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The Rams Are the Most Fascinating Team-Building Experiment in the NFL

After trading multiple draft picks and Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford on Saturday night, L.A. may go seven years without a first-round selection. That strategy hasn’t been seen since the 1980s—but can it work in the modern NFL?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL offseason hasn’t even officially begun, but the Rams have already gotten a jump start on their annual tradition of trading away draft picks. On Saturday night, the Rams dealt first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, a third-round pick in 2021, and quarterback Jared Goff to the Lions for Matthew Stafford.

The Rams reportedly outbid about a third of the league’s teams in order to acquire Stafford, which is impressive considering L.A. already had a mostly empty cupboard of high draft picks, and the team had to make the deal sweet enough to convince the Lions to take on Goff’s gargantuan contract. That the Rams put forth the best offer is a testament to just how high of a risk tolerance L.A. has compared to every other franchise in the league, and how all-in the team is.

Looking just at the headliners of this trade—Stafford and Goff—the deal makes a lot of sense for the Rams. Goff looked like a star in 2017 and 2018, when the Rams offense ranked sixth and second in DVOA, respectively. Goff led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt in 2017, then put up a similar number in 2018. He made the Pro Bowl twice—one time more than Stafford has made it in his 12-year career—and despite a down finish to the 2018 season, the Rams paid him like a superstar that offseason.

But as the Rams shuffled players on offense and the offensive line slipped from the best in the league to merely above average, Goff declined. Turnovers stifled Sean McVay’s group, and it became clear that the coach was trying to hide Goff’s deficiencies with screen plays and dump-off passes. Goff went deep on just 7.8 percent of his passes this season, per Pro Football Focus, ranking 37th out of 39 qualified passers in deep pass percentage. He had two interceptions and just three touchdown passes on those throws. These problems were on full display in this year’s divisional round playoff game, when Goff didn’t attempt a single throw that traveled beyond 20 yards.

Stafford, on the other hand, is a deep-ball expert, and someone the Rams believe can open up this offense. The longtime Lion has never been afraid to push the ball downfield—he went deep on 12.7 percent of his throws in 2020, the 11th-highest mark in the league. And he’s good on deep throws, too, tossing seven touchdowns to zero picks on such plays.

Stafford has a long history of dragging the Lions to respectability, and he could also be a stabilizing force that pushes the Rams forward rather than holding them back. He’s led the league in game-winning drives three times over the course of his career, including 2016 when he led Detroit on an incredible eight game-winning drives. And the three playoff appearances the Lions have had under Stafford marks the team’s best stretch since Barry Sanders’s heyday. Stafford reportedly wanted to play with McVay, and McVay reportedly wanted to coach Stafford. It could be the perfect marriage. Stafford gets dropped into the best situation of his career, benefiting from an offensive savant who should be able to create a scheme that plays to the QB’s strengths. And McVay gets a proven passer who can add a downfield element to the Rams offense. Both sides finally have what they’ve been missing.

Of course, the deal comes with considerable risk thanks to the draft picks the Rams are trading away. On the whole, two first-rounders and a third-rounder isn’t too expensive to upgrade at quarterback and get rid of a burdensome contract (though the Rams will have to wait to benefit from any cap relief, as they are eating $22.2 million in dead cap this season). But when you zoom out and consider the move along with other trades that have left the Rams without a first-round pick since 2016, it shows that L.A. believes it can whip together a contending team with a few star players and virtually no highly drafted rookies. That makes the Rams’ team-building strategy a rarity in the modern NFL—and the most fascinating philosophy of any franchise in the league.

Los Angeles general manager Les Snead appears to be making a bet that first-round picks are overvalued, and given his history, it’s easy to see where this belief comes from.

Snead was hired by the Rams in 2012, and his first big move was to trade the no. 2 overall pick in that draft—used on Robert Griffin III—to Washington for three first-round selections and a second-rounder. Yet despite the fact that Snead worked as a scout for nearly two decades before becoming the Rams GM, he turned those picks—many of which he subsequently traded—into little lasting value. The best player the team got out of that deal was defensive lineman Michael Brockers, who remains on the Rams today but has never blossomed into a star.

Seattle Seahawks v Los Angeles Rams
Jared Goff
Harry How/Getty Images

In the years since that trade, Snead has pivoted to the exact opposite approach. It began in 2016, when Los Angeles essentially made the RGIII trade in reverse, dealing two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and two third-rounders to the Titans for the no. 1 overall pick—used on Goff—and a couple of late-rounders. Then, Snead began dealing picks for proven veterans. In 2017, the team sent a second-round selection to the Bills for Sammy Watkins. In 2018, they traded a first-round pick to the Patriots for Brandin Cooks. That same year, they also traded a second-round pick to the Chiefs for Marcus Peters, and a third-round pick to the Jaguars for Dante Fowler. Most of these players appeared in Super Bowl LIII; none of them will be on the team in 2021.

