New Detroit Lions GM Brad Holmes has superpowers: ‘You’ve got a special one’

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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For young scouts, it is one of the most intimidating places to be: Standing in front of dozens of the NFL’s most prominent talent evaluators, sharing your unfiltered evaluations on players in the next year’s draft class, with people who have the power to crush or elevate your dreams.

Les Snead has sat through hundreds of presentations over the years, first as director of player personnel with the Atlanta Falcons, and more recently as general manager of the Los Angeles Rams.

Some scouts ramble mindlessly, others lack substance in their evaluations. Most give off a nervous energy, which is why Snead remembers one presentation so clearly from a posh Florida resort years ago.

At that National Football Scouting meeting, Snead first saw a young combine scout named Brad Holmes. Snead can’t recall the players Holmes presented that day, or how accurate he was in his evaluations, but he distinctly remembers the way Holmes held the room with his engaging personality.

“It was Brad’s first time presenting, and boy, he was articulate, he was energetic, he was clear, he was concise,” Snead said. “He just nailed it. And at that point in time, I knew Billy Devaney. He was general manager of the Rams. At that point, I remember texting, ‘Hey, you’ve got a special one in Brad and if you don’t give him a raise, we’re going to come bring him to Atlanta.’ ”

Holmes got his raise and promotion, eventually taking over as the Rams’ southeast area scout under Devaney.

Snead replaced Devaney as Rams GM in 2012 and thought so much of Holmes after seeing his work firsthand that he promoted Holmes again, to director of college scouting in 2013, where he stayed as one of the NFL’s budding front office stars until the Detroit Lions hired him as their new general manager this week.

At 41 years old, Holmes is the second youngest GM in the NFL behind Cleveland’s Andrew Berry.

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He was less seasoned than most of the 11 other candidates the Lions interviewed for the job, but far and away the internal favorite after an impressive Zoom interview Jan. 6.

Two talent evaluators who have worked with Holmes but are not authorized by their clubs to speak publicly, describe him as bright and talented, with one saying the Lions made a “home run” hire.

Snead agrees, and said comparisons to the Rams’ hire of rising star Sean McVay as head coach in 2017 — McVay, the youngest coach in modern NFL history when he was hired, has led the Rams to three playoff appearances in four seasons — are apt.

“The positive of Brad not necessarily being a household name (until now is) basically his 80-20 in life — the one, the two, the three, the four things he’s going to spend 80% of his time on — was helping the Rams become a better football team and not necessarily trying to self-promote, not necessarily trying to make contacts, not necessarily trying to get the best job or the next job,” Snead said. “It’s, ‘Hey, are you going to earn a brand of substance on the clock?’ I think Brad has the traits and skills to do that. It’s a hard, complicated job, but I would bet on Brad Holmes. I’d take the over. All day long.”

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Saved for something

Holmes’ love affair with football started at a young age, even if he did not play the game until a few years later than most peers.

Holmes’ father, Mel, played offensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1971-73. His uncle, Luther Bradley, was the Lions’ first-round pick in 1978, and Bradley remembers Holmes and his family traveling to Detroit for Thanksgiving games.

Holmes’ grandfather, also named Luther Bradley, was a legendary high school football coach in South Carolina. And his cousin, Alex Barron, was a first-round pick of the Rams in 2005.

“We have a real lineage of football in our family,” said Joan Holmes, Brad’s mother. “It’s all we do. When we used to go visit my parents, that’s all the men did was to hog up the TV. And all the women, that’s how we all learned how to cook, cause we didn’t ever watch anything else but sports on TV.”

Holmes moved from Atlanta to Florida with a brief stop in Muncie, Ind., when his mother was getting her doctorate from Ball State, as a youth.

He was into skateboarding and dirt bike riding — he still rides, and recently drove from his Atlanta-area home to Nashville to pick up a new bike — and in both of the suburban Tampa neighborhoods where he grew up, it was not uncommon to see packs of kids following him around, trying out X Games-style tricks.

