The Los Angeles Rams are built differently. In a league that tends toward conservatism and groupthink, Rams general manager Les Snead is nothing short of a wild-eyed contrarian. For years, the received wisdom in the NFL has been that building a successful team over the long term requires a star quarterback coupled with good, cheap, young players that provide surplus value over the period of their rookie deals. This structure allows a team to compete year in and year out, and it provides cap space to fill any gaps formed through injury or ineffectiveness by paying up for players at positions of need in free agency.
Or at least that’s how conventional thinking goes. Snead and the Rams have taken a different approach — one that’s fascinating in its divergence from NFL norms. Instead of coveting early round picks — particularly first-rounders, which have the best chance of providing a team with those crucial inexpensive young players — Snead has made a practice of trading them away. Whenever an opportunity arises to acquire a proven player on an expiring deal (often with a more expensive contract looming on the horizon), he’s had no issue with dealing first- and second-round picks.
Snead’s run of trading off premium picks began in 2016. After trading away the Rams’ 2016 and 2017 first-round picks1 to move up 14 spots to draft Jared Goff first overall in 2016, Snead has dealt a first-round pick in each year since.
In 2018, Snead traded the Rams’ first-round pick and a sixth-rounder to New England for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a fourth-rounder. In 2019, he traded out of the first round, dealing the 31st and 203rd overall picks to Atlanta for the 45th and 79th picks. In 2020, he dealt their 2020 and 2021 firsts2 to the Jacksonville Jaguars for cornerback Jalen Ramsey. And this past offseason, he moved the Rams’ first-round picks for the 2022 and 2023 seasons — along with a 2021 third-rounder and Goff — to the Detroit Lions for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The Stafford trade was remarkable not merely for the sunk costs it represented — recall the haul that the Rams gave up, including two firsts, simply to draft Goff in 2016 — but also for the dead money the Rams had to eat to move him. $22.2 million of Goff’s salary remains on the books this season, a consequence of the $134 million extension, with a then-NFL record $110 million guaranteed, that Snead gave Goff in 2019.3 This wasn’t the first time Snead traded away an expensive player for a loss, either. After signing Cooks to an $80 million extension in 2018, last year the Rams traded Cooks and a fourth-round pick to Houston in return for a 2020 second-round pick — eating $21.8 million in dead money in the process.
From afar, the moves appear to reek of mismanagement. Paying premiums to take big swings on players and then paying again to move on from them doesn’t seem like a sustainable strategy. Things may not be so cut-and-dry, however. According to Jourdan Rodrigue, Rams beat writer at The Athletic, L.A. has a well-thought-out plan — and it’s more than just a “stars and scrubs” approach to team building.
“It’s about turning what is often perceived as an inefficient pick — or a total inefficiency in terms of third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh-round picks — [and] trying to turn them into efficiencies and advantages, and leverage the math,” Rodrigue said on a recent episode of The NFL Rhodes Show podcast with Lindsay Rhodes. “It’s how Sean McVay built his offense, it’s how they’re trying to reenergize this defense. … It’s how they operate in their personnel department in their front office — turning perceived disadvantages into mathematical advantages.”
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Rodrigue did note that what the Rams look for in these late-round picks are not “complete players” but rather athletes who complement their stars — defensive lineman Aaron Donald, Ramsey and Stafford. Rodrigue said this approach, coupled with winning enough games each season to make the premium picks they trade away less valuable, is part of a recent philosophical change in L.A. The pivot represents a new, overarching strategy that may look inefficient from the outside but is internally consistent and is one the Rams believe can lead to lasting success.
What makes these claims about leveraging math and finding efficiency in the late rounds exciting is that they’re explicitly testable. If the Rams have found a way to find value where other teams are failing, that represents a massive edge over the league, and it’s one we should be able to identify in their draft results.
To ground our analysis in the context of what Rodrigue reports the front office is actually doing — finding complementary players — we developed a novel metric: Meaningful Snaps Over Expected (MSOE). A meaningful snap is one given to a player when a game is in doubt, and we reasoned that those snaps will best help us measure the contribution of complementary players across all positions on an NFL roster. We defined a meaningful snap as one given to a player when a team’s pre-snap win probability is above or equal to 10 percent and under or equal to 90 percent.
To calculate MSOE, we took each player drafted in the fourth through seventh round4 in the NFL draft from 2007 through 2020, and built a model5 to predict expected meaningful snaps. Next we subtracted the expected snaps from a player’s observed meaningful snaps, and finally we totaled them by team.
With this framework in place, we found that from 2017 (the first draft after the Rams began trading away their premium picks) through 2020,6 L.A. has been slightly above average in extracting meaningful snaps from its late-round picks.
|team▲▼||num. picks▲▼||hit rate▲▼||rank▲▼||MSOE▲▼||rank▲▼|
|Los Angeles Chargers||16||56%||1||2785||1|
|San Francisco 49ers||19||53||5||2007||2|
|Los Angeles Rams||24||33||27||449||12|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||13||31||30||57||16|
|New York Giants||18||50||8||-31||18|
|New England Patriots||18||39||23||-161||20|
|Kansas City Chiefs||12||42||15||-162||21|
|New Orleans Saints||11||36||25||-306||22|
|Green Bay Packers||25||40||19||-775||25|
|New York Jets||18||28||32||-1451||31|
The Rams rank 12th in MSOE with 449 snaps over what we would expect from the 24 selections they made in rounds four through seven. Of those 24 picks, however, just eight have returned positive MSOE over the course of their careers, giving the Rams a hit rate of just 33 percent, good for 27th in the league.
In general, MSOE tracks with Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value (AV) metric for these Rams players, but MSOE also weights draft slot, position and early career playing time.7For instance, Jordan Fuller has a career AV of 5, and MSOE sees him as a very successful late-round pick based on his rookie season alone, when he was on the field for 939 meaningful snaps, over twice what we would expect. Meanwhile, linebacker Dakota Allen, a seventh-round pick with 1 career AV, is seen as a hit (albeit just a slight one) since late-round selections have a low probability of contributing meaningful snaps.
It’s worth noting that this analysis punishes teams with depth across their rosters, since having lots of players on the depth chart in front of a late-round pick makes it less likely they will see meaningful snaps. Early round picks are also given favor by coaches over later-round picks — sometimes even when the late-round players are performing at a higher level. In other words, this analysis was tailored to show the Rams’ stated strategy in the best light possible. They are top-heavy by design, and they have very few early round picks with whom their late-round selections must compete.
However, we fail to find convincing evidence of a late-round edge in the Rams’ recent draft classes. Snead has not been bad, but if you’re going to trade away your premium picks, you better have an ace up your sleeve — so long as building a long-term winner is the goal. The evidence suggests the Rams are merely mortgaging their future to attempt to win now, and that isn’t a particularly novel approach.
Since going all-in on the season by trading even more draft capital to acquire 32-year-old Von Miller from the Denver Broncos and signing Odell Beckham Jr. after he was released by the Cleveland Browns, the Rams have lost two straight, including a blowout against division rival San Francisco this past Monday. For the Rams, the pressure is mounting. This season has become one where anything less than a Super Bowl win will be viewed as a disappointment. And if their late-round draft returns are any indication, it’s an opportunity they simply can’t afford to squander.
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