Rams, Bengals both took risks in roster building, but they couldn't be more different

On the surface, the rosters of the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams have some obvious similarities.

Both teams feature a No. 1 overall draft pick at quarterback, each clear centerpieces of their respective franchises.

Both feature star receivers drafted in the top half of the first round.

Both found star running backs in Round 2.

Both squads spent big on their defensive lines and secondaries.

Yet, when you drill down, the ways in which the Bengals and Rams constructed their rosters couldn’t be much different.

We’re talking about one of the biggest scouting staffs in football versus the smallest. The Rams list 26 personnel staffers; only four teams have more. The Bengals have an NFL-low eight personnel staffers, and no other team has fewer than 15. The Baltimore Ravens have 27 more scouts than the Bengals.

Yet as the Rams and Bengals prepare to face off in Super Bowl LVI, it serves as a reminder for the other 30 clubs that there is more than one way to aggregate a successful roster. Two Super Bowl teams went down two divergent paths to get here.

The Rams and Bengals broke some old roster-construction rules along the way. So why can’t these unorthodox, yet successful, methods be replicated elsewhere?

‘F them picks!’ — the inspiration of Rams GM Les Snead’s mad genius

Matthew Stafford cost the Rams a fortune via trade.

The Rams, however, were more than happy to give up their former starting QB and No. 1 overall pick (Jared Goff), along with three draft picks (a 2022 first-round pick, 2023 first-rounder and a 2021 third-rounder) to land Stafford.

Trading for Stafford, Jalen Ramsey, Von Miller and others have cost the Rams, especially in terms of high-end draft capital. But since the 2017 draft, the Rams have made 45 draft selections, which is tied for the sixth-most of any club in that span.

The difference: The Rams had only 14 picks in Rounds 1-3 over those years, which was tied for the third-fewest of any club in that span. The last time the Rams made a first-round selection was 2016 (Goff).

The next first-round selection they currently own is in the 2024 draft. This led to some people, even those closest to him, taking shots at Rams general manager Les Snead and his go-for-broke approach.

Snead already had made himself something of an isolationist in NFL circles, given his vivid reimagining of the scouting process, from the interviews to the value of pro days and the scouting combine. When some old-school teams read Snead's worldview, there was some suspicion.

Internally, Snead likely felt emboldened to make some of his team’s trades to land star players because he knew he had extra picks with which to play. The Rams have received 10 compensatory selections since 2017 for losing players in free agency, as well as for the Lions hiring GM Brad Holmes from their staff. Snead also engineered a slew of lesser trades to stockpile more Day 3 picks.

Strange as it might sound, this reflects a general manager who implicitly trusts his scouting staff. Without the benefit of first-round selections, Snead has relied on his eyes and those of his staff to mine through the flotsam and jetsam to find hidden gems.

The Rams have star power with Stafford, Miller, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham Jr. They also feature terrific bargains in Day 3 picks (OG David Edwards, TE Tyler Higbee, S Jordan Fuller, DT Greg Gaines) and undrafted players (CB Darious Williams, LB Troy Reeder, TE Kendall Blanton, P Johnny Hekker). That’s a strong failsafe for a team that could end up punting in Round 1 for the better part of a decade.

The Rams’ current 53-man roster consists of 25 “homegrown” draft picks. Of those, only one (Donald) was their own first-rounder. The overwhelming majority came from Rounds 3 (seven players), 4 (five) and 7 (six).

The other 28 players were acquired via signings, trades, waiver claims and other pickups. Five key players were landed by trade: Stafford, Miller, Ramsey, RG Austin Corbett and RB Sony Michel.

Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead will always consider a trade offer. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead will always consider a trade offer. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

It’s too soon to judge the Stafford and Miller trades; some of the picks involved have not yet been made. However, the Ramsey deal has proven to be a steal, even with its a pricey-looking tag.

