Ten months ago, the Los Angeles Rams capped off their incredible 2018 season with an appearance in the Super Bowl. Despite laying an egg on offense in a loss to the Patriots, the future of the Rams looked bright. Quarterback Jared Goff continued to defy expectations after his awful rookie season, and the offense produced at a historic rate.
While the Rams are a respectable 8-5 heading into week 15, their season feels like a massive disappointment. Almost everyone on the offense has regressed and it seems as though coach Sean McVay’s magic is wearing off. Todd Gurley looks like a shell of himself after two straight All-Pro seasons at running back. Goff went from a rising star to a rising salary cap concern and turnover machine. The defense has improved, but it hasn’t been enough. To make the playoffs, the Rams might have to win their last three games and hope the Minnesota Vikings slip up. With matchups looming against the poorly coached but talented Dallas Cowboys and the dominant San Francisco 49ers, that seems like a tall task for the Rams.
To make matters worse (but better for the Seahawks!), the Rams are facing a tight salary cap situation in the near future. The Rams have invested nearly $109 million in cap charges to their top five players for next season. That wouldn’t be a problem if those players were living up to their hefty salaries and the team was competing for the Super Bowl, but they aren’t. The Rams were lucky to even reach the Super Bowl last year, and they have a plethora of issues to figure out before they can be taken seriously as contenders again. The best route to improve the team with their cap situation is through the draft, but they traded away their next two first-round picks for cornerback Jalen Ramsey. It’s going to be an incredible challenge for general manager Les Snead to maneuver out of the mess he put himself in. How did the Rams end up in such a predicament?
I’m no football expert, but it’s easy to see what the Rams did wrong. Their roster building strategy has revolved around adding star players at the expense of depth. They managed to draft three stars and executed flashy trades for two more. Essentially, they tried to assemble the NFL’s equivalent of the Golden State Warriors. There’s just one problem. You can’t build NFL teams like NBA teams.
Most NBA championships have been won by superteams. Stars have a tremendous impact on their team in basketball, so it’s no surprise that this strategy is so successful. However, individual football players can’t affect the game as much. You still need stars in the NFL, but the difference is that they can’t lift up flawed rosters by themselves. The Rams can’t expect their highest paid players to do all the work. Yet they can’t add much talent because of their cap situation.
The Rams needed to prioritize some of their players rather than dish out big contracts to every star on the team. Not every contract on their payroll is a burden, though. Paying Aaron Donald $135 million over 6 years was a no-brainer. He’s the most dominant defensive player in the NFL and a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Ramsey is making half as much as Donald while providing elite play at cornerback. It’s the other three players receiving top dollar who are hindering the Rams significantly.
Todd Gurley was the best running back in the NFL over the previous two seasons. His resurgence under McVay was a critical part of the Rams’ explosive offense. But as good as he was, it still didn’t make sense to give Gurley his 4-year, $60 million extension with $45 million in guarantees. The reality is, running backs are very replaceable, even someone as good as Gurley. When Gurley was injured last season, the Rams’ offense didn’t miss a beat. C.J. Anderson was signed to take Gurley’s spot and made an immediate impact. Anderson rushed for 299 yards on 43 carries the last two weeks of the regular season, and then picked up 123 yards on 23 carries against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round.
Gurley’s case is not an outlier. Kareem Hunt was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs last season after a video of him kicking a woman surfaced on the internet. It seemed like a major blow to the Chiefs at the time. But Hunt’s backup, Damien Williams, stepped in and delivered two huge performances in the playoffs. With 25 carries for 129 yards in the divisional round, he wasn’t playing in a limited role. Another team that succeeded with a backup running back last year was the Pittsburgh Steelers. During Le’Veon Bell’s holdout, James Conner proved to be a more than capable replacement and earned a Pro Bowl appearance.
Rather than sign Gurley to his extension, the Rams could have taken a running back in the middle or late rounds of the draft, or even picked up an undrafted free agent. The list of running backs selected in the third round or later in the 2017 draft is incredible: Alvin Kamara, Hunt, Conner, Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, and Chris Carson. While not every draft is that stacked with great running backs, it’s easy to see why paying Gurley so much was a mistake. The Rams could have used a cheap replacement and invested their savings elsewhere on the roster to make up for the marginal decrease in talent.
The best position for the Rams to invest money in would be the offensive line. Goff and Gurley have taken a lot of blame for the decline of the Rams’ offense, when inconsistent offensive line play has really been the primary factor. Running backs get a lot of attention, but good blocking is essential for their success. There’s a reason Anderson played so well for the Rams yet couldn’t last more than two games with the Lions. It’s clear he benefited significantly from one of the best offensive lines in the league.
But even more importantly, the Rams need to invest in their offensive line to protect Goff, especially after paying him almost as much money as Russell Wilson. I actually don’t think Goff’s massive extension was a mistake by the Rams, although it was earlier than necessary. Their worst error was putting themselves in a salary cap straitjacket, preventing them from being able to maximize Goff’s talent. Much has been made of Goff’s struggles this year, yet he’s also looked excellent at times. His primary weakness is throwing under pressure, which the Rams can fix by improving the offensive line. Goff plays like a legitimate star when he consistently has time to throw. This season the pass protection hasn’t always been there, however, and the results have been ugly.
The Rams thought that surrounding Goff with elite offensive weapons would turn him into a franchise quarterback. It’s why they were willing to pay Gurley so much, and why they added Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp at wide receiver in 2017. And to the Rams’ credit, it has worked to some extent. With McVay’s offensive scheme and the new receivers, the Rams led the NFL in scoring in 2017 and scored even more points in 2018 after trading for Brandin Cooks. However, those talented skill players will be wasted if Goff can’t deliver the ball to them. Giving large contracts to Gurley and Cooks has prevented the Rams from maintaining an effective offensive line and putting Goff in a position to succeed.
Trading for Cooks and signing his 5-year, $81 million extension have proven to be completely unnecessary. In exchange for Cooks, the Rams gave the Patriots their 23rd overall pick of the 2018 draft and swapped picks in the later rounds. On the surface, the trade doesn’t seem so bad. The Rams had a need at receiver and could get an established player rather than roll the dice on a draft choice.
If it were that simple though, teams would be trading draft picks for veterans much more often. While the Rams gained certainty by trading for Cooks, they didn’t get the advantage of having a player on a rookie contract. With Woods and Kupp already on the team, the Rams could afford to be patient while developing a draft pick into a receiver as good as Cooks. Nearly two seasons in, the Cooks trade looks like a huge mistake. The first three receivers taken in the 2018 draft were D.J. Moore, Calvin Ridley, and Courtland Sutton. All three are having excellent sophomore seasons and have outperformed Cooks in 2019. Had the Rams held on to their pick and selected a receiver, they would be in much better shape for the future.
The Rams were smart to take advantage of Goff’s cheap rookie contract by surrounding him with the best veteran players they could get. Yet as the Rams prepare for Goff’s massive extension to kick in, they have doubled down on their roster building philosophy. Ramsey could stabilize the Rams’ secondary for years, but he could also further compound their salary cap issues. Kupp is a free agent after next season, and it will be hard for the Rams to keep him because of all the expensive contracts on their payroll.
After playing in the Super Bowl in February, the Rams appeared to be on the rise. But shortsighted moves by the front office have left the Rams with a difficult salary cap situation. Without much draft capital, it will be a challenge for them to effectively fill out the roster. The Atlanta Falcons have had similar problems and will miss the postseason for the second straight year, three seasons after making the Super Bowl. Don’t be surprised if the Rams suffer the same fate.