Why they got into scouting: Los Angeles Rams college scouting director Brad Holmes

Yahoo Sports has spoken to various NFL scouts over the past few weeks to get a sense for not only how they got to where they are in their careers, but how they got into it and how the industry has changed over the years.

This idea was inspired by Rivals’ Gabe DeArmond, who put together a fascinating series recently, asking all of the University of Missouri athletic coaches why and how they got into coaching initially. We enjoyed it so much, we’ve been doing the same with NFL scouts, trying to find out how they got into the business and what it takes to thrive in this competitive, cutthroat league.

Our next installment is with Los Angeles Rams college scouting director Brad Holmes.

Previous entries: Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy | Buffalo Bills senior national scout Dennis Hickey

Brad Holmes grew up in a football-steeped family, with the game going back multiple generations in his lineage. But he got a bit of a later start playing the sport, was a bit off the radar in college football despite a strong résumé as a player at North Carolina A&T and had to take a bit of a detour in another sport before he got into NFL scouting.

But over the past 15 years, Holmes has established himself as one of the brighter minds in college scouting as one of Rams GM Les Snead’s most trusted lieutenants for a team that went from 4-12 three seasons ago to making the Super Bowl this year. And Holmes has developed into a potential general-manager candidate in a career that has been spent all with one franchise — first in St. Louis and now in Los Angeles — rising up the ladder.

Holmes spoke with Yahoo Sports about his road to breaking into the business; how Renaldo Wynn (remember him?) might have been his first inspiration to be a scout; how the intangibles might outweigh the physical traits in a prospect; two big-name quarterback prospects he whiffed on years ago; plus, much more.

In fact, Holmes left us with a fascinating epistemological question: What if the NFL scouting combine came before the college football season? We’ve been chewing on that brain-melting idea since we spoke to Holmes, as well as a lot of other revealing elements of the scouting process he helped peel back during our chat.

Brad Holmes of the Los Angeles Rams during the third round of the NFL Draft from the Rams War Room, Friday, April 27, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, CA. (Rams)
Brad Holmes of the Los Angeles Rams during the third round of the NFL Draft from the Rams War Room, Friday, April 27, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, CA. (Rams)

Yahoo Sports: When did you first play football?

Brad Holmes: I grew up in a football family. My dad [former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive guard Mel Holmes] played in the NFL for a few years, and my uncle — my mom’s brother — [cornerback] Luther Bradley was a first-round pick out of Notre Dame by the Detroit Lions in 1978. I’ve just been around the game all my life. The funny thing is that my dad never really forced football on me, so I didn’t start playing until, I want to say, seventh grade. Somewhere around when I was 12 years old.

But I was always around it. I loved watching the game. One time I was with one of my buddies that I was going to school with, and we were playing with the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, and there are all these teams. ‘Oh yeah, I play for the Patriots … I play for the Vikings …’ or whatever, and it just hit me. I was like, ‘Man, I need to get on a team.’ That’s when I finally asked my dad and told him I wanted to play, and he was like, ‘OK, I’ll sign you up.’ That’s the first time I played organized football.

As far as getting to where I am now, I really did have a long path.

Yahoo Sports: Was there an early seed planted with the desire to scout while you were playing or watching football along the way?

Brad Holmes: You know, it’s really funny. Honestly, the first time I really got a glimpse about scouting — I’ll never forget — was in the eighth grade. I want to say it was the 1993 NFL draft, and it was the first time I watched the draft on TV. At least the first round, anyway. They were actually showing a war room, and it was the decision-makers: the coaches, the GMs, whoever. Making trades, looking through reports, whatever they were doing. And for some reason, I just got enamored by that.

I just thought, ‘Wow!’ That was the coolest thing. Again, I had just started playing organized football at that point. I grew up playing football in the streets and in the backyard, but … and I have no idea why that was the connection. But I just got enamored with the coverage of it.

