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How much does winning actually hurt Rams in the draft?

Are the Rams hurting their chances of drafting an impact player by winning games?

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams entered the 2023 season with one goal in mind. General manager Les Snead and the front office made the difficult decisions to trade Jalen Ramsey and then cut both Leonard Floyd and Bobby Wagner. The 2023 season was a reset year to acquire more cap space heading into the 2024 and 2025 seasons.

Throughout the offseason, the national media called this “tanking.” However, this was a team that never had the intention to tank. Queue up the the Boromir meme, “one does not simply tank with Aaron Donald, Matthew Stafford, and Cooper Kupp on the roster.

While the Rams weren’t tanking, they also weren’t necessarily trying to win. They didn’t make any free agent signings, even if they were low-cost. Despite the need for an edge rusher, veteran players signed for other teams. The NFL’s free agency period opened in March. Los Angeles finally brought in Ahkello Witherspoon in late-June.

They did make an acquisition on the offensive line, trading for Kevin Dotson for day-3 pick swaps. It was a low-risk move for a player on a contract year that had no future implications, but could re-sign if it worked out.

In the first half of the season, it was clear that Cam Akers and Van Jefferson were no longer part of the plan. Snead traded them away for late-round draft pick swaps in 2025 and 2026. These aren’t moves that are made with the current year in mind.

The plan has seemingly always been to let this year come to the Rams and not force anything. Whatever happens, happens. Find young players on the roster that you can move forward with when the team is ready to make a push in 2024, and especially 2025. With Sean McVay as the team’s head coach, along with Stafford, Kupp, and Donald, even if it was ugly sometimes, this was a team that was at least going to be competitive.

The goal of this season has never been to make a push for the playoffs. Again, just because the Rams weren’t trying to win, doesn’t necessarily mean that they were tanking. At this point in the season, all of this should be known.

Heading into the bye week, the Rams had lost three straight games and were sitting at 3-6 with a top-10 pick at seventh overall. With Jason Myers lined up for a 55-yard field goal, they were staring 3-7 in the face. In one play, the Rams went from potentially holding the sixth overall pick to now potentially picking 13th.

In the fanbase, the narrative went from “what left tackle are the Rams drafting in the top-10” to “this team can make a push for the playoffs.” Had that kick gone through the uprights, the focus would have been completely on the draft. Now, it’s true that the Rams schedule does get relatively easier down the stretch. They currently have the 19th most difficult remaining strength of schedule. At the same time, this is also a team that hasn’t shown the consistency level to rally off a string of wins that will be required to make a playoff push.

A worst case scenario for the Rams is to end up missing both the postseason and the potential of a top-10 pick. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle. Of course, talent can be found in the middle of the first-round. The Rams are great example of that as Aaron Donald was taken with the 13th overall pick. Cooper Kupp was found in the third-round.

However, to say that there is no difference in selecting between picks six and eight and then picks 13 and 17 is naive. Talent can be found anywhere in the draft. With that said, it’s a little easier to find talent in some areas of the draft than others.

Now, to be clear, this isn’t me advocating for the Rams to “tank” or purposely go for a top-10 draft pick. After missing out on the postseason between 2005 to 2016, a playoff appearance should absolutely be cherished, even if it results in a 47-17 loss to the Michael Vick-led Atlanta Falcons.

This is only to say that it’s also important to be realistic about what this Rams team is. They currently rank 20th in overall DVOA and they’re in the bottom-half of the NFL in both offense and defense EPA per play. This is currently a team that lacks blue-chip talent. Realistically, the best place to get young, blue-chip talent is inside the top-10.

NFL Team Tiers
NFL Team Tiers
Ben Baldwin

It’s important to remain focused on the long-term plan of 2024 and 2015 and not get caught up in short-term gratification. The benefit of adding those potential blue-chip talent may be better long term than the instant gratification of a playoff appearance. Again, simply put, the Rams roster lacks those types of players outside of Stafford, Kupp, and Donald who are all over 30 years old.

The big question here is, how much is winning potentially meaningless games actually hurting the Rams at this point? They aren’t going to end up with a top-5 pick, so is there a huge difference in picking in the bottom half of the top-10 or in the middle of the first round?

For this exercise, it makes the most sense to start with the 2021 NFL Draft. At this point, we have a clearer picture of what those projects have become. The 2023 draft has some examples i.e. the Arizona Cardinals selected Paris Johnson with the sixth overall pick while the Pittsburgh Steelers took Broderick Jones 14th overall. Johnson has played more snaps, but both players have graded similarly according to Pro Football Focus. However, these players still need time to develop.

