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The Rams’ Risky Bet Redefines the Cost of Doing Business in the NFL

L.A. is all in. Again. Trading two first-round picks for Jalen Ramsey is a high-wire act of roster-building by a contender that hasn’t been seen in a long time.

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Two years ago, an NFL general manager broke down the way teams view transactions in a manner that has stuck with me ever since: “I can distinctly remember the days when it was almost every year, you had to let people go because of money,” the GM said for a piece I wrote about the rising salary cap. “Nowadays, I don’t ever remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh, we’re up against the books here.’”

The general manager who said that was Les Snead, the team was the Rams, and I had no idea at the time how far they would follow this line of thinking. It has been about 18 months since the Rams were considered to be “all in,” a shorthand for doing everything you can to maximize your immediate window to win. Privately, members of the Rams organization didn’t like that characterization. They thought they had a longer window of contention and a little more flexibility to make future moves than the media portrayed. This week, the Rams proved they were right to push back against that narrative: They weren’t all in on their short-term window last season. They are now. And they are taking an even bigger risk than last year.

It is not an exaggeration to say the Rams’ trade for Jalen Ramsey is the biggest risk an NFL team has taken this decade. It almost has to be, by definition: Only a handful of players in the salary cap era, which began in 1994, have been traded for two first-round picks. Add in the big contracts the Rams already have on the books, and this is a high-wire act of roster-building by a contender that hasn’t been seen in a long time. Before the Ramsey deal, people around the league told me the Rams’ moves over the past two years were more conventional than they seemed. Yes, they added a lot of big names: Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, among others. They were interested in Odell Beckham Jr. They traded a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks. These moves were made to maximize their roster while Jared Goff was still on his cheap rookie contract—before he was given a mega-extension. It’s no different, in theory, to what the Chiefs or Browns are currently doing with their rosters, or what the Eagles did when Carson Wentz was on a cheap deal.

At an NFL owners’ meeting last year, an owner joked that his coach kept griping because his team couldn’t afford to keep adding great players—unlike the Rams, who had the benefit of not paying their quarterback a lot of money. The owner said he told his coach that one day, the Rams would have to operate as they do. Well, we found out this week that this isn’t true—at least not yet. Goff signed a four-year, $134 million deal last month that featured the most guaranteed money in history. The deal won’t even kick in until next season. Next year, the team will spend nearly 60 percent of its cap on seven players, which doesn’t include Ramsey’s fifth-year option or potential extension. The Rams were aggressive when they had Goff on a rookie deal. That’s normal. They kept the same level of aggressiveness when they stopped having a rookie-deal quarterback. That’s not normal.

This is not to say this strategy can’t work. One of the teams that traded two firsts for a “missing piece” was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who did so for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson in 2000. The Bucs won the Super Bowl two years later (it was a weird era; don’t worry about it). The Bears likely don’t regret trading two firsts for pass rusher Khalil Mack last year. The Saints have been as aggressive as any team in the league when they feel they need a player. Some teams view the salary cap as a credit card, and New Orleans has enjoyed maxing out that credit card at times. The difference is that the Saints have hit on a ton of cheap talent: They would not be at the top of the NFC right now without draft picks Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, and Michael Thomas to balance out their big contracts, led by quarterback Drew Brees.

The Rams have no such elite talent on rookie deals unless you count Ramsey, who is about to be very expensive. Again, this doesn’t mean their strategy is foolish; it’s just different and bold. What makes it riskier is that the Rams were not a desperate team. The Texans traded two first-round picks to the Dolphins for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil last month because they couldn’t protect Deshaun Watson, and head coach Bill O’Brien looked like he might get fired at some point if that continued. That’s desperation. The Rams made the Super Bowl eight months ago, are 3-3 this season, and still have a ton of talent. They made this trade because they wanted to, not because they had to. That is unusual in the NFL. Add in the fact that the Rams’ problems seem to be their offensive line, or, perhaps, Goff’s recent play, and you’ve got more questions than answers about the move.

At last year’s Super Bowl, I asked Rams COO and vice president Kevin Demoff about the contrast between the Rams, an aggressive team, and the Patriots, who play the long game. “The odds are that the Patriots will never be duplicated again,” Demoff said. I agree. The long game is easier when you have both the best coach and quarterback in history and can apply basic economic principles—don’t overpay to acquire anyone, get value for every move you make—to make the Super Bowl every year. “I think in the sports world right now, there’s been, whether it’s the tanking phenomenon or the draft-pick phenomenon, everyone wants this really long window,” Demoff told me, “and you can’t be afraid to raise your hand and say, ‘You know what? This happened a little faster than we thought.’”

