“Fuck them picks.”
That’s the phrase Rams general manager Les Snead wore on his T-shirt during the Rams’ Super Bowl parade in February. It’s a fitting motto for a team that hasn’t had a first-round selection since 2016 and isn’t scheduled to have one again until 2024. But it’s not a quote—it’s a meme. Last year, Rams fans took a popular meme of Michael Jordan and remixed it for their GM, who has traded away seven first-round picks over the last five years.
Snead’s kids thought the meme was so funny they put it on a mug and gifted it to their dad. And at the parade, Snead stepped to the podium wearing his similarly decorated shirt and doubled down on his draft dogma.
“In honor of the shirt,” Snead said, “Eff them picks. We’ll use ’em to go win more Super Bowls.”
In the NFL, a league that worships at the altar of building teams through the draft, Snead could have been branded a heretic. After all, the greatest dynasties were built pick by pick, from Vince Lombardi’s Packers in the 1960s to Chuck Noll’s Steelers in the 1970s to Bill Walsh’s 49ers in the 1980s to Jimmy Johnson’s and Barry Switzer’s Cowboys in the 1990s to Bill Belichick’s Patriots in the 2000s and 2010s. But after two Super Bowl appearances and one championship in the past four seasons, the Rams have become one of the league’s top teams—and Snead seems to be converting other executives to his method of thinking.
This offseason has been the wildest in recent NFL history, and not just because Tom Brady retired and unretired within a month. A record eight teams have traded their first-round picks, many for current stars, and some around the league view this as the start of a shift. “I feel it,” NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus told NBC’s Peter King earlier this year. “Teams see what the Rams did. A few years ago, you’d never see trades for Matthew Stafford, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Deshaun Watson, Von Miller. But you can trade big players, and you can trade lots of draft picks, and you can win.”
The draft has long been branded as the epicenter of NFL team-building and mythmaking—especially the first round. The NFL has so thoroughly sold the importance of the first round that the league sliced it off from the rest of the draft and dedicated an entire night to it. Last year, more people watched the first round of the draft (12.5 million viewers) than the majority of the games in the NBA Finals or World Series.
Yet that importance is being tested this year. A quarter of the league’s teams don’t have a first-rounder in 2022, while another quarter has two. Why is there such a disparity in draft picks this year? Is the value of a first-round pick changing? And what does it mean that teams are taking such wildly different approaches?
The most obvious reason teams have traded out of the first round this year is that this is a bad draft class. There are few elite players, and no elite prospects at quarterback. At the NFL combine in March, 49ers GM John Lynch was asked if one of the reasons he traded up for Trey Lance in 2021 was because he saw the writing on the wall for the 2022 class. “We always task our college staff with forecasting,” Lynch said. “I think you’re not doing your job if you’re not doing that.”
The 49ers are just one of the teams who traded away their 2022 first-round pick last year. Others include:
- The Chicago Bears, who traded two firsts to the Giants to take Ohio State QB Justin Fields
- The Rams, who traded two firsts to Detroit for Lions QB Matthew Stafford
- The Seahawks, who traded two firsts to the Jets for safety Jamal Adams
- The Colts, who traded a conditional pick that became a first-rounder to the Eagles for QB Carson Wentz
This offseason, six more 2022 first-rounders were traded:
- The Broncos sent two firsts, two seconds, and two players formerly drafted in the top 50 to the Seahawks for QB Russell Wilson
- The Browns traded three first-rounders to Houston for QB Deshaun Watson
- The Raiders traded away a first and a second for Packers All-Pro receiver Davante Adams
- The Miami Dolphins traded away five picks, including a first, for Chiefs All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill
- The Eagles and Saints made a complicated trade swapping two of Philly’s firsts this year for the Saints’ first this year and their first next year
For those keeping track, that means 11 2022 first-round picks have now been traded a combined 13 times, and we’re still days away from the draft itself.
The Rams remain the most aggressive team when it comes to trading early-round picks, though, having exchanged six first-rounders, five second-rounders, and five third-rounders in the past six years for Stafford and Jared Goff; receivers Brandin Cooks and Sammy Watkins; cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and Marcus Peters; and pass rushers Von Miller and Dante Fowler Jr.
They’ve basically been in “win-now” mode since coach Sean McVay arrived in L.A. in 2017. But not every team can pull off that strategy. Former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum likens it to an investor with an extraordinary risk profile. “Some people will buy Johnson & Johnson stock and [collect their] 3 percent dividend, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Tannenbaum says. “Some people will look at growth stocks and know there’s more inherent risk and more upside long term. … The Rams traded in their Johnson & Johnson for Bitcoin.”
Like true Bitcoin evangelists, the Rams don’t see their approach as all that risky. In fact, they may believe they’re mitigating risk. Just one in three first-round picks gets signed to a second contract by the team that drafted them, according to a study published by the 33rd Team. And while there are 32 first-round picks every season, that doesn’t mean every class has 32 players worthy of a first-round selection. A team might give only a couple of dozen players first-round grades in a given year. So teams that are confident they will make the playoffs—and therefore will have a pick near the end of the first round the following season—are fine dealing those away.
“If you know you’re going to pick 20th or later, then those picks have lost value,” says Brad Spielberger, a salary cap and contract expert at Pro Football Focus. “Teams are less tethered to these late firsts. That’s [part of] why more deals are happening.”
Spielberger compares the promise of first-rounders to a joke from Family Guy. Peter Griffin is given the choice between a boat or a mystery box. His wife, Lois, wants Peter to take the boat. Peter wants the mystery box because “a boat’s a boat, but the mystery box could be anything—it could even be a boat.”
