Lions GM Brad Holmes Holds the Key to Detroit’s Title Window

The NFC North champs have extended several of their stars this offseason as they move into their next stage of roster building. Plus, more on the Jets, Dolphins and Chiefs in the takeaways.
Lions GM Brad Holmes is balancing Detroit’s hefty extensions to star players with a need to maintain roster depth.
Lions GM Brad Holmes is balancing Detroit’s hefty extensions to star players with a need to maintain roster depth. / Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

I’m here, and about to be on the way to the NFL spring meeting in Nashville. The takeaways are here, too …

The Detroit Lions are smoothly transitioning into the next phase of their build. It happened in a little bit of a different way than it does a lot of other places—where a quarterback comes off a rookie deal, and a team is dealing with a massive jump at the most expensive position in the sport. But with the combination of Jared Goff’s numbers doubling (he made a touch under $26 million per year over his first three seasons in Detroit), Penei Sewell coming off a top-end rookie deal and Amon-Ra St. Brown coming off a Day 3 rookie deal, Detroit is there.

This Dom Perignon of a champagne problem will only metastasize going forward. Aidan Hutchinson is eligible for a new deal next year, the bumper 2023 draft crop the year after.

That said, doing the deals early helps to manage the cap crunch. Sewell and St. Brown’s cap numbers are very manageable until 2026, when they jump to $28 million and $33.1 million, respectively. That year is also when Goff’s cap numbers balloon, with a figure of nearly $70 million slotted into that season.

And a situation such as this is the kind of reality that Lions GM Brad Holmes lived in for all of those years he worked in Los Angeles. With the Rams’ top-heavy cap table weighed down by franchise cornerstones such as Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Cooper Kupp and, at the time, Goff, GM Les Snead and Holmes’s college scouting department had to be on point in the draft—and even more so with all of the premium draft picks offloaded to acquire guys such as Ramsey.

Therein lied an underrated key to the Rams’ build. Landing eventual starters such as Brian Allen, Joe Noteboom, John Johnson III, Tyler Higbee, Sebastian Joseph-Day, David Long Jr., Greg Gaines, David Edwards, Nick Scott, Cam Akers and Jordan Fuller gave the Rams a steady stream of contributors making next to nothing, which freed up money to spend aggressively on the top of the roster.

It'll also be a key for Holmes’s Lions now and moving forward. Because paying a quarterback, a left tackle, a receiver and a pass rusher might mean having to start a guy on a rookie deal at guard or safety or nose tackle. With the good news for Detroit being, again, that Holmes has been there before.

The New York Jets are happy that things have been (mostly) quiet this offseason. At the same time, there is an understanding that they’ll be back on the marquee quickly if Aaron Rodgers stays upright and the team wins, which is why they understand why the league scheduled them so aggressively into primetime and standalone windows (they’ve got league highs of six and seven in those two categories).

So being relevant schedule-wise isn’t their issue. Rather, it's about the makeup of the slate.

To understand it, you really have to get into the weeds of how NFL travel works. Opening on a Monday night in San Francisco is, in reality, of no benefit to the team. The longer runway on the front end is irrelevant because they, like everyone else, will be two weeks separated from the preseason finale. And on the back end, they’ll be getting back to New Jersey on Tuesday morning with a trip to Tennessee on tap the following Saturday and then a home Thursday night game against the NFC East division rival New England Patriots.

A couple of weeks after that, the Jets won't have a bye after their London game, which has become the norm with the now-standard earlier kickoffs in the U.K. That’s not an issue, either. But putting a massive Monday nighter against the Buffalo Bills on the other end of it, though, isn’t ideal, nor is a road game right after that.

No one with the Jets is saying this will kill them. But it is a lot to work through.

On the bright side, this could be a pretty battle-hardened bunch by Halloween.

And as for where the Jets are now, with OTAs starting, my sense is they’re in a really good place. Rodgers has looked good thus far, and is healthy enough to be a full participant over the coming weeks as practice ramps up. “He’s fine,” says one source on his medical status coming off the torn Achilles. He’s also, in 7-on-7 work through Phase II of the offseason program, shown that he can still rip it like the old Rodgers could.

Add that to what’s around him, and there’s a quiet optimism on where these Jets could go—and keeping it quiet, for now, anyway, is the team’s preference.

New York Jets QB Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers and the Jets have stayed out of the headlines this offseason. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

One reason the Jets can’t complain too much is the scheduling has gotten more difficult on everyone. I looked back at my first making-the-schedule story, the passing of the SI torch from Peter King in 2019, and in there NFL scheduling czar Howard Katz (now semi-retired and working as a consultant) mentioned how proud he was that they were able to get the schedule off with only one instance of a team having a three-game “road trip” and only one example of a team playing on the road Sunday after a road Monday nighter.

Those old scheduling rules aren’t gone completely. But this year clearly showed that the reins are loosened with so many more non-Sunday and international masters to serve.

This year, four teams—the Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings—have stretches of three consecutive road games. In addition, the Philadelphia Eagles, with a home game farmed out to Brazil, are only home twice between Labor Day and Halloween (they get four of their final five games in Philadelphia). And five teams—the Jets, as we said, Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Commanders, Cincinnati Bengals and Bears (again)—will have to play road Sunday games after road Monday nighters.

