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MAQB: The Rams Are All In at a Few Key Positions; Derrick Henry, Jameis Winston Injuries

A look at how L.A. has been strategic, even in giving away lots of draft capital. Plus, the Titans' identity without their star, how the Saints might handle the QB spot and more.

A busy Monday as we enter November. Here's the latest around the league ...


• Few have used the word discipline to describe how the Rams have built this sort of second era of Sean McVay teams—but if you’re willing to look close enough it’s right there for you. And the big swing to get Von Miller fits right into the equation.

Over the last few years, a subtle shift in L.A.’s team-building model has taken place. GM Les Snead’s philosophy has moved too, and is more dug in on finding players who, in simple terms, can score points and stop opponents from scoring. That’s put a premium on four groups: quarterbacks, receivers, pass rushers and corners.

Now, look at the actions of Snead, McVay and COO Kevin Demoff. They traded for Matthew Stafford. They reinvested in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, and took a look at Brandin Cooks along the way. They paid Aaron Donald at the highest level, and took fliers on former top-10 picks Leonard Floyd and Dante Fowler, then paid Floyd. They traded for, and then paid Jalen Ramsey. And now, they’ve landed Miller.

Meanwhile, they’ve churned safeties (John Johnson) and linebackers (Cory Littleton), interior linemen (Rodger Saffold), and I’d bet it’ll eventually happen at running back too, since it was actually, in part, a mistake they made (the Todd Gurley contract) that moved this organizational shift along.

In a lot of ways, this is analogous to how Bill Polian built the Colts around Peyton Manning—investing in a small group of players at premium spots (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, etc.), and then leaning on coaches and systems to put young draft picks in position to play early at other positions surrounding them. The one difference here? The Colts’ core was entirely homegrown, and the Rams’ is decidedly not. But, again, each team is similarly reliant on a small group of elite guys.

And so sure, in identifying that core, and continuing to reinvest in it, the Rams are all-in for right now. But this certainly didn’t happen without a plan.

• It’s also interesting that this deal has, very quietly, been in the works for some time. The Rams have their pro scouting department do work every summer on veteran players who may become available at the trade deadline (not an unusual practice for a contender), and Miller wound up in a cluster of guys they figured they’d be interested in, were he to go on the block. So a few weeks back, they told the Broncos just to keep them in mind if they made the call to trade Miller. Then, last week, the two teams worked out a separate trade with linebacker Kenny Young going from L.A. to Denver—a move the Rams made to dump Young’s salary and clear the way for rookie Ernest Jones to play, and the Broncos made to fill an immediate need (the Rams got a 2024 sixth for Young and a ‘24 seventh, which means the Broncos basically got him for free). And finalizing that deal sparked talks on the Miller trade (it was actually first raised again half-jokingly), with parameters laid down through the week, and the agreement being pushed over the goal line on Monday morning.

• For the Broncos, letting Miller go wasn’t easy, based on all that he’s meant to the organization. He really grew up there, going from a guy who’d had his issues as a young player to the face of a Super Bowl champion, while becoming a community pillar. That said, the compensation here is really good—with Denver basically getting a pick and buying another from the Rams (which is a good use of present-day cap space to get future assets). One person involved told me it was fair to look at the deal and say that the Broncos got a second-round pick for Miller himself and then a third-rounder for taking on $9 million of the $9.7 million he was due the rest of the year. Bottom line is the Rams have already leveraged every contract they could outside of Stafford’s, and the Broncos’ taking the money on made it so they wouldn’t have to push any more money into future years. Conversely, Denver had already budgeted for Miller’s contract for the rest of the year, so this is basically getting a free Day 2 pick thrown in for paying that out. And considering that the Broncos could be a major player in the offseason quarterback sweepstakes, getting the extra capital to work with, either to get the quarterback or put pieces around him, is a big deal (Denver now has multiple picks in the second, third, fifth and seventh rounds next year). Plus, Miller’s in a contract year anyway (the Rams will try to keep him past this year, I’m told), and only would’ve brought Denver back no more than a comp fifth-rounder in 2023 if he bolted in free agency. Also, the Broncos have a young (albeit injured) rusher in Bradley Chubb, and notched five sacks Sunday without Miller. Which makes this deal, at least on paper, a win/win.

• The Broncos also tried their best, because of Miller’s stature in the organization and city, to be careful with how the deal was handled. Things heated up Sunday after the Broncos’ win over Washington, and on Monday morning Denver GM George Paton sought out Miller to tell him face to face. From there, Miller met with John Elway, Vic Fangio and team president Joe Ellis. My understanding is he was pretty stunned, but liked the destination—the Broncos were never going to send him to a team that wasn’t a serious contender, and they figured he’d like the idea of the Rams since he spends time in the offseason in L.A. All things considered, again, this one just made a lot of sense for all parties involved. 

