The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The win-now Rams have no time for methodical roster-building

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A pair of prominent trade acquisitions for the Rams, Jalen Ramsey (foreground) and Von Miller, celebrate an interception. (Harry How/Getty Images)
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When Los Angeles Rams General Manager Les Snead said in 2016 that his team’s philosophy has always been to build through the draft, some questioned that assertion, given that he had just parted with a king’s ransom in draft picks to move up to the No. 1 spot.

Since then, the Rams have behaved a lot like the NFL team least inclined to adhere to the time-honored mantra regarding roster construction.

With an approach as aggressive as it has been unorthodox, Los Angeles has gone about collecting an abundance of established stars, who in turn have helped the Rams become one of the NFL’s most successful teams. The emphasis on big-game hunting may eventually prove to be untenable — perhaps as soon as next season when salary-cap realities threaten to crash the party — but for now, entering Sunday’s divisional-round playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Snead’s squad looks like a strong contender to reach its second Super Bowl in four seasons.

A first championship since the 1999 season would go a long way toward justifying the Rams’ win-now means, including a January trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford that cost two first-round picks, a third-rounder and quarterback Jared Goff. Goff was the player for whom Snead parted with so much draft capital to select in 2016, which happened to be the last time the Rams had a first-round pick. Thanks to the Stafford deal and others in recent years that brought in more star players, the team isn’t slated to pick in the first round again until 2024.

The Rams have been enjoying the services of first-round picks, but those players usually began their careers with other organizations. In addition to Stafford, who went first overall in 2009 to the Detroit Lions, similarly pedigreed players who have arrived via trade include wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Brandin Cooks; cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters; linebackers Von Miller and Dante Fowler Jr.; and running back Sony Michel. Not all of them cost first-rounders to acquire, and some were turned back into draft picks in subsequent deals. But all have made contributions to a franchise that has gone a combined 55-26 over the past five seasons, and Stafford, Ramsey, Miller and Michel remain key contributors.

“The neat thing about doing it this way is that you’re not guessing,” Snead told the New York Times earlier in the season. “The player has lived up to his draft status.”

The Rams have also attracted several name-brand free agents, notably tackle Andrew Whitworth and wide receiver Robert Woods in 2017, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in 2018 and linebacker Clay Matthews in 2019. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson came aboard last offseason, and the team landed the biggest of fish, wideout Odell Beckham Jr., in November. Some of those moves failed to pan out, but Whitworth remains an anchor of the offensive line and Beckham has helped this year’s team make up for the loss of Woods to injury. At the very least, none of those players further depleted the Rams’ draft capital.

Of the 32 NFL teams, the Rams have had the third-lowest expected value from picks they made since 2017, according to a chart unveiled last year by Pro Football Focus. The only clubs whose selections in that span added up to less were the Houston Texans, who fired coach/general manager Bill O’Brien in 2020 for his questionable personnel decisions, and the Kansas City Chiefs, whose AFC dominance has left them generally picking toward the back of every round.

Total expected value from draft picks made between 2017 and 2021 (per pff.com)

It helps a team such as the Rams immensely when draft picks outperform expectations. That was emphatically the case this season for wide receiver Cooper Kupp, a third-round pick in 2017 who sparked MVP chatter while coming close to setting NFL records with 145 receptions and 1,947 receiving yards.

Later-round selections who became lineup mainstays for Los Angeles include offensive lineman Brian Allen (2018 fourth round); defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph (2018 sixth round); offensive lineman David Edwards (2019 fifth round); defensive lineman Greg Gaines (2019 fourth round); and safety Jordan Fuller (2020 sixth round). Going back to 2014, when the Rams actually had multiple first-round picks, one turned into all-universe defensive tackle Aaron Donald, a three-time defensive player of the year who is still terrorizing opponents.

One of the team’s most important additions since 2017 is undoubtedly Sean McVay, who that year became the youngest head coach in NFL history. He is widely credited with modernizing the Rams’ attack and lifting them out of their post-“Greatest Show on Turf” doldrums. In November, after the Rams again declared their all-in status by shipping 2022 second- and third-round picks to Denver for Miller, McVay hailed his team’s front office for its “agility” in pulling off huge trades and making all the numbers work.

“I love the fearlessness, I love the aggressiveness, and that approach and philosophy has kind of been ongoing and evolving,” McVay told reporters of his relationship with Snead. “We’re not afraid of whatever those consequences are, because we’re going to attack the opportunity to be successful.

“You talk about, ‘We don’t value picks.’ That’s not true at all,” McVay added at the time. “We do value picks, but there is a formula to a lot of the things that we’re doing behind the scenes. There’s a vision in place, and we feel like it fits for us. It might not be for everybody.”

Snead will have his work cut out for him in the 2022 draft, when the Rams face their bleakest slate of picks yet — none in the first two rounds, then one each in Rounds 3 through 5, plus two in Round 7. The league may award Los Angeles one or more later-round compensatory picks based on its formula for departed free agents.

A cap crunch is also coming. The Rams have less than $140,000 of unused salary space left to roll into 2022 (per ESPN), and they are projected to start the offseason several million above the ceiling (per overthecap.com). It probably means some players will be approached about reworking their contracts, while others can expect to be released.

That’s a problem for later, though. At the moment, the Rams have the happy dilemma of how best to prepare for their showdown against Tom Brady and the defending champion Bucs. If that sounds daunting, Los Angeles can lean on the experience of a regular season win over Tampa Bay and on an aggressive mind-set born of its overall organizational philosophy.

“We only live once, so don’t live your life scared,” Snead said in 2019, just days before he outbid the competition for Ramsey. “ … Anytime you make a move, you do try to have protocols in place that can help you make sound decisions.

“But you’re not playing for the tie. You’re trying to go win.”

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