The NFL trade deadline is coming up on Halloween. Will the Detroit Lions, led by GM Brad Holmes, scare up any trade activity?
Detroit did a year ago, dealing away Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson to the NFC North rival Minnesota Vikings. At that time, the Lions were 1-6 after scoring six combined points in the two most recent games. They had the worst record in the league. Being sellers wasn’t shocking, even if the destination for Hockenson turned out to be a bit of a surprise.
This year, Detroit is sitting at 5-2 and in first place in the division by two games. Conventional wisdom would have the Lions as obvious buyers at the deadline this year, especially given the significant injury issues at RB and CB.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Brad Holmes since he took the reins back in early 2021, it’s that conventional wisdom doesn’t often intersect with his thought process. He’ll do what he thinks is best for the team, whether it’s brilliant or ridiculous in the public eye.
Here’s what I’m thinking about the Lions and the trade deadline one week out.
Areas of need
From my eyes, the biggest need on the team is depth at outside cornerback. With the Emmanuel Moseley experiment failing, the Lions are down one expected starter. When Jerry Jacobs was out in Week 7, being down Moseley’s replacement starter did not go well. Will Harris was the coaching staff’s solution, and that is not something fans (or myself) want to see again. Khalil Dorsey, Chase Lucas and UDFA Steven Gilmore represent the other options, but the team has repeatedly demonstrated its reluctance to try any of them.
Many fans see defensive tackle as a trade need. I don’t disagree, but the Lions themselves have indicated they’re happy at DT. Third-round pick Brodric Martin is a healthy scratch weekly, and he’s often joined by 2021 second-rounder Levi Onwuzurike, who is also (finally!) healthy. If they’re not playing those guys, it’s very difficult to believe they’re interested in bringing in someone else.
The same is true at EDGE. In Week 7, Charles Harris was a healthy scratch. He’s a team captain and third on the Lions in QB pressures, per PFF. The two guys ahead of him are Aidan Hutchinson and John Cominsky — the regular starters at DE. Harris sat because 2022 second-rounder Josh Paschal came back healthy. Both Okwara brothers are capable NFL pass rushers, enough that Detroit chose to keep both (and James Houston–now injured) on the 53-man roster over potentially useful players at other positions. Fan perception might be that the team needs an upgrade, but the team’s actions strongly indicate they don’t feel that way. Not even a little.
Wide receiver is an area where I would look–specifically for a natural slot receiver. Amon-Ra St. Brown is phenomenal there, but he’s really the only slot receiver Detroit has. Jameson Williams got considerable training there in camp, but thus far, the Lions don’t seem confident in using Jamo there. Kalif Raymond is built like a slot guy, but he’s caught 14 of his 16 passes in 2023 while lining up outside. In 2023, that ratio was 36-of-47.
The injuries at running back show some potential need there as well. There isn’t a team in the NFL right now that couldn’t use better depth on the offensive line, but that demand has no available supply potential, unfortunately.
The pick swap pricing
I’m not convinced the Lions are looking terribly hard at acquiring anyone. Holmes is actively pursuing potential deals, no doubt, but not with the panicky mindset that a deal must be done.
Any deal is likely to follow the current NFL trend of a player and a draft pick going one way, with a higher draft pick coming back in return. The Hockenson deal followed this formula.
Detroit sent Hockenson and a fourth-round pick in 2023 (which the Vikings traded) for a 2023 second-round pick (which the Lions flipped into Hendon Hooker and Brodric Martin in subsequent trades) and a third-round pick in 2024. There’s another conditional 4th/5th round pick heading to Minnesota in 2024 too.
A purely hypothetical example:
The Titans trade WR DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick in 2024 to Detroit for the Lions’ second-round pick in 2024 and a conditional third-rounder in 2025 if Hopkins (or the Lions) hits a certain production or win threshold in 2023.
That’s the kind of trade parameter that has become commonplace in the NFL. Player-for-player deals are rare.
Comp picks impact pricing
This applies to potential trade targets who are playing out expiring contracts. Titans RB Derrick Henry is a good example.
Let’s say the Lions are interested in trading for Henry. I’ve not heard anything that indicates that, but play along here. To get Henry — or any player bound for free agency after 2023 — they would have to offer higher value than what the Titans expect to get in a compensatory draft pick for when Henry signs somewhere as a free agent. In his case, that’s likely a fourth-round pick.
That would mean the Lions are giving up a third-round pick for less than 10 games of Henry. Put another way, that’s giving up four years of Kerby Joseph or four years of Jonah Jackson to bring in a player for a handful of games. Oh by the way, the Lions would also assume the remainder of Henry’s $10 million contract. That negatively impacts their own compensatory draft pick formula as well as how much cap room they can roll into 2024.
The same scenario is true with Buccaneers WR Mike Evans and his $13 million expiring contract. Both Chase Young and Montez Sweat in Washington fit this bill, too. It’s very, very difficult to see this Lions regime making that sort of move for a short-term rental of a player they don’t know will immediately click.
And if the player doesn’t immediately click, the Lions gave away a 4-year, cost-controlled mid-round pick for nothing. I’ll ask you this, fair reader: does that sound like something Brad Holmes would do?
Don't rule out selling
It might seem odd that a first-place team with injury issues would be sellers, but it’s a possibility that cannot be discounted.
I brought up this concept in our Wire editor’s list where we were asked to name one player from our team who could be traded. I listed Malcolm Rodriguez, who has played one snap at LB in three weeks. I don’t believe the Lions are actively shopping Rodriguez, to be clear. But he’s the kind of depth player that another team might see as someone they have a greater use for, both short- and long-term. The Buccaneers make some sense there, especially if they deal away overhyped, overpriced LB Devin White.
Draft and develop strategy
Perhaps the biggest reason why the Lions have ascended from the 0-10-1 start to the Brad Holmes/Dan Campbell era in 2021 is the core tenet of the cloth they’re both cut from. It’s a commitment to the draft-and-develop strategy of building a team.
Campbell deliberately hired assistant coaches and position coaches who are good at developing talent, or guys in whom he saw that mindset and potential. The outliers (Duce Staley, Aubrey Pleasant, Anthony Lynn) don’t last long. There is a firm commitment to maximizing talent via coaching and internal development, to polishing gems instead of buying the diamonds at full-market value.
That’s been true in the draft too, where the Lions have racked up picks to accrue more talent. It’s true of the players they target; Sam LaPorta wasn’t typically regarded as the top TE prospect in this last draft, but his personality and profile indicated someone with very high upside under the right coaching and team circumstances. Detroit provides those — quite proudly. And it’s working very well so far.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, Penei Sewell, Kerby Joseph, Brian Branch, Derrick Barnes, Levi Onwuzurike (it doesn’t always work!) — they all fit that billing. This regime dives deep into the mentality of a player, the football character of a prospective Lion. Their long-term free agency signings reflect it too; think Cam Sutton and David Montgomery.
That sort of strategy doesn’t lend itself to trade deadline acquisitions. Maybe they break character for someone they know well enough? Sure! Can’t rule that out. But that’s dramatically limiting the pool of players who are actually available, too.