"You're always going to ask yourself the question of: Is it best to utilize draft picks to either move up and get who … you obviously would assume would be a player with high potential or a higher projection? But again, it's still a projection," Snead said. "Or are you going to use your picks to move back, acquire more picks to … continue acquiring players that still [come with] a projection element to them — and you've got to develop them — or are you going to use them with players who've either proven their projection [or are] more known commodities?"

Plus, whether it was by design or not, the Rams landing as much star power as they have also has made it an environment where other star players want to be part of. Beckham was released in early November and he had no shortage of high-profile suitors, including the Patriots, Packers and Saints.

But Beckham was courted by a slew of Rams stars and, based on the Rams’ contract offer, was able to double dip from the Browns. Once Robert Woods went down with a knee injury and Beckham settled in, he became a vital piece in the team’s playoff run.

The Rams wouldn’t be here without Beckham’s contributions. And it’s arguable that Beckham (and others) wouldn’t be Rams without Snead’s aggressive, top-down roster-building approach.

The Bengals’ approach: more draft picks, more money

Joe Burrow fell into the Bengals’ laps following a 2-14 record in 2019.

It’s the kind of “luck” that other teams quietly groaned about, occasionally taking good-natured shots at the Bengals laughably understaffed scouting department. Given his limited resources, that makes a case for Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin being one of the league’s most unsung evaluators.

Tobin’s drafts have not had the league’s highest hit rate. But they've been far from the worst. Tobin is proving that it’s not necessarily the number of scouts a team employs that is commensurate with its ability to identify talent.

“It’s never been and never will be about how many voices you have or how many opinions,” Tobin said. “It’s about having the right opinions and trusting in the guys you have entrusted to come up with the right opinions.”

The Dolphins would call to offer the Bengals three first-round picks in the 2020 draft, plus more, in order to use the first pick on Burrow; the Bengals stood pat. That was a right decision.

They might not have known how special a player they were getting at the time, but they knew enough not to engage in any fruitful trade talk. That’s not unusual for the Bengals. They made only eight pick-for-pick trades during the course of the drafts between 2017-21, and the only transaction they made in that span involving a first-round pick was to land Cordy Glenn from the Bills in 2018.

The Bengals have tended to be one of the less active teams in terms of trading draft picks. Of those eight deals involving exclusively picks, four were trading down, typically returning two or three picks to Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin works with a small scouting staff but has hit some home runs. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin works with a small scouting staff but has hit some home runs. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The farthest the Bengals have moved up in the past five drafts? Thirteen spots — from No. 149 to No. 136 — to land center Michael Jordan, who is now with the Panthers. That conservative pick-trading approach has helped the Bengals draft a whopping 49 players over the past five drafts, trailing only the Minnesota Vikings (57) in that time range.

Where Tobin and the Bengals have been aggressive, especially the past two seasons, was in free agency. Specifically to bolster the defense.

Seven of the team’s 11 snap leaders on defense arrived via free agency over the past two years. That’s an enormous percentage — and it runs anathema to the draft-and-develop methodology espoused by many teams.

When that first wave of free agents were brought to Cincinnati, some league sources wondered if it was a way of convincing Burrow — before the Bengals drafted him — that they were serious about winning. After all, Bengals owner Mike Brown was never known as the most spendthrift guy.

But this past March, the Bengals were at it again, adding an even more impressive haul, led by pass rusher Trey Hendrickson, DT Larry Ogunjobi and CBs Mike Hilton, Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple, along with OT Riley Reiff.

For every poor free-agent decision the Bengals made, such as CB Trae Waynes (who has been a healthy scratch for all three playoff games), they made three or four great signings. That’s a hefty batting average for unrestricted free agency, where teams often incur their biggest long-term mistakes.

Burrow, of course, is not the only offensive linchpin the team landed via the draft. The Ja’Marr Chase pick last spring has proven to be more than inspired, even as many wanted the team to draft an offensive lineman in that spot. Fellow WRs Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd also were homegrown picks, along with RB Joe Mixon and underrated TE C.J. Uzomah.