So that kind of came and went, and I played all through high school, and fast-forward to the 1997 draft. One my friends and I were just watching it, and I’ll never forget they were showing the highlights of Renaldo Wynn from Notre Dame. They were just talking about his traits over the highlights — you know, ‘He’s quick and he can get off the ball fast,’ and they were just showing his different pass-rush moves. And from that point on, I was just in love with how they were describing his physical traits.

That was the first time when I thought in terms of the physical traits of a player. And then thinking about them in terms of how they fit on every player on the field. I remember it like it was yesterday. My buddy and I were talking at McDonald’s, and I was like, ‘Man, that Renaldo Wynn looks amazing!’ I didn’t even know who Renaldo Wynn was until I saw that draft. [laughs]

Notre Dame defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn (left, foreground) might have been one of the early inspirations for Brad Holmes' scouting careers. (Getty Images)
Notre Dame defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn (left, foreground) might have been one of the early inspirations for Brad Holmes' scouting career. (Getty Images)

Maybe that’s the same excitement people see now when they watch the draft. Obviously, I see it in a whole different light now. But yeah, it was just a weird moment for me. Something about identifying those traits for that particular player. I look back now and just laugh, but it was like a light went off right at that moment.

And it’s funny now, because I am so much focused on the intangible traits way more so than the physical traits. Now I am like, ‘OK, yeah, he’s fast, but does he work hard?’ You know? I just don’t care about that stuff quite as much. Of course, I care about it. But I’ve learned so much as to why a player is or isn’t successful in this league. It falls so much on the intangibles more than the physical.

Yahoo Sports: And I have a question about that I want to ask you. But can you first tell the story of how you got from graduating college to getting your foot in the door with the St. Louis Rams?

Brad Holmes: I was trying to get into scouting, like an internship or something, right out of college. I thought I had a connection with the Panthers, but that fell through and it was my first time thinking something was coming and getting turned down for a job. That’s when my mom and dad said, ‘Well, that’s the real world, just so you know.’ So after that fell through I went back home and was working for Enterprise Rental Car, trying to figure out what my next move was.

That’s when I got a connection to apply for a PR job with the Atlanta Hawks. It was what they called a media trainee job. So I went and took it, even though I was so much of a football guy. I was like, well, at least I am in sports. I had a PR degree and I knew how to write pretty well, I had the verbal skills and I thought I’d just do that.

When I went to the PR internship, I was still working part time at the airport at Enterprise. I was just grinding through, and finally my boss with the Hawks — a guy named Arthur Triche — he was telling me about the NBA All-Star Game, which was in Atlanta in 2003. He told me that a lot of the NFL PR guys come to the All-Star Game, and he was willing to introduce me to some of them. He knew I still loved football and had just finished playing.

That’s when I met Duane Lewis, who was the PR director of the Rams at the time. We did just a quick, little lunch interview, and that’s when he offered me a PR internship. I said, ‘Man, I am getting in the NFL? Inside a franchise? Heck yeah.’ So I just drove to St. Louis and started the 2003 fall season.

Yahoo Sports: But you still had your eye on scouting, right?

Brad Holmes: Oh yeah, the whole time — my whole focus — was getting into scouting. Fast-forward to training camp in Macomb, Illinois, and I am seeing all the young scouts, the in-house scouts, and they were just doing stuff with the players and helping out with the walkthroughs and playing their little parts, and I said, ‘Man, that is cool.’

But I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t know the GM or anybody. So I just struck up a relationship with the running backs coach, Wilbert Montgomery. We just kind of struck up a friendship or whatever; he just took a liking to me, I guess. We used to talk football all the time, whenever he had time.

He was like, ‘Why are you in PR and not in scouting?’ I just told him, ‘Wilbert, I would love to be in scouting, but I don’t have an in.’ He said, ‘Let me talk to [former Rams GM] Charley [Armey] and give him what my thoughts are about you,’ and so on.

A couple weeks later, [Montgomery] came back to me and was like, ‘I talked to Charley and he said he wants to meet you.’ Wilbert told me he didn’t come to Charley a lot but when he did, he would take his word [at face value]. I owe a ton to Wilbert and to Charley, and Wilbert just gave me that introduction I needed.

