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The Rams Keep Carving Their Own Path in the NFL Roster Arms Race

Draft picks, be damned: Los Angeles traded two 2022 picks for Broncos pass rusher Von Miller. Is this reckless short-term thinking? Or a novel roster-building strategy more teams should consider? 

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few years after Nick Saban left the NFL, he explained he simply did not like the professional game because he realized he could not control his own destiny. There is a draft, there’s free agency, and there’s a lot of luck involved and far too many unknowns and variables for a man with such a deep hatred of unknowns and variables. Earlier this season, Saban referred to the score of the game as an “external factor.” He is a man who believes in executing exactly what is in front of him. He could not control his own destiny in the NFL, so he left for a place where he could, and he has.

I am bringing this up because there is a team that has found a way to do the closest thing to controlling your own destiny in a sport in which that’s not supposed to be possible. They are the Los Angeles Rams and they have now traded five 2022 draft picks for NFL veterans. On Monday, they traded a second- and third-round pick for seven-time All-Pro pass rusher Von Miller. It was a typical Rams move: Very few people saw it coming, but once it was reported the Rams had given up a few draft picks for an established player, it checked out. Of their own current crop of picks in 2022, not counting compensatory picks, the Rams’ first selection will come in the fifth round. It is a good life to be a Rams college scout.

Von Miller is not the best pass rusher in the NFL. He is not, as Aaron Donald or Jalen Ramsey are, among the best at his position. But he has 28 pressures and five sacks this season, ranking tied for 19th in the NFL in each category. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s tied for 12th in pass rush win rate. The Rams defense evolved from Broncos coach Vic Fangio’s scheme. Miller will not be an MVP candidate in Los Angeles, as quarterback Matthew Stafford is, but he’ll help the 7-1 Rams, who already have one of the most talented defenses in football. This trade might be an overpay (the Rams are likely giving up more partly because the Broncos are eating most of Miller’s salary) but it could also take them to a Super Bowl from an unusually stacked NFC.

More than anything to do with Miller and how much he has left, though, I’m intrigued by what the move means about team-building in 2021. Through the years, I’ve come to learn how few teams are trying to win a championship each season. A few years ago, a smart NFL person estimated that only 10 or so teams were actively trying to win the Super Bowl in any given season. San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan said on the Flying Coach podcast the number is about five, and that the other teams are trying to survive. In his new book on the Patriots dynasty, It’s Better to Be Feared, Seth Wickersham writes that Jimmy Johnson told Bill Belichick that if you just get out of the way, 20 teams will remove themselves from competition. Job preservation, saving some money, and not doing anything too weird that’ll get you noticed are guiding principles in many front offices. This trade might be the new normal for the 12 or so teams that haven’t removed themselves from competition. This is what trying to win looks like in 2021, and it applies not just to the Rams, but to every team trying to have a Super Bowl roster.

It’s simplistic to say the Rams are all in. They were branded all in in 2018, and have been every subsequent year. They’ve never taken their chips out of the pot—it’s how they operate. I think they’ve done what Saban dreamed of doing: They know what they are getting in almost every transaction. This tactic has been tried before—George Allen’s Washington teams in the 1970s were built on picks-for-players trades. Incredibly, he once traded the same picks twice and made the playoffs with the players acquired from the transactions before anyone noticed (the team was later fined for trading “bogus” picks). But the Rams are unique in the modern NFL. Draft picks have become a precious commodity, increasingly so after the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that made rookie contracts cost-controlled and cheap. Rookies became the biggest bargain in the sport even if they were still inexperienced and unknowns.

The Rams have decided to bet big on experience and knowns. They have removed a layer of doubt from player acquisition, swapping picks for established players. They are paying a historically steep price for this strategy: They haven’t selected in the first round since 2016 and have traded away several more picks in later rounds. By prioritizing veterans, the Rams have built a roster with several players on lucrative deals—seven Rams average more than $10 million a year and six make more than $15 million, and this group does not include Miller, who is in the last few weeks of a $114 million deal he signed in 2016. The Broncos are paying almost all of the remaining $9.7 million that Miller is still owed from that deal, making the Rams’ cap cost almost nothing. This helps explain why a player like Miller, who is a few months from free agency, costs as much (or more) in draft capital as some better players.

“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, and you can’t be afraid to raise your hand and say, ‘You know what, this happened a little faster than we thought,’” Rams executive Kevin Demoff told me in 2019, just before his team played New England in the Super Bowl. Demoff told me that night that he thinks winning is the ultimate competitive advantage—what he means by that is the Patriots were helped along by players who wanted to play in a winning environment and would take less to do so.

This trade is not just about the Rams; it’s about the cost of doing business in the NFL and the barrier for entry to compete. I’ve long been obsessed with the “all in” phenomenon and what it means for team-building. Chiefs GM Brett Veach once told me that teams have to be what’s considered by most as “all in” every single year. It makes sense: Teams that are competing for championships are getting more aggressive. The salary cap, which exploded in the past decade before flattening in the past two years, will spike again later this decade. Big swings are the future, not an outlier. The NFL prevents stars from reaching true free agency with the franchise tag—you’ll never see Jalen Ramsey or Matthew Stafford hitting the open market in their prime—so picks-for-players trades are as good a strategy as any to acquire players of that caliber.

There is a type of arrogance in teams that think they can out-draft their competition. Over time, very few teams have been better at drafting than the average team. There are two ways to combat this: The strategy employed by the Sashi Brown–era Browns or, in a smaller window, the Miami Dolphins of the past few years, who collected as many picks as possible, trading back and taking more swings. Or, do what the Rams have done and don’t pick at all. There are many ways to build an NFL team—the Patriots ruled the draft by trading back and crushing after the first round. The Chiefs drafted most of their core but still trade firsts for established starters. There is no guaranteed path to success. The only thing you can say for certain about this Rams team is that if someone told you this trade was made and no one told you the teams involved, you’d have guessed the Rams were the team trading the picks.

This might start a mini–arms race in advance of the trade deadline as talented NFC teams look for help. Or it might be confirmation that no one is quite as aggressive as the Rams. But it is a sign of things to come. There is, as Over the Cap’s Jason Fitzgerald wrote Monday, no reason for teams to wait for the offseason to make these sorts of trades. “If you are a playoff contender there is zero reason to wait until the next year to make a trade in the offseason or to overpay in free agency when there is so much fluctuation year to year in the NFL. Take the opportunity if it presents itself when you know you are good and that is what the Rams did here and continue to do,” Fitzgerald wrote. The Rams, in short, decided to control their own destiny.