Holmes started playing football around the seventh grade, and though he was initially too heavy to play, his mother remembers him starving himself for the better part of two weeks in order to make weight.

“He was on this like secret diet,” she said. “So yeah, that’s been his passion forever.”

A team captain and homecoming king at Tampa’s Chamberlain High, Holmes went on to play defensive tackle at his father’s alma mater, North Carolina A&T. He led the Aggies to the 1999 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title and Black College Football National Championship, where his dreams were nearly deferred by a serious car accident.

Weeks after the 1999 season, Holmes was back home visiting family and friends for the holidays. As he was leaving one friend’s apartment complex, an SUV smashed into the driver’s side of his sports car, leaving him with severe internal injuries.

He spent four weeks in the hospital, the first two in intensive care, and underwent two surgeries.

Bill Hayes, Holmes’ coach at North Carolina A&T, visited Holmes in the hospital and recalled him being upbeat, trying not to show any sign of pain or discomfort. Before Holmes was discharged, though, doctors confided in his mother just how bad his injuries were.

“To be quite honest with you, it was just almost a miracle that he was not killed,” Joan Holmes said. “I remember the internist who operated on him, he says, ‘Now that he’s kind of out of the woods, I can tell you this now,’ he says, ‘but the level of internal injuries your son suffered, I’ve been doing this business for a long time, nobody has ever survived.’ And he said the only reason he survived was because he was in optimal physical condition.

“I just never will forget that. But yeah, it was just pretty much — and I always told him, I said, ‘Hey look, the Man saved you for something, you need to make the best of it.’ ”

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A taste of scouting

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Meet Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes

Detroit Lions general manager Brad Holmes was hired to the role in January 2021 following a 5-11 season and firings of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia.

Tyler J. Davis, Detroit Free Press

After the accident, Joan Holmes said a local attorney told the family Brad had a case for a lawsuit — if he was willing to stop playing football.

“He looked at me and said I’m not doing that,” Joan Holmes recalled, and so he returned to North Carolina A&T for his senior season.

Holmes held out hopes of playing in the NFL, and when draft interest never materialized, he told his father, who died in 2015, he’d be willing to go the practice squad route.

His father had a different suggestion: Try to get into an NFL front office instead.

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The path from there to the Lions was anything but direct.

Holmes worked briefly for Enterprise Rent-A-Car near his home in Tampa, before taking a public relations internship with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks.

Arthur Triche, then the Hawks vice president of media relations, remembers Holmes as being personable, smart and driven. When Holmes told Triche he wanted to work in football, Triche introduced him to a few friends from NFL media relations departments when they came to town to help work the 2003 NBA All-Star Game.

One of the connections Holmes made that weekend, then-Rams director of football media Duane Lewis, offered Holmes an internship in the team’s media relations department, which Holmes gladly accepted to get his foot in the door.

Months later, Rams assistant coach Wilbert Montgomery helped Holmes land an internship in the scouting department, where he quickly distinguished himself with his work. Though Holmes’ job mostly entailed making copies and picking up prospects from the airport, that is where he got his first real taste of scouting.

Montgomery said he watched film with Holmes and had him write reports on draft prospects, including Oregon State running back Steven Jackson, the Rams’ first-round pick in 2004. Holmes’ reports were concise yet detailed, Montgomery said, on par with those turned in by more seasoned scouts.

“Every now and then (GM) Charley (Armey) would let me do more,” Holmes told Yahoo in 2019. “We would have to make so many profile tapes for draft meetings, and he would have us write down notes. Every now and then, he would let us present our notes in front of all the scouts. All these veteran scouts. They’d literally just call you into a room, read your notes, let them know what you think about the player.

“You’d walk out and you’d have no idea what they thought of you. Then it was back to making profile tapes, heading out to the airport and all that. Oh man, it’s crazy to think back to those days. But I wouldn’t have wanted to come up any other way.”

