Brad Holmes was a young area scout working in the all-important southeast region when then-St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney gathered his personnel department in a conference room at team headquarters one day in training camp 2009.
The Rams were coming off a 3-13 season, one of the worst teams in the NFL, and Devaney implored his scouts before they headed out on the road that, more important than the grades they were going to assign prospects for their physical and mental abilities were three traits he wanted to infuse the organization with: Smarts, passion and productivity.
“We were kind of like where Brad’s at now,” Devaney told the Free Press Wednesday. “They’re putting that thing together. I don’t want to say starting from scratch; their roster’s better than the Rams were at that time. But new head coach, new administration, so they’re in kind of the same situation and that’s how I’m sure Brad’s going to go about it. Let’s not compromise. We’re in this for the long haul. We’re not taking any shortcuts. Don’t have to gamble making the splash pick or the name player. Let’s keep our eye on the ball and be guided by those three things.”
Holmes will run his first draft as Lions general manager beginning Thursday, and with six picks over seven rounds — including No. 7 overall — he remains guided by some of the same principles he learned as a young scout.
In his pre-draft news conference last week, Holmes referenced some of the same traits Devaney spoke of back in 2009 and cited lessons he learned the three GMs he worked for during his 18 seasons with the Rams — Devaney, Charley Armey and Les Snead — as the foundation for how he will go about building his roster in Detroit.
“When you talk about risk on the first pick, I always kind of go back to when you’re turning that pick in, you don’t want to feel nervous,” Holmes said. “I’ll even give the credit to Billy Devaney on that one, is that that’s one that he used to always bring up, is that you want to be confident and you want to feel really, really good when you make that selection. Not a nervousness of, ‘I hope this works.’ And I’m not saying that all selections don’t have any warts, because everybody’s got a hole or something that they can improve on. But at the end of the day it’s, do we have buy-in and do we all feel good about the pick?”
In his three months with the Lions, Holmes has developed a reputation as a consensus builder and great collaborator, even welcoming ownership into his draft and free agent meetings.
“He’s not going to roll his eyes and say, ‘OK,’” Devaney said. “He’s very inclusive. He’s going to include everybody.”
Holmes said he adheres to one of Snead’s binding philosophies, “surrender the results to the process,” and he said he has emphasized with his young scouts that same thing Armey did with him when he was first getting in the business.
“The core things how he taught me in terms of athletic ability, competitiveness, instincts, getting those critical factors right and then it kind of gives you a little bit of a baseline,” Holmes said. “So yeah, I definitely still think about all of those and I don’t think that they’ll ever leave me.”
Snead, who replaced Devaney as Rams general manager in 2012, is known as one of the most aggressive GMs in the NFL, especially when it comes to the draft.
He made a blockbuster trade down from the No. 2 pick a month after he got the job in St. Louis, then traded back again on draft day from No. 6 to No. 14, where he took current Lions defensive lineman Michael Brockers.
The Rams have not had a first-round pick since 2016, with Snead routinely dealing those choices away — the Lions’ acquired the Rams’ 2022-23 first-round picks in the Matthew Stafford trade. And in 2019, he made six draft trades alone.
“If I had a personal philosophy in life, and it bleeds into the organization, it’s to wake up sprinting, don’t be scared,” Snead told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “In our league, wherever you’re at in the standings, you’re getting chased or you still have some hunting to do.
“Just like a NASCAR driver, you have to have the courage to make a move to go from third place to second place to first. That’s the philosophy we have.”
Devaney said risk tolerance is more inherent to the person than it is learned, and he said he believes Holmes more closely mirrors his mostly conservative nature.
“Les is awesome,” Devaney said. “I mean, he’s got a set on him now. And he’s a friend of mine. I pull for him mightily. But he’s got a set on him, some of this stuff he’s done.
“I would say (Brad is) more closely aligned to me in that regard, but he won’t be shy, either. If he thinks it’s a good deal for the Lions, he’s not going to worry about how he’s going to look in the thing. If he feels it’s in the best interests of the team to make a move, he has no ego to think, ‘Well, if this blows up, I’m going to look like a fool.’ That won’t stop him from doing the right thing.”
Holmes said last week he has had preliminary trade discussions about moving both up and down in Round 1, and ESPN reported Wednesday that the Lions tried to trade up to No. 4 to draft LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase, but the asking price by the Atlanta Falcons was too high.
Holmes’ appetite for risk, and the history of the men he has worked for — and some of those he now works with — could make him more likely to target certain positions at various points in the draft.
Offensive and defensive line are typically two of the safer positions to draft, and Snead, Devaney and Lions senior personnel executive John Dorsey, the former general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, have favored those positions in the first round.
Devaney took offensive tackle Jason Smith with his first ever first-round pick, No. 2 overall in 2008, and defensive end Robert Quinn in the first round of his last drive three years later.
Snead took Brockers with his first first-rounder, and doubled on big men Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald with first-round picks in 2014.
And Dorsey took offensive lineman Eric Fisher with his first pick as GM of the Chiefs.
Devaney, Dorsey and Snead combined to draft four first-round quarterbacks — Sam Bradford (in 2009), Jared Goff (2016), Patrick Mahomes (2017) and Baker Mayfield (2018) — with varying degrees of risk. Holmes traded for Goff in his first move as GM, but has not ruled out taking a quarterback Thursday, when at least one of North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Ohio State’s Justin Fields could be available.
And historically, both Snead and Dorsey have favored taking defensive backs early and waiting on wide receivers until the middle rounds. Of the 17 receivers Dorsey and Snead have taken in their 15 drafts, six have come in the fourth round.
Snead, in his second draft as GM, did trade up for the only first-round receiver taken by the GMs, Tavon Austin.
What all that means for the Lions, no one knows for sure. But Devaney said the Lions are in good hands.
“He won’t flinch, you can rest assured,” Devaney said. “I don’t know what he’s going to do, but I know this, he’s going to do it with 100% confidence.”