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2 biggest losses from Rams staff continue to steamroll the NFC North

How Brad Holmes and Kevin O’Connell are building out their own trees with Lions and Vikings

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

As the Los Angeles Rams return from the bye week at 3-6 and hoping to at least improve upon last season’s 5-12 record, two teams from the NFC North won again in Week 10 and roll towards playoff appearances under the architecture of two men who were previously on the Sean McVay coaching tree and the Les Snead front office...bush? Vine?

I don’t know what you call it for GMs, but I know that Brad Holmes has completely transformed expectations in Detroit and Kevin O’Connell is making miracles happen in Minnesota.

How much do the Rams miss these two football minds?

The last time the Detroit Lions cleaned house in 2021, they hired Brad Holmes as the new general manager after a career that spanned two decades with the Rams. He and head coach Dan Campbell were extended patience through a rebuild and went 3-13-1 in their first season together, ranking 22nd in yards and 29th in yards allowed.

The Lions improved to fourth in total yards (but fell to 32nd in yards allowed) in 2022, finishing 9-8 as Detroit was one of the best teams in the second half of the season.

Now Detroit is 7-2 and leading the NFC North, ranking second in total yards and ninth in yards allowed and coming off of a 41-38 win over the Chargers at SoFi Stadium. Practically the entire roster was turned over in three offseason by Holmes and the Lions have been hitting home runs in the draft like it’s All-Star weekend. It’s the type of first round success that the L.A. Rams will be begging to replicate as Snead prepares to make his first day one pick since Jared Goff (the starting quarterback of those 7-2 Lions) in 2016.

2021 Standouts

1.7 OT Penei Sewell (Top-3 RT in NFL)

3.72 DT Alim McNeill (Emerging star at DT)

4.112 WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (Top-15 WR, at least)

In Holmes trading Matthew Stafford for Goff, two first round picks, and a 2021 third round pick (used on S Ifeatu Melifonwu, who is not one of the standouts mentioned here), the Lions reset their offense and got back to basics. Sewell was good enough to be a first overall pick in some drafts but fell because of the obsession with quarterbacks and offensive weapons that year: An emerging elite offensive tackle (no sacks allowed in 2023), Sewell went after names like Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Kyle Pitts.

An elite offensive tackle is arguably the best move that Snead could make for the Rams in the 2024 draft.

Not only did Holmes land the steal of the first round, he also landed the steal of the entire draft by getting Amon-Ra St. Brown out of USC in the fourth. St. Brown had 156 yards against the Chargers in Week 10, his sixth game out of eight this season with at least 100 yards. He has 261 catches and 2,894 yards in 41 career games and is on pace for over 1,600 yards this season.

McNeill has not emerged as a star yet but could make his first Pro Bowl this year and has four sacks as an interior defensive lineman.

2022 Standouts

1.2 DE Aidan Hutchinson (Emerging Edge)

3.97 S Kerby Joseph (14.1 passer rating allowed)

6.188 OLB James Houston (8 sacks in 7 games as rookie)

It says something that the Lions have basically gotten nothing out of 12th overall pick Jameson Williams and yet continue to have so much potential in last year’s draft class. Williams was destined for a slow start after tearing his ACL in college, catching just one pass as a rookie, but then he was suspended for gambling related offenses in 2023. In five games, Williams has caught only eight passes for 89 yards, but did lay a key block on a 75-yard touchdown by David Montgomery in Week 10.

What gets maybe lost in Holmes’ record is how well he’s done with day two defensive back picks. Joseph has interceptions in each of the last two games and he has allowed a passer rating of only 14.7 on 21 throws at him so far this season.

Hutchinson’s sack numbers don’t tell the story of a player you expect to go second overall, he has 4.5 in nine games and none since Week 5, but he’s one of the most productive edge rushers in the NFL who is 25 or younger (Hutchinson is 23).

Add linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, Williams, and Houston (who is out for the year) and Lions have lottery tickets left from the 2022 draft class.

When the Rams leave the 2024 draft, they’ll be lucky to have 3 cornerstones for the defense. The team got a few pieces on offense with Steve Avila and Puka Nacua this year, but must keep adding help to the front seven and secondary.