And just because the Bengals don’t feature one of the league’s best offensive lines doesn’t mean it’s for a lack of trying. They’ve drafted nine OL prospects over the past five years, including two first-rounders, two second-rounders and two fourth-rounders; by and large, those picks have been spotty. The Bengals also signed Reiff, Quinton Spain and Isaiah Prince and needed every one of them to patch holes and keep Burrow upright as best they can.

They also made the bold move of drafting a kicker for the second time in five years. After cutting 2017 fifth-rounder Jake Elliott (who won a Super Bowl with the Eagles), the Bengals were undaunted. They picked Evan McPherson this past April in Round 5, and it has been one of the reasons the Bengals ended up at SoFi Stadium. McPherson hasn’t missed a meaningful kick since the overtime loss to the 49ers and has made all 12 of his FG tries in the postseason.

Despite having five more total draft picks than the Rams over the past five years, the Bengals’ roster features only 24 “homegrown” draft selections. The biggest contrast to the Rams’ selections are the Bengals’ high-round percentage. The Bengals have three of their own first-rounders on their roster (to the Rams’ one) and six second-rounders (to the Rams’ four).

The Bengals also have shown a penchant for fishing for former first- and second-round picks of other teams, signing them either as premium free agents or reclamation projects. And for the latter category, they’ve enjoyed some modest success with players such as Awuzie, Apple and Samaje Perine, even as they’ve seemingly missed on the occasional dart throw.

The Bengals haven’t had the success in the undrafted ranks as the Rams but they’ve mined a few finds. Center Trey Hopkins might be a replacement-level starter, but he latched on as a UDFA in 2014 and hasn’t yet lost his job. Likewise, Cincinnati’s late-round hit rate is lower than the Rams, but they’ve scored on a few, including Uzomah.

The verdict: Who built it best? Or can both work?

The axiom of keeping premium draft picks is the kind of thing Snead might have a hearty laugh at. He’s allowed to. Snead has bucked that trend and has proven that some hardened draft postulates don’t always hold up to scrutiny.

It’s also an approach that might require patience, especially from ownership. Snead’s long-term working relationship with Rams owner Stan Kroenke likely helped convince the GM that he didn’t need fear missing on an occasional major gamble. Not every GM around the league has that level of comfort with ownership.

Perhaps Kroenke’s all-in investment on Los Angeles and the desire to plant a flag in a busy sports town in 2016 helped spur Snead’s approach. Maybe he operated out of the fear of failure. (Almost every other GM can relate.) After all, Snead didn’t crank up his hyper-aggressiveness as a GM until after the team left St. Louis.

Whatever the motivation, it has worked.

Likewise, in Cincinnati, the concept of scuttling and rebuilding through the draft (three straight years picking in the top 11 overall) has been a success. The Bengals have drafted their franchise QB and receiver, and solid left tackle in Jonah Williams. Those are earmarks of the more tried-and-true method of roster construction.

On the flip side, going gung-ho in free agency typically has been frowned upon, rarely returning ROI in league history. For the Bengals, however, it has revamped a defense that has had some impressive stretches down the stretch. It’s a unit that doesn’t feature a single homegrown first-rounder but has a star in second-round safety Jessie Bates III and three solid Round 3 starters in Sam Hubbard, Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt.

Like the Rams, the Bengals took some real risks in putting their roster together. Both teams also helped buttress their unorthodox approaches by finding hidden values by other means — and also receiving a little good fortune.

After all, the Rams drafted Greg Robinson 11 picks before they took Donald at 13. You know, back when they had first-rounders.

Burrow was luck. Donald was luck. Good teams get lucky, too. But progressive teams also make their own luck by going against the current now and then. And their approaches have given 30 other teams some different ideas — and some big ideas — to discuss.

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