INDIANAPOLIS — If there’s a look a three-win team typically has, you weren’t finding it in last year’s Lions. The losses brought encouragement. The wins brought celebration. Just about everything was seen as a step taken forward.
And those locker-room scenes when the team started to turn the corner?
If the team goes where Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell think it will, they’ll be remembered.
“It’s not easy to have fun when you only won two or three games,” Campbell said, in a quiet moment at this week’s combine. “That’s a credit to those guys. And I just bring it back to what you’re about. We were just not gonna be the same-old, same-old. I want these guys to understand that when the lights come on, there’s a certain way to play every game, but ultimately we’re not playing not to lose. We’re going to play to win.
“And they know going into a game in all three phases, we’re going to cut it loose. We are.”
So yes, the vibes coming out of Detroit after Year 1 with Campbell as coach and Holmes as general manager are good. Their first draft class showed promise, a core of veterans brought in to carry the new bosses’ message came through, and the team, without question, ascended as the season wore on, while consistently showing growth throughout.
And then, you come to the reality of where they are: The grace period is ending. Soon, those close losses that were almost seen as wins will need to become wins, and no one knows it better than the guys who took those 13 losses last year, and had to keep their heads up through a year that was earmarked all along as a sort of organizational reset.
Which sets the stage for a crucial stretch for the franchise. The Lions have two first-round picks in each of the next two years, the payoff for dealing Matthew Stafford to the Rams. Their cap is healthy this year and should be in even better shape in 2023.
So in one way, with Campbell and Holmes’s culture in place, the foundation has been set. In another, that blank slate they were given a year ago will soon have to start filling up, and it’s on the two guys entrusted with the place to make sure they use all those dollars and picks the right way.
Welcome to our first GamePlan column of the 2022 offseason. And we’ll throw an under-construction tag on this one; my editors and I are still working through some of the details and the structure of this particular weekly piece. This week, it made sense to give you some combine buzz, and we’ll do that in a bit.
But we’re starting with, to me, one of the most interesting teams in the league for 2022.
And that brings us to the trade that set the Lions’ course as the Holmes-Campbell era began. The jury is, most decidedly, in on one half of that deal. Stafford won the Super Bowl in his first year as a Ram, so, for L.A., the transaction’s an unequivocal win. Ascertaining how Detroit would come out of this, on the other hand, was always going to take a little longer.
In trading Stafford, the Lions implicitly acknowledged that they weren’t a quick fix or two away from getting themselves right, coming out of Matt Patricia’s three years in charge. Doing it for first-round picks that were a year and two years down the line, then using the first offseason for Holmes and Campbell to clean out the salary cap, meant going into last season with eyes wide open—it was going to be a developmental season from the start.
Of course, no one was looking to go into the bye week at 0–8. But given the circumstances, the Lions’ new brass was ready to handle that. Even if both Campbell and Holmes were coming from places that haven’t done much losing of late.
“When you start going through that, yeah, it’s not easy,” Campbell said. “But you get to do two things. You either start to lose confidence and start losing hope, and then everybody feels that. Or you go the other way, man. And it motivates you to work harder. It’s like, ‘What are we going to do to get out of this? How do get this first one? What do we gotta do?’ And you dig your heels in, and you go to work, and that’s how Brad and I are.”
Campbell said all he wanted from Holmes was players good enough to keep the team competitive and aligned enough with the overall vision to make sure that, even through losses, the incremental progress coming wouldn’t be interrupted. And Holmes got him players who would carry the flag. Some Holmes had background with (Michael Brockers). Some Campbell had background with (Alex Anzalone). Some neither did, but Holmes and his staff did homework on (Kalif Raymond, Jamaal Williams) to know the fit was there.
“Them just being themselves, Charles Harris, another guy, just being themselves,” Campbell continued. “These young guys see this, and we did a good job of identifying these young guys, these rookies that we feel like meet that criteria, too. They just don’t know what they don’t know yet, but they’re cut from the right cloth. The same cloth we are. And they just need to know what it’s supposed to look like.
“And so with those veterans I just named, man, eventually that’s going to be their show.”
That’s the ideal that they’re building, too, like every team does—to have the players become so ingrained in the program, and the culture, that it becomes their own and they’re selling it to everyone else, without the coaches having to tell them to. The back half of the year brought signs it’s already starting to happen.
