NFL teams have spent the past six months reshaping their rosters and now, finally, the 2022 regular season is nearly upon us. But which teams have truly pushed all their pieces to the middle of the table and are ready to make a serious run to Super Bowl LVII? Welcome to The Ringer’s All In Week, where we’ll examine the quarterback moves, team-building philosophies, and gambles that teams have made to compete for a championship and determine what it truly means to be all in.
We wouldn’t be doing All In Week here at The Ringer if not for the Rams’ triumph in Super Bowl LVI—a win which served as a nice “eff you” moment for a front office that has been maligned and meme-ified over the years for its supposedly reckless methods of roster building. The Rams famously haven’t made a first-round pick since the Obama administration. And unlike most NFL teams, this one doesn’t play games when negotiating new deals for its star players, opting to pay top dollar to keep its roster intact and avoid contentious, drawn-out negotiations.
Unsurprisingly, then, when we calculated our “All In-dex”—a metric that measures how much draft capital a team has in reserve over the next few years and how much cash is being spent on the roster—the Rams finished as the NFL’s most “all in” team for the 2022 season.
In a league in which former econ majors are more likely to get a general manager job than a football lifer, and austere roster construction is revered, a wheeling-and-dealing former scout like Rams GM Les Snead feels more like a movie character played by Matthew McConaughey than he does an innovative team builder. But in an era when draft capital is considered a team’s most coveted asset, Snead has zigged while others zagged and has won a lot of games doing it. Only the Chiefs, Packers, and Saints have won more games over the past five years.
Snead has seemingly been “all in” since Sean McVay arrived in Los Angeles in 2017 and immediately changed the franchise’s fortunes. In that first offseason, the Rams signed Andrew Whitworth and Robert Woods in free agency and traded for Sammy Watkins. Taken in concert, those were considered aggressive moves at the time—but given the standards Snead has set in subsequent years, they look pretty tame in hindsight.
The following year, after a disappointingly early exit from the playoffs, the Rams sent a first-round pick to New England for Brandin Cooks and immediately gave him a five-year, $80 million contract. Later, they traded for Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, signed Ndamukong Suh, and locked up Aaron Donald, Rob Havenstein, and Todd Gurley to extensions that added up to $225 million. The investment paid off. The team won its first conference title since the 2001 season and made it to the Super Bowl.
Even back then, it wasn’t hard to find critics predicting that the bubble was going to burst for the Rams sooner rather than later: that they’d soon regret giving a large chunk of their cap to a handful of stars while trading away draft capital for short-term rentals. Years later, though, that bubble is still intact, and it’s only grown larger as Snead and his front office have continued to aggressively pursue talent. The solution to the Rams’ post-Super Bowl slump was to throw more money and draft picks at the roster and to figure out the rest later. Los Angeles sent two first-round picks to Jacksonville for Jalen Ramsey during the 2019 season. In 2021, it traded two first-round picks and Jared Goff to Detroit for Matthew Stafford. Midseason acquisitions of Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. then helped push the team to its second Super Bowl appearance under Snead’s watch. And this time, the Rams were just too overwhelming for an ascending Bengals team.
The NFL lived up to its reputation as a copycat league this offseason following L.A.’s success. It felt like every week, there was a blockbuster trade involving at least one first-round pick. And by the time the draft kicked off in April, only 24 teams owned a first-round pick. “Fuck them picks” had seemingly taken over the league.
But what other teams will soon learn is that there is more to the Rams’ team-building strategy than the “all in” moves. Hitting on a few high-stakes trades may have opened their championship window initially, but propping it open for as long as they have requires a lot more work.
Let’s get one thing clear: Despite what Snead himself said during a speech at the team’s championship parade, the Rams don’t actually have a “fuck them picks” philosophy. In fact, their draft picks played a huge part in how they won a championship. Per Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value metric, which puts a number value on a player’s contribution to his team using a formula you can read about here, only two teams have extracted more value from their first-round draft picks than the Rams since their first big pick-for-player deal back in 2018. Through a series of trades, L.A. was able to turn five first-round picks into these players:
Rams Draft-Pick Trades Return Good Value
|David Long Jr.
Those eight players have contributed 105 AV to the Rams since 2018. Only Buffalo and Baltimore have generated more value from their first-round selections over that span. The Dolphins, who’ve made seven Day 1 picks in that time, rank just behind those teams at 99 AV.
