Why this Detroit Lions UDFA Class Looks More Promising Than Usual

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The Detroit Lions UDFA class looks pretty solid compared to most seasons.

Make no mistake, the Detroit Lions did a much better job of recruiting undrafted free agents than they have in previous seasons. This is one of many areas where Brad Holmes’ early returns are positive. The Lions have a larger quantity of players, and they’ve signed a group with significantly higher name recognition than the team’s previous classes. This is not an accident, and it really does matter. I’ll give you the link to a Lionswire summary of the UFDAs if you’d like to review them.

By draft position, first-round picks comprise the largest percentage of the NFL’s players. Even total draft busts like Greg Robinson tend to bounce around the league making a couple million a season as backups for as long as they can stay healthy. Blaine Gabbert was Tom Brady’s backup in Tampa Bay last year after flaming out as Jacksonville’s first-round pick forever ago. The Jags next crack at the QB carousel, Blake Bortles, is in Green Bay now. Lest you think that this is limited to quarterbacks, the Lions signed former Dolphins first-round pick Charles Harris this offseason. Harris has done absolutely nothing in the NFL to this point. The first-round pedigree usually comes with an athletic profile or on-tape performance level that makes it easy for teams to make the decision to bring players in while filling out their roster. The second-highest percentage group in the league? It is not second-round picks, it’s undrafted players.

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Why are there so many UDFAs in the NFL, but not Usually the Lions?

UDFAs are like lottery tickets compared to trading stocks. They’re not the backbone of a team’s investment portfolio but you can’t win if you don’t play. The vast majority of a team’s signing bonuses to UDFAs end up as dead cap charges. However, whereas each team gets one pick in each round barring compensatory picks and trades, they are free to bring in as many undrafted players as they can recruit. A potential 10:1 ratio of UDFAs to second-rounders slants the table in the UDFAs’ favor.

Prior Lions regimes have had difficulty buying those lottery tickets after the draft for a plethora of reasons. Some players want to go to a team close to their family. For many, that means Texas, Florida, or California, not as many come from Michigan. The reputation of the franchise outside the fanbase has also not been good. Starting fights with the players hurts the recruitment of other players. However, most importantly losing games will have the same effect. Objectively speaking, the Lions have been a tough sell for most of my adult life for players who get to choose their working environment. the Lions have historically been relegated primarily to players without other options. But none of that has changed, so how did the Lions grab a crop made up of players from big-time college programs, and players who were universally expected to be drafted?

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The Sales Pitch

Do you remember Dan Campbell’s introductory presser? I’ll link it in case you need a refresher. In summary, four or so kneecaps bitten off a single opponent is the new Detroit Lions standard code of conduct. Some in the media were aghast at the barbarity of Campbell’s words. The sporting news called Campbell the “worst hire in Detroit Lions history.” This is how you know they haven’t actually watched a Lions game outside the playoffs and Thanksgiving. They clearly do not comprehend the sheer magnitude of that statement. They are also not who Campbell was talking to.

Pat McAfee loved it so much he dubbed the coach MC/DC, brought him on the show, and raves about the new energy in Detroit whenever the team comes up. Other coaches loved it, and the Lions have attracted multiple coaches looking for an opportunity to join Dan Campbell’s staff. Some, like defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, receivers coach Antwaan Randle-El, or quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell are looking for their first opportunity at their new position. Others, like offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, and running backs coach Deuce Staley have held their positions or higher in the league for a long time. All have had other options, some took lateral moves just to join Campbell’s staff. One common thread between my cherry-picked list of coaches is very important. They are all former players with connections around the league and solid reputations. None would have to make many calls to have a really clear picture of who Dan Campbell is, and they flocked to him like wolves to a pack leader’s howl.

Campbell’s introductory press conference wasn’t aimed at the pearl-clutching media members who hated it. As much as it was aimed at anyone, as opposed to being just a reflection of Campbell as a man, that press conference was aimed at players: former, current, and future. Not everyone bought what Campbell was selling. He specifically mentioned Jarad Davis as a guy that he loved on the roster, and Davis went to play for Robert Saleh, the guy who held a press conference that the pearl clutchers loved with the Jets. Davis also got paid $7m for a single year of work, which I am sure helped his decision-making process along.

Campbell’s follow-up press tour of the continental United States has continually reinforced the message of that first presser. The pressers his coaches have held have reinforced much of the same message. The veteran free agents that the Lions recruited are all hungry players looking for an opportunity to grab a role or a future payday, not guys getting that payday. They’ve been recruited by the coaches who flocked to Campbell’s energy. The sales pitch was to the people who matter, not self-important media blowhards hunting for rage clicks. But while Campbell was out recruiting, Holmes wasn’t sleeping.