I asked Campbell and Holmes when it clicked for them that the team was getting what they had spent the balance of 2021 trying to build, and Campbell gave me the obvious answers.
First was the tie with the Steelers, in ugly conditions in Pittsburgh, coming out of the bye at 0–8. Second was the team’s first win, which came after Detroit lost its Thanksgiving game—one the Lions thought they should’ve won, against the Bears—and came after a 10-day layoff with the team at 0-10-1. But it wasn’t just getting a tie after eight straight losses, or getting the team’s first win, so much as it how it was happening.
“It just kind of told us what we already knew,” Campbell said. “These guys are not going to give in. They’re not going to give up. They don’t care who we play. They’re just going to go work. And they have not lost hope or belief. And so I think what we’re trying to build here, what we said from Day 1, our culture, it’s about having freaking right ownership, which we do, it’s about having a freaking head coach and GM that’re aligned.
“We will never talk about his guy, your guy, my guy. It’s always about our guy. And I think that’s huge. We both believe that. You want to come in the building, man, we’re going to cut it loose, we’re going to be aggressive and we’re going to develop talent. We’re going to put these players in the best position to have success. He’s going to find them, and when he comes in, we’re picking the very best position to have success. We’re going to showcase what you have. And that’s what we’re about.”
That brings us back to all of the capital the Lions have. They have the second pick in the draft, and three of the first 34. Again, they have two first-round picks next year as well. They have some flexibility to go get veterans.
Simply put, it’s not overstating anything to say the next two offseasons will determine whether Campbell and Holmes make it long term in Detroit.
And yet, for both guys, getting there’s really just going to be about doing what they did in Year 1—adhering to a plan that each of them believes in, and letting it take them to the players that’ll make a difference for the franchise.
“Not putting too much pressure on ourselves, we have a process in place and we know we’re going to follow that same process,” Holmes said. “We’ll be in better shape this year than last year; we had so much going on. We’re much more structured and organized going into it. But we’re still going to operate the same way. We’re still going to look at the tape, and we’re going to find the guys that fit us, and we’re going to acquire the guys that we love.
“It’s going to be the same approach, but it’s going to be fun because now we have those resources, not only this year but next year.”
If you want a roadmap for how it can be done, it’s in the history both guys have, going back to 2017. That was the year the Saints, with Campbell on staff, had a franchise-shifting draft, landing Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Trey Hendrickson and Anzalone in one fell swoop. It also was the year the Rams, with Holmes on staff, and without a first-round pick, drafted Gerald Everett, Cooper Kupp, John Johnson, Josh Reynolds and Samson Ebukam consecutively, between picks 44 and 125.
In Campbell’s case, what he remembers about that draft class in New Orleans (and Holmes affirmed his experience was the same in L.A.), in tandem with a 2016 class that brought Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell and David Onyemata, was that the Saints were uncompromising in what they were looking for—and wound up getting it.
“My God, we hit paydirt,” Campbell said. “We just identified the guys that we love, which Brad and I talk about all the time. Let’s find the guys that fit what we’re about, and we love, we love, and we did that, and it turned the tide for us. It got us out of being mediocre there, average to above average, into, ‘Hey, man, now you’re competing for championships.’ Look, that’s been our model the whole time. It really has from Day 1.
“We’re not going to overextend ourselves, we’re not going to create an environment of entitlement here, we’re going to find guys that fit what we’re about.”
And the best news is there’s reason to believe the Lions have already started to build a track record of finding those types. It was apparent in the grit and resilience of last year’s team as a whole, of course. It was also there in individual acquisitions.
Maybe the best example is rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, whom the Lions scooped up in the fourth round.
“Like Dan was saying, you just find football players that you love,” Holmes said. “It was St. Brown this past year. Nobody was happier than me when St. Brown ran a 4.6 [at his pro day]. Absolutely. That was like, Oh, we’re definitely taking this guy, because there’s nothing on tape that deterred you. It’s like, This guy is a total fit for what we do. And when you keep hitting on those kind of guys …”
You’ll build a team that can withstand a lot, as last year’s Lions did.
