A year ago Friday, the Rams traded quarterback Jared Goff, their 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, and a 2021 third-round pick to the Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford. Nearly eight months later, they would ship a 2022 second-round pick and 2022 third-round pick to the Broncos for outside linebacker Von Miller.
Neither was the first time they've willingly parted with what is traditionally viewed as premium draft capital.
Midway through the 2019 season, they sent their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks to the Jaguars in exchange for cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Just before the 2018 NFL Draft, they traded a first-round pick and sixth-round pick in that year's draft to the Patriots for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round pick in that year's draft.
Los Angeles has been comfortable with trading away those picks for established players, a trend that has especially taken off during the 2022 league year. So why does that blueprint work for the Rams? What will it take for more teams (than already seen) follow suit? And will those aggressive teams get to a point where first-round picks become valuable again?
To answer the first question, start first with the precedent the acquisition of Ramsey set.
Ramsey was able to come in and be himself, and has flourished. That same environment allowed outside linebacker Von Miller and wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to do the same, even with other stars on the roster.
NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks, a cornerback and kicker returner in the NFL for five seasons and former regional college scout for the Seahawks and Panthers, is a believer in always going for proven players that you've seen play over picks. If a team is able to do that while mixing in their homegrown talent, it allows them to keep compete at a high level every year.
"The reason why it works is because whatever their culture environment is, (head coach) Sean McVay has been able to bring all those pieces together and allow the team to build a team while allowing those other guys to be individuals," Brooks told theRams.com at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis earlier this month. "So when you think about Jalen Ramsey coming over, you think about OBJ, Von Miller, they have a recipe and a formula that works. And so because they're able to do it, and they've been successful doing it, it encourages them to continue with that process of bringing over blue chip talents."
It also works because the veterans the Rams have acquired are "premiere players at premiere positions," according to Daniel Jeremiah, who co-hosts the Move the Sticks podcast with Brooks, is also an NFL Network analyst and a former scout for the Ravens, Browns and Eagles.
"Those are the ones that require the money in free agency, those are the ones that require the high draft picks in the draft," Jeremiah told theRams.com Friday. "So you cross those off the to-do list, and then you're shopping for those non-premium positions, you can find those guys in the middle rounds. They've been as good as anybody at being able to capitalize on that. So the plan's actually pretty sound."
Sound, but not without risk.
The Rams have been able to find those complementary pieces through the draft with those third- through seventh-round picks.
Rookie and eventual starter Ernest Jones was a third-round selection in last year's draft. Safety Nick Scott, mainly a special teams contributor until injuries forced him into a starting role, was a seventh-round draft pick who made multiple big plays in the playoffs. Linebacker Travin Howard, who secured the game-winning interception in the NFC Championship, was a seventh-round pick. Defensive lineman Greg Gaines, who had a breakout third season, was a fourth-round pick. Receiving triple crown winner Cooper Kupp was a third-round pick in 2017.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles' starting offensive line offensive line had a free agent signing and former second-round pick at left tackle, a former fifth-round pick at each of the guard spots, a fourth-round pick at center and a second-round pick at right tackle.
However, in order for a team to be eligible for compensatory selections in the following draft – a maximum of four can be awarded each year, excluding special compensatory selections – it must lose more unrestricted free agents than it signs. So, growing the number of picks available in those rounds to find some of those players – the Rams have had 11 compensatory picks awarded to them since Rams general manager Les Snead and head coach Sean McVay began working together – has required the confidence to let some of those selections who developed into solid contributors depart during free agency like safety John Johnson III last year and defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day this year.
Los Angeles let Johnson walk last year, but found his replacement, Jordan Fuller, in the sixth-round of the draft in 2020. Taking risks with players like that is why the method works well for L.A. but may make it difficult for other teams to replicate.
