The Von Miller trade is, of course, the latest chapter in a story of wonderful, freewheeling management from Rams general manager Les Snead, whose perceived disdain for draft picks has built Los Angeles into a perpetual win-now contender. Miller joins a transaction list that includes Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Sony Michel and players no longer on the roster like Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Brandin Cooks and Sammy Watkins, each of whom were high-profile adds brought in at the expense of restocking the pipeline with young talent.
The news that shook the NFL world Monday (well, one of two big pieces of news) has many tentacles, though, that will stretch league-wide. The Rams were able to net the eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro pass rusher for a second- and third-round pick in the upcoming draft. Now the Rams have eight picks remaining in the upcoming draft, none of which are inside the top 100. Their highest is a third-rounder, and the majority of their picks are in the sixth and seventh rounds.
Who won and lost on this seismic day? Let us dive in to find out. …
Rams coach Sean McVay and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris
Here is what few people talk about when it comes to Snead’s aggressiveness: These moves are largely irreplicable elsewhere because the amount of faith a GM would need to have in his head coach and coordinator to pull off something like this would be astonishing. The only other team we’ve seen behave like this in the modern NFL has been the Patriots, where Bill Belichick was both the general manager and head coach. There is a not-so-well-kept secret that most NFL facilities are wracked by internal politics and infighting. Everyone is largely in protection mode, which means they are often scared to do something out of the ordinary. Snead would not put his own professional reputation on the line if he didn’t already know exactly how McVay and Morris would use someone like Miller. Snead, despite his aggressiveness, is acutely aware of the value of draft picks. He simply trusts his coaching staff a little more than the average general manager.
I’ll add an additional note on Morris here: As I noted in my preseason future head coaches list, there was one NFL insider who believed Morris was on the come-up, which makes sense. He coached well as an interim for the Falcons in 2020, and nearly everyone who comes into contact with McVay finds themself in a head coaching seat. As the Zac Taylors of the world continue to improve, bolstering the reputation of the coaching tree, we could see Morris back in a headset sooner rather than later. Having a generational pass rusher for the rest of the season doesn’t hurt.
Miller gets a chance to play relevant football for the first time since 2015 and is paired with one of the only other pass rushers of this generation, Aaron Donald, who may be able to stand in the same circle. Over roughly 350 snaps this year, Miller remains an elite edge rushing presence and won’t need to stretch himself schematically to make it work. One of the subtle strokes of brilliance in this trade was handing Miller over to a team that adores his now former head coach in Denver, Vic Fangio, and the scheme Fangio runs. When McVay parted ways with Wade Phillips, his first priority was shaking down the Fangio tree for a replacement, which led first to Brandon Staley and then to Morris, who is running a version of the maddening pattern-matching scheme.
Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd
An obvious note here, but Miller makes the players around him better. The edge rusher is chipped and double-teamed at an extraordinarily high rate and can still help out in coverage, though he hasn’t been asked to do that more than a handful of times this year. Flash back to the Browns game a few weeks ago, and it was a solid tell that Cleveland was going to throw based on the addition of a secondary tight end who could hold Miller at the line while Case Keenum was diagnosing the play, and slip out only after he could be guaranteed Miller wouldn’t dart into the backfield. Adding these kinds of prepackaged tells into a defense that contains some of the most cerebral pass-rushing superstars in the NFL is an absolute nightmare for opposing coordinators.
Broncos GM George Paton
Madden jockeys probably won’t understand why the famous guy didn’t net a first-round pick, but the truth is that no team is going there for a player who is excellent but in his early thirties. Anything the Broncos could add before Miller inevitably left in free agency was a win, especially a haul that well outperforms whatever paltry sum Miller would have netted in compensatory picks after leaving in free agency. While this is not necessarily a quarterback-heavy draft that can solve their ultimate long-term issues, this draft is going to have a deeper stockpile of better-studied talent that the Broncos can use to solve some of the issues caused by their own aging defense.
Also, the fact that Paton got the green light to trade one of the most important players in franchise history, the MVP of Super Bowl 50, bodes well for his ability to operate with free will in the Denver front office. Paton has already made some bold moves, including taking a hard pass on two quarterbacks in the first round of the 2021 draft.
Rams GM Les Snead
Snead, should the Rams win it all this year, would be turned into an iconoclast among general managers. While this move was not of the same level as the Stafford trade, it is a continuation of Snead’s theory that premium talent as a known commodity is more valuable than unknown commodities. It sounds simple, but hundreds of general managers over the years have coveted and stockpiled draft choices in the name of salary cap pragmatism and slow-burn roster building. Snead has shown, at least for now, that it doesn’t really matter as long as you win. He made one Super Bowl already. He has come a long way from being Jeff Fisher’s running mate in St. Louis, hoping to net a promising return for Sam Bradford.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke and the NFL
There have been few owners who have enjoyed this kind of ride with such a nascent fanbase. Kroenke made a gigantic, callous risk gutting the Rams out of St. Louis, but was smart enough to pair himself with a general manager befitting of a team with Hollywood ambitions. In late September our Albert Breer wrote about how this season has been exactly what the NFL hoped for when it returned to L.A. Now the Rams are even closer to potentially playing in the Super Bowl in the league’s expensive new California headquarters.
