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Rams
NFL

How Can The LA Rams Be Fixed?

  • Kyle Crabbs
  • October 14, 2022
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No matter where things go from here, the short-term definition of the Los Angeles Rams should be considered “mission accomplished.” The team made a conscious decision in 2021 to triple (quadruple?) down on general manager Les Snead’s “eff them picks” team-building strategy and the Rams were promptly rewarded with a Super Bowl win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Well played, Les. But as time progresses, the Lombardi Trophy in the rearview mirror will slowly but steadily shrink—and the attention will continue to focus on the here and now. 

Here and now? The Rams are, well, a bit of a mess. It’s understandable. The team endured a lot of attrition to the roster this offseason in the midst of their salary cap management and restricted premium assets. The Rams had zero draft selections in the top 100 and just two in the top 150 of the 2022 NFL Draft. When paired with entering the 2022 offseason over the salary cap by approximately $13M on March 1st, one can see how the ability to retain players like Von Miller, Austin Corbett, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Darious Williams, and Odell Beckham Jr. (for now!) was limited. Add in the retirement of Andrew Whitworth and the trading away of Robert Woods and you collectively have seven significant contributors to the cause of 2021 (Woods played about half the season, to be fair) who are out the door.

Los Angeles took the damages in stride, restructuring Tyler Higbee (creating nearly $4M in cap space in 2022) while also extending Aaron Donald ($3M), Cooper Kupp ($1M), Rob Havenstein ($3M), and Matthew Stafford ($10M). Now, I’m not a math guy, but the manipulation of guaranteed money versus prorated years over a long-term window was the Rams’ recipe—and it worked. The Rams massaged their contracts enough to open up a meaningful amount of salary cap space, opening the door for them to add Allen Robinson and Bobby Wagner in free agency. Those two signed contracts worth a total of $96.5M, but their 2022 cap hits were only equal to $6.8M. 

“The salary cap is fake!” is what the replies will read. 

Except it is not. Because in the Rams’ navigation of the salary cap and the big money contracts that come with the stars-and-scrubs affair to team building, the team’s depth has continued on a troublesome course; which is in large part a hurdle the team is now wrestling with. The fear long-term for the Rams is that continued erosion of the roster will lead to further departures without opportunity for replacement. 

The Rams’ defensive front is considered a strength, but Aaron Donald is one of only two defensive tackles under contract beyond this season (the other being Bobby Brown III). Greg Gaines is a quality starter and A’Shawn Robinson is largely considered the same, but both are scheduled to come off the books with the Rams once again facing the prospect of starting an offseason in the red against the cap. Starting guard David Edwards is currently scheduled to hit free agency as well and the Rams’ offensive line is already one of the Achilles’ heels of this year’s team in the aftermath of Whitworth’s retirement. Defensive backs David Long, Troy Hill, Taylor Rapp, and Nick Scott? All in the last year of their respective deals as well.

Listen, the Rams will get through the waters ahead and likely retain about half of the names above while situating themselves under the 2023 cap. But erosion is the concern. Because remember: a Super Bowl is the standard set seven months ago. 

The Rams are 2-3 entering into Week 6, having lost three games to 2021 playoff teams and all by more than one score. The Buffalo Bills turned the ball over four times and still hung 31 on these Rams. Sure, the offensive line is banged up. But I assure you injured rookie guard Logan Bruss and the rest of the missing interior offensive line wouldn’t solve all the Rams’ problems on their way to averaging 3.2 yards per carry, being 31st in the NFL in turnovers, 28th in scoring offense, and undertaking an offensive strategy that is “get it to Cooper Kupp.” As a matter of fact, big free-agent signing Robinson, a supposed star addition to the “stars and scrubs” recipe, has been a colossal flop early on, struggling to get traction or separation this season through five games. 