2023 Standouts

1.12 RB Jahmyr Gibbs (Top-10 RB already)

2.34 TE Sam LaPorta (Top-10 TE already)

2.45 DB Brian Branch (Standout Safety/Nickel)

Like with Jameson Williams, the Lions have another first round pick in this class who has yet to really contribute, that being linebacker Jack Campbell. (Williams, Gibbs, and Melifonwu would really be the three players that the Lions drafted because of the Stafford trade.)

After being slowly worked into the offense, Gibbs is stealing snaps from starter Montgomery and in the last three games has 51 carries for 297 yards (5.8 YPC), 4 TD, and 17 catches for 130 yards. Those are Todd Gurley numbers.

Not a good look for the “Running backs don’t matter crowd” because even if De’Von Achane and Keaton Mitchell are stealing some spotlight, it’s hard to criticize the Lions for the weapon they have in Gibbs; Achane, Mitchell, and Gibbs were the 3 fastest running backs at the combine, so speed probably matters.

LaPorta is one of the top receiving tight ends in football already. He has 47 catches for 474 yards and four touchdowns. Only T.J. Hockenson (traded by Holmes), Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Mark Andrews have more yards.

Branch has been more hit and miss but seems like one of the best defensive backs out of the class thus far.

The Lions also picked quarterback Hendon Hooker in the third, one of the only rookie QBs we haven’t seen play a snap this season. Who knows, he could end up as a starter eventually and Holmes’ track record clearly shows we shouldn’t be surprised if he does.

Was Holmes a key ingredient to L.A.’s draft record?

When you see picks like Amon-Ra St. Brown in round 4, it’s not hard to connect a dot to Cooper Kupp in round 3. Luckily for Snead’s team, he can boast Puka Nacua in round 5, a day 3 win that the Rams truly needed after watching Holmes’ build the Lions from the ground up as L.A. was unfortunately parting ways with so many day two and day three picks of late.

The Rams will have their most important draft in the better part of a decade when they are on the clock in 2024. So it’s vital that Snead leave the first round with someone like Penei Sewell or even Jahmyr Gibbs or Sam LaPorta. That’s when the name of Brad Holmes could be invoked again simply because he might really be the best GM of the past three years.

Not just for draft’s sake.

Notable free agents including David Montgomery, who leads the NFL with 83.5 rushing yards per game and who has scored seven touchdowns in his six appearances. The duo of him and Gibbs could help lead Detroit through a postseason run for the ages.

That is unless the Minnesota Vikings have something to say about it.

I’ve already written about Kevin O’Connell as arguably the biggest loss of the McVay era, but since then the legend has only grown.

Despite starting the season 1-4 and then losing Kirk Cousins to a torn Achilles in Week 8, the Vikings have won five straight games and sit in the driver’s seat for a wild card berth at 6-4. The fact that Minnesota is winning with Josh Dobbs, a quarterback who has been traded twice in the last three months, only increases the odds that O’Connell will win Coach of the Year.

Don’t count your eggs before they hatch, but the Vikings next three games are against the Broncos, Bears, and Raiders, all winnable contests that could have Minnesota at 9-4 going into a home stretch that includes playing the Lions twice in the last three weeks.

In two games for O’Connell, and without star receiver Justin Jefferson, Dobbs has completed 67% of his passes with 3 TD, 0 INT, a 101.4 passer rating, and 110 rushing yards with two more touchdowns. Dobbs is doing more than “just enough”, he’s commanding a short-handed offense and giving Minnesota reason to believe that they can still compete without Cousins.

It should make Rams fans wonder, “Why didn’t Snead and McVay think of this first?” given the absences of Matthew Stafford in 2022 and 2023, in addition to the horrendous backup situation that L.A. has endured for so long.

What’s next for L.A. Rams?

Soul searching.

It’s important for the Rams not to look at the past and wonder, “What if?” but to focus the present and wonder “What works?” Because of L.A.’s success, the Rams have lost a relatively high number of assistant coaches to promotions and steals, and then had to watch Holmes leave because there was no more moving up in this front office. Holmes knew what worked in L.A. and also had an idea of what didn’t and he’s perfecting that strategy with the Lions.

Similarly, when the Rams lose an assistant coach to a head coaching job, like O’Connell or Zac Taylor, they often also lose other assistants to promotions, like Minnesota offensive coordinator Wes Phillips.

If the Rams are going to keep moving forward in 2024 with Snead and McVay, which they almost certainly are, then what components under them work and which do not? There’s only so much you can do to keep your best people obviously, now it’s up to the Rams to figure out if they have the best people.