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• Terrible news all the way around on Derrick Henry’s needing surgery, and going on the shelf for the next two months or so with the sort of injury that certainly can linger even post-op. I’d argue there isn’t a non-quarterback out there more essential to his team’s identity than Henry is to who the Titans have been under Mike Vrabel. But Henry probably just had his two worst games of the year to this point, and the Titans blew out the Chiefs and came back from a 14–0 deficit against the Colts in those ones. Which led to me ask a couple of their guys about maintaining that identity even when Henry isn’t running wild. You can find Ryan Tannehill’s answer in this morning’s MMQB column. Here’s what Kevin Byard told me on that last week: “They make a lot of excuses about why we’re going to lose the next game. But nobody ever talks about how physical we are as a team. Obviously, Derrick Henry is the guy that he is. But our offensive line, they’re physical, they’re pushing piles. And there was a stat that came out last week that we had the most come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter in the NFL since Vrabel has been the coach, and that’s because we impose our will on teams early in the games. And things may not be pretty or everything’s perfect, but toward the end of the game, in the fourth quarter, those things tend to pile up and they tend to matter. … That’s just the mentality of our team. We want to be physical. We may not win a track meet against these guys, obviously, but we may get physical, we may get bloody, you get results.” So it’ll be interesting to see what all that looks like with some combination of Jeremy McNichols, Adrian Peterson and whoever else carrying the ball.

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• Love this stat and meant to include it in the MMQB column (and forgot to): The Saints are 13–6 over Sean Payton’s decade and a half without Drew Brees, and 13–3 without him since 2019, a span during which they’ve used three different quarterbacks (Teddy Bridgewater, Taysom Hill, Jameis Winston) to start consecutive games for them. So that’s one reason I think New Orleans will be O.K. The other is that I don’t think the Saints are going to be afraid at all to roll the dice. Maybe it’ll be by bringing someone in. Maybe it’ll be by thinking outside the box. One staffer down there cautioned me on Sunday night not to just assume they’d throw Hill back in there when he’s healthy again—intimating that Hill might be more valuable for an offense short on playmakers in a slash type of role, while platooning with Trevor Siemian at quarterback. In most cases, you’d think that might be too risky for a coach to try. But in Payton’s case, we’ve already seen things like that. So it wouldn’t be a shock to see it again.

• In the morning column, we had Jets coach Robert Saleh declaring Mike White his starter for Thursday night. And as part of that conversation, I asked Saleh if he saw this coming from White in the spring and summer, and whether it might’ve been part of the team’s decision making in holding off on acquiring a more experienced veteran to back up Zach Wilson. “It’s about what we saw in training camp, just his command with the huddle, command with the offense, really understanding what is being asked of the quarterback position throughout all those phases, Phase I, II and III through the spring and into camp,” Saleh said. “His ability to process information, and process when the ball is snapped to get the ball where it’s supposed to go, and move through his progression, all of it was right there. Sometimes, and I get it, it can seem crazy from the outside looking in, but you’ve just got to trust what you see. Block out the noise, trust what you see and Mike does nothing but give confidence to Joe Douglas, and us coaches and his ability to play at a high level.” It’ll be interesting to see how he looks against the Colts in three days.

• While we’re there, I did ask Saleh yesterday what he thought of the personal foul called on Bengals CB Mike Hilton—Hilton was flagged for supposedly lowering his head into Jets RB Ty Johnson in the open field—that essentially ended Cincinnati’s best shot at getting the ball back to either tie or win the game late. I figured it’d be interesting to hear it, given that he’s a defensive coach. “It is a tough one,” Saleh said. “I mean, if the call was flipped, it would’ve hurt. But, I’m gonna flip it—Ty’s job is to have been running people over, and he’s been a tough person to tackle all day, so in my biased mind, I feel like Ty Johnson earned that rep from the way he was running the ball all day. And if you wanted to tackle him today you had to come after him and that was one of those plays.”

• Two players on the spot Monday night: Chiefs defensive linemen Chris Jones and Frank Clark. It’s not entirely their fault they haven’t been what they normally would be—both have been nicked up—but Kansas City badly needs the two to return to form. The absence of their normally dominant play has exposed a young back seven that’s looked pretty ordinary through the first two months of the season.

• We’ll know in less than 24 hours whether Deshaun Watson is going to play football in 2021. How could it possibly have gotten to the point where he might not this year, without the league’s having taken action? Check out my GamePlan from last Friday for answers on that. 

More NFL Coverage:

Von Miller Trade Winners and Losers
Henry Injury Is Ultimate Test of RB Value Hypothesis
MMQB: Saints Beat Brady Again, Familiar-Looking Pats, More
Week 8 Takeaways: Feisty Divisional Games, Blowouts and More

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