PHOENIX – When free agency started on March 15, Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes never thought he'd be in a position to sign do-it-all defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions last season with the Eagles in just 12 games played and has garnered a reputation for being a tough, versatile player.
"First of all our grades from our pro personnel department were sky high through the roof with what he did as a safety and with the ball production he had it was justified," Holmes said Monday at the Annual League Meetings of Gardner-Johnson. "Obviously, we invested in Tracy (Walker) and he's going to come back from his injury and he's on track and we fully expect him to be back. And Kerby (Joseph) showed a lot of progress last year, so it's not like we were eager to acquire another starting-level, high-level safety."
But Holmes and the Lions don't view Gardner-Johnson as just a safety. They love his position versatility and ability to also play the nickel, so Holmes inquired about what it would take to get Gardner-Johnson to Detroit.
"I kind of just saw the grades and ball production and was like, 'OK, this guy is probably getting top dollar safety money and we're just not going to be in that market,'" he said.
Holmes' ride home from the office is usually his decompression time where he takes his mind off football a bit, but midway during the first week of free agency he started calling Gardner-Johnson's agent every day on the ride home to check in with him.
"Hey, man, what's going on?" Holmes said of those chats. "That just kept escalating and escalating and it escalated all the way until I want to say Friday, we had a good conversation. Saturday, we followed up again just internally as a group. Then Sunday morning was just another one of those routine calls and it just happened to escalate to get into a position where we could get it done."
It all came together around 10 p.m. on Sunday night with Holmes' wife and two children already in bed for the night.
"I basically woke the whole household up when we got that done," he said with a smile. "Just a player that caliber and how he fits like a glove in our defense and what he's going to bring to our culture and our style and how we want to play.
"I got a great text from (defensive coordinator) Aaron Glenn as soon as it happened. It was a good feeling and again, just another piece to add and bolster our backend. It's not just our backend but our defense as a whole. Just a certain way we want to play defense and he fits that to a tee."
The same goes for veteran secondary additions like Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley. Holmes said it was a mission of his to improve the defense heading into the offseason and he thought the secondary was a little young with players like Joseph, Jeff Okudah (who only played in 10 games his first two seasons) and Jerry Jacobs playing key roles. He wanted to add some competition and veteran presence to the DB room and he certainly accomplished that in free agency.
"I told you guys at end of the season, we're gonna add to our defense," Holmes said. "We just needed to get better there. We're just very young at that (DB) position, so to add some guys with some more experience, add some guys with more versatility, but we just want to get better there, and we still got some young guys that are still growing, but obviously, that was an area of emphasis and that will continue to be."