The Rams and the Case Against the Draft

Robert Klemko
Sports Illustrated
The Rams and the Case Against the Draft
The Rams and the Case Against the Draft

Before joining the Rams, Andrew Whitworth spent his first 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, and in those 11 seasons the Bengals won 20 more games than they lost but never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. They built through the draft, and they hit on prospects at about the rate you'd expect the average NFL team to hit. They always kept their first- and second-round picks, even picking twice in the first round in 2012. The Bengals never had the kind of aggressive free-agent haul that would make you say they’re in win-now mode.

So, after coming to L.A. as part of a significant free-agent class in 2017, imagine Whitworth’s thrill to see what Rams general manager Les Snead pulled off this summer:

• Trading second- and fourth-round picks for two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters, then exercising his fifth-year option

• Trading a fifth-rounder for five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib

• Signing five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh for one year, $14 million

• Trading a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks and signing him to a five-year, $81 million extension with $20.5 million guaranteed

Making use of a cap-space surplus—made possible in large part by having a quarterback on a rookie contract—Snead gave up a handful of draft picks that might have amounted to a couple of developmental starters and roster depth. In doing so, he launched a 2018 season that will fall short of expectations if it doesn’t end at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. The 36-year-old left tackle couldn't be happier about it.

“You have to find ways to win now,” Whitworth says, “because some of these younger guys aren’t developing as quickly as they have in the past, and getting players now is sometimes more worth it. I just believe more teams have realized that having a guy who can play immediately—[who has] some time on his deal, and no obligation to pay him down the road—makes more sense than drafting or extending your own draft picks.

“More teams are taking the cheaper route and drafting kids like they always have, but I think some teams are saying, Hey it’s not that much more expensive to go ahead and trade the pick and see what we can do.”

It's not like the Rams are the first team to stockpile veteran talent in the offseason. The 2011 Eagles added a group Vince Young infamously dubbed the “Dream Team” that spring: Jason Babin, Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, among others. One difference: Philadelphia sacrificed only cap space—not draft capital—to do so. They intended to continue building through the draft like everybody else, and held onto each of their upcoming draft picks. The Rams are taking “win now” a step further, with head coach Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips accepting the challenge of managing a talent-packed room of newcomers in what they hope will be a six-month odyssey to a Super Bowl, knowing they'll spend a second straight draft on the sideline, watching other teams build their future. If it works, it could change the way roster architects do business for a contender, says one NFL front office executive.

“If they go win the Super Bowl, this is a copycat league, so everyone’s going to say Les Snead’s a genius, and more teams will trade away their drafts if they feel close,” says the exec. “If it doesn’t work, everyone will say, The original Dream Team didn’t work, so why would anybody think it would work again. Les Snead’s an idiot. This league is funny that way.”

Whitworth, for his part, made the case for Snead being a genius, and it has nothing to do with the CBA. Many in NFL media circles have made the argument that rookies are developing slower as a result of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, which limited some aspects of offseason practice time. Whitworth thinks the time lost isn’t the issue; it’s about larger shifts in the game itself.

“I just don't think the game’s as simple as it might have been at one time,” Whitworth says. “I know old guys will argue with that, but I know the offense I played in when I got in the league and the things I was asked to do as a young player were a lot more simple than they are now, just from a competition standpoint, and all the different variations and looks you see on defense now.”

Whitworth says his Bengals offense in 2006 had a no-huddle plan that consisted of 10 plays. Today, Jared Goff’s no-huddle options span the entirety of the playbook.

“Also, the college game is not as similar to what we’re playing in pro football,” Whitworth adds. “Those kids [on the offensive line] are playing read-option and not having to sit back on third-and-8 and take a rusher on and hope to God they can hold on long enough for the QB to get rid of the ball. It doesn’t happen anymore. They get to pro football, and that’s every third down you’re ever gonna play.”

For the Rams and Snead, it comes down to the expected output for an NFL veteran vs. a rookie. There’s no comparison, Whitworth says: “There’s no way you can tell me that a college kid—doesn’t matter who he is—is better than a fourth-year player who’s played the game with success. There’s no chance.”

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