NFL teams are embracing risk more than ever before

NFL teams are embracing risk more than ever before


The cautious, conservative old NFL now blesses risk-takers. The Los Angeles Rams, so brave that general manager Les Snead printed “F—Them Picks” on a T-shirt, are the reigning Super Bowl champions. And this season, the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills are the current No. 1 seeds, in part because they abandoned caution and made aggressive trades to grab high-profile wide receivers.

On the other hand, the NFL still honors its longstanding tradition of cursing aggressive teams. If the season ended today, three of the predicted top 5 picks in the draft would be franchise-traded selections. The Denver Broncos (3-10) would trade the No. 2 seed to the Seattle Seahawks as part of their shockingly disastrous trade for Russell Wilson. The Rams (4-9) would trade the No. 4 to the Detroit Lions, a leftover signing from the trade between Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff that helped the Rams win the Super Bowl. And the New Orleans Saints (4-9) would cede the No. 5 pick to Philadelphia, a crazy consequence of an April draft-day trade that saw the Eagles deal two top-20 picks to the Saints.

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In today’s NFL landscape, there is no risk assessment best practice. It’s a stark contrast to not even five years ago when teams only accepted two methods of creating a roster. There was the right path: patient, meticulous, design-based decision-making. And there was the desperate route: Any other method, especially when it required investing too much in freehand or throwing away significant design capital.

Now that more and more teams are sacrificing consistency, the game is wilder and more dramatic. One-sided beliefs of right and wrong have turned into a balanced debate between tradition and modernity. Both approaches can work. And both can result in general managers being fired.

The 2022 season has offered the most intriguing ideological warfare. The Miami Dolphins wouldn’t be able to make the playoffs without trading five draft picks to the Kansas City Chiefs for speedy wide receiver Tyreek Hill — and then giving him a record overtime that makes him the league’s first wideout , who earns $30 million per season. And the Eagles wouldn’t have the best record in the league without a trade to bring in AJ Brown from the Tennessee Titans, a run-heavy team that chose not to reward the receiver with a $100 million contract. But in the same draft, the Eagles — who had amassed three first-round picks — also made a long-term decision involving swapping their No. 16 and 19 picks for the Saints’ No. 18 and 2023 picks, the first all-rounder. The gamble turned to a fluke: No. 18 was folded to the Brown trade, and the Saints’ struggles this season could give the Eagles a top-five draft pick for 2023 to a team that could win the Super Bowl Add.

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On the other hand, the Las Vegas Raiders traded their first- and second-round picks to Green Bay in April to acquire and sign wide receiver Davante Adams, but they’ve returned from a playoff team last year to one of the biggest disappointments of the season .

Then there’s the Broncos, who made the most famous acquisition of the offseason when they went all-in for Wilson. It turned out to be a train wreck no one could have predicted, and while many factors contributed to the failure, Wilson fought so hard it’s hard to imagine Denver salvaging the commitment they made to the quarterback including a $245 million expansion, which it realistically can’t wriggle out of until 2027.

It’s a deal that could see George Paton fired as general manager, but let’s face it: At least a half-dozen NFL teams would have made that deal — and probably would have given more fortunes to Seattle — if Wilson hadn’t done it would have been fixated on Denver. After Peyton Manning retired, the Broncos spent six years looking for a new franchise quarterback. They seemed about one quarterback away from a fight, and when they got a chance to get one, they pounced. And the move could set her back another five years. Perhaps they misjudged how Wilson would behave outside of the Seahawks system, or perhaps they were so blinded by need that they ignored signs that Wilson was past his prime. There may be a solution that can minimize the damage, but the Broncos are nowhere near delivering on the promise they once made.

Paton is in the hot seat because he was unlucky with what seemed like a safe bet. But the lesson is not to stop being aggressive. The Titans, who lead the AFC South and are set to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season, have just fired their general manager Jon Robinson. Explaining her decision, Tennessee owner Amy Adams Strunk said Robinson wasn’t fired for deals with Brown, but she also revealed she had no role in the decision to trade the receiver. Using a textbook roster management style, Robinson had led the Titans to six straight wins and he was nearing a fifth-place finish in the playoffs. But consistency wasn’t enough.

It was an indication of how the league could change. Draft will always be the foundation of strong rosters. And sustained success will always be more desirable than random win-now attempts because the heavy injury burden in football can make any short-term plan seem frivolous. But the more aggressive franchises succeed, the more the needle moves away from conservatism.

The failures are inevitable, but these aren’t the ghost stories they used to be. Even team builders now have to answer for being passive. More team building styles create more options, and with greater movement of players and assets, there are more opportunities to break free quickly. Risk breeds risk.

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When there’s a dominant standard, it’s easier for franchises to disguise their inaction and complacency as an attempt to follow the only thing that works. Teams have gotten away with this scam for years. Now they need to read their situation better.

Because the NFL is built for parity, the concept of a five-year plan has never been an accurate representation of football team progress, but meandering organizations have often used the concept to elicit fan patience and disguise its ineffectiveness. It can take five years to form a championship team; It only takes a few to build a viable competitor with growth potential.

Then the pressure comes to an end. Completing the task requires something different from each team. Showing a more flamboyant path, the Rams avoided the top of the draft to seal deals for players like Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller. They once did a monster swap to level up and draft Goff, only to do a monster swap several years later to level up to Stafford. It’s catching up to them now, and losing a top-five pick will hurt an aging team. But without Stafford they would not have won a championship. When they come down, they can look at their rings. Then when that awful season ends, they’ll probably do the same because they’re vying for attention in LA, and they still have top-notch veteran talent to justify big, short-term swings.

The Rams differ from the Bills, who are aggressive within reason and operate in a small market where every decision counts. In 2020, Buffalo traded a first-round pick to Minnesota for receiver Stefon Diggs, who has helped his offense and quarterback Josh Allen get to a new level. But the Vikings capitalized on that pick against Justin Jefferson, who is perhaps the most gifted wideout in the league. It could prove to be one of the craziest win-win trades in sports history and provides an ideal illustration of today’s NFL.

The concern is not about the magnitude of the risk. It’s the quality of the decision. There are more choices than ever—and more consequences. Know your team. Choose wise.

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