In the more than three decades Ray Agnew has been part of the NFL, he’s almost exclusively been a background figure. Although, if you know anything about him, he’s contentedly avoided the spotlight.
Yet, Agnew has garnered an immeasurable amount of respect throughout his career, first during his 11 seasons playing defensive line for three franchises, leading to taking a back door into a front office role that’s steadily grown the past 20 years.
“If you voted in the locker room most well-liked individual, most respected, it would have been Ray Agnew,” former coach Mike Martz said. “Everyone loved the guy.”
Now, serving as the assistant general manager for the Detroit Lions, Agnew continues to operate in the background, outside the public eye. In that righthand role to GM Brad Holmes, Agnew brings the same, relentless approach he did during his playing career, while applying the lessons he learned on the field and in the locker room along the way.
In this current era of Lions football, coach Dan Campbell has made “grit” the franchise’s calling card. The word is emblazoned on the coach’s attire, adorns the walls within the team’s practice facility and is regularly mentioned in press conferences and team meetings.
It’s an easy theme for Campbell because he embodied the concept as a player. And he’s put together a coaching staff loaded with grizzled NFL veterans who similarly displayed the characteristic during their playing days.
What has gone unappreciated with that narrative is Agnew bringing that same perspective to the front office.
He didn’t come from much. The son of a baker and hotel housekeeper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, football was his path to a better life. As a freshman at North Carolina State, Agnew realized the NFL was a realistic goal, and after four productive seasons with the Wolfpack, including first-team all-conference honors both his junior and senior year, he was selected 10th overall by the New England Patriots in the 1990 draft.
Sure, there’s some intrinsic buzz that comes along with being a first-round draft pick, but that quickly dissipates when you’re playing one of the game’s most thankless positions — a run-stuffing defensive lineman — on a team that won a single game your rookie season.
Agnew battled through four losing campaigns in New England before getting his first taste of the postseason. From there, it was three years with the New York Giants, following a similar path of two losing seasons and a playoff berth ending in another opening-round exit.
It looked like more of the same when Agnew joined the Rams in 1998, just in time for a 4-12 season. But that franchise caught lightning in the bottle the following year with the emergence of quarterback Kurt Warner running Martz’s high-octane offensive system. The Rams won 13 games in 1999, en route to a victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Through it all, whether Agnew was on a team winning one game or playing in the Super Bowl, he never deviated from the steady approach of giving everything he had, every snap, to the finale whistle.
“I was highly competitive,” Agnew said. “I loved the game and played it with passion.”
After getting his ring, Agnew played another season for the Rams. He was set to give it another go in 2001, but retired during training camp when he recognized he didn’t have enough gas in the tank to keep going.
When informing Martz of the decision in the coach’s office, a job offer was immediately extended. Officially, the title was assistant player development and team chaplain. Unofficially, Martz was carving out a role for Agnew in pro personnel, a department the Rams surprisingly lacked despite the championship success.
It didn’t take long for Agnew to accept.
“I ain’t built to stay home,” he said.
In Agnew, Martz saw the unique ability to scout the intangibles beyond talent.
“It gives him a leg up on all the other personnel people,” Martz said. “Just being in the competitive part of it, watching guys how they played the game. He sees it immediately on tape the passion, the effort a guy has. I’ve seen him come out of the film room and I’d ask him about a guy and he’d just shake his head and laugh. He said, ‘Kid just doesn’t have a good enough motor.’ It’s things like that, he just gets it.”
That unique skill continued to be valued by the Rams long after Martz departed in 2005. In total, Agnew worked under four general managers with the franchise, rising to the director of pro personnel under the team’s current GM, Les Snead.
Since transitioning into personnel, one trait defines Agnew more than any other: Conviction.
During draft and free-agency meetings, Agnew always has done more listening than talking. Diligent and thorough in his evaluations, he avoids offering opinions formulated before he’s completed his process.
“Personnel guys, they have an opinion on every player no matter how much they’ve seen them,” Martz said. “What makes him different, he won’t have an opinion unless he’s really researched the guy. …You don’t understand how rare and unusual that is.”
So when Agnew speaks up, people have learned to listen.
“Ray is very low-key and very even-keeled,” Campbell said. “He speaks what’s on his mind. But the best part about Ray, when there’s something he’s convicted about, it may take a minute, but when he feels it’s time to say something — it doesn’t happen often, but when his conviction comes out, it makes you take notice immediately.”
That wasn’t always the case.
During the first few years after hanging up the cleats, when his role in personnel was still unofficial, Agnew strongly advised the Rams against signing a player, a wide receiver Martz declined to name. The team’s front office clearly wasn’t ready to heed the advice of someone still on the lowest rungs of the ladder, not yet fully realizing Agnew’s eye for heart and character he’d refined as a locker room leader.
“There was a receiver our geniuses in the front office wanted to sign and Ray said, ‘Don’t touch him. Don’t touch him. Don’t touch him,'” Martz said. “We signed him, against Ray’s (advice). We had to cut him. He was just a bad individual.
“He wrecked us for a couple of weeks, just wrecked us,” Martz continued. “I had to get him out of there. Ray knew it right away. He said, ‘Don’t touch him. You don’t want this guy in our locker room, coach.’ …He has that intuitiveness that he knows what fits and what doesn’t fit.”
