Les Snead Challenged The Status Quo Of Building A Team, Now The NFL Is Following Suit
February 6th, 2012 was a watershed moment in the NFL. It was the first major trade from an executive that would make many more major trades. Les Snead received wide praise for fleecing Washington for their 2012 first-round pick (6th overall), 2012 second-rounder, 2013 first-rounder, and a 2014 first-rounder. Washington did this of course to draft Robert Griffin III who was fun for a year but didn’t change the league (although members of their staff would). Snead’s big picks bonanza wasn’t unique, after all, Hurricane Ditka traded a principal’s ransom of picks for Ricky Williams over ten years prior and the Cowboys traded running back (and evolution denier) Herschel Walker before that.
The RGIII trade did not net the Rams any major pieces aside from Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, and Greg Zuerlein, BUT because they had the Washington picks they used their own to make other moves. That’s not to say Les hit on everything, for instance, the trades up for Tavon Austin and Alec Ogletree were ill-advised (more on this later) he still found gold. Yes, the number two overall pick the year later netted Greg Robinson (could’ve had Khalil Mack but OH WELL) but the 13th pick got Aaron Donald (Urban Meyer still hasn’t heard of him). Snead continued to build through the draft as most teams do but it was once he had enough pieces in place did his true innovations take place. Les learned a big lesson from the 2013 Seahawks in that it’s best to take advantage of a quarterback on a rookie contract.
When the Rams moved to LA they needed to make a splash. They had no real fan base outside of the old heads that never quit the team when they left, along with a remainder of St. Louis fans who didn’t want to be NFL widows. Les Snead made a reverse RGIII trade and traded two-first round picks and a second-round pick for Jared Goff. This move was mocked by everyone as Goff wasn’t viewed as a franchise quarterback (neither was Carson Wentz). This notion was all but confirmed when coach Jeff Fisher buried Goff before having to start him at gunpoint, leading him to be labeled a bust.
They hired Sean McVay a year later and while detractors claim he walked into a playoff team they are huffing duster because no one felt that at the time. Les Snead’s 2017 off-season was the most important off-season of his career. Not only did he take swings on Andrew Whitworth and Robert Woods (yes both were swings) but without a first-round pick (the most important of picks per pundits) he had to make the most of his mid-round picks. Those ended up being Cooper Kupp, John Johnson, Josh Reynolds, Samson Ebukam, and Gerald Everett.
He was able to get so many mid-late-round picks because he was willing to eat dead cap (more on that later) by trading Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn for picks despite resigning them for big extensions. Obviously, Kupp and Johnson were the big gets but this would lead to Les taking the comp pick formula perfected by longtime Ravens, GM Ozzie Newsome, and began his “F— them Picks” strategy.
Following the 2017 season, where the Rams won the NFC West and lost in the wild-card round, Snead really started swinging. He traded a first-round pick for Brandin Cooks after trading for Sammy Watkins (who he let walk for a comp pick). He also traded a fifth-round pick for Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. At midseason, he’d trade a third-rounder for Dante Fowler. He would also give Donald, Todd Gurley, and Rob Havenstein large extensions.
Their strategy to abandon all conventional team building was laughed at as desperate and the antithesis of how to win a Super Bowl. Bill Belichick or Newsome would never do that. The Rams would make the Super Bowl (yes on a controversial call buttressed with the Saints choking) and were then laughed off the field. Some would say that they got what they deserved for trying to “buy a team” and giving away firsts like they were candy. Les Snead, however, would not be discouraged and doubled down on this approach.
2019 represented a transitional year where all the Mordos predicted the bill would come due. Their line was a mess and their defense was getting exposed. At the deadline Les once again traded two-first round picks for an all-star in Jalen Ramsey and also traded Peters and Talib. He also traded for Austin Corbett but that went under the radar. Once again, this was seen as desperate but it was what happened in the off-season that really made eyebrows raise.
He cut Gurley and took on $70 million in dead cap while they also took on dead cap on Brandin Cooks because they gave him a massive extension and traded him to Houston (which got them Van Jefferson).
The dead cap and no firsts until 2023 were looked at again as beyond risky and yet the machine hummed. The Rams made the playoffs after missing a year before and even beat the Seahawks. Finally, the Rams saw their limitations at quarterback and once again they took on a ton of dead cap money because they traded two-firsts and Goff for Stafford. This was looked at as the nexus of Snead’s strategy. This team now had the biggest spotlight on it and we all know the results.