One way to make this comparison is to use a metric called DrAV. This is a value metric from Pro Football Reference that measures the value of a player for the team that drafted them. Looking at the 2017-2021 NFL Drafts, it’s not really that close. The average approximate value of players drafted 6-9 is 32 points. Meanwhile, players selected in the 13-17 range have an average approximate value of just 23.9.

It makes sense to also break it down by positions of need for the Rams. Depending on what the board looked like, most positions are probably on the table. However, it is worth looking at specific positions such as offensive tackle. Penei Sewell is the only offensive tackle that was drafted in the 6-8 range over the past five years. There have been five drafted in the 13-17 range, led by Wirfs. The average approximate value is 20.2 which is about the same as Sewell. However, this includes busts like Alex Leatherwood and Alijah Vera-Tucker.

With that being said, if we go back to the 2016 NFL Draft, Ronnie Stanley and Jack Conklin were drafted in the 6-8 range. Both players have an approximate value over 30 with Stanley at 43 and Conklin at 30. In that same year, Laremy Tunsil was drafted 13th overall with an DrAV of 14 and Taylor Decker was drafted with the 16th pick and has a DrAV of 41.

If you add those players, the 6-8 range clearly comes out on top with an approximate value of 31 to 22. Again, that’s just at the offensive tackle position which is the Rams’ biggest position of need.

Again, you can find players in that 13-17 range, but the hit-rate is better in the top-10 and you get higher impact players. In 2021, the Detroit Lions took Sewell with the seventh overall pick and was the only offensive tackle taken inside the top-10. Six picks later, the Los Angeles Chargers drafted Slater and then the Las Vegas Raiders took Leatherwood with pick 17. Sewell has potential to be the best left tackle in the NFL in the coming years.

The next best way to determine success in draft picks is Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections.

Pro Bowlers and All-Pros Drafted with Picks 6-8

  • OT Penei Sewell
  • QB Justin Herbert
  • EDGE Josh Allen
  • TE TJ Hockenson
  • iOL Quenton Nelson
  • QB Josh Allen
  • LB Roquon Smith
  • S Jamal Adams
  • RB Christian McCaffrey

Nine out of the 15 players selected in the 6-8 range have become Pro Bowl or All-Pro selections. That’s a rate of 60 percent. These are all high-impact players who at one point or another could have been consider the best at their positions or at the very least among the best.

The fact of the matter is that this point, these are the type of players that the Rams are missing from their roster. The Rams need blue-chip talent in order to take that next step and make a final push with Stafford, Kupp, and Donald. That young, blue-chip player can then be a face for the future.

In the upcoming draft, Olu Fashanu and Joe Alt are those types of players.

Pro Bowlers and All-Pros Drafted with Picks 13-17

  • OT Rashawn Slater
  • QB Mac Jones
  • OT Tristan Wirfs
  • WR CeeDee Lamb
  • iOL Chris Lindstrom
  • EDGE Brian Burns
  • DL Demarcus Lawrence
  • DL Daron Payne
  • LB Tremaine Edmunds
  • S Derwin James
  • EDGE Haason Reddick
  • CB Marlon Humphrey
  • EDGE Jonathan Allen

13 of the 25 players drafted in the 13-17 range have ended up being Pro Bowlers or All-Pros. It is worth noting that Reddick’s Pro Bowl season came on a different team and Jones is heading in the wrong direction at the quarterback position. If you want to count all 13, that’s 52 percent of the players drafted in the 13-17 range have ended up being Pro Bowl or All-Pro selections. However, if you count 11, that’s just 44 percent which is 16 percent less than the players drafted in the 6-9 range.

All of these players here are quality starters. However, the Rams don’t just need starters. Again, they need blue-chip, difference makers, especially along the offensive line and on defense. Those caliber of players are found in the top-10.

Conclusion

There’s nothing wrong with wanting the Rams to win games down the stretch. However, to say that it won’t affect their chances of hitting on an impact player in the draft is also incorrect and naive. The fact of the matter is, the Rams unfortunately are not in a spot where they are built to win right now.

At 4-6, this is also a team that hasn’t shown any consistency to be able to go 5-2 down the stretch which is what they would need at the very least to make the postseason. Again, a playoff appearance should be appreciated if that were to happen. However, at this point, it’s still very unlikely. Their playoff chances sit at around 15 percent.

Winning doesn’t necessarily hurt the Rams, but it doesn’t help them either. When there’s generational at the offensive tackle position, that’s more important than going 8-9 for the sake of “feeling good heading into the offseason”.