Ray Agnew Jr. saw superstar talent in Aaron Donald and pounded a table for Rams not to pass

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

ATLANTA — As Aaron Donald took his rightful place on the designated riser bearing his name, he still hadn’t forgotten.

He is the face of the Los Angeles Rams’ defense now, the game’s most dominant pass rusher, but Donald still remembers that, not too long ago, NFL teams still questioned his potential.

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Reporters had gathered around the five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle in a hotel ballroom to hear his story. But few in the audience knew that the origin of his journey to the Rams began with one man in particular — a man who had played Donald’s same position almost two decades earlier and had won a Super Bowl for this very team.

Ray Agnew Jr., the Rams’ director of pro personnel.

The Rams’ Aaron Donald is a leading candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight season.  (AP)
The Rams’ Aaron Donald is a leading candidate to win Defensive Player of the Year honors for the second straight season.  (AP)

The former player-turned-scout played both end and defensive tackle during an 11-year career, which began in New England, where he was the 10th overall pick in 1990, and concluded in St. Louis, where he helped anchor a defense that supported “The Greatest Show on Turf” and captured the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XXXIV.

Nearly 20 years later, Agnew remains with the Rams. And his impact is as strong as it ever was.

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“He’s one of the main reasons I’m here,” Donald told Yahoo Sports, flashing a wide smile as he sat in front of a Super Bowl LIII backdrop Wednesday. “He was the one that was bragging about me when I wasn’t here.”

Leader of men

The same leader who suited up on Sundays for Dick Vermeil now roams the hallways of the Rams’ building, interacting with scouts, coaches, players and executives with the same level of care, attention and sincerity. Agnew’s expertise as a former player makes him the de facto voice of reason at times, but his respect for the game and honesty make him a trusted teacher, leader and confidante in NFL circles.

Those who know him best offered the same unsolicited advice in separate conversations: If you meet people who have a bad thing to say about Ray Agnew, run. Because something’s wrong with them.

“Ray Agnew is as honest as any person you will ever talk to in this business, which sometimes is hard to find,” said former Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, who was on Jeff Fisher’s staff from 2012-16. “I’ve been involved in this league for 33 years and he immediately grabs your respect. He’s a very quiet guy, he’s very unassuming. But when he speaks, you listen. He’s a really, really good man. A good human being.”

Ray Agnew played 11 seasons in the NFL, three of them with the Rams that included the franchise’s Super Bowl-winning season of 1999. (Getty Images)
Ray Agnew played 11 seasons in the NFL, three of them with the Rams that included the franchise’s Super Bowl-winning season of 1999. (Getty Images)

In times of uncertainty, Agnew is that calming force capable of quieting the most restless spirit. There’s a strength in his resolve, a soothing presence that this God-fearing husband and father of three exudes. He was that way as a player, during the lean years in New England and the championship runs alongside Hall of Famers Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk. And he remained that way as a scout during years of futility in St. Louis, and now as an executive charged with helping general manager Les Snead field a Super Bowl-caliber roster.

“I can only imagine him being very similar to Ozzie Newsome,” Snead told Yahoo Sports by phone Wednesday afternoon. “A former player. Has impeccable character. Along with mental toughness. You feel it when the waters get high and there’s a little bit of chaos. There’s definitely a calm, sound presence from Ray.

“He’s one of those guys that, when the winds are blowing strong, you wanna go see Ray and you feel like, ‘Hey he can steady the ship.’

“That’s the leadership quality and that’s the human quality. Being a former player and all of that, in his role now in personnel, he’s very, very good at evaluating football players. But the first part is what I’d put on his tombstone.”

Agnew never has been a self-promoter. Others, however, are quick to boast.

“For him to be a black man doing what he’s doing,” said former Rams wide receiver Torry Holt, “The responsibility that they put on Brother Ray, how he responds to those responsibilities … It’s good to have a brother like him representing the National Football League because some people second-guess if black folks can do that role and do it at a high level. And he’s doing it.”

The same veteran defensive leader who was preaching the importance of collective goals over individual accolades in the late 1990s is now a talent evaluator who views the Rams’ drafts and free-agent signings as collaborative decisions made solely with the success of the team in mind.

“Ray Agnew is not all about promoting Ray Agnew,” McGinnis said. “Ray Agnew is about doing his job to the best of his capabilities and being extremely honest and loyal to who he is working for and who he is working with. Through all of those stages, he’s never changed. And to me, that is the highest compliment you could pay. He has gone through tough times as an executive — and he might not have always agreed with what was going on, but he was always loyal and he always did his job. And that’s something that is very rare in this business.”

As a locker room leader, Agnew made those around them want to be better. And when given a chance to repay Agnew on the biggest stage — Super Bowl XXXIV — young players like Holt, Dre’ Bly and Ricky Proehl were determined to seize the moment.

“He was the leader,” Holt said of his close friend Agnew, a deeply religious man who often led their team Bible study sessions. “Brother Ray worked hard and he believed in keeping the team together. So it meant a great deal for us young fellas to win a Super Bowl and to see the joy and jubilation come over Ray and all of the vets. To see their faces, it was just great satisfaction.”

‘Good morning, Champ’

Their group text chats always begin with the same salutation.

After all these years, the reverence, the admiration and the brotherly love still remains. And no matter the time that passes, or the distance that currently exists between them, Agnew and his former teammates will forever be connected by one thing: their Super Bowl rings.