On top of that, where it used to be a strict guideline that no one would have to do multiple Sunday-to-Thursday turns, the league will have 13 teams work with such a turnaround this year, and a 14th (the Kansas City Chiefs) playing a Thursday nighter, plus the Black Friday game after a Sunday game. That’s part of a stretch where K.C. plays Sunday-Friday-Sunday-Sunday-Saturday-Wednesday with the season winding down.

The win in all of this belongs to the owners. They have a ton of new broadcasting inventory and, yes, the money does trickle down to the players.

But seeing how these teams hold up within the new circumstances certainly bears watching. We as a general public have shown, regardless of who might be out or how much the quality of the game may suffer, we’ll watch if you put football on TV. So the pushback here would almost have to come from the players. Whether they have the appetite for that, if things do wear on them, remains to be seen.

And it could color the league’s effort to, eventually, get to an 18-game schedule.

(Just as a reference point, NFL VP Onnie Bose did address the “When is enough enough” question in this year’s making-the-schedule column. You can check it out here.)

Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa
Miami is giving signals it will soon commit to Tagovailoa as its longterm quarterback. / Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

A lot of questions surround Tua Tagovailoa as the Miami Dolphins move into OTAs. My understanding is that Tagovailoa will be present with his Miami teammates as the team moves into Phase III of its offseason program. But he has, as Jonathan Jones at CBS Sports reported, picked his spots on voluntary work as his camp and the team work through his unsettled contract situation.

The nitty gritty of it is pretty simple. He’s locked in on a $23.2 million fifth-year option for this season. After that, the Dolphins would have the option of placing the franchise tag on him in 2025, with the price tag currently projected between $40–45 million.

Meanwhile, Miami has moved a lot of money around this offseason. They let star defensive tackle Christian Wilkins leave in free agency. They cut a couple of guys on defense—linebacker Jerome Baker and corner Xavien Howard—who’d been paid like franchise cornerstone. The aggressive posture they’ve taken in recent offseasons with Tagovailoa has been more muted this year, with middle-class signings such as Jordyn Brooks, Jordan Poyer and Shaquil Barrett filling up the roster.

It is, in short, a team operating like one about to pay its quarterback.

For his part, Tagovailoa has hired a mechanics coach after generally doing that work with his dad. He's brought aboard ex-NFL quarterback John Beck, the much-respected 3DQB guru. He’s also been with the team enough to keep up with everything that’s going on.

But clearly, the decision to be judicious with his presence would send a message. Tagovailoa’s camp saw a deal with $50 million in APY coming over a year ago—based on market conditions—and those market conditions have cooperated, given what Goff and Kirk Cousins landed this offseason. So, then, will the Dolphins go where they need to go to get a new deal done for Tagovailoa?

I can’t imagine they wouldn’t, given all they’ve invested already. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be more bumps along the way.

Count David Johnson’s retirement as the thirty-millionth example of how so many NFL careers end. You may be asking now … Who? And it’d be easy to excuse you for it. It’s been a while since Johnson was the dynamic player that Bruce Arians built some of his final offensive groups in Arizona around.

In fact, before Johnson called it quits over the weekend, there were just four active players with a season of 2,100 scrimmage yards to their credit: Johnson, Christian McCaffrey, Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry.

That year for Johnson was his second in the league, 2016. He rushed for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while catching 80 passes for 879 yards and four touchdowns. It was one of just 34 seasons in NFL history where a single player scored 20 total touchdowns and it was, sadly, the end of Johnson being that type of player.

He dislocated his wrist in the opener in 2017, missed the rest of that season, and Arians, who’d invested heavily in him, retired that offseason. In '18, a really bad Arizona offense leaned on him, and he responded with 1,386 scrimmage yards in 16 games. Steve Wilks was fired thereafter and Johnson wasn’t as good a fit for Kliff Kingsbury’s offense in '19, so he was then traded to Houston as part of the DeAndre Hopkins deal. And that, for all intents and purposes, was that. He was O.K. in '20, and faded from there.

He had 12 carries and four catches in five games as an injury pickup by the Saints in 2022, and never latched on anywhere last year, which is why this was one of those “He was still playing?” type of retirements.

What most people don’t realize? This is how most NFL players go, hoping for another chance to play until the light flickers out.

Johnson, the former third-round pick out of Northern Iowa, can certainly walk away with his head held high (and nearly $40 million in career earnings).

(Ex-Rams defensive lineman and 2012 first-round pick Michael Brockers, by the way, is another example of this, from just last week.)

This has been a really rough offseason for the Kansas City Chiefs. Regardless of what you think of Harrison Butker’s comments, and I made my feelings known last week, there’s no question it’s another piece of attention that the team would’ve liked to avoid. Much worse, of course, on a lot of levels was the Rashee Rice situation, which remains unresolved and may stay that way for a while (the team is bracing for a suspension ).

To me, there are two things worth looking at here.

One, this is the reality of being on center stage in the NFL. Everything will be magnified. The Patriots lived under this spotlight for a long time. The Dallas Cowboys have, too. Being able to attach a reigning champion (or America’s Team) to a storyline certainly juices it.