Since that Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, the Rams have refreshed their personnel, but not their team-building philosophy. In 2019, L.A. dealt multiple first-round picks to Jacksonville for cornerback Jalen Ramsey. And now the team has started 2021 by trading away multiple firsts once again.

There’s little precedent for this kind of strategy. L.A.’s last first-round pick was the Goff selection in 2016, and after this trade, they will not have another first-round pick until 2024. Barring a trade back into the first round, the Rams will go seven drafts without a top-32 pick. That’s a drought that has almost never been seen before. Here are the longest first-round pick droughts in NFL history:

  • Washington, 1969-1979 (11 drafts)
  • Washington, 1984-1990 (seven drafts)
  • Rams, 2017-2023? (seven drafts, potentially)
  • Eagles, 1974-78 (five drafts)
  • Raiders, 1976-79 (four drafts)
  • Vikings, 1989-1992 (four drafts)

These are the only teams in league history that have been without a first-round pick for four consecutive drafts, and it’s notable that all of those stretches predated the salary cap era, except for the Rams. The only real precedent for Los Angeles is Washington, which has both of the longest droughts. It’s astonishing: Washington didn’t make a single first-round pick in the 1970s, and then turned around in the mid-1980s and punted on another seven drafts in a row. And yet, that period was a golden age for Washington football.

You’re probably wondering how that happened, and the story could help explain Snead’s thinking. In the early 1970s, Washington head coach George Allen—the father of Bruce, the Washington GM who made the RGIII trade—was notorious for dealing draft picks. He dealt so many picks that his starters had an average age of 31 and his teams were nicknamed the Over-the-Hill Gang. Allen even occasionally traded the same picks twice, before the NFL caught on and stopped him. This strategy worked. In Allen’s seven seasons from 1971 to 1977, the team made the playoffs five times, appeared in the Super Bowl once, and never had a losing record.

Washington fired Allen in January 1978, in part because owner Edward Bennett Williams wanted more control over personnel, and Williams was worried that Allen’s win-now approach would hurt the long-term future of the franchise. But that didn’t really happen. New general manager Bobby Beathard, who had the job until 1988, kept trading first-round picks and built a dynasty. Washington won Super Bowls in 1982, 1987, and 1991. By the time coach Joe Gibbs was lifting his third Lombardi Trophy, the team had made just four first-round picks in the past 23 drafts—an entire generation by NFL standards.

The question for the Rams is whether this same approach can work in the modern NFL. When asked that question in 2016, Beathard said he didn’t know. “I think people think first-round draft choices are so valuable, and I always looked at it as they were valuable, it depended on what the rest of the draft was like,” Beathard explained. “If it was a great draft filled with players in later rounds after the first round, I was certainly willing to trade down. It wasn’t because of the money that was given to a first-round player.”

Since Beathard’s days in charge, the league instituted a salary cap in 1994, and a rookie wage scale in 2011. Those two changes combined to make first-round picks more valuable than they ever were in the 1970s and ‘80s, at least in theory. And no team knows this better than the Lions.

A little over a decade ago, Detroit hit on three first-round picks: Stafford in 2009, Ndamukong Suh in 2010, and Calvin Johnson in 2007. That core could have made Detroit a perennial playoff contender, but the cap hits of those three stars limited the Lions’ ability to build a competent roster around them. Stafford signed a whopping six-year, $72 million contract in 2009, and his average annual value of $12 million accounted for 9.8 percent of the cap that season. The next year, Suh (five years, $64.5 million) accounted for 10.5 percent of the cap (well, roughly—2010 was a weird uncapped year). In 2007, Johnson (six years, $55 million) accounted for 8.4 percent. For context, 2020 no. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow signed a four-year, $36 million deal—that’s just 4.5 percent of the now $198.2 million cap.

With the rookie wage scale depressing the salaries of the league’s youngest players, first-round picks should be more important than ever. Look over the rosters of many of the league’s best squads, and you’ll see a sort of “stars and rookies” strategy. A handful of players get paid, and teams fill out the rest of the roster with cheap young guys. The Rams have the stars now, but they’ll need to nail their late-round selections to fill out the roster with the type of young, cheap talent teams need to stay in contention.

The risk is enormous. The Rams surely believe that the picks they are trading will be late first-rounders, given how competitive the team is, but there is no guarantee that the wheels won’t fall off in the near future. Washington surely didn’t think that one of the future first-round picks it traded to the Rams for RGIII would end up being the no. 2 overall pick, but that’s exactly what happened when the team went 3-13 in 2013. In a way, the cost paid to acquire Stafford has been astronomical:

The Rams are either taking NFL roster-building into the future, or taking it 50 years back in time. Whether it’ll work remains to be seen. But if the Rams are even half as successful as those Washington teams of the 1970s and ‘80s, it’ll be a stunning success.