They were labeled a super team especially after trading their second and third-round picks for Von Miller while also signing Odell Beckham. Again everyone predicted the house of cards to fall and once again it didn’t. The reason why Snead has been able to make these moves again and again while also adding problematic figures such as Marcus Peters, Ndamukong Suh, and Ramsey is that he built an infrastructure that could support it.
When a player like DeSean Jackson doesn’t fit he’s not afraid to cut bait and find a Beckham that can fit. He can “F— them picks” because he KILLS it with comp picks and later-round picks. Jordan Fuller, Terrell Burgess, Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Taylor Rapp, Darrell Henderson, Greg Gaines, Sebastian Joseph-Day, etc. For all the “Super Team” talk, the Rams had more homegrown talent in the Super Bowl than the Bengals did.
Furthermore, when these homegrown guys become too expensive Snead is content to let them walk and pick up a comp pick and reload. He also isn’t just drafting the best players but the best players that fit with McVay and what he likes to do. His scouting department is also adept at finding undrafted free agents such as Kendall Blanton, Travin Howard, and Marquise Copeland that might not show up on fantasy teams or stat sheets but make the big plays when needed. He and Tony Pastoors are great at structuring and restructuring contracts so that despite having a lot of big deals on the books their cap hit year to year are ultimately team-friendly enabling a Von Miller type move if need be.
There were many mistakes on the way to a title but they were mistakes he was able to dig himself out of. Yeah, the dead cap sucked and likely cost them keeping John Johnson long-term but that’s ultimately ok because he always has players that can step in.
He also is lucky that Sean McVay is such a strong evaluator of talent. The Rams are poached for coaching talent every year and yet they never miss a step. Sure, fans get frustrated with McVay but he’s had a winning record every year and the new blood has probably been a good thing because they don’t get stagnant. The team takes a new form every year and even after a title they’re building a life without Robert Woods, Andrew Whitworth, and others.
Snead’s probably never going to get the credit for what the NFL is allowing itself to be now. Look at all the big trades. Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and others. Teams are no longer scared to take big moves because they see what Les saw. It’s best to maximize your roster to win a title because even with the most steadfast drafting and cap responsibility windows can shut QUICKLY.
Inevitably, teams will try this strategy and fail, some spectacularly so. Not every team can do this. On top of being smart with contracts, he has a team that can evaluate talent both in the short term and the long term. He’s okay with drafting replacements for players he doesn’t plan on keeping and developing them until they can reload. He’s fortunate to have a coach that is a strong evaluator of talent in his own right and his stars are the kind that can coexist in an ecosystem and when the chips are down rally around each other.
Outsiders perceive the Rams as a team that is star-focused and has the resources to buy relevance rather than build something real. The sour grapes contingent sees what the Rams have done as a detriment to the league because now teams are willing to sacrifice continuity and the future to win now. The truth is, Snead has built something real. The difference is his strategy skipped the steps where a team EARNS it. He never had to go through multiple rebuilding years in the McVay era and rather than wait for all the seeds to bear fruit he looks at the margins and gets a proven blue-chip player.
He also makes moves with several possible moves afterward and sees the league like a chessboard. Yeah it’s frustrating for an outsider to see a team with Matthew Stafford, Beckham, and Von coupled with Donald and Kupp but when that can only be done when those stars are supported by several great role players. It was telling that in both the NFC title game and the Super Bowl, Donald forced a turnover to a role player. Those in the Rams’ bubble aren’t shocked when a Travin Howard, Brycen Hopkins, or Gaines makes a play but when you don’t live in that bubble it seems impossible that a team so front-loaded and cap-strapped can have a guy that can do that.
The trailblazers rarely get the credit and even now the Bengals are the ones credited with fueling the arms race in the AFC but really it’s all because the Rams took the risks, the criticism, and the jokes. The Bengals didn’t go as crazy as the Rams but they did draft well and spent money and unexpectedly made a Super Bowl run. Snead walked so the rest of the league can run.
Perhaps a day will come when teams revert to being boring and conservative again but for now, GMs are willing to stick their neck out because, as the NBA learned, it’s much worse to be on the treadmill of mediocrity than anything else. When a team is neither contending nor rebuilding that’s a death sentence. A day will come when Snead will have to rebuild the team and hope he can use picks to build a foundation and then get to “F— Them Picks” all over again but that’s a ways off. He’s in “Run it Back” mode and the rest of the league is simply trying to catch up.