For this second part of the series, we'll be looking at the possibility of the Rams trading up into the bottom part of the 1st round.
Why would the Rams want to make such a move? Since they hold a pick early in the 2nd round, if they just stay put they might get lucky and the player they might target at slot 24 could fall all the way to 36, allowing the Rams to get that player without giving up any additional picks. I can think of at least 2 reasons.
First, there is a 5th year team option that attaches to a 1st round pick. The team doesn't have such control over a player drafted in the 2nd round. This can lead to strange outcomes in terms of the timing of when players land a huge payday.
Aaron Donald was a 1st round pick in 2014 and instantly was one of the best defenders in the league. Joel Bitonio was an early 2nd round pick that year. In his 3rd NFL season, Bitonio suffered a Lisfranc foot injury and missed most of the year. Despite his injury, the Browns were so confident in him that they signed him to a lucrative 5 year contract almost to this very date 6 years ago, locking him up "early", prior to his 4th NFL season.
Meanwhile, the Rams exercised their 5th year option on Donald. An awkward dance followed, where Donald kind of held out, but couldn't really hold out, because the CBA punishes players if they try to dig in too hard, so he halfway held out and didn't play in the opening game in 2017, then he sort of held out again in 2018, but is it really a holdout if the regular season hasn't started yet, and finally the two sides came together for a new contract on the eve of the 2018 season. So, Donald eventually got his money, but was more than a full year after Bitonio got his big contract.
We saw the 5th year option impact Lamar Jackson's situation. The Ravens traded up with the Eagles to take Jackson at the very end of the 1st round in 2018. This trade worked out well for both teams. The Eagles eventually got Dallas Goedert after trading down, then with the extra 2nd round pick acquired in the trade they got Miles Sanders, which was important, because the Eagles busted their other 2nd round pick in 2019.
Jackson became league MVP for the Ravens. They exercised their 5th year option on him at a cost of $23 million. Without that control, the team would have had to use the franchise tag on him for 2022, which would have cost $29.7 million, so the team achieved a substantial savings, plus it freed up the tag if they had wanted to use it on a different player. Still unable to reach an agreement on a new deal, the Ravens used the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jackson for 2023 at a cost of $32.4 million. If they had used successive tags on him, it would have cost $35.64 million to tag him this year.
The difference becomes even greater in 2024 if Jackson still hasn't gotten a long term deal. By tagging him a 2nd time, the Ravens would have him at a cost of $38.88 million. If Jackson had been a 2nd round pick and the Ravens had been forced to used a 3rd franchise tag, his salary would be a whopping $51.32 million (remember Kirk Cousins?), so there is a huge gap in the pricetag if we went that far down the road. This impacts the current contract negotiations, because the player has much more leverage in the latter situation, while the team has better leverage if the tag doesn't cost as much.
The 2nd reason for trading up is to eliminate any uncertainty in what the board might look like at pick 36. Instead of hoping that a certain player will still be available, especially if that player had been projected to go even earlier, pounce on the opportunity as soon as the prospect falls within range for a trade. Why get cute and get burned if the player gets taken say at slots 31 to 35, especially if you don't love the next best available players after him?
If we take that same 2014 draft with Donald and Bitonio (the same draft we used in Part 1 of this series, considering a hypothetical trade for Zack Martin), it was surprising when edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence didn't get picked in the 1st round that year. Dallas packaged their 2nd and 3rd round picks to move up to slot 34 early in the 2nd round to get Lawrence. This ended up being a very important trade. Washington got a pass rusher after trading down with Dallas (Trent Murphy) but didn't get as good a result. If Dallas had stayed put, some of the EDGE players available later were decent prospects (e.g. Scott Crichton, Will Clarke) but none of those players found much success in the NFL.
As soon as Dee Ford came off the board at pick 23, that would have been prime territory for any team to make a move for Lawrence. Dallas was rather fortunate that Lawrence fell so far. The Eagles made a surprise pick and went with Marcus Smith at 26, a pass rusher who was a draft bust. If the Eagles had taken Lawrence instead, Dallas not only would have lost out on him, but he would have gone to a division rival and they would have had to play against him.
Who Might be Available at 24?
Trading from 36 to 24 is only a move of 12 slots. The advantage is that the price isn't prohibitive, only costing one extra pick. The Rams would still hold a 3rd round selection, plus all their Day 3 picks. The risk is that with such a moderate size move the trade is unnecessary, you could be moving up for a player who would have fallen to 36 anyway. Or, all the true top tier prospects might already be gone by 24, so there is no reason to trade up, because all the remaining players, whether they get picked at 24, 36 or say 50 or all about the same, so you didn't gain any additional value by trading up, you frittered away some of your draft capital.
Using various draft simulators, this is what the computer left available as their top 10 available players at pick 24. Remember, since we're trading up 12 spots, it gets dicey to go with the 10th best player, because by that point you are almost down to your original spot anyway, so why did we even bother trading up?
PFN Simulator: Brian Branch, Kelee Ringo, Clark Phillips, Jahmyr Gibbs, Michael Mayer, Jalin Hyatt, Josh Downs, Anton Harrison, Darnell Washington, Dawand Jones.
PFF Simulator: Calijah Kancey, Nolan Smith, A. Harrison, Zay Flowers, Bijan Robinson, Will McDonald, Josh Downs, D. Jones, Tanner McKee, Felix Anudike-Uzomah.
NFLMDD Simulator: Lukas Van Ness, B. Branch, Bryan Bresee, C. Kancey, Dalton Kincaid, O'Cyrus Torrence, K. Ringo, A. Harrison, J. Hyatt, D. Washington
Fanspeak Simulator (Shoup board): LVN, B. Robinson, N. Smith, O. Torrence, Trenton Simpson, D. Washington, K. Ringo, Luke Musgrave, Deonte Banks, Darnell Wright
Daniel Jeremiah top 50 (I'll assume the draft goes chalk and just list the prospects starting on 24 on his board): Z. Flowers, W. McDonald, C. Kancey, Keion White, D. Banks, Quentin Johnston, J. Gibbs, B. Branch, FAU, Joe Tippmann
Lance Zierlein (same method as DJ): W. McDonald, Anthony Richardson, LVN, Q. Johnston, C. Kancey, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, K. Ringo, Matthew Bergeron, Paris Johnson Jr., Cedric Tillman
Is there anyone listed above who catches your eye? Personally, I'm not a big fan of this scenario. Some of these players I don't view as being elite prospects, others I think could still be available at 36. So, this "middle ground" move where the Rams only make a moderate trade up, while you don't have to sell the farm to do it, I don't know if it is likely to produce substantial added value for the Rams.
When we turn run the same exercise again, but this time at slot 13, some of the options become more enticing. That is Part 3.