As Detroit put on epic party, Lions GM Brad Holmes reminded NFL Draft experts why he and Lions have reason to gloat

GM wore his defiance in form of a 'Positional Villain' sweatshirt

DETROIT — A record 775,000 people came downtown here this weekend to take in the 2024 NFL Draft.

Eminem and Big Sean were there. Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson too. Aidan Hutchinson appeared in both billboard and actual form. The Michigan governor sported her buffs. Jared Goff heard his name chanted approximately 775,000 times.

They say there ain’t no party like a Detroit party and for three days this one, amid fresh skyscrapers and soaring Lions fortunes alike, felt like it wouldn’t stop.

The most important man in Detroit, at least for football decision-making purposes, was not there, however.

Brad Holmes stayed out in the suburbs, about 10 miles west at the Detroit Lions' facility in Allen Park.

It was there the Lions general manager did the work that mattered most, or will come the fall, for a team that reached the NFC championship game and electrified a long dormant football city.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - APRIL 26: Detroit Lions fans react to their third round draft pick during the 2024 NFL draft at Campus Martius Park on April 26, 2024 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Detroit Lions fans react to the team's draft pick during the 2024 NFL Draft at Campus Martius Park on Friday in Detroit. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

And he did so by continuing his campaign of mocking modern “draft analytics,” particularly the concept of “positional value” which calls for certain positions to be picked in certain parts of the draft. Holmes says he just wants talent.

“Did you win the draft because you drafted those positions?” Holmes asked while wearing a sweatshirt with the words “Positional Villain” and the picture of a lion. “We're trying to draft football players that make us a better football team.”

A year ago, Holmes used his first four picks, all in the top 45 overall, on a running back (Jahmyr Gibbs), a linebacker (Jack Campbell), a tight end (Sam LaPorta) and a defensive back (Brian Branch).

He was skewered by the draft’s chattering class for it, which made him only more popular here when they panned out — Gibbs and LaPorta were rookie Pro Bowlers, Branch was a defensive stalwart and Campbell was solid with the potential for more.

“Brad Holmes took so much criticism,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said, echoing the defensiveness of so many Lions fans. “Those top four picks put us in the NFC championship game though.”

Holmes sure hasn’t forgotten, sarcastically attacking the concept again while explaining why he took cornerbacks with his top two selections this year — Terrion Arnold at 24th overall and Ennis Rakestraw at 61.

"When I got tipped on what positional value was [last year], I didn't even know what it was,” Holmes said. “It was just like a new analytic ... As I thought about it, I was like, ‘positional value? So you pick a position, but not a player?’ I was thinking, ‘no, we're looking for football players.’”

Dealing with slights is part of Detroit’s DNA, which is why the city showing up and showing off for this draft mattered so much to so many here.

No one suggests this place is anywhere close to perfect — “we’ve got a long way to go, no question,” even Duggan acknowledged. There is also no denying how far it's come, which is why those drone shots of a lit-up city or crowded, street-front restaurants were so meaningful. It’s why all those people came.

This may not be San Francisco or Miami, but it’s also not just urban ruins, murder rates and rusting auto plants either. It’s a city of entrepreneurs and engineers, of doctors and dreamers, of, mostly, a lot of people who just find a way, someway.

One of the best scenes of the weekend was how outside the official gates of the draft and its overpriced corporate partner concessions, so many locals just set up a card table on a street corner to hawk everything from Diet Cokes to burnt ends to sweet potato pies (seriously) — Detroit hustling harder; Roger Goodell not getting a cut.

There’s positive momentum here and a real vibrancy that locals wanted America to see. Besides, not everything needs to be polished and pure. That’s part of Detroit’s charm. They like a little grit. They like the soul of the place. They like it real.

Not everyone wants to be San Francisco or Miami either, you know.

This is a city of deep pride, a hardened response stemming from generations of scorn and scandal. They have a statue of a balled up fist downtown for a reason. It’s Joe Louis’ to be specific. It’s the whole city’s to be exact.

Holmes pushing back on analytics and second-guessers taps so profoundly into that. Go ahead and call the Lions backward and dumb, but now you have to fear their roar.

Damn, it’s everything Detroit ever wanted, everything it dreamt of during nearly 70 years of football futility. It’s a direct line to the Bad Boy Pistons or Stevie Y’s Red Wings or a Tommy Hearns brawl.

Now here is Holmes, thumbing new thinking for old concepts, seemingly playing up his opposition for effect — after all, is it really plausible that a 44-year-old who has worked in the NFL since 2003 had never heard of “positional value” until last year?

Not that it matters. Since arriving in Detroit in 2021, Holmes has made 16 top 101 selections. Arnold, Rakestraw and quarterback Hendon Hooker of the 2023 draft haven’t played yet, so time will tell how they do.

Of the other 13 however, 10 of them have become starters, if not outright stars — Penei Sewell, Alim McNeill, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Jameson Williams joining the aforementioned Hutchinson, Gibbs, LaPorta and Branch.

It’s an astounding hit rate and why the Lions are suddenly contenders.

It fuels Holmes’ theory that being good at one spot might lessen the importance of another. A great running attack, for example, helps a passing game the way a great secondary can help a pass rush.

Get great players and you’ll have a great team. Simple. Now go bludgeon everyone behind your gravel voiced, broad-shouldered, goateed coach.

"You can win the headlines in March and April and all that stuff," Holmes said. "It's easy to draft the premium positions, whatever they are, quarterback, edge rusher, tackle … but [what if] they're not contributing to your football team? Did you win the draft?”

That was the most important football man in Detroit this weekend, a message of defiance on his puffed out chest, speaking not downtown at the show-of-force party he helped create, but still fueling what this city hopes is the far bigger and better one still to come.

Because that 775,000 number will be quaint if they ever get a parade.