Rarely have we seen a team lean into this kind of roster building strategy with so much success, which both fascinates us and leads us to believe that the plodding, methodical ways of the past don’t always have to be the norm. This is good for the league, which has at least one Rams prime-time game left on the schedule and a handful of flex-worthy gems down the stretch. It’s good for daily fantasy football, the betting market and the general manager in all of us, who typically only fantasizes about these kinds of moves on an Xbox. There is an obvious correlation there, of course. We as a culture have become star obsessed, with LeBron James and the rest of his old Miami Heat teammates to thank. Pairing Ramsey, Donald and Stafford on the same roster is about as close as you can get in the NFL.
Last year the Buccaneers coopted a similar formula, and the payoff league-wide was evident.
Broncos coach Vic Fangio
It is probably not a good sign for a coach who is winning at a .500 clip and has preceded this season with two straight losing campaigns that his most elite player is now in another conference. The gamble on Fangio was an interesting one from John Elway, who desired a coach that could guarantee him one singular, dominant unit. On paper, the Broncos were primed for a top-five defense and started the year 3–0. They have since gone on a 1–4 stretch that currently has Denver listed as the 26th best unit in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Fangio is one of the most revered defensive coordinators in the NFL, but when a unit is projected to be as strong as Denver’s at the outset of the season, and we’re now talking about the Broncos being major sellers (perhaps more than just Miller is on the move), it typically does not bode well for the person calling the plays.
In a span of a week, the Cardinals lost J.J. Watt to injury, lost their perfect record against the Packers and now watch a division rival acquire a piece that will make the Rams’ defense almost unblockable for the remainder of the season. Interestingly enough, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim has adopted many traits from the Les Snead school, which included taking a major swing on a young, unproven coach, casting away players who were previously high draft picks and being largely unafraid to shake up personnel when the operation stagnates. But when a division rival shows such a penchant for a strong, finishing kick, it puts the Cardinals in a difficult position as they try to traverse a fairly undaunting second-half schedule that forces them to keep pace. With only one top seed available, the Cardinals may have seen their chances at a first-round bye decrease slightly. There do not seem to be any pass rushers of a similar caliber left on the market, which makes replacing Watt, or diversifying the scheme in his absence, a little more difficult.
Chargers owner Dean Spanos
Spanos is enjoying the fruits of his labor, and he should be. The Chargers selected a rising star as their next head coach, they have the reigning rookie of the year as their quarterback and yet they remain a well-enjoyed indie band sharing a stage with the Rolling Stones each night. It was always going to be a near impossibility for the Chargers to thrive in Los Angeles after struggling to fill a nearby soccer stadium when they first moved. The Brandon Staley era will bring a period of sound, consistent football. I would be willing to bet that, over the course of the next decade, the Chargers will win more games than the Rams. But … the star-chaser in all of us is a fickle, hungry creature. As the owner of the Chargers, do you scroll through your news feed at all this afternoon with a twinge of regret that your team does not possess the same kind of flare?
Middling general managers
Here is an important point: Both Snead and the Bucs’ Jason Licht have shown that it’s entirely possible—and WAY more popular—to jolt a club to life in the matter of a few short years. Sustained relevance in the NFL is almost impossible—and, ask Steelers fans, perhaps a bit boring—so why not just try to win now? Snead and Licht bucked the politicking. They hurled what was remaining in their bank accounts on 30–1 shots and won. This creates a personality archetype that relevance-hungry owners will search for in the interview room. It also puts the spotlight on those who have been operating their team like a decades-old mutual fund yielding small but steady returns. We are reaching a point of almost comical irony; that the fictitious owner of the Browns in the regrettable film Draft Day is actually the norm—a person who will begin to understand the YOLO culture on which his future business depends and demand that the general manager start making a splash.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch
The Niners have the Rams coming down the pike twice to close out their season. After recovering their footing in a win over the Bears, the 49ers now must grapple with an injury-prone roster and (possibly, at some point) a rookie quarterback while facing a defense that mirrored the front-seven talent of their 2019 Super Bowl run.
Program-oriented head coaches
Along the lines of our general manager point, there was, for a short time, an emphasis on hiring coaches who would create that almost cultish college football atmosphere in the NFL. While the efficacy of such a strategy remains to be seen, what Monday’s news may tell us is that there really is no program to be built anymore. For the last two years (and, in a way, three if you factor in some of the Chiefs’ behavior leading up to their Super Bowl victory) the secret seems to be cultivating star talent around a gregarious central figure. In Tampa Bay, that was Bruce Arians and Tom Brady. In Los Angeles, it has become McVay, Donald and Ramsey. The Raiders tried something similar but failed spectacularly. But the swing—and relevance bump—is far more advantageous from an owner’s perspective than, say, creating a version of the Vikings over nearly a decade.
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