The Washington Post
Emulating the champs is a risky business
Rams went all-in and cashed in with Super Bowl victory. Copycats won’t all be so lucky.
The Los Angeles Rams sit atop the NFL as the aggressive, no-fear, risk-itall new kings, and in typical fashion the league’s driftless copycats have commenced imitation. During the Rams’ championship parade in February, General Manager Les Snead wore a “F--- them picks” T-shirt to celebrate his daredevil success in swapping significant draft assets to make Super Bowl-or-bust trades. And as training camps open, most of the big storylines involve teams that used the offseason to swear at them picks.
Russell Wilson is with the Denver Broncos, the rare championship-winning quarterback still in his prime to switch teams. He cost Denver three players and four draft picks, and with quarterback salaries exploding again, the Broncos soon will have to sign him to a new contract worth more than $200 million, with almost all of it guaranteed. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill left Kansas City for Miami because the Dolphins gave up five draft picks and a $120 million extension to get him. The Las Vegas Raiders traded two high draft picks and spent $141 million to poach Davante Adams, the game’s most complete receiver, from Green Bay.
There was also the biggest and most controversial move of all: Cleveland opted to guarantee Deshaun Watson a record $230 million and swap four picks to get him from Houston, even though Watson had been accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct. It was the defining move of an NFL offseason with too many trades of Sneadian risk to list, and it was an alarming indication of just how far some franchises are willing to go.
In every major professional sport, the limited availability of elite talent leads organizations to
make stunning decisions. But something is different this time in the NFL. It has had numerous blockbusters, but it had always been the most conservative league because 53-man rosters demand attention in so many areas. Picks are precious, especially with a hard salary cap making it advantageous for teams that draft well and find valuable players on cheaper rookie contracts.
Even if a team is getting a notable star in return, it can be devastating to a team-building plan to surrender enormous draft capital and pay top-of-the-market money to a single player. In the past, it had been considered just plain foolish to do so if that player didn’t appear, on paper, to transform a team into a championship contender. Yet here we are, a few years into an era in which general managers are getting younger and bolder — and good teams are benefiting from their creativity in manipulating the way rosters are built.
The problem: Not everyone will be as effective as Snead, Buffalo’s Brandon Beane or Indianapolis’s Chris Ballard in balancing risk-taking with traditional methods. It’s necessary to have a feel for when to go for it, how far to go and how to build in an exit strategy in case the plan doesn’t work. For most teams, the time-tested approach is still the best: Draft, develop, reward your own and then supplement the roster with smart trades and free agent acquisitions. But now that the Rams have a Lombardi Trophy to justify their audacity, some of the competition can’t resist thinking a new day has arrived.
It would be tough to replicate what the Rams have done since relocating to Southern California. Snead is in the perfect market to function this way, making splashes that have cost the franchise seven first-round picks. If he’s not trading up for Jared Goff, he’s acquiring Brandin Cooks. And then he’s going big to get Jalen Ramsey, the best cornerback in the game. He has re-signed players such as running back Todd Gurley II to huge contracts and then wriggled out of bad deals. He flipped Goff for a better quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who was the final piece of the puzzle.
Usually when a team makes even one of these bold decisions, there’s a sense that it will lift the franchise or ruin it. The salary cap is undefeated, so the Rams’ time is coming. But so far, Snead has been able to move pieces around so well that he’s maximizing their chances of success. He doesn’t hesitate to fix a mistake. For all the winning the Rams have done recently, they might be best at failing fast and applying what they’ve learned quickly. And for as wild as it seems he is, Snead swears at them picks only for premium talent that will retain value over time. He also has a core of foundational players — such as all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald and wide receiver Cooper Kupp — whom the Rams drafted and developed.
At this time of year, every shiny, new, offseason-winning acquisition is going to be the difference-maker. For the first time, we’ve arrived at an era when youthful elite quarterbacks are becoming available, and it’s something that would’ve changed the team-building equation during any moment in NFL history. But ignore the outlier and look at the wide receiver market, where old- and new-school philosophies are clashing.
The NFL has never seen this many teams go all-out at that position. In recent times, monster trades generally have been reserved for quarterbacks, pass rushers and the occasional left tackle. Before superstar running backs went extinct, they were in that group, too. Now, in a passhappy league, wide receiver has taken over as the essential quarterback weapon. But there’s a team-building culture war playing out, evidenced by model franchises such as Green Bay and Kansas City letting gamechanging talent go to teams that long have struggled to rise to their level.
Were the Packers and Chiefs smart to move on and do business as they usually do? Or did they just help the Raiders and Dolphins turn back the clock to their glory days? Adams should help Derek Carr and the Las Vegas offense reach another level, but even though the Raiders also added pass rusher Chandler Jones, they might not be much better than the 10-7 wild-card team they were last season. Hill could be the deep threat who changes everything for young Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, but his addition doesn’t vault the Dolphins from 9-8 to near the top of the AFC.
Wide receivers mean more than they ever have. Still, they can only do so much. Some of these moves are far riskier than any of Snead’s headline-grabbing maneuvers.
After a swear-at-them-picks offseason, judgment time is coming. The NFL is more open to risk than before, but there is destined to be miscalculation. Who can stomach it? For a conservative league in experimentation mode, the answer will shape the future of team building.