"The other side of it, the challenging part is, you have to be willing to let guys walk that have been proven, solid players, if you determine they're not at those premium positions, and not the necessary core," Jeremiah said. "And so that's the tricky part, is being able to let some of those guys walk out of the building, have confidence in yourself that, with the comp pick situation where you're going to get some of those extra picks in the following years, that you can hit on those and replace those guys. So that to me is kind of the secret sauce to the whole thing, is being able to let those guys walk away."
Pursuing this method also requires a team's coaching staff being comfortable with coaching star players who may come with some personalities, according to Brooks. The Rams are, which is why it has allowed them to bring in those blue-chip stars.
However, that doesn't minimize the always-important player development, as evidenced by homegrown players like Scott and Howard, among others.
"Beyond having the stars, you have to have a part of your coaching staff that understands how to develop talent," Brooks said. "And the developmental part of it is important because those third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-rounders that come in, they have to play key roles. And so you have to be able to develop those guys by not only getting them on the practice field and teaching them skills, but by putting them in the game and having enough confidence that they can get it done."
At the combine, Brooks said he believed the Super Bowl LVI-winning Rams' aggressiveness would lead to other teams attempting a similar strategy. Two weeks later, his prediction would prove correct.
The 2022 new league year saw several aggressive moves by other teams reminiscent of the Rams' acquisition of Stafford.
On the one-year anniversary of the Stafford trade, the Browns traded three first-round draft picks (2022, 2023, 2024) plus 2023 third-rounder and a 2024 fourth-rounder to the Texans for quarterback Deshaun Watson. That same day, the Raiders traded their first- and second-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft to the Packers for wide receiver Davante Adams.
Both of those deals came two days after the Broncos traded tight end Noah Fant, quarterback Drew Lock, defensive end Shelby Harris, 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, 2022 and 2023 second-round picks and a 2022 fifth-round pick to the Seahawks for quarterback Russell Wilson.
"The interesting thing is, you've seen a lot of teams try and copy it, and I think some of them have the kind of the same building blocks already in place that the Rams have had," Jeremiah said. "So in other words, it's tough to make that move if you don't have a premier pass rusher, you don't have premier corners, quarterbacks. You go acquire one of those guys, but you don't have the assets now to fill out the other spots. The Rams have kind of systematically been able to do it so that now they have all those spots filled. I look at Denver, Denver has pass rushers, Denver has weapons, they've got an elite corner, they have a lot of those high value positions already filled in, so then it makes sense to go all in for the quarterback just like the Rams did with Stafford. I definitely think that was a blueprint for a lot of teams."
According to Brooks, the challenge for other teams isn't so much as trying to replicate the model, but bringing in players that fit their system and are good teammates who fit into the team's fabric.
"The hard part is identifying and having enough intel to know what you bring into the locker room, and if it's going to fit into the culture that you've established," Brooks said. "I think you will see more teams attend to do it, because the last two teams that we've seen win Super Bowls have done it. Tampa Bay did it with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and all those guys coming in. The Rams have done it maybe a little more organically, but it's the same thing. When you have teams have success with certain team-building models, it encourages other guys to be able to do it."
So, will there ever become a point where first-round picks become premium values for teams again, aside from those acquiring them?
Jeremiah thinks it will happen in a couple different ways.
"Number one, is that you're going to bet on the wrong player," Jeremiah said. "So you're going to send all these assets and you're going to end up not with a lemon, so to speak, where you know, you've parted with all of this. I think the Seahawks are a little bit of an example of that. I'm not saying that Jamal Adams is a lemon, but he's a non-premium player and a non-premium position, and they gave up two ones, one of which ended up being a top 10 pick. So that's the cautionary tale.
"And the other thing is, what you're gonna have happen is teams are going to part with all these picks, and it's no big deal when they're, you know, in the 20s or 32 like the Rams are this year, but then you're going to have somebody that's gonna end up getting stuck and that's gonna end up being a top five pick in an unbelievable draft and and you're gonna see man, look at the opportunity cost here. So that could slow that train down a little bit."
As of right now, though, it's full speed ahead – for both the Rams and multiple other teams across the league.