Wojo: Lions’ Brad Holmes showed promise, purpose in sensible first draft

Brad Holmes didn’t use his first draft as Lions GM to sell tickets….

Wojo: Lions' Brad Holmes showed promise, purpose in sensible first draft 1

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Justin Rogers, Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo on the Detroit Lions draft

Justin Rogers, Bob Wojnowski and John Niyo take a look back at the Detroit Lions’ 2021 draft, and talk about the seven picks taken.

Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers, The Detroit News

Brad Holmes didn’t use his first draft as Lions GM to sell tickets or push a glossy narrative. In fact, he pretty much told us what he was going to do, and he did it.

From offensive tackle Penei Sewell to defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill to big cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu, the Lions loaded up on pounds and punch. There was a constant amid all the surname consonants, and for sticking to sound, smart football principles, Holmes is rightly being lauded. Based on the experts and the eyes and the positions, Holmes and his staff did quite well.

This is called progress, for now. I’m guessing it’s the fun part about building from the basement open. Literally, the Lions need everything, so it was impossible for Holmes to make a highly questionable pick based on position. And for those who quibble about investing so much in beefy offensive and defensive linemen, I have one question: Is this your first year watching the Lions?

There is a caveat. You only get one chance to write your first draft, and this is the one and only everything-sounds-good freebie draft for Holmes and Dan Campbell. The situation should change steadily, and after what’s likely to be a rough season, they shouldn’t have the luxury of targeting just any position. They will need playmakers at receiver and linebacker, eventually, but as we know around here, playmakers are less useful without protection.

And if Jared Goff indeed is a one- or two-year bridge to the next quarterback, well, treat him as such. Don’t give the fancy corner office with the nifty remote-control blinds to an employee who might not be here long. That said, I actually think Goff has a chance to be more than a stopgap, and I think Holmes believes it, too. The Lions didn’t reach for a quarterback because they’re not ready to reach for a quarterback. On the flip side, the Bears reached yet again, trading up to No. 11 for Justin Fields, just as they once traded up for Mitch Trubisky, and traded for Nick Foles, and signed Andy Dalton. The Bears have a top-notch defense so their reaches actually are understandable, if futile.

In Sewell, the Lions landed a rare talent with a long shelf life. Offensive tackle is a position without qualifiers. Sewell doesn’t need a good quarterback, or good running backs, or good receivers to be effective. But quarterbacks, running backs and receivers need a good offensive line, and preferably great tackles, to be effective.

Start with the essentials

My simple rule, one that previous Lions GMs seldom followed but Holmes just might: When filling an empty house, buy the essential beds and couches first and don’t dare look at the sparkly chandeliers and window dressings. Oh, and when stocking up on beef, get a sizable fridge too.

“We stuck to what we believed in, and the (draft picks) live up to the standards of what we’re looking for in football players,” Holmes said. “They have the intangibles, they have grit, they’re tough, they’re physical, they’re smart and they’re explosive. And they’re all instinctive, so they’re smart football players.”

What’s the line from the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath? First do no harm.

It should be the same for NFL GMs, although many follow the hypocritical oath: Do no harm and take the best player available, uh, unless you stumble across a super speedy guy who will sell jerseys.

The Lions did well with their seven picks, partly because they did no harm. If I’m required to play teacher, I’d give them a B-plus. The only real flyer was the seventh-rounder, Jermar Jefferson, a running back from Oregon State. I liked the back-to-back defensive tackles in the second and third rounds because the Lions’ defense has been pushed around for years. The fourth-round receiver from USC, Amon-Ra St. Brown, has a fascinating background and a pugnacious style, as evidenced by his highlight package heavy on downfield blocks. He speaks three languages — English, German and French — and his father is a two-time Mr. Universe bodybuilding champion. It seems the Lions are even collecting dads that can beat up other teams’ dads.

Receiver and linebacker remain the gnawing needs, and they weren’t going to be fixed in one draft, although fourth-round linebacker Derrick Barnes from Purdue is considered a tackling machine. Holmes and Campbell are more intent on creating a culture, and I know that’s a buzzword for most new regimes. But the stark, antiseptic approach by Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia stifled players, as evidenced by how many took verbal shots on the way out of town.

Fitting together

When Holmes and Campbell talk about collaboration, they don’t just mean between the front office and coaching staff. They mean the players too, and it was amazing how similar they sounded in the Zoom press conferences Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

On the team’s Thursday night draft-room video, you can see Campbell grabbing the phone and telling Sewell, “You come in to compete, man. You be just as nasty and dirty as you have been. And you are going to help us turn this thing around.”

When owner Sheila Ford Hamp got on the phone she probably couldn’t hear a thing over the shouts and cheers from others in the room. It’s refreshing exuberance and transparency, although it only means something if they find the right players.

Holmes was so interested in Onwuzurike, he almost traded up to grab him before he fell to the Lions. Onwuzurike, who opted out of his final season at Washington, conducted one of the most colorful interviews in Zoom history, sprinkling in expletives that connoted joy more than malice, although it’s hard not to detect impressive football malice in this line: “I like f—— people up.”

When asked about the Lions’ run on mauling big fellas, including Sewell and McNeill, Onwuzurike summed it up nicely. Or rather, not so nicely.

“The trenches are arguably the most important position group in football, I think,” Onwuzurike said. “It’s an honor for me to be the first D-tackle out. I think the Lions are trying to build some s— right here and we got two good big-ass parts to build that.”

Holmes stayed patient and disciplined and didn’t stray from the plan to get versatile, passionate players, regardless of position. We’ll call this the Lions’ foundational draft. That means there’s plenty of constructing still to do, but at least something to build upon.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com

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