Lions GM Brad Holmes sees variety, ability to overcome adversity in Senior Bowl QB crop

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Mobile, Ala. — There's always plenty of talent at the Senior Bowl, but there's a particularly strong quarterback group in town for this year's game, with six of the position's top prospects on the two rosters. 

And the Detroit Lions could very much be in the market for a quarterback. With no backups under contract, and lingering questions about starter Jared Goff's ceiling, the Lions intend to take full advantage of the evaluation opportunity they'll have this week, getting an opportunity to work directly with three of those quarterbacks: Liberty's Malik Willis, North Carolina's Sam Howell and Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe. 

Quarterback Sam Howell's passing numbers dipped this season at North Carolina, but his production as a runner blossomed.

"You know, what’s kind of cool about all three of those quarterbacks, especially on our roster, they’ve all kind of battled some kind of adversity," Lions general manager Brad Holmes said. "You’ve got Howell, he lost a lot of skill (players) in the pass (game). He’s got kind of a new cast he’s working with. And you’ve got Willis that had the transfer, and he had to go to a different level and produce. And Zappe, I’m not sure about true adversity, but his production speaks for itself. Almost 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns. So it’s going to be an interesting group to deep dive into."

In his first season as general manager, Holmes showed an affinity for players who faced and overcame adversity. It falls in line with the gritty roster identity he's tried to establish in Detroit. 

More: Five things to watch as Lions coaches 'get eyes' on Senior Bowl prospects

From that trio, Howell and Willis figure to draw first-round consideration, where the Lions will be selecting at the back end of the round with the draft pick they acquired from the Rams as part of the Matthew Stafford trade

As Holmes noted, Howell's production slipped this past season after losing many of his top weapons to the NFL. He finished the 2021 campaign completing 62.5% of his passes with 24 touchdowns to nine interceptions, down from 68.1%, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions a year earlier. 

The counter to that dip in passing production is he displayed far more mobility, rushing for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns after gaining just 181 yards in 25 games the previous two seasons. 

Willis, who started his collegiate career at Auburn, is a more established dual-threat, throwing for 27 touchdowns and running for another 13 last season. He'll be one of many players at the Senior Bowl, including Zappe, who will be looking to show he can produce against a higher caliber of talent. 

“Down at the Senior Bowl, all the guys have to prove something," Holmes said. "They all have something to prove. Whether it’s a guy from the Power 5 that wants to prove, ‘Hey, I’ve only been playing outside cornerback. I want to prove I can play nickel,’ or a small-school guard that can prove ‘I can play with Power 5 guys.’ ...So everybody is trying to prove something and that’s what builds the intrigue of being at this game."

Beyond the on-field auditions, the Lions will have the added benefit of seeing how Willis, Howell and Zappe handle the behind-the-scenes aspect of preparation, particularly in the film room. That element of their evaluation could prove invaluable in the decision-making process. 

"The crop that came down here, it’s a great," Holmes said. "Credit to (Senior Bowl executive) Jim Nagy for getting those top guys to come to the game. They’re all different, they all offer different flavors and capabilities."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers