The Titans and Rams pulled off one of the biggest trades in NFL draft history. Here’s how it went down, from a serendipitous situation at the combine to the transaction’s consummation in the cab of a pickup truck
“In a few years, I’ll either be lauded, or there’ll be a for-sale sign in the yard of that nice house I just bought. But that’s the nature of this business: You better not be scared to make a deal, or you’ll never make it.”
—Titans GM Jon Robinson, on trading the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft.
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Each year at the combine in Indianapolis, the NFL holds a lottery to see which team sits in which suite to watch the workouts. Sometimes coaches and scouts sit down lower, in the stands; sometimes they sit in the suites upstairs, with a desk on which to take notes and the TV to watch replays of the dashes and the workouts. This year the lottery left the Titans and Rams as neighbors at the suite level.
“The Titans,” Los Angeles GM Les Snead thought to himself on the first day of the combine, seeing Tennessee GM Jon Robinson and his staff next door. “This will be convenient.”
The Rams had the 15th pick in the draft, and a quarterback need. The Titans had the first pick in the draft, and holes all over the roster except at quarterback after drafting Marcus Mariota last year. So many other things about this match looked promising from the start. Snead, in his four years as GM, had made eight trades involving picks in the top 50 of drafts. Robinson was bold too. There wasn’t the kind of no-doubt prospect at the top of the draft that would make Robinson turn down all offers for the pick. “From the start,” said Rams COO Kevin Demoff, “the situation was serendipitous for both teams.”
This is the story of how it got from serendipitous to real, how the Titans and Rams made one of the biggest trades in NFL draft history, how the Rams positioned themselves to take their long-term quarterback, and how the Titans got six picks to remake a team with a major talent gap.
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Snead stepped out of his box at the combine one day, nine weeks before the draft, and saw Robinson. “I know we’re in the beginning stages,” Snead said, “but we might have an interest in coming up to number one. Are you willing to go down?”
“Yes, if the deal is right,” Robinson said.
“All the way to 15?” Snead said.
“We could,” Robinson said.
No terms were discussed that day. But Snead left the combine, and he and fellow Ram brain-trusters Jeff Fisher, Demoff and senior assistant Tony Pastoors felt that Tennessee wouldn’t just be all talk. The Rams were so motivated that, very quietly, they set up on-campus workouts with the two objects of their quarterback affections, North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz and Cal’s Jared Goff, on back-to-back days in Fargo, N.D., and Berkeley, Calif., just after the combine. Both quarterbacks were working out in Irvine, Calif., but because NFL rules mandate that prospects work out only on their college campuses, Wentz flew back to Fargo for the workout on Sunday, March 6, and Goff went back to Berkeley for his March 7 workout.
One problem: Wentz’s home field, the Fargodome, was occupied that Sunday with the Red River Valley Sportsmen’s Show, with RVs on the football field, so the Rams’ contingent worked him out at the smaller bubble by the NDSU campus. But the workout and post-workout time together went well. The Rams came away thinking that Wentz was mature beyond his years, and that the player and the person wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the expectations of being the Next Big Thing in L.A. Then the Rams group flew to Berkeley and met Goff on Sunday night. “I hope it rains tomorrow,” Goff told Snead, which Snead took to mean Goff hoped the conditions were tough so he could show he could play in any weather. His workout was good, too—and it did rain. “They were both in the Tier 1 of workouts we’d seen since we came to the Rams,” said Snead, who has seen workouts of Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, among other passers. “We left Cal that day thinking both would be very successful in the NFL.”
Curiously, the Rams were sprinting to the finish to get the quarterbacks evaluated. Why? Because the NFL league year began March 9, and when they made the deal with Washington on the Robert Griffin III megatrade in 2012, that happened close to the opening of the league year. So the organization wanted to be ready if—as long a shot as it appeared—the Titans said they wanted to pull the trigger when the league year opened March 9.
But Robinson wasn’t ready for that. He wanted his staff to do its diligence on the top picks, and so for much of March he and his scouts studied the players. He won’t say it, but it’s pretty clear: If Tennessee felt tackle Laremy Tunsil or cornerback Jalen Ramsey were going to be Anthony Munoz or Deion Sanders, Robinson would have had serious doubts about moving down. Snead and Robinson kept talking and texting, but nothing of great substance got done.
