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Examining the state of rebuilding in the NFL

Trust the process or scam for Sam?

NCAA Football: Southern California Spring Game Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“It is a big decision for this football team. It is not often that you have the number one pick and we hope to not be in this position again. But we tried to use that pick as currency to work the draft and maximize our player acquisition.”

This is a quote from Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson from shortly after he traded the number one pick in the 2016 NFL draft to the Los Angeles Rams. In that trade, the Titans gave up the first pick as well as a fourth, and a sixth that year in exchange for the 15th pick that year, two second rounders, a third rounder, as well as a first and a third in the 2017 draft.

“This move does not knock us out of any player, except one,’’ Robinson said. “We now have the ammunition to work the draft and acquire players that are going to be good for this football team.”

As a result of that trade, the Rams got quarterback Jared Goff. In that draft alone, the Titans selected 10 players including tackle Jack Conklin, linebacker Kevin Dodd, defensive tackle Austin Johnson, running back Derrick Henry, safety Kevin Byard, and wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, all of whom contributed for them in 2016. They selected nine in the 2017 draft, including wide receiver Corey Davis who they picked at fifth overall via the Rams first round slot.

The Titans went from a 2-14 outfit in 2015 to a 9-7 team last season who were on the verge of a playoff berth. A similar effort is expected from them in 2017, while the Rams find themselves in limbo with a new head coach who they’ve brought in to put Goff’s career on track after shrugging off the weight of a rough rookie season. So what’s the difference between the two teams involved in this trade from last year? Only one them was patient and (dare I say) trusted the process.

It’s tough to blame the Rams for pulling the trigger to acquire Goff in the manner that they did. They had been floundering in a cesspool of 7-9 seasons that mainly stemmed from former head coach Jeff Fisher’s team building philosophy, one that involved stifling defense and an offense that had a penchant for getting stifled. In any event, Goff not turning into a superstar from the word go was the final nail in the coffin for Fisher in Los Angeles. This begs the question, will the Titans fortunes from the trade influence how teams choose to build moving forward? It looks like they may already have.

It started about a week from the day that the Titans made their trade, when the Cleveland Browns traded the second pick to the Philadelphia Eagles, which was in effect an acquisition of quarterback Carson Wentz in exchange for a windfall of picks. It didn’t work out immediately for the Browns who dodged an 0-16 bullet last year by a missed field goal, but it’s become clear that general manager Sashi Brown is playing the long game. It’s early, but it appears his strategy may pay off someday.

Some of the players he acquired in the 2016 draft have shown promise for Cleveland, and it’s allowed him to work in free agency as well. The Browns have built up a formidable (on paper) offensive line and defensive front seven since that trade, and DeShone Kizer is about as physically promising as any quarterback they’ve had in years. Part of that has to do with the fact that they struggled so mightily in 2016 and acquired the number one pick, something that it appears the New York Jets are actively trying to do in the 2017 season.

While they’ll never acknowledge it publicly, it seems that the Jets front office has been inspired by Tennessee and Cleveland, and if they do earn the number one pick this year, what they do with it will be a very intriguing plot line to watch. The upcoming quarterback class is being hyped as one of the best in years, and if the Jets complete the tank job that they’ve telegraphed as a possible objective for this season, they should have their pick of the litter between Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen. They may in fact just trade out of that spot, as we’ve seen happen with the other teams discussed.

The Jets will have to get creative if they want this rebuild to be done correctly, as Cleveland has shown over the past few seasons. This became apparent with the Browns acquisition of star linebacker Jamie Collins, as well as the pickup of not-so star quarterback Brock Osweiler which got them a second round pick in an NBA-esque salary dump trade. If they are able to pull off a rebuild in this fashion, it certainly answers the question of whether or not the Browns and Titans have influenced the league to embrace a revamp in this manner.

We just saw a similar wonky type of trade go down between three teams as the Eagles, Bills and Rams were involved in a quasi three-way deal which gave Philadelphia a starting cornerback and gave each Buffalo and Los Angeles a starting wide receiver (with Buffalo nabbing another corner as well). In short, it appears that teams are getting more ambitious with the way that they utilize the trade market, so keep an eye on how the Jets navigate that landscape as they focus their eyes on the 2018 draft.

If they do continue bending the laws of how rebuilding in the NFL is done, as we’ve seen with several other teams over the past few years, the Jets will in turn likely influence how teams moving forward do so. As a result, while they are unlikely to prove to be an interesting watch in 2017, New York is very much a team to keep an eye on once the Lombardi Trophy has been pulled down and the standings are reset in February.