In the NFL, ownership has forever held the cards in player movement. Careers are short, contracts are not guaranteed, and the vast majority of players are viewed as interchangeable parts. Players have been conditioned to believe they have little leverage, and management has used its inherent advantages as a cudgel. Ramsey now stands as a powerful counterexample. He may have just ushered in a new era of how NFL superstars view and wield their power.
Ramsey played four days after he made his trade request, in a Thursday night victory over the Tennessee Titans. He then came down with a specious back injury and did not play again for the Jaguars. And now, he never will. Jaguars owner Shad Khan held firm that he would not trade Ramsey, but Ramsey’s resolve and a massive offer changed his mind and gave Ramsey what he wanted.
The Los Angeles Rams changed the complexion of the NFL season, and maybe the future of the league, with a blockbuster trade Tuesday night, first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter. The Rams gave up their first-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021 and a fourth-round pick in 2021.
The Rams made a bold move to acquire the best cornerback in football, an effort to right a sagging NFC title defense after three straight losses dropped them to 3-3 and third in the NFC West. The Jaguars received a franchise-altering haul that could bring a huge payoff if Ramsey cannot turn around the Rams. And Ramsey may have provided a model for disgruntled superstars.
The Rams and Jaguars both got what they wanted out of the trade, but the biggest winner was Ramsey. A month ago, he decided he wanted out of Jacksonville. Through a public trade demand and finding ways to refuse to play, he made the Jaguars at least consider dealing him. When a team stepped forward with a large enough deal, the Jaguars succumbed to his wish.
Two years ago, Ramsey was the best player on a team that went to the AFC championship game and nearly knocked off the Patriots in New England. He was part of Jacksonville’s bedrock. And now, after team management — believed to be primarily executive Tom Coughlin — made him upset, Ramsey maneuvered his way into being part of another team’s bedrock.
Ramsey’s power play will not change the entire NFL. Chargers running back Melvin Gordon tried to hold out for a new contract and failed, missing a month’s worth of salary. Washington left tackle Trent Williams has piled up missed game checks and fines while he stays away, motivated by what he views as shoddy medical care from the team’s training staff. Ownership still holds plenty of power. The NFL is not the NBA, where players can demand trades and pick where they want to play. If a player wants to follow Ramsey, he’ll have to be aware of where he ranks in the NFL hierarchy.
“Great players can dictate,” one NFL agent said. “Good players like Melvin Gordon can’t dictate.”
But this season, culminating with the Ramsey trade, has shown players hold more sway than ever, especially if they’re willing to misbehave and take the public relations hit. Through his antics, Antonio Brown shot his way out of Pittsburgh and Oakland to land with the Patriots, which may have worked if not for ugly allegations against Brown that prompted the Patriots to release him. Jadeveon Clowney refused to play on the franchise tag, and his persistence got him moved to Seattle.
Many factors have aligned to make player movement possible. Maybe most important, players have watched their NBA brethren dictate their careers with increasing ease and success, and it has emboldened them. NFL teams have also grown more aggressive making trades, with younger general managers more willing to make deals and more attuned to their franchise’s contention cycle. So when a player demands a trade, it’s likely his team will find a willing partner to accommodate it.
Rams General Manager Les Snead is one of those fearless traders — his team, as it stands now, will go five straight years without making a first-round pick. The Rams are perpetually in a state of being all-in, which raises the stakes of their moves Tuesday.
The Rams started the frenzy in the late afternoon when they shipped cornerback Marcus Peters to the Baltimore Ravens for linebacker Kenny Young and a fifth-round draft pick. The move seemed like only part of a plan, considering Los Angeles had just lost Aqib Talib, its top cornerback, to injured reserve. Those suspicions proved correct.
On Sunday, the Rams lost in dispiriting fashion to division rival San Francisco. Ramsey should provide a massive boost to a defense that three weeks ago surrendered 55 points to Tampa Bay. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips relies on his cornerbacks while sending heavy blitzes, and in Ramsey he has perhaps the best cover corner in the NFL to scheme around.
The dealing probably will continue for the Rams and Ramsey. He will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2020 season. The Rams would not have relinquished such a sizable draft haul if they did not plan on making Ramsey a pillar of their roster. The Rams have already played at the top of the market at running back (Todd Gurley), defensive line (Aaron Donald) and quarterback (Jared Goff). They’ll soon do it again at cornerback.
Although they lost their best player, the Jaguars made the best of the situation. They will have two additional first-round picks to help their quarterback, whether that ends up being rookie sensation Gardner Minshew II or Nick Foles, whom they signed to an $88 million free agent deal this offseason. They have enough talent to build a contender in the near future.
The major ripple effect from Tuesday night’s trade may be how other players react. Ramsey may have empowered others to decide they want to play somewhere else. It could frighten owners enough to make player movement an issue of discussion at the owners’ meetings happening in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., or even at the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations.
The Rams and Jaguars changed the NFL season Tuesday night. Ramsey may have changed even more than that.