The next seven weeks for the Rams feature matchups against the San Francisco 49ers (who shellacked the Rams in the first meeting this season), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Kansas City Chiefs. There’s a bye tucked away in there, thankfully, but with three losses already and those three games on the immediate horizon, the Rams haven’t left themselves much margin for error the rest of the way this season to make a return to the playoffs, let alone compete for a title. 

And as we move forward, this isn’t just navigating and getting under the salary cap that is the objective. The objective is to admirably climb up against the exponentially accelerating erosion and regression to not just be a comparable team to the previous year but actually a better one. The 2022 Rams seem to have come up short of that goal and I don’t think the long-rumored return of Beckham Jr. is going to fix it. 

There aren’t very many exit ramps to the path the Rams have set forth for themselves, especially this season. The formula for actually assembling a better team moving forward is likely going to require these key pieces, all of which have been staples of the Rams’ team-building approach in recent history: 

  • Draft well in the middle rounds of the NFL draft to restock scheme-specific players on financially economic contracts to negate the top-heavy commitments 
  • A strategic player extension or re-signing to offset previously committed and prorated guaranteed money
  • Collecting older veteran players on financially economic deals under the promise of contending for championships
  • A big trade somewhere along the line

So let’s look at each of these four components and identify opportunities in each for the Rams in 2023, as it continues to appear as though the 2022 ceiling is significantly lower than last year’s standard. 

DRAFT WELL IN THE MIDDLE ROUNDS

When you really step back and assess what the Rams have done outside the top 75, you find some meaningful and significant hits. Players like LB Ernest Jones (103rd in 2021), Ben Skowronek (249th in 2021 with an assist to Sean McVay’s creativity), Terrell Burgess (104th in 2020), Jordan Fuller (199th in 2020), Gaines (134th in 2019), Edwards (169th in 2019), Scott (243rd in 2019), Brian Allen (111th in 2018), Joseph-Day (195th in 2018 and now departed), John Johnson (91st in 2017 and now departed), Samson Ebukam (125th in 2017 and now departed), and Higbee (110th in 2016) are all pretty impressive feathers in Snead’s cap. These are real, significant players in the NFL and all cut their teeth under in the Rams’ system. But, as we’re reminded in looking over the ledger, many of these were one-contract players with the Rams before finding new teams because the salary cap commitments and deferment of big-money extensions limited the ability to offer competitive extension figures. Scott, Edwards, and Gaines, as previously mentioned, are on deck and are looming as potential losses. 

But here’s the fine print: the team holds picks in the second and third rounds but currently has no scheduled picks until the sixth (three selections) before one more in the seventh round. Los Angeles shipped their 2023 first-rounder away as part of the Stafford deal, their fourth-round selection belongs to the New England Patriots for the trade for Sony Michel for the 2021 season, and their fifth-round pick belongs to the Cleveland Browns for the draft weekend trade for Troy Hill. 

Reinforcements will come via compensatory selections, however. The Rams are projected by Over The Cap to land four additional draft selections for their free agency dealings and net losses: two fifths, a sixth, and a seventh. That would currently give the Rams the following 2023 NFL Draft capital as a launch point for their offseason blueprint.

  • 2nd round 
  • 3rd round
  • 5th round (Comp, Darious Williams)
  • 5th round (Comp, Austin Corbett)
  • 6th round
  • 6th round (via trade)
  • 6th round (via trade)
  • 6th round (Comp, Sebastian Joseph-Day)
  • 7th round
  • 7th round (Comp, Ogbo Okoronkwo)

The team signed Wagner free of impact to this dynamic of the team because Wagner was outright cut by Seattle and was not a player whose contract expired.

If I were Snead, I would need to see how the board fell in April before making my second-round draft choice. And while perhaps there would be a player on the board that made me feel as though I could swiftly “fix” one of my problematic position groups (running back, offensive line, defensive tackle, or secondary), I would largely be inclined to transition into pooling future draft picks for 2024 to try to restock the roster with more QUALITY young, cheap players. That won’t happen unless there’s a concentrated effort to try to “have your cake and eat it, too,” otherwise the Rams will just continue swimming against themselves upstream unless they land an other-worldly draft class—which Snead has shown is possible but is still a statistical lottery ticket that you’re betting on happening. 