‘He has some superpowers’

Two days after the Lions finished their 5-11 season with a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, president Rod Wood explained some of what he was looking for in the team’s next head coach and GM.

He wanted leaders, people with a shared vision for culture, who could work together in a situation where communication is paramount. And specifically of the next GM, he said the job is “more involved” than “just picking players and putting a roster together,” and that it was important to find someone with the skills “to be a good manager of people and processes.”

Holmes has never run an organization before, though he did oversee the Rams’ college scouting staff. And because he has spent most of his career working outside team headquarters, there will be a learning curve when it comes to the non-football parts of the job.

But Holmes plans to surround himself with experienced hands to help with that process — there are candidates both inside and outside the building — and Snead said those are areas where he is bound to excel.

“He has some superpowers,” Snead said, applying a favorite Rams scouting term to his longtime protégé. “We call it each player’s a superhero and what is their superpowers? And most of us have some kryptonite as well. But I think with Brad, and I’ve said it a little bit, but No. 1, great person. Mentored well and one of those people that listened and really learned and then applied (what he learned from) those mentors. But I think it starts right here: He’s just an intelligent — and I always call it dynamic intelligence in that if he wasn’t doing football, he’d be successful at something.”

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Since taking over as Rams college scouting director in 2013, Holmes has helped build the team into a perennial playoff contender. L.A. played the Green Bay Packers in an NFC divisional game Saturday.

He was part of the decision-making team that targeted Aaron Donald with the Rams’ second first-round pick in 2014. He visited Pittsburgh several times during the predraft process, confided in his mother he thought Donald would slide to No. 13 because of size concerns, and after drafting the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, texted his mom a celebratory, “I got him.”

A year later, the Rams took running back Todd Gurley, the star of their run to the 2019 Super Bowl, in the first round, and the year after that, his evaluations were paramount in the team’s decision to take Jared Goff over Carson Wentz with the No. 1 pick.

The Rams have not had a first-round choice the past four drafts, but have continued to find starters in the mid and late rounds. As the Rams’ chief cross checker for defensive backs, Holmes spearheaded the drafting of safety John Johnson, a Pro Football Focus second-team All-Pro, in the third round in 2017.

“He was a huge John Johnson fan,” Snead said. “We had got to that late third, and some of the players at positions that we needed more were gone, so now you’re at that point, right, where, are you going to reach for need with players that maybe you have less love for, maybe like them but not as convicted? Or do you take the player that you’re really, really convicted, and maybe have less need?

“And I just remember Brad going, ‘You know what, we take John Johnson, we’re never looking back. He’s going to be good. This guy’s going to help us. Take need out of it.’ And at that point in time, you listen to the wisdom.”

The Rams are considered to have one of the NFL’s more cutting-edge scouting processes, an adaptation of the New England Patriots’ system — Snead worked under Thomas Dimitroff, a former Patriots scout, in Atlanta — that incorporates analytics and assigns prospects numbered and colored grades.

Holmes has been a big part of that transition, and while he has done less work on the pro side, Snead said his input there has been invaluable at times, too.

In 2018, Snead sent Holmes to the airport during the final rounds of the draft, concerned that Holmes would miss his flight to Atlanta to see the birth of his first child. With Holmes in the air and unable to pound the table for one of his favorite late-round prospects, Darious Williams, the Rams passed on Williams in the draft and were unable to convince him to sign with them as a free agent.

When Williams was released by the Baltimore Ravens a few months later, the Rams claimed him off waivers based largely on Holmes’ recommendation.

This season, Williams led the Rams with four interceptions while playing a versatile role in one of the NFL’s best secondaries.

“I’m jacked for him,” Snead said. “I’m actually jacked it’s Detroit. The city has soul to me. (It is) like a Cleveland a little bit, football’s important. There’s a chance to make an impact if you help revitalize a storied franchise.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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