Now, it’ll be on Holmes and Campbell to take all those resources over the next two years and try to get the team’s talent level to catch up to its grit. So as one part of the rebuild has given the two a lot to build off coming out of 2021, another is just beginning.
Which makes this an awfully big couple of months, and years, for everyone in Detroit.
1) Aaron Rodgers’s looming decision isn’t just affecting how the Packers do business this offseason. It’s affecting the larger quarterback market across the league. And I think that domino falling comes down to this: Is Green Bay the best football situation for Rodgers? For the most part, the animosity of last year, between Rodgers and the Packers’ front office, has subsided, and that’s why I’ve been saying for the last few weeks that this has moved from being personal to professional for Rodgers himself. I also think he’s got a better appreciation for his football situation in Green Bay than he did a year ago. Which is a long way of saying this is trending toward Rodgers staying. (But that he hasn’t given the team word yet, and this is dragging on, should at least make you wonder whether this will go the other way.)
2) After quarterback-rich offseasons in 2020 and ’21, with high-end draft and veteran options available, it’s starting to feel like this one will be more of the norm—when quarterback demand far outweighs the supply. That should help the Texans get a big return for Deshaun Watson.
3) Those in the league continue to connect Watson to the Eagles and Broncos. Obviously, clarity with Watson’s legal situation would help (and further bolster the market for him), but the football people in those two places are positioned to strike if the right deal is there. Philly owner Jeffrey Lurie has consistently been willing to take players with baggage, and Denver doesn’t have an owner right now.
4) For what it’s worth, there’s a lot of interest from opposing teams in where Trevor Lawrence’s career goes from here. His tape wasn’t good in his rookie year, and it revealed that Doug Pederson has work to do with a prospect who was a little rawer than anyone seemed to know coming out of Clemson.
5) Free-agent meetings are underway between teams and agents here, and the issue now is what it was a couple of years ago, the last time we were here. It used to be that deals would essentially get done during combine week. But the league’s spacing out the offseason, when the combine and start of the new league year are separated by more than week, mean that talks here are more conceptual, and teams are less willing to put their cards on the table, knowing there’s so much time left for offers they might make to be shopped.
6) Early indications are that teams believe the free-agent class is top-heavy, meaning that after the top guys come off the board, the market could crater a bit and a slew of one-year deals could be done. It’s a sign, too, that with the cap recovering, and COVID-19 economics in the rearview, more teams are able to keep their own guys.
7) Maybe of interest only to me: The deals for Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim were actually done last week. So … before Kyler Murray’s Monday morning statement was released.
8) I wouldn’t put a timeline on the Lamar Jackson contract situation. Most of his, and the team’s, focus to this point has been on what went wrong down the stretch last year in Baltimore. So it could happen soon. It could happen six months from now. The circle in on the negotiation is small, since Jackson doesn’t have an agent, and the Ravens are letting Jackson himself set the pace and urgency of talks.
9) The competition committee gathered a group of 10 respected special-teams coaches (the Saints’ Darren Rizzi, Cowboys’ John Fassel and Chiefs’ Dave Toub among them) to talk about the future of punt, with concerns raised again about the safety of the play. I don’t know whether changes are necessarily coming now, but the league wants ideas, which is why they’re going to those coaches.
10) One more time: The combine should stay right where it is, in Indianapolis.
THE FINAL WORD
The offensive-line market is going to be fascinating over the next two months. The draft has a strong group of tackles, and here are some of the linemen set to hit free agency.
• Saints OT Terron Armstead
• Patriots OT Trent Brown
• Jaguars OT Cam Robinson
• Seahawks OT Duane Brown
• Bucs C Ryan Jensen
• Ravens C Bradley Bozeman
• Rams C Brian Allen
• Commanders G Brandon Scherff
• Rams G Austin Corbett
• 49ers G Laken Tomlinson
And this is coming out of consecutive years in which the Super Bowl loser could point directly at its offensive line as the thing keeping it from a Lombardi Trophy.
Which is to say a good chunk of these guys are in position to get paid.
More NFL Coverage:
• The Short, Sweet Era of Mercenary Star QBs May Already Be Over
• Why Kyler Murray’s Contract Is Suddenly an Issue
• 2022 NFL Draft Prospect Rankings: Top 100 Big Board 1.0
• MMQB Mock Draft 1.0: Kenny Pickett Is QB1