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The Lions Are Still Building Their Foundation. But They’re Planning for Much More.

The second year of an NFL rebuild is still a work in progress, but for the Lions, it is when they need to show their plan—and the steps they’re taking to find success

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“This was at the top of the list because I’ve been here and I remember as a player thinking, ‘God, if you could ever win in Detroit? Oh my God.’” —Dan Campbell on taking the Lions job in 2021.

There is, Brad Holmes tells me, a broad misunderstanding about the Los Angeles Rams. Before the Lions named Holmes the general manager in 2021, he spent nearly two decades with the Rams in both St. Louis and Los Angeles. He helped build the roster that won the Super Bowl in February as director of college scouting, and speaking after a Lions training camp practice this month, he said: “The thing that gets overlooked, when Les Snead got there in 2012, it’s sort of recency bias. Everyone sees the big moves, and going all in, and not drafting first-round picks. But when I was with them, we went almost five straight years of just drafting. Drafting Aaron Donald, drafting a rock-solid right tackle like Rob Havenstein. The first big move didn’t come until 2016, when we went all in on Jared [Goff] and moved up to no. 1.”

Then, Holmes said, came the moves for Sammy Watkins and Brandin Cooks and the stacking of game-wrecking superstars that started with Jalen Ramsey in 2019 and continued on with Matthew Stafford and other similarly famous players who cost less to acquire: Odell Beckham Jr. and most recently Allen Robinson II and Bobby Wagner. “That roster, the foundation of always drafting, had us in the position where there’s a window, and now you can afford to spend those resources and make those kinds of moves,” Holmes explained.

It is not hard to draw a line between the lessons of the pre–super team Rams days and the 2022 Lions. The Lions are currently in the foundational period. As Holmes puts it, “I know everyone wants the shiny new furniture and the Spanish tile on the roof, but no—we needed HVAC. We needed the house to be cooled. That means you have to get a Penei Sewell, you have to get an Alim McNeill, you gotta get an [Amon-Ra] St. Brown.

“We laid that foundation last year. You had to go through lumps: We had the most rookie snaps in the league. Everybody’s spraying bullets and you’re kind of standing behind a tree. You’re collecting and collecting and everyone is saying, ‘Oh Lions,’ but I think towards the end of the year people started to say ‘OK, there’s something going on there.’ We’re trying to stick to our plan.”

Year 1 of that plan had its ups and downs. The team went 3-13-1 last season, tying the Steelers, beating the Vikings and Cardinals, and toppling a Packers team in Week 18 that rested some players and was more focused on the playoffs. But they got more attention than a normal bad team because of Campbell’s magnetic personality, his viral coffee order, and the fact that they made a trade to kick-start their rebuild that sent Stafford to the eventual world champions. The Lions were not exactly a Cinderella story, because that requires more than three wins, but they showed—especially during a 3-5-1 run after Campbell took over play-calling duties—that the house was indeed in the process of being cooled.

Now in Year 2, the next steps are obvious: try to wring a few stars out of a young core (Detroit added two first-round picks this spring in Michigan star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams), compete for wins in a strange NFC North that includes two new head coaches and GMs, and eventually, get a young quarterback to complete the process (more on that in a bit). In early August, I went to Detroit to check back in with the Lions, see what their plan looks like, and figure out where this experiment is heading.

Let’s do some napkin math: I’ve been doing training camp tours for a decade. I’ve seen, on average, about 20 teams per year, and around half of them were in some sort of rebuild. I’ve spoken with literally dozens of rebuilding coaches and general managers—and those were just the ones in Cleveland.

When you do this, you learn a handful of things. The first is that not every rebuild is successful. I had the same warm and fuzzy feelings about the Brandon Beane–Sean McDermott Bills as I did the Brian Flores Dolphins, and only one of those teams got over the hump. The process can be sound, and yet the rebuild can get derailed by one bad draft pick, a quarterback who doesn’t develop, or bad injury luck. (Ownership chaos is also certainly a factor.) About half the league is in some sort of rebuild at any given time, and only three or four of those teams, at most, will truly see sustained success. Even fewer will ever compete for a Super Bowl. All of this is to say that, going into Year 2 of a rebuild, all you can really judge is whether the process is sound and the plan is in place. And I can definitively say that in Detroit, that is the case.

“We had a lot of work to do,” Holmes said of his outlook when he took over last year. “I didn’t put a, ‘This is a two-year, this is a three-year thing,’ I just don’t really believe in that. Because I think if Dan and myself do the best we can do, I think the sky’s the limit.” Holmes also said that last year’s roster “teardown” was not even a conscious choice; the front office just kept making changes until, well, one day they had a teardown on their hands. “We didn’t even start by saying, day one, ‘tear this roster down.’ We were just like, we’ve got to make a change here, change here, and it just so happened to be almost a [complete] teardown. So it was a lot of work to do, but I didn’t put a time frame on it. Dan and I are aligned in just taking it day by day. We have a plan, we have a process lined out. But we just attack it, man.”

