This morning, the Los Angeles Rams shocked everyone by shipping a massive bag of picks to the Tennessee Titans in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick, with which they will almost assuredly take a quarterback. It feels like a huge mistake, one we’ll laugh about for decades, but I’m not sure that the people making the deal had any other choice.
The broad consensus is that the Rams gave up too much; that Carson Wentz or Jared Goff will probably not justify the return; and that L.A., a team with plenty of needs to address, just tanked its next two drafts in exchange for a chance—just a chance, and maybe not a very good one—at a franchise QB.
For now it’s a question of probabilities, and I agree that the odds are against the Rams striking gold here. Maybe coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead agree too. But the modern NFL has so warped the risk-reward matrix of drafting a quarterback that it’s no longer automatically wrong to spend an obscene amount just to buy that lotto ticket. With exceptions maybe once every generation, you cannot win without a franchise QB.
Quarterbacks are everything. True superstar quarterbacks, in an offense-oriented league that has seen air attacks become paramount, and with CTE concerns mounting will increasingly emphasize protecting passers (making a drafted QB even more draft cost-efficient now than they may be in a few years), are the NFL’s single most prized asset. That chart that assigns point values to every draft position? Throw it out the fucking window when a quarterback is involved. No front office wouldn’t mortgage its future for a can’t-miss QB prospect.
The problem here is that true can’t-miss prospects so rarely come along, and Wentz and Goff are not Andrew Luck types. They can miss, and might. But NFL gameplay is so unbalanced—QB is so overwhelmingly more valuable than any other position—that it makes a sick sort of sense to risk so much on the chance of finding a star QB high in the draft.
This is a flaw in the system. Wentz and Goff seem like fine players, but they are not slavered over like obvious number ones of drafts past. But quarterbacks come at a premium because there are so few legitimately good ones, and because a good rookie QB is near-universally seen as a cure-all for a moribund franchise, even if it comes at the expense of that QB’s development. That premium is now prohibitive. The NFL is fundamentally broken if teams have real incentive to spend this much on prospects whom no one truly loves.
Getting the top pick doesn’t guarantee a franchise QB, we know that. And yet, you can’t have a great team without having a franchise QB. It’s a harrowing catch-22 that’s kept some teams mired in mediocrity. Over at CBS Sports, Pete Prisco makes the argument from hindsight:
It might seem like a ransom for that No. 1 pick, and it’s a good move for the Titans, who already have what they think is a franchise passer in Marcus Mariota. But ask yourselves this question: Why have the Packers, Patriots and Steelers been mentioned as possible Super Bowl teams every year the past decade, no matter what? It’s the guys taking the snaps.
Tom Brady has won four rings and the Patriots are the favorites in Vegas heading into 2016. The Steelers and Packers are both legitimate contenders again because of Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, who have three rings between them.
The counterpoint to this argument, and one Prisco curiously doesn’t raise, is the draft positions of those three Hall of Famers. One came from the middle of the first round; one from the end; the third came from the sixth round.
Picking No. 1 definitely gives you your choice of available QBs, but it doesn’t mean the highest rated ones will ultimately be the best. Wentz and Goff have shot up the draft boards thanks to the NFL draft psyche’s curious farrago of gossip, groupthink, and panic. Remember that neither was on first-round draft boards a year ago; they weren’t even the highest projected QBs in December.
To frame this Rams-Titans trade in terms of opportunity cost: Would you be shocked if Paxton Lynch, who the Rams could easily have had with their own picks, turns out to be the best of the 2016 class? I’m not saying that will happen. I’m saying there’s a chance, and not an outside one.
Of course, there is so much more to this trade than talent. The Rams are a boring team without a marketable star, and they’re moving to Los Angeles. It matters to the bottom line to have someone who can be presented as a franchise QB, even if he turns out to fail. Wentz or Goff will sell jerseys, and will sell season tickets.
Crucially, too, Les Snead and Jeff Fisher have overseen nothing but mediocrity in their four years running the Rams. Their jobs, presumably, are soon to be on the line. They may well have just bought themselves a few years more of continued employment. They have a QB project now, one that will require a few seasons for anyone to be sure if it will pan out, while the full effects of giving up that much to the Titans won’t be felt for many more years to come.
The self-interests of the scouts, the coaches, the front office, and the owners—all the people with personal stakes in a team’s draft—do not always align. Sometimes they clash directly with the ultimate interests of fans. This can lead to futures being mortgaged on bad bets, and to teams splashily rebuilding in the exact wrong ways. The probabilities say the Rams boned this trade. But however long the odds, maybe not. Maybe they just saved the franchise. In today’s NFL, that possibility is worth everything.