“We always greet each other with, ‘Good Morning, Champ!’ ” Agnew said, chuckling.

In all, about 20 former Rams players are on the group chat, Agnew said, including Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Orlando Pace, Dexter McCleon, Leonard Little, Roland Williams, Justin Watson, Az-Zahir Hakim, Holt, Proehl and Bly.

“When you win a championship, it’s a special bond. Something that’ll last a lifetime,” Agnew said. “And no one can take it away from you.”

Ray Agnew Jr., the Rams’ director of player personnel, has been with the team since 1998, starting as a player before working his way up the front office. (Getty Images)
Ray Agnew Jr., the Rams’ director of player personnel, has been with the team since 1998, starting as a player before working his way up the front office. (Getty Images)

Their locker room may be long gone, but the camaraderie and the conversations that punctuated their playing days still remain in those text message threads. “It’s a place where we can go, a forum, where we can talk — good, bad or indifferent — and we know we’re getting good, honest feedback from our brothers,” said Holt, who anticipates quite a few of his former teammates will be in attendance at Super Bowl LIII.

This time, though, Agnew will be at the stadium in a far different capacity.

He recalled the pregame festivities the last time the Rams won their first title: The singing of the national anthem. The actors and actresses cheering from the stands at the Georgia Dome. The tear that rolled down his cheek just before kickoff. The realization that in Year 10 of his pro career, he was on the doorstep of finally becoming a champion.

“You almost thought it wouldn’t happen. And then it … happened,” said Agnew, before shifting gears to this week’s matchup against the Patriots. “It’ll be exciting, but I can’t say it’ll feel the same. I don’t think you can replace playing in the Super Bowl. Playing in it is just something special.

“But it is a great feeling. The only thing different for me is I don’t have no control over what happens. At my age, that’s a good thing.”

This time, all eyes will be on a different defensive tackle.

The 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The 2017 Defensive Player of the Year.

The 2018 NFL leader in sacks with 20.5 during the regular season.

The greatest defensive player in the game today.

Aaron Donald.

Championship vision

Agnew could see what others couldn’t.

Having played the same position so many years ago, he knew better. He saw the body, the agility, the burst. And he saw an NFL star in the making back in 2014.

While other personnel people around the league doubted Donald’s potential because of his 6-foot-1 height, Agnew has already made up his mind. Donald was a rare specimen.

“Ray was a huge advocate of Aaron,” said Snead, who drafted Donald 13th overall in 2014, 11 spots after the Rams selected offensive tackle Greg Robinson at No. 2. “And because Ray is such a steady presence, when he gets excited about someone, you can just feel, ‘OK, there’s a good chance this guy is going to be a really good player.’ He was on board with Aaron from the first moment he saw Aaron in the process.”

Agnew’s expertise hasn’t helped yield only talented defensive linemen like Donald and Michael Brockers. When Rams running back Malcolm Brown was placed on injured reserve in December, C.J. Anderson was among the free agents Agnew recommended. Snead said: “I was bouncing back between Ray’s office and draft meetings, watching film, and we sat there and discussed it and said, ‘You know what? C.J.’s the guy’ .”

Anderson has since blended seamlessness into the Rams’ offense, shouldering a heavy workload with Todd Gurley, their lead back, nursing a knee injury in recent weeks.

“He’s one of the best evaluators I’ve been around — regardless of position,” said 49ers director of pro personnel Ran Carthon, who spent five seasons (2012-16) as the Rams’ director of pro personnel. “Although he is the best D-line evaluator I’ve been around.”

Aaron Donald was in demand in Atlanta during Super Bowl week.  (Getty Images)
Aaron Donald was in demand in Atlanta during Super Bowl week.  (Getty Images)

Added Snead: “I can tell you as a GM, you’re always going to give Ray defensive linemen to do [scouting reports]. And over the years, when you would run the analytics, what he said about defensive linemen that were coming out in the draft, often was on point.”

The same is true for Donald, who remains as good as advertised.

In August, the 27-year-old signed a six-year, $135 million extension to remain with the team that drafted him.

“He knew that Aaron Donald was something special,” McGinnis said of Agnew. “He said, ‘Look, this guy does things that you just can’t do in there. Some of the things he’s doing, and making it look easy, you don’t really know how hard it is.’ ”

Years later, Donald is still appreciative of the Rams’ scouting department, and specifically, Agnew’s early vote of confidence.

“He was one of the main guys that watched me when a lot of guys were doubting me about my size,” said Donald, adding that he was told Agnew had pounded the table for him (literally) during the draft process. “He was saying, ‘Don’t worry about that. That guy can play football.’ So, I love Ray. I talk to Ray all the time and I have a lot of respect for him.”

At the start of the 1999 season, Agnew and eldest sons, Ray III — now a personnel intern with the New York Jets — and Malcolm — a running backs coach at the University of North Dakota — began a family tradition. After every victorious home game, Agnew would find his sons in the stands and carry both boys into the locker room.

“So, quite naturally, I was going to do the same at the Super Bowl,” said Agnew, who still has a picture of him with his two sons in the aftermath of their 23-16 Super Bowl victory over Tennessee at the Georgia Dome.

His youngest son, Keenan, a defensive tackle at Southern Illinois, was an infant the last time his father became a champion.

“He didn’t even get to go to the game. We had a sitter,” Agnew said. “And unfortunately, she had to stay at home with him.”

This time, he’s hoping all three of his boys, and his wife, Kathy, will be able to celebrate a Rams’ title run together.

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