Two, on Rice specifically, the presence of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes (and guys such as Travis Kelce and Chris Jones) allows the Chiefs to take risks on guys such as Rice, mostly because the infrastructure of the team isn’t going to be shaken if one blows up in everyone’s face. But this is the flip side of that, where a guy shows enough promise for you to count on him, only for him to, eventually, wind up letting you down.

The Chiefs, of course, will be fine. It’d be a surprise if they weren’t in the AFC championship for a seventh consecutive season. But it’s certainly been an uncomfortable couple of months for the champs.

The Los Angeles Chargers, again, were the champions of the schedule-release social-media-team battle royale. They didn’t go with anime for a third consecutive year, but they did have subtle shots throughout again, this time with a Sim City theme. And the best one, to me, was Butker working the kitchen in the credits. That the Chargers got that in there for release Wednesday with the Butker story just going viral was pretty impressive.

Among the other arrows …

Las Vegas Raiders’ fans, rather than putting on silver-and-black facepaint, donning clown makeup.

• The Patriots in a retirement home.

• The Harbaughs in a pillow fight.

• Chiefs-a-holic in court, and Taylor Swift taking Kelce out to her private jet.

• And my personal favorite, Kirk Cousins as an Atlanta DJ having a record-scratch moment when Michael Penix Jr. enters the club.

ICYMI, here’s the rest …

The Accelerator Program is this week at the NFL’s Spring Meeting in Nashville, and Vikings DC Brian Flores’s invitation to it is significant. Flores’s lawsuit against the league is, of course, still pending. Which is why Flores being a guest at the meetings this week matters.

First, for most of the owners, this will be their first time face-to-face with Flores since the lawsuit was filed in February 2022. Second, for a very solid head-coaching candidate, this is a shot to give those prospective employers a chance to see him beyond the lawsuit. While things didn’t end great in Miami, Flores did manage two winning seasons in three years leading the Dolphins, and has since had the chance to work under Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and Kevin O’Connell with the Vikings, giving him a different perspective than he had coming from New England.

His football acumen is where it always was, too, evidenced with the turnaround of the Vikings’ defense he led last year—Minnesota jumped from 28th to 13th in scoring defense and 31st to 16th in total defense, even while rebuilding parts of the roster.

So all in all, this is a good story. And it might’ve actually happened last year, had it not been Flores’s first year with the Vikings. In 2023, Minnesota wanted to send Flores as their representative to the May Accelerator. But Flores, being brand new, didn’t want to miss his first week of OTAs with his players and, thus, declined the invite.

Flores didn’t wind up being requested to interview for any of the eight head-coach openings during the 2024 hiring cycle. The only team to interview him for such a job since he filed the lawsuit was the Arizona Cardinals, who interviewed him twice in ’23.

Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores
Flores will have the opportunity to meet with many of the NFL’s owners while his lawsuit against the league drags on over two years after it was filed. / Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

While we’re there—one thing of note on the meetings agenda is a voting matter on time limits on head-coach interviews. I don’t have a ton of details on this one yet (still digging), but the nuts-and-bolts is that there are teams seeking to put restrictions on the length of interviews conducted with assistant coaches with playoff teams. And that it’s marked as a voting matter means that the league thinks they’re close on something.

The basis of the idea, as I understand it, is to limit all head-coach interviews with assistants on playoff teams to three hours in (as the existing rule mandates now) the playoff team’s city.

At one point, the Lions had their coordinators carrying 11 requests at once—OC Ben Johnson had six, and DC Aaron Glenn had five—and raised how difficult that can be on a staff trying to prepare for a playoff game.

I think it makes sense to put some guardrails in place. Playoff teams shouldn’t be penalized for their own success. Neither should the assistant coaches who are a part of it and stand to benefit from it. So giving outside teams a reasonable limit to what they can do with these guys makes a ton of sense. I also think they should just let teams hire these guys if they want, and have them appoint interim coaches for while they’re still in the playoffs, but I guess that’s another idea for another day.

I want to wish my own farewell to NFL Total Access. When I went to NFL Network in 2010, it was the show on those airwaves. For all of the morning shows and afternoon news shows that aired on the network, Total Access was the one that stood the test of time and the one that you often held your best stuff for—the same way you’d hold your best information for the morning newspaper back in the day.

I said this on social media last week, but it’s worth it to me to say it again. Some of my most vivid memories in the business came from the five months of the NFL lockout, when Total Access was basically Rich Eisen in L.A. and me on the street somewhere discussing the only story going in the NFL through a very weird offseason in 2011.

Over my time there, the show had a bunch of awesome hosts, from Andrew Siciliano to Kara Henderson to Dan Hellie to Lindsay Rhodes (Soto, for part of that time) and Amber Theoharis. And it had an incredible crew behind the scenes, starting with the legendary stage manager Puma Nelson, and on through to an army of producers that we all worked with day to day.

Total Access aired for the last time Friday night.

I’m sad it’s gone, but glad for all the memories I had with it. Twenty-one years is a damn good run for any television program.

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Albert Breer