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The Rams Won the Super Bowl by Swinging Big, but Smaller Moves Matter

Splashy trades will make Los Angeles a spectator in the early rounds of the draft. But it’s the Rams’ work in later rounds that made their championship recipe possible.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Los Angeles Rams, as you may know, have not picked in the first round of the NFL draft since 2016 and are not set to do so again until 2024. If that holds, they will become the second team since the merger (Washington has done it twice) not to pick in the first round in a seven-year span. Clearly, most clubs are hesitant to follow their lead by trading away picks for proven players as the Rams have done in recent years. But flags fly forever, and championships draw the attention of competitors who wonder what lessons they can learn from the team that reached the podium.

Speaking of podiums, if one takes the T-shirt Rams general manager Les Snead wore while addressing fans at the team’s championship parade last week at face value, the lesson is simple: “F*** Them Picks.”

“The model is working,” Snead said via Zoom the week before the Super Bowl. “It’s allowing us to consistently win games, consistently contend for the NFC West. We’ll try to use our picks in an innovative, creative way and sometimes it will be picking players in the draft and sometimes it will be using them to go acquire players.”

Trade every draft pick for proven veterans, mortgage the future, win a Super Bowl, and make snow angels in the confetti. Sounds great.

Only that’s not a reasonable lesson for teams to take away from the Rams’ Super Bowl–winning roster. Los Angeles made big trades, but it also had built-in advantages like a good coaching staff, an attractive location, and shiny new facilities that helped entice veterans like Matthew Stafford and Von Miller, who had some sway in determining their next location. Critically, they also had homegrown talent like Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp and a strong foundation in place before those trade targets were acquired. Without those elements, a team following a similar strategy of trading first-round picks in bulk could set itself back for years.

So there’s no lesson. Hats off to the Rams, but without the power to clone Sean McVay and move Hollywood to Cleveland, it’s best to mimic more pragmatic strategies. Nothing to see here.

Only that’s not quite it either, because there’s a piece of the Rams’ team-building strategy that’s both highly practical and highly replicable. It has to do with the trades Snead made to build his Super Bowl roster, but it’s more about who he traded for, as opposed to how much he gave up.

The players that the Rams acquired by trading their 2017-2023 first-round picks are: Jared Goff, Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey, and Matthew Stafford. Other players that Los Angeles traded for meaningful draft capital during that time frame include cornerback Marcus Peters and edge rushers Dante Fowler Jr. and Von Miller.

From that list, only Ramsey, Stafford, and Miller played for the Rams in Super LVI (though Goff, Cooks, Peters, and Fowler started for the Rams in Super Bowl LIII), but what do all of these players have in common? Quarterbacks, receivers, cornerbacks, and pass rushers. Also known as the four highest-value positions in the NFL, going by 2021 franchise tag numbers. Yes, the Rams go “all in,” but there’s a difference between going all in on quarterbacks and receivers instead of guards and safeties. Los Angeles’s bets are risky because of how big they are, but some of that risk is mitigated because the Rams have made them only on players at the most valuable positions in the sport. And using positional value as a North Star is a takeaway that’s scalable to any team, even those that aren’t willing to part with the better part of a decade’s worth of first-round picks.

“I feel like in a lot of instances, we have been the better team going into the game and how you play in that window dictates and determines whether you win,” McVay said in his postgame press conference. “I’m just really pleased to be associated with a group that is not afraid to shoot their shot and take chances on things we feel like is in the best interest of the football team. There are a lot of eyes rolled at us, but we believe in those things and we’re going to do the things that we think are in the best interest.”

There are—and I hope you’re sitting down for this—players on the Rams’ roster who play other positions beyond the costly ones we’ve discussed thus far. So, where do they come from? The answer may shock you because, for many of them, it’s the draft. Yes, while the Rams have sat out the first round for years, they’re actually a fairly active participant in the draft most years. Teams start out with seven draft picks and, in the 10 drafts Snead has run for the Rams, Los Angeles has picked an average of 8.8 times. The Rams often can’t be major players in free agency—they have been in the bottom 10 teams in free-agent spending in each of the past four offseasons and second-to-last twice—because they trade for players like Stafford who are on big contracts or for ones like Ramsey who get big contracts after being traded, so they need the draft to supplement their roster. And one silver lining of Los Angeles’s aggressive trading tendencies is that they don’t impact the compensatory pick formula the way that signing big-ticket free agents would, so the Rams tend to wind up with extra picks in later rounds. Snead oversees a 26-person personnel department, which is relatively large for an NFL team. The Athletic found that the average franchise employs 21 people in personnel; the Rams’ Super Bowl opponents, the Bengals, employ a league-low eight. You thought the Rams scouts lived like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, but really, they’re more Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street. Revolutions, you follow?

That’s where players like linebacker Ernest Jones (third round, 2021), running back Cam Akers (second round, 2020), and receiver Van Jefferson (second round, 2020) came from. They traded for running back Sony Michel, but sent only a fourth- and a sixth-round pick to the Patriots for a player whom New England picked in the first round three drafts ago. The Rams draft for volume in later rounds and, often, that’s where they address their needs for non-premium positions.

Los Angeles currently holds its own fifth- and seventh-round picks, another seventh-rounder acquired via trade, and is projected to add a third-round pick, a fourth-round pick and three sixth-round picks via the compensatory formula in the upcoming draft. Priorities are likely to be finding an offensive tackle to replace Andrew Whitworth once he retires or potentially Rob Havenstein once he hits free agency in 2023, as well as adding depth at outside cornerback and searching for impact defensive linemen given the uncertainty around Donald and Miller. There will be good players the Rams would probably like to draft but won’t be able to because they don’t have high enough picks, but they will be able to draft more than one player at key positions if they want to.

The “all in” parts of Los Angeles’s team-building strategy require confidence that can even start to seem like hubris, but drafting for volume and emphasizing positional value are two practices used by teams that recognize that the draft is always a bit of a crapshoot. Multiple studies have shown that, over time, there hasn’t been one team or another that has shown it consistently drafts better than its competitors. According to a Bleacher Report study of first-round picks from the 1986 to 2010 draft classes, those players had between a 30 percent and 51 percent chance of making at least one Pro Bowl in their careers, depending on the position they played. There’s a way to look at the Rams’ strategy and see arrogance, but there’s another way to see it as having the humility to know that outperforming expectations in the draft is an unrealistic goal. That strategy is reflected by the Rams’ tendencies to trade high picks for proven veterans only at premium positions and to fill out the rest of the roster by drafting for volume at others. And that’s a lesson that’s applicable for any team in the NFL.