Of course, Agnew also has an eye for talent, particularly with linemen. And when many others were casting doubt on how well an undersized defensive tackle out of University Pittsburgh could translate to the next level, it was Agnew who passionately went to bat for Aaron Donald in the Rams’ draft meetings.
“Because of his size and all that, there were questions about whether he was more of a sub guy, a package guy,” Holmes said. “Ray was like, ‘No, he’s every down. I don’t care about all this other stuff. No, he’s a really good, every-down (player).’ It was Ray who stood up and was convicted. He was like, “Look, I’m telling you, I don’t care about the size, this guy is the real deal.’ That’s the kind of conviction he brings, and when he brings it, you know it’s real. You can feel it.”
The Rams ended up taking Donald with the No. 13 pick in 2014. Not only has he been the really good, every-down player Agnew envisioned, Donald has become who most would consider the best defensive player of this generation, earning seven first-team All-Pro selections in eight seasons.
More recently, the Lions faced a debate on what to do with the No. 2 pick in the 2022 draft. The franchise had a clear need for an edge rusher with three names being strongly considered at that spot — Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Georgia’s Travon Walker and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux.
All three possess immense talent, so in many ways, intangibles and culture fit were going to be deciding factors.
In the months before the pre-draft process, Thibodeaux’s ceiling made him the early favorite from that group. But questions about his football character, specifically his motor and passion, cast doubt on if he was the right fit for Detroit.
As part of the scouting process, the Lions sent a contingent to Thibodeaux’s pro day, to better get to know the player in the weeks leading up the draft. When that group returned to Detroit, it was Agnew’s assessment Campbell sought first.
“I sought out Ray and said, ‘What’d you think?’ He gave me a very good perspective on it,” Campbell said. “He said this is what I think, ‘I know what the athlete is, I see it, but I feel like this is the type of guy he is and this is what he’d be in the locker room.’
Campbell declined to get into specifics, but conclusions can be drawn from Detroit’s decision to go with Hutchinson.
And it’s not just Hutchinson. Agnew also shared Holmes’ excitement and conviction about wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown a year earlier. What Agnew looks for and sees at the receiver position had been cultivated two decades earlier, digging into the nuances of the craft with former teammates Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
“When you’re going through that first spring, that first offseason, it was just me and him,” Holmes said. “And we went through a lot, just late nights setting the draft board. Late, late nights saying, ‘I’m telling you, this St. Brown is going to be that guy, man.'”
Stepping to the forefront
Agnew is driven by simple motivations. He’s fueled by his love of his faith, family and football, in that order. And his humility, gratitude and loyalty make it so you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would dare utter a negative word about him.
But it’s reasonable to ask whether his current role might be his ceiling.
It’s not because he doesn’t have the chops as a talent evaluator, nor is he lacking the character that would cause countless people to jump at the opportunity working by his side. No, what’s working against Agnew most is one of his most admirable characteristics, his unwillingness to self-promote, to play the political games necessary to climb over your peers to reach the pinnacle of the profession.
Multiple people who have known Agnew for years said he’s embarrassed to talk about himself, embarrassed to take credit for anything. And when sitting down for an interview for this piece, he shied away from any questions about himself, often cutting off of his thoughts prematurely, lest he acknowledged some personal success.
It all stems from a motto ingrained in him by his late father: “‘Nobody is better than you, but you’re no better than anybody else.”
But for as much as Agnew is a background figure to the public because of his humility, he’s been anything but behind the scenes in Detroit. After serving as a mentor to Holmes as a young scout working his way up the ranks with the Rams, Detroit’s general manager is doing everything he can to return the favor, keeping Agnew involved in every facet of the job, from personnel to administration, having him lead staff meetings and run the show when he needs to be away from the facility.
This offseason, the league asked each team to nominate two people for a new leadership accelerator program, designed to address the NFL’s issues with providing head coaching in general manager opportunities to minority candidates. The Lions sent Agnew along with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
And on Thursday, when Holmes fields questions from the media for a season preview press conference that will also address Tuesday’s roster cuts, Agnew will be there, too, out of the shadows and into spotlight, if only on the periphery.
“He’s got the acumen, the eye for talent, he’s got the culture part down,” Holmes said. “He’s got all the traits and characteristics. …That’s why I want to make sure I’m doing my part to make sure he’s getting exposed to everything I’m getting exposed to in this job. So if he gets that opportunity, nothing will be foreign to him because he’s experienced everything.”
If the team’s latest attempt at a rebuild is successful, Holmes and Campbell likely will reap all the credit, but Agnew also stands to gain, in the form of a potential opportunity to run his own franchise.
He acknowledges he holds the dream to be a GM, but his focus is on the present and he’s laser-focused on the task at hand. And while taking on 300-pound offensive linemen for 50-plus snaps each week was never a picnic, it might seem like that to some when contrasted against the challenge of turning around the long-suffering Lions franchise.
But Agnew has seen it done before, both winning a championship with the Rams as a player after a 4-12 season, and experiencing a second rebuild that culminated in a Super Bowl appearance in 2019. From those experiences, he has a pretty good idea what it takes and he sees some of the same, encouraging signs in Detroit.
His priority is doing everything he can in his role to help this team get there before he can entertain what’s next for him, professionally.
“For me to reach the goal, I have to dominate in the role I’m in right now,” Agnew said. “I have to dominate here before I can be successful anywhere else.”