On March 28, at Tunsil’s pro day at Ole Miss, Snead and Robinson found themselves together on the sideline in Oxford, Miss., watching the Mississippi prospects work out for the scouts. Snead told Robinson: “This thing’s being covered by the networks. We could really start some rumors here.”
“We started rough-sketching a time frame of when the deal would have to be done by,” said Robinson. “There was no offer made there, but I let them know what was pretty important to me—the two twos.”
The Rams had the 43rd and 45th overall picks, in the middle of the second round. All along, Snead and the Rams wanted to keep one of them. But now it was clear Tennessee wouldn’t do it without both twos. The Rams accepted it, and Snead knew other sweeteners were coming. (L.A.’s additional second-round pick came as part of the trade sending Sam Bradford to Philadelphia last year, and that actually became a crucial piece in these talks.)
“I told Les that the other part of the number one pick is as soon as we’re out, our logo is off and your logo is up,” Robinson said. “There’s a marketing and branding impact. To me, there was some value in that.”
The two men parted, agreeing to nothing. Three days later, on March 31, Robinson was on the pro day trail, as was Snead—in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport’s American Airlines club. “Now,” said Snead, “we got to the significant others.” Sitting in a work cubicle inside the American Airlines club, Snead and Robinson discussed the trade at length, down to the nitty-gritty.
Robinson wanted the Rams’ first-round picks in 2016 and 2017, their two second-round picks this year, and now he told Snead he wanted the Rams’ third-round pick next year as well. This would leave the Rams picking at one this year … and then not again until pick 76, and then with only one pick in the first three rounds next year. Snead didn’t think that was unreasonable, nor did the rest of his team, to be able to get the quarterback of the future that the franchise lacked.
But each side wanted time to let this sink in—and to figure out if that was enough. Los Angeles would have done that deal right then: L.A.’s first three picks this year and first and third-rounders next year. But Tennessee wasn’t ready to do anything yet; the Titans agreed that if there was going to be a deal made, each side would like to make it at least two weeks before the trade, so the Rams could call off a bunch of fact-finding trips for good players who might fit at 15, 43 and 45 … and so Tennessee could begin to investigate a whole bunch more prospects in the second and third rounds this year.
“At one point,” Robinson said, “I told Les that the other part of the number one pick is as soon as we’re out, our logo is off and your logo is up, you control the top of the draft, there’s a marketing and branding impact, you’re in the pole position, you’ve got great stuff for ‘Hard Knocks’ [the Rams are the NFL’s chosen team for the NFL Films/HBO series this summer], and we’re out. To me there was some value in that. You get two weeks of branding and marketing.”
On April 9, a Saturday, Robinson and Snead talked again, with no finality. It was still sinking in, and each side had talked to ownership, Robinson to Amy Adams Strunk with the Titans and Snead and Demoff to Stan Kroenke of the Rams. Both owners were kept abreast throughout, and each GM said his owner backed whatever the final call would be from their football people. Robinson mentioned wanting this year’s third-round pick, with the understanding that the Rams could talk about sweeteners from their end too. For Robinson, part of what made the deal attractive was having the ammo to move back into the top 10 if a player he coveted fell on the night of the first round, April 28.
They kept talking. Each side had accepted the reality of making the move, and each side knew a deal was very possible. “I got the sense they really coveted the pick,” Robinson said. “They never said, ‘We’ll do that deal,’ but we were close. And I thought I could maximize the deal and maybe get a little extra.” Now they were getting to their soft two-week deadline.
Last Wednesday, 15 days before the draft, Snead called Robinson at 6:30 a.m. Pacific Time, on his way into work. This was the day, Robinson thought, when each side had to decide.
At one point Robinson told Snead: “You give me your three this year, and I flip you our four this year, and that gets it done. That gets it done today.”
The last sweetener. That gets it done today. “Now it was real,” Snead said. “Now it was you either strike or you don’t. Sleep on it tonight, and you never know what happens … or who might drop out.”
Snead said he’d get back to him, and he started thinking. This was no asterisk on the trade. This was moving from 76 (the Rams’ third-round pick) to Tennessee’s fourth-round choice, number 113 overall. In the office, Snead and Fisher talked—they were due to have draft meetings that day, but this took precedence. “Tennessee’s ready to dance,” Snead said. The Rams thought they needed a little something back. “Our cherry on top was we wanted to have a sixth for that move,” said Snead. Robinson agreed, including the 177th pick overall, Tennessee’s early sixth-rounder, in the deal.