So I interned in scouting for the 2004 draft, right after when my PR internship ended after the 2003 season. Little did I know ... I thought I was going to be doing all this looking at players. But I wasn’t doing any of that. I was making copies and picking up guys from the airport.

Yahoo Sports: Every single person I’ve talked to so far has been that airport taxi guy at some point.

Brad Holmes: [laughs] Yeah, we’ve all done it. But I was just so happy that I was involved. Every now and then Charley would let me do more. 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. [laughs] 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.

Yahoo Sports: I was just about to ask you that. Isn’t doing that legwork a big part of learning the business, from the bottom on up?

Brad Holmes: Oh, there’s no doubt. I was talking to someone in the league the other day, just learning about the importance of how to evaluate. It’s just the psychology of being the lone wolf. When I truly, truly cut my teeth in evaluation, I was an NFS scout — the combine service, National Football Scouting — and started doing that in 2006. I had been three years in the office and then went to do that.

My first pro day was at the University of Missouri [in 2007]. I was so amped up to be there. The guy just gave me a sheet of paper with the list of names and numbers. I had no idea. I didn’t know who did what. I didn’t know who were the starters and who were the backups, who was good — I didn’t know anything! So he hands me the sheet of paper and was like, ‘All right, I’ll meet you in the morning, and we’ll go over all the other stuff and we’ll get the measurements and the Wonderlic test,’ and all this stuff.

I just remember sitting in a dark room [watching tape on those players] until like midnight trying to figure all that stuff out. And I was like, you know what? That’s how you learn. It’s just a blank slate, and you just figure it all out. That’s what you get paid for. You get paid for your opinion. It’s like getting thrown into the deep end of the pool and you gotta get out.

Yahoo Sports: And that leads me back to something you alluded to before. You can scout the traits until you’re blue in the face. But how crucial is getting to know the person as well as the athlete and the player?

Brad Holmes: Yeah, I would say that getting to know the person is even more important than the other stuff. When you get to the NFL level, everybody has got ability. Everybody is talented. Everybody is big, strong, athletic, fast, agile. Everybody has that. The separation is the intangibles. So you have to find out what actually drives the player. What level of passion does he have? How much does football mean to him? How hard does he really work? Does he have a mental toughness when things go bad? Can he bounce back? Can he persevere?

You have to find those things out. Those things are going to happen. Bad things happen. How do they respond? That’s the separation when you get to this level. So I actually think the intangible portion is more important than the physical part. And maybe I can say that now with experience, that it’s maybe a little bit easier to figure out the physical part. You do it, but you have to get the rest of the picture.

Looking back at how I used to be so enamored with the physical traits portion of it, at this stage now it’s like, man, if this guy doesn’t have the intangibles or the character, he’s not going to make it. They’re just not. And those are some of the hardest things to figure out. You can figure out speed and ability. Heart — there’s just not an analytical measure for that.

Yahoo Sports: Is there one big miss on a player you look back on and just wince? And how did that evaluation maybe change the way you approached scouting players after that?

Brad Holmes: I want to say for me that early on when I was a combine scout, I was doing the Midwest and I was doing [Kentucky QB] Andre’ Woodson … he and [Louisville QB] Brian Brohm were coming out. That spring heading into their senior year, I put some huge grades on both of those guys. And I just thought, like, ‘Oh, these are what pro quarterbacks look like.’ They were big, strong arms, pedigrees and all that.

Kentucky QB Andre' Woodson didn't quite pan out the way some NFL scouts thought he might. (Getty Images)
Kentucky QB Andre' Woodson didn't quite pan out the way some NFL scouts thought he might. (Getty Images)

They just didn’t end up panning out to what I thought at the time. It didn’t really affect my confidence. I knew I was still in a developmental stage as an evaluator. It really just made me roll up my sleeves as an evaluator and say, ‘Hey, man, I really need to get better at evaluating QBs.’

