style like how we want to play. He’s very instinctive, he’s very physical.”

I give Branch credit, too, for his decision to stay in Kansas City and hear his name called after he slipped unexpectedly out of Round 1. Branch said he was disappointed in his slide, but that did not detract from the experience of getting to walk across the stage and shake hands with commissioner Roger Goodell.

That’s the same approach Darius Slay had when he went on Day 2 of the 2013 draft. If Branch can provide anything remotely close to what Slay did during his time in Detroit, the Lions will walk away with a steal.

Hooker harangue

I like the Hooker pick, too, though it comes with a fair amount of risk — the Lions passed on capable players like receiver Jalin Hyatt, cornerback Garrett Williams and linebacker Trenton Simpson to take an injured developmental backup — and should not be construed as anything other than a vote of confidence in Jared Goff as the Lions’ quarterback of the future.

The Lions are trending towards giving Goff a new contract sometime in the next 15 months, by which time there’s a fair chance Hooker will have yet to attempt a pass, even in a preseason game.

DAVE BIRKETT: Hendon Hooker is part insurance policy, part lottery ticket for Lions

Hooker is rehabbing from November knee surgery and has a long learning curve coming from Tennessee’s unique spread offense. As much as the Lions like him, they’ll have little insight into how good he can be by the time they’ll likely sign Goff to a mega deal.

Still, there’s plenty of upside taking Hooker where the Lions did. He has the chance to be, at a minimum, a very good backup. Those players are valuable on contending teams like the Lions, and they have worth as trade chips down the road.

As long as Goff stays healthy, Hooker likely will spend this fall redshirting, then have three years (and three training camps) to show what he can do.

Linebackers slide

The biggest knock on the Lions’ draft, and it’s a valid one, is they spent two premium draft picks on the non-premium positions of running back and linebacker in Round 1.

I won’t rehash all the arguments for and against those picks. For the analytics crowd, there’s a significant opportunity cost to ignoring positional value high in the draft. Holmes would counter he’s drafting players, not positions, and he got two good ones in Gibbs and Campbell.

It’s fair to note that while the Lions clearly got their top-rated off-ball linebacker in Campbell, a hulking athlete who should start alongside Alex Anzalone as a rookie, there were no other stack ‘backers that went off the board in the first two rounds.

Had the Lions passed on Campbell for, say, Calijah Kancey, Deonte Banks or Myles Murphy, they could have still landed a linebacker like Simpson or Drew Sanders in Round 3.

“I know a lot will be said about, ‘Well, you acquired a running back in the first round,'” Holmes said. “We didn’t acquire a running back in the first round. We acquired an elite weapon to keep our offense explosive in the first round. We didn’t acquire an inside linebacker in the first round, we acquired a legit anchor to elevate our defense in the first round. That’s what our ultimate goal is and that’s what our vision is, and we couldn’t be more excited with how the weekend went.”

JEFF SEIDEL: Lions emerge from NFL draft with roster in great shape. Now it’s time to win

Future forecast

They won’t enjoy the fruits of the trade for some time, but don’t overlook the importance of that 2025 fourth-round pick the Lions acquired for Swift.

Holmes turned the Lions’ fortunes through the draft, and he did so by using the extra picks he acquired in the Matthew Stafford trade, and by upgrading picks in other deals (for players like T.J. Hockenson and Trinity Benson).

A fourth-round pick is not insignificant, not when you can package it with other picks to bounce around the board like Holmes did this weekend, and not when you’re a team like the Lions that does not expect to be picking high in the draft again anytime soon.

The Lions opened this year’s draft with nine picks, including three of the first 81 choices. Ultimately, they added eight players, including six of the first 96 choices.

Next year, the Lions have an extra third-round pick but no fourth (a pick swap with the Vikings for Hockenson), and in 2025 they should have five of the top 135 or so picks, plus any compensatory picks they may add in the future.

“It’s my job to keep laser focused on the present but probably even more importantly, keep laser focused on the future,” Holmes said. “And that’s what went into a lot of the decisions with having to make the trade with D’Andre Swift to Philly.”

Final word

The Lions should be one of the best teams in the NFC in 2023. They have a young, talented, deep roster, an explosive offense, an improved defense and a swagger that comes with knowing how good they are.

TAKE A LOOK: Projecting Lions depth chart for 2023 season after NFL draft

Holmes said Saturday he’s “extremely proud” of how far the Lions have come since he took over, but reminded everyone they missed the playoffs last year.

“And that’s not good enough,” Holmes said. “So we got to get to the point as a football team where we can put ourselves in a position where we could get in the postseason and hopefully make some noise.”

Asked if he thinks the Lions have enough talent to do that, Holmes said unequivocally, “I do, yes.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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