For weeks, the deeply flawed crown jewels of the 2016 NFL draft’s quarterbacks class presented the league with a pressing question about resolving a massive error. As the Philadelphia Eagles pondered the future of Carson Wentz and the Los Angeles Rams considered swapping out Jared Goff, onlooking NFL teams were mulling an issue that overarched both franchises.
Sure, you might find a trade partner willing to reboot the careers of Goff or Wentz, but what could convince a trade partner to eat the considerable amount of salary owed to each?
Well, the Rams just laid the blueprint. And for the second time since 2017, the league has what amounts to an NBA-style trade sweetener in exchange for eating a player’s massive salary. That’s one of the fundamental underpinnings of Saturday night’s stunning trade agreement that will reportedly send Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Rams in exchange for Goff and three valuable draft picks — including first-round picks in the 2022 and 2023 drafts and a third-round pick in this year’s draft. Just in terms of the value, the trio of picks represents considerably more than most believed the soon-to-be 33-year old Stafford would net in a deal. The kicker was the Rams’ inclusion of Goff, including $43 million in guaranteed money that will have to be paid to him in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. It was that salary guarantee that put the Rams into a position of sweetening their deal for Stafford.
So what is absorbing $43 million in guaranteed money worth? Multiple league sources buzzing about the deal into the early morning hours Sunday said the Rams’ inclusion of a second first-round pick likely pushed L.A. over the Washington Football Team for Stafford.
If that sounds a little like an NBA team selling off a toxic salary asset with a draft pick, that’s because it’s precisely what it is. And this is the second time the NFL has seen it happen since 2017. The other was the Houston Texans strapping a second- and sixth-round draft pick to Brock Osweiler, and sending that package to the Cleveland Browns for a conditional fourth-round pick. The catch in that one was the Browns using their ample salary-cap space to eat Osweiler’s $16 million in guaranteed salary, which the franchise ultimately did before releasing Osweiler before the 2017 season kicked off.
It’s highly unlikely the Lions will be making that kind of move with Goff, who was the toast of Los Angeles and considered a budding MVP candidate heading into the 2019 season following a 2018 campaign that saw him throw for 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, along with 4,638 passing yards. What the Rams got instead was a player severely limited by an offensive line that fell apart, leaving head coach Sean McVay into the first stages of a frustrating belief that Goff’s limitations may never allow him to outgrow a necessity for the coach to basically micromanage every part of the passing offense.
That 2019 season began painting the Rams into a troubling corner with Goff, who had just signed a massive four-year, $134 million contract extension before the season. It was a deal that appeared to make Goff untradeable or uncuttable until after the 2022 season. Of course, that was an ideology that didn’t take into account the Rams’ wide-open nature with some of their talent base, which has included absorbing some considerable cap hits while offloading talent. It also didn’t take into account the team’s aggressive use of its first-round draft picks to achieve necessary change.
Still, few in the league believed that a trade suitor could be found to take on what amounted to be a terrible contract after watching Goff struggle though the 2020 season. Many saw the Rams’ problems as similar to those plaguing the Eagles and Wentz, with the team strapped to a landslide of guaranteed money that other franchises wouldn’t want to import, especially at the cost of draft assets. What nobody seemed to consider around the league was the possibility of reversing the typical mechanics of a trade, with the Eagles or Rams sending their quarterback and his contract out of town with some draft picks to get an agreement done.
It was enough of a vexing issue that the Eagles didn’t even think twice about it. Instead, the team fired its head coach Doug Pederson and has leaned into a reboot of Wentz under a new coaching staff and at the behest of team owner Jeffrey Lurie. The Rams went the opposite direction. That made sense, given that the franchise would have never sacrificed McVay for Goff in the same manner that the Eagles pink-slipped Pederson to get a Wentz plan back on track. Instead, the Rams gave the league Saturday night’s blueprint for blowing up even the most pesky of contracts. Something like “strap a pick on it.”
Much like the Browns in 2017, it should give the NFL something to chew on as the league has always internally frowned upon such NBA machinations as auctioning off draft picks to create cap space or simply dump the commitment to big contracts. While it’s seen as creative in some quarters, the NFL’s issue with the maneuver is that it could tilt the playing field toward franchise owners who are willing to “buy” picks for cap space.
The difference in this case is Stafford and Goff provide the Rams and Lions with plenty of cover in this instance. Not only was Stafford a hot enough commodity to command a price that might have been higher than some suspected, Goff is still talented enough that a career reboot looks completely possible in Detroit, maybe even to the point of justifying the guaranteed money he’ll be paid through 2022. It’s possible that everyone walks away from this deal feeling very good about the commodities wrangled.
Truth be told, the NFL might be in a better place for it, too. If we learned anything in 2020, it’s that some teams do massive quarterback deals they end up regretting. And the league is better off with teams that are aggressively hunting ways to be the best on-field product they can be. If a team like the Eagles wants to hang onto a deal that doesn’t look so great and attempt to resurrect a player and justify it, so be it. But the Rams just showcased that it doesn’t have to go that way. As it turns out, practically anything can be remedied if a team is willing to spend its way out of it with cash or draft picks.
Including a contract that appeared to be untradeable only a few weeks ago.
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