Demoff and Snead are remarkably smart people. Sean McVay is one of the best coaches in the sport. Because of this, I think there’s a chance the Rams could be great for a long time. Having said that, there’s a lot of evidence that having draft picks is a good thing.

As a result of trades to acquire Goff, Cooks, and Ramsey, and after trading down last year, Los Angeles will go five years without a first-round pick. That’s remarkable in a league in which conventional wisdom dictates first-round picks are as valuable as they’ve ever been. The Rams’ recent success means that these picks arrive late in the first round and that Goff, Cooks, and Ramsey are on the roster, so you can’t call any of the trades total washouts. But these deals are—or will be—expensive. ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported there was no deal in place for a Ramsey extension, which gives him the same leverage Tunsil has in Houston: A team traded two first-round picks for him, betting the future of their franchise on his production. In both cases, it would be embarrassing for the general manager if the player left in free agency. This, of course, does not actually apply to Houston because they don’t have a general manager. The other difference is that the Rams, unlike the Texans, are riding a wave of goodwill. They made the Super Bowl last year and their coach is McVay, whose schemes have painted over whatever deficiencies the roster has had over the past three seasons.

A move that now seems buried is that the Rams shipped cornerback Marcus Peters off to Baltimore shortly before acquiring Ramsey. Look at the value that Baltimore, already the gods of compensatory picks, have added in trades:

Draft picks do not guarantee success. If the aim is to get elite talent, no matter the cost, then paying a premium for those players with draft picks is a sound strategy. The Patriots and Eagles have both cornered the market on pick-for-player trades this decade and have shown a willingness to get aggressive with trades when needed. But they also, you know, actually use their first-round selections.

Thirty years ago this month, the Dallas Cowboys traded superstar running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for a haul of draft picks. The long-term effects of this trade are well known: The Cowboys built a dynasty with the picks and won three Super Bowls in the 1990s. Less discussed is what happened immediately after the trade, when Walker made his debut, exactly 30 years ago Tuesday: He was awesome. “I have to say I’m glad he’s here,” Vikings coach Jerry Burns told reporters after Walker gained 98 yards on his first two touches and gained 148 yards on 18 carries. Walker, according to the Associated Press, “helped the Vikings forget a decade of frustration” against their hated rival, the Packers. If only they knew what the next decade would look like: The Cowboys built one of the best rosters in the history of the sport, the Packers won a Super Bowl, and Walker was gone at the end of 1991.

It is almost impossible to judge an NFL trade before all the pieces have been put into place: The Jaguars look like they won this trade, but if Ramsey helps make the Rams better than the Seahawks and Niners this year, the world will feel differently. If that happens, however, and one of the Jaguars’ selections becomes a generational talent, the trade will swing back to Jacksonville. There is really no use evaluating the deal until we know what all the pieces look like.

It is more notable to say what this means for the league: It is another example of a superstar leaving town because he wants to. Beckham’s relationship with the Giants deteriorated, and the Browns were happy to have him. When Antonio Brown wanted to leave Pittsburgh, and then Oakland, he got his wish. There are a lot of comparisons between what is happening in the NFL and what happened in the NBA—the so-called player-empowerment era. There are a few huge differences: The first is that in the NBA, superstars are the barrier for entry to compete for a title. If you don’t have one, you can’t win a title. The only players like that in football are quarterbacks, and none of them have been traded like that lately. The second difference is that if a team wanted to keep a superstar in the NFL, they could. The franchise tag and unfair rookie contracts can keep a player, in theory, under team control for eight years. The Jaguars traded Ramsey not because he wanted out, but because he wanted out and a team was willing to give two firsts for him.

So what happens now? General managers could act differently in the future. If superstars get traded regularly like this, as Pro Football Focus’s Mike Renner points out, overpaying for a star could become a quick and easy way for a GM to maintain job security for a few extra years (this description would not apply to Snead, who has great job security). But teams might look for this sort of shot in the arm for a franchise. Like drafting a quarterback, it’s an effective tactic for a GM to tack a few years onto his tenure.

Will these trades by the Rams, and the Texans before them, make the NFL a more aggressive place? Probably. It sets the market for what stars are worth when teams want to get them. It shows what it takes to be a contender in the NFL. When the Rams get Ramsey, does another NFC West team try to get Bengals receiver A.J. Green? The future of the NFL probably consists of increasingly risky bets. The Rams are all in. Again. Who else will be?