Now the terms were these that the Rams mulled:
The Rams acquire: First-, fourth- and sixth-round picks this year, Nos. 1, 113 and 177 overall.
The Titans acquire: First-, second-, second- and third-round picks this year (Nos. 15, 43, 45 and 76), plus the Rams’ first- and third-round picks next year.
A few hours passed. “I was trying to close on a house that same day,” said Robinson. “I had to pop out and go sign papers at one point. I actually went to the house, 25 minutes away, and had my family with me.”
His phone pinged. Text from Snead: “You have a few minutes? Jeff and I want to talk to you.”
Robinson went out to his truck, fittingly a Nissan Titan XD, and sat in the cab. Now there was one last thing the Rams wanted, something Snead called “the only real sort of contentious thing that came up.” Snead broached this idea with Robinson: If the Rams got a compensatory 2017 third-round pick for losing Janoris Jenkins in free agency, they’d trade the lower pick, the compensatory third-rounder, to Tennessee next year. If they didn’t get a compensatory third-round pick and had to send a higher pick to Tennessee, the Titans should give back a seventh-round pick.
“Jon,” Fisher said, “this is a big day out here today. It’s Kobe Bryant’s last game, and Golden State’s got this game to break the record. Out of respect for this area, could we hold off announcing it till tomorrow?”
“We haggled a few minutes,” Robinson said. “They wanted a little kickback.” Robinson balked at first; he already had the third-rounder next year, essentially. But he understood the Rams’ position too: the difference between a high third-round pick and a compensatory third-round pick could be 30 slots. He thought it was a fair ask. So Robinson agreed to include the conditional seventh-round pick in 2017, if the Rams sent their own choice to Tennessee next year instead of a compensatory.
Now it was over.
In Brentwood, Tenn., Robinson sat in the cab of his truck in the driveway of his new place and said: “Congratulations, guys. You’re the proud new owners of the first pick of the draft.”
In Oxnard, Snead and Fisher smiled, said nothing, and fist-bumped.
Fisher had one ask for Robinson. “Jon,” he said, “this is a big day out here today. It’s Kobe Bryant’s last game, and Golden State’s got this game to break the record. Out of respect for this area and this region, could we hold off announcing it till tomorrow? You guys can announce it.”
No problem with that, Robinson said.
At 7:56 a.m. Central Time the next morning, the Titans notified the league office of the trade details. At 8:03 a.m. CT, the Titans announced the trade.
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For the Rams, there is no looking back, no internal regret; they might have stayed where they were at 15, 43, 45 and 76 and taken nice players, maybe a receiver with promise like Josh Doctson of TCU at 15, a safety and tackle at 43 and 45, a corner at 76. But those are pieces of the puzzle, they reasoned. Needed pieces, but pieces like the ones Snead and Fisher had picked with their 37 previous choices, many that had been acquired in aggressive trades. When they looked at their roster, they didn’t have a guy they were confident could be their quarterback of the future. Word is Goff is the leader for the top pick, but they’re still doing their homework on both players. They took Wentz out to dinner in California on Monday night and will do the same this week with Goff after he visits the team.
For Robinson, this was his point: “The second and third rounds are going to be solid rounds. You can get guys who can really help your football team, and help early. The defensive line is a deep class. The secondary, with some of the underclassmen coming out, is bolstered. The wide receiver group—not a Calvin Johnson in the class, but there are role starting receivers and third receivers, if you will, fairly deep into the draft. And then at offensive line, there’s a good core of guys. I don’t know historically off the top of my head, but there are plenty of guys in this draft, you can find good solid ones from the top into the top of the third day of the draft.
“Our thought process was to: A, accumulate high picks in this draft so we can improve our roster; and B, improve next year’s draft, so we have currency to move and manipulate in that draft. Here, I think we were able to take the number one pick and be a real build-through-the-draft team.”
The beauty of draft trading is there isn’t a winner or loser today. There won’t be a year from now, either. Two or three years from now, we’ll know. The Titans will need three or four pieces from the trade to start and play well to feel great about what they’ve done. And if the quarterback the Rams choose is a keeper, well, no one will say they gave up too much. But today, no one knows who won.
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