When John Dorsey took over as Browns GM in 2017, he told me that a full rebuild takes three years (Dorsey is now a senior personnel executive in the Lions front office, by the way). This is more or less true—though I’d argue that there are clear signs a rebuild is on the right track by the end of Year 2 at the latest. Holmes is not putting a timeline on it, as he said, but he knows where the team is. They are focusing on player development, getting as many reps to as many young guys as they can, and being selective with free agency and who gets rewarded with second contracts—and studying how such deals impact locker room chemistry.

If there will be substantial progress this year, it’ll have to include a massive step forward on defense, helped by no. 2 pick Aidan Hutchinson. The defense finished 31st in the league last year in points against last season. They gave up more than 40 points three times, including 51 to the Seahawks on January 2. And they were tied for last in net yards per pass attempt with 7.2. I asked defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn where Hutchinson’s impact will show up: He said the rookie will make the run defense better and that, if he continues his training camp form in the regular season, he’ll command so much attention that he’ll “dictate slides” of the offensive line and create one on ones for teammates like Charles Harris. “Let’s not put him in the Hall of Fame, all right,” Glenn said, echoing a longtime Bill Parcells mantra about young players. “It will be tough for an offense against Charles and Aidan, which side are they going to slide to? So he creates a lot of issues for a lot of teams.”

Small sample size, and preseason, sure, but Hutchinson looked good in his debut on Friday:

The Lions have to trust their young players on defense because they have no other choice: The team is loaded with potential on that side of the ball. Hutchinson, defensive end Josh Paschal (who had sports hernia surgery in the spring and is currently out), and safety Kerby Joseph were all taken in the first three rounds of the draft this year. In those rounds last year, the team took defensive linemen Levi Onwuzurike (who’s been hampered by a back injury) and McNeill, as well as defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu. Cornerback Jeff Okudah, Detroit’s 2020 first-round pick, played only one game last season due to an Achilles injury.

If the plan is to build through the draft—and right now, it is—a handful of stars need to come out of the young core. The Lions know this, so they built their coaching staff around that idea. “The great thing about this staff is that young guys don’t scare them,” Holmes said. “Sometimes it’s hard to live in that world because you have to have the staff to get those guys ready to play.”

I know this to be true because unprompted, Glenn said the exact same thing: He’s not scared of playing or trying to develop young players. “I learned this from a guy I highly respect in [Saints executive] Jeff Ireland. He said you can’t be afraid of the young player. You have to have coaches that have a history of developing young players, and we have that. You mix those two things together and man, you can go as young as you want. You have to understand you’ll have some issues and some errors, but you have to be patient, and with as much practice time as we get, as much meeting time we get with the guys, we should be able to get those guys going.”

Glenn says his goal is to have the team in the top half of defenses this year, statistically, and to be in the top half in all situations: red zone, two-minute, and on third down. Glenn and Campbell have been scripting practice with those scenarios in mind. “There are some teams that are bend-don’t-break, but that’s not my personality and never has been,” Glenn said. “I’m an attacking-style play-caller. My personality is that way, and I think our defense is starting to feed off of that. I don’t care if we’re in a four-man rush, we still want to attack somehow, some way. If there’s a total vision, it’s we want to be disruptive, match routes, and attack up front.”

Of course, even if the defense takes a big step forward this year, the team still has a major question mark at the most important position on the field: quarterback. Nearly everyone in Detroit swears to me that they like Jared Goff, but not as a long-term solution—they’ll almost certainly draft a top quarterback at some point in the near future. But Goff’s play, especially at the end of last season, showed he’s a fine option for now and will help the Lions avoid a quarterback churn.

Goff struggled early last year—six of his eight interceptions came before November 1—until Campbell and Ben Johnson took over play-calling duties. After that, the Lions scored four-and-a-half more points per game across nine games. Goff started to throw the ball deeper. His air yards on completed passes was noticeably higher in December and January: five of his six deepest air-yard games came in Week 11 or later. Three of his four games with higher than a 100 passer rating came during the same time frame.

Holmes said there is no timeline, exactly, for a new quarterback. “I think Jared made some good strides last year,” he said. “He took some lumps last year, he had some struggles, but he was put in a position where he had to [get] through a lot of adversity and persevere. And I respect the hell out of the way he stuck to it and stuck it out and when the [play-calling] switch was made. Seeing that, it was like, ‘OK, let’s put him in the best position to succeed.’”

This team is still a long way away from being ready to go all in, as Holmes’s Rams were able to five years into their rebuild. And quarterback might end up being the last piece of the Lions’ roster puzzle. But for now, the HVAC is in place—and the tile and shiny furniture Holmes joked about needs to show itself soon.