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Draft Ponzi Scheme? The strategy of the LA Rams

There are two conflicting ideologies battling in the NFL. One is based on the accumulation of draft capital to build a roster and the other is based on the exploitation of draft capital to acquire the pieces your roster requires. The best example of the former is now the Miami Dolphins, meanwhile, the Rams are the banner-men leading the charge into the latter, this new realm of NFL roster management with their division rival the Seattle Seahawks also following them. 

Rams draft picks: What are they worth?

The core of the Los Angeles Rams’ front office philosophy is that they fully anticipate being a playoff team each and every season. This pretty much means that their first-round selection will be no earlier than somewhere in the early twenties, worst case scenario. If they go on a bit of a run in January, that pick gets pushed back into the mid or late twenties. If they make it to the Super Bowl that pick is either 31st or 32nd. Their view of the first round is that unless you have a pick in the top twelve or so, the first-round picks are highly overvalued by the rest of the NFL teams.

There are many around the league that will argue that 2nd round picks actually produce better on average than first-round selections. There is some data to back that up, such as Pro Bowlers produced in each round over the past decade. I believe this is due to the overall philosophy change of teams between the two rounds. There is more of an emphasis on freak athletic ability in the first-round, even if that player had little to no production at the college level. The second-round, the elite athletes are gone and what are left are still really athletic, but more productive prospects. 

Sean McVay and Co. believe that the first-round picks are highly overvalued due to the risk involved in the pick itself. They could hold on to the selection, but there is substantial chance that their player does not develop as they expected. They’re better off using that pick on a known veteran commodity through a trade with a team who places more value in that pick. This has formed the basis of the Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford trades, both of which saw the Rams part with two of their first-round picks. What are the odds that the Jaguars or the Lions draft and develop talent better than that of Jalen Ramsey or Matthew Stafford? 

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There are two major issues that rise to the surface with this philosophy. First, the assumption that the Rams will make the playoffs each season might not be accurate. Second, you’re missing out on the positive cap effects of a rookie contract. You’re not only using substantial draft capital to acquire the talent, but also a good chunk of your cap space as well.

A perfect example of what happens when this goes wrong are the Houston Texans. They traded multiple firsts for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. With Deshaun Watson, how could they not make the playoffs or in the very least be in contention for a playoff spot? In 2020, the Texans went on to finish 4-12 and should have owned the third overall pick in the draft. They could have sorely used that to possibly get a replacement for Watson or trade back for multiple future picks. Instead, Miami owned the pick and traded back and then up again, the net result being an additional first-round pick plus Ja’Marr Chase. 

Making matters worse, the Texans made Tunsil the highest paid tackle in the league after the trade with a contract at over $76 million. This is a contract that the team would love to get out of since they’re in the heart of what looks to be a complete rebuild.

Draft Ponzi Scheme?

In essence, the Rams are trading away future value of the team for benefits now. It’s using future Rams draft capital today at the benefit of the current regime, but at the cost of whomever the next regime ends up being.

The problem is that eventually you have to keep trading more future picks in order to plug immediate holes.

Each Rams draft has been gutted and raided to fill a need in a prior year. It’s a win now strategy that seems like it would eventually have to catch up with the team and to a certain extent it already has. They’ve lost key talent at certain positions like Michael Brockers, Gerald Everett, Cory Littleton, and John Johnson. They have issues getting the depth they need on the roster without elite draft capital and as more and more of their cap space is taken up by fewer and fewer players, primarily the ones they traded for. They need the cap to keep growing and to grow at even a faster clip. The contraction of the cap due to COVID particularly hurt the Rams. With no or reduced quality Rams draft picks, the front office is left juggling trying to fill a roster with nothing but veteran contracts.

Does Sean McVay start to revolutionize the league and how draft picks are valued or does he become the next Bill O’Brien, in essence the NFL version of a college coach he gets ousted leaving behind a scorched-Earth program in tatters?

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