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Dougherty: Packers vs. Rams showdown looms as a clash of NFL cultures

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GREEN BAY - Les Snead is the anti-Ted Thompson.

Thompson took NFL roster building to the farthest end of the NFL’s draft-and-develop spectrum in his 13 years (2005 through 2017) as Green Bay Packers general manger. He rarely saw a trade or free agent he liked.

Snead, the Los Angeles Rams’ GM since 2012, has lived at the other end of that spectrum the last five years. He brings a title-contending team into Lambeau Field this weekend built with an all-in-every-year approach that includes trading away future high draft picks for quarterbacks and star veterans at other positions.

The Packers’ GM, Brian Gutekunst, has proven more open than Thompson to avenues other than the draft – his free-agent haul of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner in 2019 has played a huge role in getting the Packers to the NFC championship game the last two years. But it’s almost impossible to imagine Gutekunst, or for that matter any other GM in the league, doing what Snead has in trading away first-round draft picks the last five years.

Unless Snead somehow acquires a first-round pick for either of the next two drafts, he’ll have gone seven years, from 2017 through ’23, without selecting a player in the first round. All but one of those first-rounders was traded for a player, most often a quarterback (Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford) but also a receiver (Brandin Cooks) and the game’s premier cornerback (Jalen Ramsey).

Snead’s recent trade for pass rusher Von Miller was only the latest exercise in the Rams’ philosophy. They acquired a 32-year-old star for a steep price (second- and third-round picks next year) in their push to win a Super Bowl this year with no guarantee he’ll re-sign them in the offseason.

The Rams are thinking way outside the box, and the rest of the NFL is watching with great interest.

“It’s unique and I applaud them for trying to go about it this way,” said a high-ranking scout for one NFL team. “… I just don’t know if it’s sustainable to do it this way. I guess we’ll find out, they’re going to continue to do it this way it looks like. They’re not slowing down at all. But it’s worked for them.”

Sustainability is the question. The Rams think they’ve found an inefficiency in the NFL player market. Snead will trade prized but unproven assets – high draft picks – for players he’s already seen perform at a high level in the NFL. The Rams always will have future first-round picks, so theoretically they can keep trading them year after year after year.

So Snead last offseason spent two future first-rounders (and a third) to upgrade with Stafford at quarterback, and two first-rounders on Ramsey the year before. The two picks he spent on Miller weren’t first-rounders, but they’re top 100s, which generally are considered premium picks.

“The neat thing about doing it this way is that you’re not guessing,” Snead was quoted saying in the New York Times after the Miller trade. “The player has lived up to his draft status.”

Snead’s approach seems short-sighted at first blush to anyone who has observed the NFL closely for a long time. But the more you think about it, it’s at least coherent and so far has been viable. The Rams went to the Super Bowl in the 2018 season and over the past five years have the fourth-best winning percentage in the league (.676). The Packers have been to two NFC title games and own the seventh-best winning percentage (.633) over that same time. Both teams enter Sunday’s game as title contenders and have three losses each.

Although the Rams have traded many of their highest picks, they’ve also used compensatory picks and draft-day trades to make sure they have young, cheap, later-round talent to fill out their roster. They’ve averaged nine picks in the last five drafts, or two more picks than they were originally allotted each year. After the Miller trade they have only four selections for 2022 (one third, one fifth and two sevenths) but expect to get four compensatory picks too.

Snead’s approach in part likely comes from his early years as the Rams' GM, when he accumulated draft assets but got nowhere because he couldn’t find a good enough quarterback. The Miami Dolphins could be on a similar path now. The Dolphins had five first-round picks and four second-rounders in the last two drafts combined, but unless one of those first-rounders, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, turns around an unpromising start to his career, the losing and trading of good veterans to accumulate those picks will all have been for naught.

“I don’t know if it will work,” the aforementioned scout said of the Rams, “but at least they have a plan and they’re sticking to it.”

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The approach of building around star playmakers also fits a Rams team trying to lure talent to the world’s entertainment capital. Along with Stafford, the Rams have the game’s best defensive player (Aaron Donald), best cornerback (Ramsey), and big-name attractions in Miller and recently signed Odell Beckham Jr., though whether the latter two were shrewd in-season moves is an open question.

“A lot of NFL football players and I'm sure other players from other sports, they really would like to be a part of a team in this city, right?” Snead told ESPN after the Miller deal.

Really, Sunday’s matchup at Lambeau Field features perhaps the most polar-opposite franchises in the league. The Rams, using a bold new future-be-damned approach in roster building among the palm trees and celebrities of Southern California. And the Packers, who skew to the more traditional avenue of draft and develop in the NFL’s smallest city and cold-climate of the upper Midwest, even if Gutekunst has pushed them closer to the mainstream.

“If this eventually ends up with a Super Bowl win, that strategy was good,” another scout in the league said of the Rams. “I don’t think it will. I don’t think you’ll see other teams try to copy this.”

Yes, there’s plenty of skepticism in the NFL about the viability of Snead’s approach, along with admiration and curiosity. This weekend we’ll see it play out head to head with his 7-3 team against the 8-3 Packers.

But in the end, the proof will be where it always is, in where the next Lombardi Trophy resides.

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