Approximate Value Added With First-Round Picks Since 2018
Now, the Rams aren’t actually present on the Pro Football Reference list because they haven’t made a first-round pick in the past five years. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t added talent with the picks they have held onto.
Of the 22 starters listed on the team’s current depth chart, 14 were drafted by the Rams. Donald is the only member of that homegrown group who was taken in the first round. Havenstein and Cam Akers were taken in the second. Cooper Kupp was a third-round pick, as were left tackle Joe Noteboom, linebacker Ernest Jones, and cornerback David Long Jr. Tight end Tyler Higbee, left guard David Edwards, and the safety pair of Nick Scott and Jordan Fuller were found on Day 3. The bulk of the roster was built through the draft—the Rams just didn’t use first-round picks to do it.
Instead, those premium picks were dealt to acquire known commodities who altered the way the Rams coaching staff could call a game. Ramsey was brought in to help make over a defense that had grown stale under veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. McVay plucked Brandon Staley from Vic Fangio’s staff—mostly because Fangio’s defense had always given him a hard time—and had him build a defense around Ramsey’s ability to lock down any receiver in one-on-one coverage.
Fifteen months later, McVay traded for Stafford, who would have a similar effect on the offensive side of the ball. After years of propping up Goff with a play-action-heavy attack that wasn’t so effective in the playoffs, McVay had a quarterback who allowed him to expand his play-calling menu. He leaned on Stafford’s talented arm in crunch time throughout the playoffs, and you already know how that ended.
The moves for Miller and Beckham didn’t cost first-rounders, but they served a similar purpose. Miller gave the defense a dominant edge presence that offered Donald some protection from double-teams. Beckham did the same for Kupp and gave Stafford an explosive option on the backside of McVay’s pass concepts.
The Rams weren’t just acquiring star players for the hell of it. Those guys filled specific gaps on the roster. Rather than betting on college prospects being able to occupy those roles (eventually), Snead instead found players who had already proved they were up to the task.
In a league governed by a hard cap, though, acquiring superstar talent is just the start. Making it all work financially is the key to sustaining success, and for the Rams, that job falls to vice president of football and business administration Tony Pastoors. Among the many hats Pastoors wears for the team is that of chief contract negotiator, and his creative use of void years and bonuses that trigger at just the right time is what makes it all work. To put it simply: Pastoors likes to break up the guaranteed money included in contracts, spreading it between both signing and roster bonuses, which limits how much cash the team has fork over up front. That keeps some money left over for smaller roster moves, like the Bobby Wagner signing in March. And those up-front bonuses provide L.A. cap flexibility in the short term. Pastoors isn’t the only capologist using these tactics, but the stakes are higher for Pastoors as a result of Snead’s aggressiveness.
Still, don’t expect to see Pastoors portrayed by Brad Pitt in the NFL’s version of Moneyball. The Rams aren’t some plucky organization finding market inefficiencies to keep up with financial giants. They’re one of the richest teams in the league playing in a $5.5 billion stadium, and team owner Stan Kroenke has the ability to bail out the front office whenever it makes a mistake—a luxury some other front offices just don’t have.
Snead has certainly made some costly mistakes over the past few years. He signed Todd Gurley to a four-year, $57 million extension that hadn’t even kicked in before the team had to let him go after a knee injury derailed his career. The team also handed Goff a $134 million extension only to trade him less than two years later, leaving behind $24.7 million in dead cap.
“Stan Kroenke, to me, deserves the credit, because the inconvenient truth of Sean McVay’s résumé is that [he] signed off on $100 million guaranteed for Jared Goff,” former Jets and Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum told me in October before the Rams went on to win the Super Bowl. “And [Kroenke] allowed him to say, ‘You know what, we’ll take that $100 million stake and we’ll look the other way.’ … And to Kroenke’s credit, he hung in there with rigor.”
Tannenbaum’s comments about McVay’s résumé could easily be applied to Snead’s. Not all of his “all in” gambits have paid off, but those missteps didn’t stop Kroenke from signing off on others. Most team builders aren’t afforded the privilege. It’s easier to go all-in when you’re dealt a great hand.
If the Rams are going to keep this championship window open for a few more years, they won’t be able to rely solely on blockbuster trades to do it. They’ll have to continue finding value in the draft, fashioning more creative ways to pay their stars, and Kroenke will have to keep that checkbook open. But so far they’ve been able to keep that recipe intact across five seasons. It’s up to Snead and McVay to keep it fresh as other teams try to put their own spin on it.