The irony of Snead saying “Eff them picks” is that the Rams actually love draft picks. Over the past five years, the Rams have made 45 picks, tied for the fifth most in the league. While the Rams were trading away their high draft picks, they were hoarding picks in lower rounds. L.A.’s Super Bowl team was littered with late-round contributors like cornerback David Long (a third-rounder), linebacker Ernest Jones (a third-rounder), defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day (a sixth-rounder), and safety Nick Scott (a seventh-rounder). In fact, no team has been better at finding contributors outside of the first round over the last five years than Los Angeles, according to a study by Dan Pizzuta at Sharp Football. Just six players on their Super Bowl roster were acquired in free agency. And while the Rams aren’t shy about finding starters via trade, they’ve thrown themselves into the later rounds of the draft to fill out the rest of their roster.
This approach is hardly infallible. The Rams won their final three playoff games by a combined nine points. Joe Burrow had the ball in Rams territory with under a minute left in the Super Bowl. San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tartt dropped the easiest interception of his life in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game. And the Bucs mounted a 24-point comeback in the second half of the divisional round. There were plenty of opportunities for this not to work out. Yet winners write history, and the Rams proved this model can work. So even if teams aren’t copying the Rams’ exact strategy and mortgaging all their top picks, many are following L.A.’s aggression.
Trading a first-rounder for a veteran has become much more common in the past four years. From 2004 to 2018, a veteran was traded for a first-rounder roughly once a year. (It happened 16 times in 15 seasons.) But over the last four years, it’s happened about four times per offseason (16 trades total). And this offseason isn’t even over yet.
This year in particular, many great players have become available—or demanded to become available—for a variety of reasons. Quarterbacks have realized and taken ownership over their value, with passers like Watson, Wilson, and Ryan all requesting trades. Plus, teams have become more willing to eat dead cap costs—a cap hit a team takes when it trades or cuts a player in the middle of their contract—in order to move veterans in the middle of their deals and start fresh.
Just a few years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers took a $21 million dead-money hit to get rid of Antonio Brown. This was unthinkable at the time. It was the biggest dead-money hit in a single season for a single player ever, and it took up 12 percent of their cap. But it turns out the Steelers were just ahead of the curve. In the ensuing three years, the Rams ate $22 million to trade away Cooks in 2020, then another $22 million to trade away Goff in 2021. The Eagles lost nearly $34 million by shipping Wentz to Indy, nearly a fifth of their entire 2021 budget. And the Falcons took a $41 million dead-money hit to trade Ryan to Indy in March, which means Ryan’s cap hit for the Falcons this year will be larger than any player in the NFL … despite the fact that Ryan is no longer on the team.
This sounds like catastrophic financial decision-making. But, bizarrely, being willing to admit that some contracts are sunk costs has allowed teams to get something in return for albatross deals. And that, combined with a salary cap that has risen more than 60 percent over the past decade, has led to more buyers and sellers, and bigger and better trades.
While plenty of teams are trading for veterans, though, it takes two to tango. There are also teams that are collecting picks in exchange for those players—and they can be bucketed into two groups:
The first group is trading players because the players themselves want to leave. The Packers wanted to keep Adams, but Adams threatened to sit out the season, so Green Bay dealt him to Las Vegas, who extended him for about $22 million annually. Wilson had issues with the Seahawks for a while, and last February, his agent released a list of potential trade destinations. Stafford approached the Lions ownership and asked to be traded to a contender. And there are rumors that Brady was trying to finagle his way to Miami in an executive role this offseason but was ultimately unsuccessful. Trade requests at quarterback have become normal, and trade requests at wide receiver are accelerating.
The second group is the teams that don’t think a player is worth the money the player wants. The Jets didn’t want to make Adams the league’s highest-paid safety, so they dealt him to the Seahawks, who gave him nearly $18 million annually. (This trade was an overpay at the time and a disaster in retrospect after Seattle ended up giving the Jets a top-10 pick.) The Chiefs similarly didn’t want to pay Hill the market-leading rate he was able to get from the Dolphins ($24 million annually for the first four years of his deal).
Now the Packers and Chiefs both have four picks within the first two rounds of the draft, and while they likely won’t find anyone who can match Adams’s or Hill’s production one-for-one, even replacing 80 percent of their production at 10 percent of the cost is a good return on investment. Plus, there’s always the outside chance they will hit on a massive talent, as the Vikings did with Justin Jefferson in 2020, a month after they traded Stefon Diggs to the Bills.
“It’s production control vs. cost control,” Spielberger says. “That’s the trade.”
In the short term, all this wheeling and dealing means we may see more receivers traded à la Adams and Hill. Last week, 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel requested a trade after negotiations on a new contract broke down. Perhaps the two sides will figure out a deal. But if not, the 49ers may need to move Deebo this offseason or the next. And he may be just the first domino to fall from the 2019 draft class. A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin are all in similar situations, and they, their agents, and their teams surely took note of how the Hill and Adams deals played out.
In the medium and long term, though, teams’ aggressiveness will likely be influenced by the results of the coming seasons. If Tua Tagovailoa looks like an MVP candidate with Hill, or Derek Carr and the Raiders win the AFC West with Davante Adams, more teams could pay even higher costs to acquire top receivers to unlock their QBs. If the Broncos win the Super Bowl with Wilson, teams might be even more willing to mortgage their futures when top QBs arrive on the trade market.
But if these teams fail, perhaps the ones with multiple draft picks—like the Packers and Chiefs—will emerge in better shape for contention over the next decade, operating at the pace of the tortoise rather than the hare. It’ll all depend on who the eff they pick.