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Got it, Got it, Need it

Nobody was praising the Lions roster in January. Matthew Stafford asked out because the future looked so bleak. It would have been tempting to burn the roster down for day three picks before the draft and get a full rebuild started. It would have been tempting to hand the entire coaching staff pink slips. It would have made perfect sense to just let the entire Lions free-agent class walk, and to punt completely on the 2021 season. Brad Holmes did not do those things. He has instead, rewarded the Lions players and coaches who fit the criteria of Campbell’s vision on the field unless someone else overpaid them. He brought in a serviceable QB in Jared Goff to potentially fill that role. Holmes rewarded merit, and he trimmed the fat. In January I put out a list of eight Lions players who needed to be cut immediately. All but one are gone, and Nick Williams took a pay cut that makes him an acceptable reclamation project.

Romeo Okwara has 7.5 sacks the year before the Lions signed Trey Flowers to a megadeal. Okwara was then forced to play out of position for a year as either a jack linebacker or defensive tackle. His statistical output in 2019 reflects how bad a fit that was for him, but Flowers played the same spot so Okwara’s reward for succeeding was to have his replacement brought in. If not for an injury to Flowers that kept him off the field for much of 2020, Okwara would almost certainly not have found the payday he did this year. The previous regime loved putting roadblocks in front of young players. The most important thing Brad Holmes has done differently was avoiding that.

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Clarity of Role

In previous seasons, the Lions have filled their 90 man roster as rapidly as possible, with as many as a dozen veterans signed to futures contracts, and the remaining slots filled before the draft. This poor roster construction technique added to the expansive list of reasons players would choose to go elsewhere.

Two players that I love who should not have been on the Lions roster beyond the day Matt Patricia became the coach are Miles Killebrew and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The reason is, that all they did for the Lions was serve as an impediment to young guys finding a role with the team. These were players without a defensive position on the field. They were small and fast linebackers playing for a coach who exclusively wanted slow and powerful linebackers. Young players make teams as special teams guys and grow into larger roles. Having these two square pegs fitting into round holes are just two of many examples of players who did not fit what the coaching staff valued, but held onto roster spots because of their meaningless contributions.

Other examples include Kerryon Johnson, Jamal Agnew, and Tyrell Crosby. Johnson’s major skill recently has been pass blocking. That’s something a running back does about 20% of the time. Agnew had to switch positions from nickel to wide receiver to find any playing time at all. Lions fans love Crosby, but it is absolutely crystal clear the Lions do not. If offensive line coach Hank Fraley was banging the table for Crosby the way some fans are, Hal Vaitai would never have been signed and Penei Sewell would not have been drafted. The second someone loses a tackle to injury, Crosby is gone in a trade.

These roadblocks, not part of the present or future as the team sees it, have stood between UDFAs and roster spots for years. The Lions had a 90 man roster full of guys with multiple years of experience on special teams, no role on offense or defense, and loaded up before the draft. This year the Lions had open spots on the 90 man roster going into the draft. Spots they intended to fill with undrafted free agents. It was not difficult for an incoming rookie to find their path to a roster spot. There are players between someone like Sage Surratt and a roster spot, but they are hurdles, not roadblocks. The wide receiver 5 spot will need to be the traditional special teams contributor who also fills a role on offense if there is an injury. There is not a kick returner who can’t catch holding down that roster spot. Reeves-Maybin will still play special teams, but he was retained because his athletic profile is something Glenn actually wants on the defense.

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The Package Deal the Lions Offered UDFAs

The Lions’ pitch to UDFAs was an intoxicating mixture of the appealing atmosphere, coaches who speak from experience as opposed to theory, and a legitimate opportunity to live the NFL dream. Dan Campbell laughed when Levi Ownzurike said that he “likes to F people up” in his introductory media availability. Jeff Okudah said that he wishes he had coaches who could give him the high level of feedback he’s getting from Glenn and others as a rookie. UDFAs would not have seen these things prior to signing, but they are not surprises to player agents. Brad Holmes did not fill their roster with a cavalcade of expendable nobodies before the draft.  For that reason, the Lions were able to bring in players from schools that just played in the NCAA College Football Playoff, and others, like Suratt, who were expecting to be drafted.

Usually, we have been able to project the Lions week one roster with about 95% certainty, not including injuries, at this point. I would say there are about 30 truly safe spots at most on the Lions roster this year. An agent could say with a straight face that the Lions presented a good opportunity for a player to get NFL paychecks immediately. The Lions got better raw materials to work with, and now it’s up to those players and coaches to turn the promise of unworked marble into a work of art.

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About the Author

Ash Thompson
Ash Thompson is a fanatical football fan, and less fanatical hockey fan despite his Canadian heritage. He is sorry aboot that. His spirit animal is a beaver with a shark's head. He enjoys maple syrup and tacos, but never at the same time.