Look, I get it. When you get to the NFL, especially at that position, a lot goes into it from an intangible perspective, plus the situation they’re thrown into. There are more factors that play into a quarterback’s success than maybe other positions. Can he wait? Will he sit and learn and develop? All that stuff. But I probably would say those were two players who … I just threw these big grades out on them, and they just didn’t turn out to be equivalent to what my grade was.

Yahoo Sports: What in your mind is the best part of the job? What still excites you about the process?

Brad Holmes: Wow. Well, the only thing that makes that a little bit of a tough question … I have so much respect, appreciation and understanding of the level of importance for every phase of the process. That’s the only part that makes it a little tough on answering that.

Probably what sticks out about what really makes this job interesting is when you recognize a player’s traits and their real strength — kind of their go-to punch. [Rams GM] Les [Snead] calls it a player’s ‘superpower.’ But when you recognize that when you’re first evaluating that player, and when he actually puts that on display for you in a winning fashion and a productive manner on the field in the NFL, you’re like, ‘OK, that’s exactly what I saw and what I envisioned that guy would be when I first saw him.’

I remember a player like [Chicago Bears 2017 fourth-round pick] Tarik Cohen. The first time I saw Tarik Cohen live in a game, I was going back to my alma mater to watch him, but that first look at him in a game live, he was just so elusive. He was just so fun to watch. I was just thinking, ‘Man, he’s like a video game!’ You hear that joystick phrase thrown out there a lot with him, but I thought he really looked like that. And then when I see him now, it’s like … yep, that’s what he was.

Those are the things that you really, really love about the job. Or take [Indianapolis Colts 2018 second-rounder] Darius Leonard coming out of South Carolina State. Evaluating him and just looking at him from a football intangibles standpoint — his work ethic, his drive and his passion for the game — on top of his football ability to run, chase and tackle, you couple all that up and see his immediate success, it was a perfect example of learning who the player was and trying to pull it inside-out. You start with the heart and you put it with the physical abilities, and you see it all come together in your evaluation.

Cohen is a good example for me of a player I liked on tape, but it wasn’t until I saw him in training camp against NFL people that I thought, wow, he really is that good.

Yahoo Sports: That in-person eye test can be huge in splitting hairs, it seems.

Brad Holmes: Oh, yes. Like with the Rams here, I remember when we drafted Cooper Kupp. The first time I saw him live — I didn’t get a chance to make it to Eastern Washington his senior year, even though I did see him the prior year. I remember seeing him the year before because I had heard so much, and I remembered he was pretty good. But at the Senior Bowl, he just looked like a different player. It looked like he was different than everybody else on the field. He just went through the process, went to the combine, and he doesn’t run really fast. But it was like, every time you saw him play football with shoulder pads and a helmet, he was great.

Or when [former Rams corner] Janoris Jenkins came out, I was doing the Southeast area at the time. I remember he lined up man-to-man versus Julio Jones and A.J. Green in the SEC and did very, very well. So when he got in the NFL early in his career, you’d just see him lined up — they just slid him in, in man coverage — you saw that superpower. You’re seeing what you saw early on.

Take someone like [Rams safety] John Johnson. His instincts just stood out so much. He’s just turned into a heck of a run supporter. He’s just been terrific. But I remember during his evaluation process, it wasn’t really … I mean, he’s a good-sized kid, but you know, he didn’t run the fastest. I remember watching him live and then again at his Senior Bowl, it’s not like he was picking off a bunch of balls — and he might have had six picks or something in his [college] career.

But he was just cutting off so many routes. He just instinctively knew the angles to take. So I look at him now — I remember that first start he had against Seattle and his picks that ball off on the sideline and I am just like, yep, that’s what you saw.

Or like, [Rams 2019 second-round pick] Taylor Rapp is a guy that, whew, we loved him. We had [a first-round grade on him]. And you’re probably going to say, OK, why didn’t you take him at 31 then? Well, we just kind of thought that with all the information we had that we’d have that opportunity to move back and pick up some more draft capital and be in a position to get him.

We’re really excited about Taylor and Darrell Henderson and David Long and [Greg] Gaines has a lot of ability. Bobby Evans, he’s gonna be … in a great situation for our line. Yeah, we’re really excited about all those guys.

