Brad Holmes, Lions quickly earning rep as NFL draft savvy

GM Brad Holmes has done well in his three drafts leading the Lions. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes entered the press room at the practice facility for his end-of-season news conference in February with receipts for all the doubters.

After helping the Lions reach their first NFC Championship Game in more than three decades, Holmes made it clear the run was no fluke during his 33-minute media session -- and a big reason behind that success was the 2023 draft class, which included rookie Pro Bowlers Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta.

"Look, I'm not up here to give 'I told you so's.' I would say the 'I told you so' was when we selected the player is that we'll always -- as long as Dan (Campbell) and I are convicted in selecting these players, you sleep like a baby and we slept like a baby after we selected those players," Holmes said. "And all the criticism that came and transpired the day after the draft, or the week after the draft, you can't be a prisoner of the moment.

"You can't let that affect you. You have to go through the post-draft storm and kind of just weather through it."

Several draft analysts, including ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., were critical of the Lions' two first-round picks in 2023. But Gibbs made the Pro Bowl and middle linebacker Jack Campbell was second among all rookies in tackles. ESPN's postseason ranking of 2023 rookie classes acknowledged Detroit had done well.

Holmes and Campbell have earned the benefit of the doubt. In his three years in Detroit, Holmes has drafted five Pro Bowlers (Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Aidan Hutchinson, Gibbs and LaPorta). That's three more than any other team during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

And the Lions are in a great position to make more hay this year with the draft in Detroit, no less; the Lions have four picks among the first 92 selections.

Their biggest needs are on defense, but the GM and coach say they will stick to their philosophy of drafting the best player on their board regardless of need or position. Like they did in 2023.

Here is a look back at how each member of the '23 draft class performed:

Round 1, No. 12 overall: Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Alabama

Gibbs became the franchise's highest-drafted running back since Hall of Famer Barry Sanders was taken third overall in 1989. But even then, with D'Andre Swift still on the roster and the addition of free agent running back David Montgomery, it was unlikely Gibbs would start right away.

He was one of the biggest Day 1 surprises of the draft. However, Holmes would trade Swift to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Gibbs would enjoy a Pro Bowl season with 182 carries for 945 yards and 10 touchdowns along with 52 receptions for 316 yards and a touchdown.

Round 1, No. 18: Jack Campbell, MLB, Iowa

Even as a unanimous All-American and the 2022 Butkus Award winner out of Iowa and filling a major defensive need on the roster, taking Campbell at No. 18 was surprising. In fact, according to ESPN's Draft Day Predictor, Campbell would have had a 96% chance to be available at pick 34 for the Lions in the second round, but Holmes still pulled the trigger.

Campbell went on to start 12 of 17 games, producing the second-most tackles among all rookies with 89. He did endure some highs and lows, typical of most rookies, but played a key role.

Round 2, No. 34: Sam LaPorta, TE, Iowa

Entering the draft, there was an 82% chance that LaPorta would have been available at the Lions' next pick, then at 48th overall, according to the Draft Predictor, but Holmes couldn't pass up on his elite-pass catching ability.

Not only was LaPorta viewed as a top rookie in the 2023 season, but he was also among the best at his position as he set the NFL record for most receptions (86) in a season by a rookie tight end and had the most receptions (12) in the playoffs by a rookie TE in NFL history. LaPorta finished with 889 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

Round 2, No. 45: Brian Branch, S, Alabama

Detroit's pass defense desperately needed help entering the draft, which is why the team traded up three spots to land Branch, who was its second pick out of Alabama. Ultimately, Branch would start in nine of his 15 games played. He ranked second among all rookies with three interceptions. In his NFL debut, he recorded a pick-six off of Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes.

Round 3, No. 68: Hendon Hooker, QB, Tennessee

Even while recovering from an ACL injury that he suffered at Tennessee, the Lions made Hooker the franchise's highest-drafted QB since Matthew Stafford went first overall in 2009. Although Hooker didn't appear in a game, he is expected to lock down the backup QB position behind Jared Goff in 2024 and potentially compete for a starting spot in the future.

Round 3, No. 96: Brodric Martin, DT, Western Kentucky

The 6-foot-5, 337-pound defensive tackle was lauded for his upside coming out of college, but Holmes also noted his "rawness" as a player. Martin was on the Lions' radar although he didn't receive an invite to the NFL combine after finishing his career at Western Kentucky. He appeared in just three games, where he ended with three total tackles, and didn't play much of a role after being mostly inactive on game days.

Round 5, No. 152: Colby Sorsdal, OT, William & Mary

Sorsdal was another under-the-radar prospect whom the Lions added for depth purposes. He made three starts as the Lions' offensive line did a solid job of protecting Goff last season, but there is room for improvement. They had a pass block win rate of 59.6%, 13th best in NFL. The Lions allowed 31 sacks, which was tied for the fourth fewest in the league.

Round 7, No. 219: Antoine Green, WR, North Carolina

Green was drafted for depth purposes. The Lions were looking to add to the receiving corps after 2022 first-round pick Jameson Williams was hit with a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's gambling policy after an investigation by the league. Green didn't have much of a role as he played in nine games, catching one pass for 2 yards.