The NFL has become an arms race for contenders. They push salary cap hits into the future, swap draft picks for immediate help and generally disregard the future consequences. The notion of methodically assembling a long-term winner faded. To win a Super Bowl, to topple Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady, teams must accumulate talent right now and solve next year on the fly. If you’re not all-in, you’re not trying.
What it means for an NFL team to be “all-in” is vague, but the Los Angeles Rams have stretched the definition to its breaking point. The Rams discard draft picks for sport. They collect superstars. They order everything on the menu and let the credit card company figure it out. As other franchises have grown more aggressive and prioritized now over later, the Rams have laughed and forced them to keep up.
The Rams struck again Monday, on the eve of the trade deadline, in a stunning manner that has grown familiar. Another haul of picks out the door. Another big name on the marquee. The Rams dealt two 2022 draft picks to the Denver Broncos for pass rusher Von Miller, a future Hall of Famer who joins the Rams’ hellacious Super Bowl pursuit.
The Rams have spewed draft picks in recent seasons to acquire cornerback Jalen Ramsey and quarterback Matthew Stafford, two foundations of their 7-1 record that is tied for the best in the NFL. The Rams have not made a first-round pick since taking Jared Goff first in 2016. After trading Goff and two first-round picks to the Detroit Lions, they will not pick in the first round until 2024 at the earliest.
After shipping second- and third-round picks to Denver for Miller, the Rams are slated to make their first pick of the 2022 draft late in the third round. They have only four draft picks: a third-round compensatory pick, a fourth-rounder and two picks in the seventh round.
The Rams have pushed their deployment of draft capital to the extreme, but they have sound reasons on the field and off.
The Rams needed to claim the Los Angeles market. Winning and stars were two essential ingredients. Trading draft picks was the quickest and surest route to both.
The Rams have recognized an important distinction in the draft for successful teams. There are 32 players chosen in the first round, but there are not 32 first-round players. Most drafts drop off after 15 to 20 picks, so the difference between a player taken where the Rams draft at the end of the first round and a player taken early in the third is smaller than generally accepted.
Under Coach Sean McVay and General Manager Les Snead, the Rams have clearly identified the kind of stars and the kind of role players they need for their system. The easiest way to acquire the stars is by trade. They have found players with the attributes they require, but that may be less valued by other teams, later in the draft. In 2018, for example, McVay coveted running back Darrell Henderson over any other skill player in the draft. The Rams took him 70th overall, in the third round.
The Rams have seen that superstars can turn younger, cheaper players into better versions of themselves. The defensive linemen who play alongside Aaron Donald never see double teams or chip blocks. The cornerback who plays opposite Ramsey always has help from a safety. Cooper Kupp went from a versatile and useful receiver for Goff to the best statistical receiver in the NFL under Stafford.
A player taken late in the draft or paid a small salary to accommodate the lucrative deals necessary to keep Ramsey, Donald and Stafford can produce at a high level if he plays next to those stars. The Rams need to find less talent because their best players pull it out of their teammates.
Whether Miller is still one of those players is unclear. He is one of the best players of his generation, a force who once won a Super Bowl almost single-handedly. He’s 32 now. He ranks 16th in Pro Football Focus’s win rate percentage this season, and he has recorded 4.5 sacks. Miller is still a very good player who will make the Rams better. But he is a superstar more by pedigree and history than current production. He gives the Rams another weapon but not another player on the level of Donald and Ramsey.
The move poses risks for the Rams. They acquired Ramsey and Stafford at the peak of their careers. Miller is nearing his decline phase and will be a free agent at the end of the season. They may have given up two coveted draft picks for nine games of Miller, who will have leverage in the form of that acquisition price if the Rams want to retain him.
Denver parted with a franchise great but came out a winner. Miller is exiting his prime. The Broncos, at 4-4 but with a limited offense under quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, are going nowhere. By agreeing to pay $9 million of Miller’s remaining salary, the Broncos coaxed another pick out of Los Angeles. Those two picks improve Denver’s arsenal if a veteran quarterback — hello, Aaron Rodgers — becomes available in a trade this offseason. If not, GM George Paton hastened his rebuild.
But the trade was about the Rams, who have become the boldest team-builders in the NFL. They may not have any draft picks. They only care about the Super Bowl.