Yahoo Sports: Is there a worst part of the job? Or perhaps the most challenging part about doing this?

Brad Holmes: Yeah, I would guess I would say it’s the part that the outsider doesn’t see. I think the outsider sees the scout walk into the school or going to games in the press box and they’re wearing the shirt with the [team] logo and pulling out the notepad … people say, ‘Man, that looks like a cool job!’

But what they don’t know is that during the week they went to some school in the SEC that had 13 players that you had to write reports on. Well then when you left practice at 5 o’clock, went through rush-hour traffic and drove four or five hours to your next destination, you’re pulling into town late. And maybe you have time — you’re pulling into your hotel at like 10 or 11 o’clock — well, maybe you have time to write three or four reports, and then you’re going to the next SEC school the next morning. You’re getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning after maybe four or five hours of sleep.

Now you have 10 more guys to write from that next SEC school. So you’re doing it all over again the next day, and next thing you know you get to the end of the week — and it’s not like you’ve been lazy or anything. You’re not taking time off or anything. But the logistics and the amount of volume in such a football-dense area like the SEC, now it’s the end of the week and you have like 30 reports that you have to catch up on.

A lot of people don’t see that component of it. Like I don’t think people even think about the area scout being up at 1 o’clock in the morning writing reports in some small-college town, and now he’s backed up. It just happens to everyone. That’s how you learn about the self-discipline and all that stuff being crucial to a road scout. But I think that’s probably the part of the job that might be, if you want to call it, the ‘darker side’ of the business.

Yahoo Sports: Is being a GM a goal for you? Something you aspire to one day?

Brad Holmes: Yeah, it’s always been an ultimate dream of mine. It’s funny, I was having this conversation with my wife, and it’s like, the only reason I’ve gotten to this point in my career now is that I’ve only concentrated on being the best I can be in my role. Whatever that role is at that time.

So I was a scouting assistant, and I tried to be the best scouting assistant. I want to get the coffee the fastest, I want to make the best profile tape possible, and all of that. When I was an area scout, I wanted to be the best at that. You know what I mean? So I never really looked ahead. Opportunities — all of them blessings — have landed on me, and I’ve just kind of earned my way to where I am now.

But when you get to that stage, that’s when you really have to start dialing into preparing [to be a GM] if you’re ever blessed and fortunate enough to be in that chair. That’s an ultimate goal for sure. It takes time and it takes luck, too. You just try to make as much of both as you can with hard work and preparation along the way.

Yahoo Sports: Has there been any big, sweeping changes to how scouting is done that is the biggest difference to when you started?

Brad Holmes: I would probably say — and you’ve probably have heard this a thousand times — but I would say the analytics part of it. That’s probably been the biggest, sweeping development. Not so much that [analytics] make your decisions for you, but that it is a resource that you can utilize and it can help guide some things. It can be a very helpful resource.

I remember when I was first introduced to some of this, and you can call me the old grumpy scout if you want [laughs], and I was maybe a little resistant to some of it. ‘Oh no, I am going to write this down with my pencil!’ and all of that. And I still think to this day it’s about what you’re seeing on film at the end of the day. But the introduction of the analytics as a platform has really taken storm now. It just really has.

Yahoo Sports: That’s always such a fascinating debate — the new school versus the old school in terms of scouting approaches — and who takes stock in what.

Brad Holmes: And I am for it — it’s not something I am against. It’s just really like, ‘Why would you turn down extra information? Why would you ignore data?’ Especially stuff that you can use to help guide you and make a better decision. As scouts, we’re looking for the best information, the best sources to talk to, the best game to watch to get to know the player and evaluate him properly.

The analytics, they’re nothing but help toward that end. And I think that’s been the biggest [evolution to scouting methods] I’ve seen since starting.

Yahoo Sports: So what’s the biggest development to come in scouting? Can you see the future?

Brad Holmes: I am always interested to see what’s next. What’s going to be the next big, sweeping change. The one thing that I always kick around in my head is … what if the process was reversed? I get really into the psychology of the process, and so I kind of look at the process of, OK, you go through the full season and you look at the all-star games and you get to the combine and pro days and all of that. And then you get to the draft.

I am just always thinking, well, what if the process was reversed? Let’s just say we had all of the workouts and the combine stuff first and the last thing you saw was the guy playing football. And then you hop into the draft. You know what I mean?

Yahoo Sports: Absolutely. I’ll be honest, I never really put much thought into it because I suspect the NFL would never do that. But’s it’s certainly fascinating to think what would be different that way.

Brad Holmes: Yeah, I am not sure that ever would happen, but it’s like … how would decisions on players be different? When our last view of a player was on the football field? Because you get to the combine and the guy who runs the 4.3 [40-yard dash], the height-weight-speed guy, he’s the buzz guy. You’re in that moment. But then it’s like, do you remember him playing football? [laughs]

It’s going back to the Cooper Kupp thing. Do you remember him playing football? Maybe that’s why we got him when we did, I don’t know. Now, you have your rare guys. Aaron Donald is a rare guy. He had a rare combine and he’s rare on the football field. Or the center that came out of NC State, [Minnesota Vikings 2019 first-rounder] Garrett Bradbury. Great, great player who had a great combine, too.

The Rams' scouting staff saw plenty of special in Aaron Donald before the 2014 NFL draft (Getty Images).
The Rams' scouting staff saw plenty of special in Aaron Donald before the 2014 NFL draft (Getty Images).

So I am always the guy wondering whether they would ever make any major changes to the process. Would that influence people’s decisions. Because some bias exists — it’s the last thing you saw. A lot of people fall into that cognitive bias: I saw that guy work out last week … or, he just came in for a top-30 visit … you know what I mean? You tend to put more weight on that last thing you saw. It has to have an effect on the draft. I am convinced of it.

That’s why I think you have to have great scouts around you reminding you of that. But this is also an example of how the analytics can help. I’d like to see a study done on this topic. It’s something that I don’t think they’ll ever change with the football season coming around, but it’s fun to reimagine the process sometimes and question the order of it and how we view it all and use it as a tool.

Yahoo Sports: Let’s say you met a 22-year-old version of yourself, the next young Brad Holmes to come along as an aspiring scout, much like how you got to know Wilbert Montgomery. And let’s say they asked you how to get their foot in the door and work their way toward being the next great scout. What would your advice be and what would you need to know about that person to think they can make it?

Brad Holmes: Well, it’s a great question, and there’s no one way to make it into the business. There are so many paths you can take. But I always tell kids — and you mentioned age-22, that’s a different stage of your life — you have to be willing to sacrifice. Are you willing to give up a lot in other parts of your life? Sacrifice should be No. 1 in terms of, say, would you work for free?

This is so much of a competitive industry that there are so many guys out there who would do it for free. Just because they love the game and they have a goal in mind. So that’s why I always ask, are you willing to put in the long hours? It’s not too different from [evaluating] players; it comes down to the work ethic and the determination.

You get requests like that all the time. ‘Man, I just want to be an intern,’ or ‘I want to be a scout.’ But it’s all about whether they truly know what that job entails. Sometimes when they find out what the job entails, they might be turned away from it. Or they might not be as excited about it. It’s like, well, you won’t be going to schools and looking at players. You’ll be in the office doing a bunch of grunt work. A lot of long hours, too.

But I will say I often saw that the goal of kids, that they’re often more willing to put in more time and just give it what they have. The business and the profession has been so magnified, and you talk about events like the Senior Bowl and the combine, where they’ve both grown so big. That’s become the breeding ground of everyone coming there, and you get more exposure to what the job entails.

So the biggest things are the willingness to sacrifice and the love for football. If you really, really love it, you’ll work — no, you’ll grind — through your stuff. But if you don’t truly love love it, then you’re just not going to make it. You’ll be out in Los Angeles picking up a player and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is taking me two hours to get from Thousand Oaks to LAX …’ But if you love it, you really won’t care.

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