My move? Ideally, trade back or out of the second round in 2023 to get a later day-two selection and another top-75 pick for 2024 in the process. 

STRATEGIC PLAYER EXTENSIONS AND RE-SIGNINGS

This one is dicey for the Rams. Unlike the New Orleans Saints and other cap…uh, ahem…progressive franchises, the Rams don’t have a lot of void years at their disposal for 2023’s offseason. Robinson and Hill are the only void contracts tolling money against the cap for 2023 while not under contract for next season—and neither has a large hit. Robinson’s $1.5M hit and Hill’s $2M hit would both presumably be less money than what the Rams would pay to extend either player, so there are no hidden savings to be found by re-signing a player that is costing them cap but technically not under contract.

This brings us to contract restructures and extensions. There aren’t too many great options here either, largely because the Rams emptied the tank with their big-money players this offseason. Eight of the Rams’ current 38 players signed for the 2023 offseason are currently accounting for 74.59% of the projected salary cap total: 

  • Cooper Kupp
  • Aaron Donald
  • Jalen Ramsey
  • Leonard Floyd
  • Matthew Stafford
  • Allen Robinson
  • Joseph Noteboom
  • Bobby Wagner

And of those eight players, Kupp, Donald, Stafford, Robinson, Noteboom, and Wagner just got new contracts in some way this spring/summer. That leaves Ramsey and Floyd’s deals as the two most ripe for the picking. 

Ramsey’s deal owes him $17M in cash for 2023 and a $25.2M cap hit—and he was already restructured once on this current deal once in 2021. But with a $17M base salary, the Rams could easily convert this to a new signing bonus in order to push more money out to the final two years of Ramsey’s deal or even add a void year on the back end. There’s no reason why a Ramsey restructure couldn’t conceivably open $8-$10M in additional cap space for 2023. That is, of course, assuming the Rams are comfortable and confident with Ramsey playing out the remaining life of his contract in LA—he’s under contract currently through 2025. 

Converting $15M of his $17M base salary to a signing bonus and stacking a void year on the end of the deal would allow the Rams to account for just $3.75M of the paid lump sum against the 2023 cap. That $3.75M would combine with the remaining base salary of $2M, the prorated signing bonus amount of $5M of Ramsey’s initial $25M signing bonus from 2020, and the $3.2M deferred from when the Rams executed a similar restructure in 2021 to total an amended cap hit of $13.95M in 2023 versus the currently scheduled $25.2M. That’s $11.25M in savings if the Rams want it and viola! Los Angeles is no longer in the red against the cap.

Floyd’s contract is another that has low-hanging fruit to be plucked with a $13.5M base salary. But unlike Ramsey’s deal, Floyd does have two years of void cap hits already at his disposal, meaning the Rams are already facing financial implications in 2025 and 2026 with him gone and off the roster. Could you double down here? Sure. But do you want to live in a world where you’re paying $10M+ against the salary cap for a player that isn’t under contract anymore? That’s an answer for Snead to provide, but not a world I would want to live in. 

The other deal I’d be ready to finesse is the extension just paid out to Kupp. Kupp is a wide receiver facing significant cap hits over each of his next four seasons—somewhere between $24M-$28M in each season from 2023-2026. But he also has no void years left on his deal, which expires when he turns 34. But based on the route-running ability of Kupp, I’d be willing to hedge that he continues to be an impact player into his mid-30s, making him a player I see as a part of the picture long-term and someone I’m willing to finesse money into future years for because I’m not going to rue the day I did it with a non-productive albatross player/contract on my hands 36 months from now.

Kupp is due $15M of base salary. You can convert $12M of that into a signing bonus (leaving the remaining $3M as a base salary) and spread the hit out over the next four seasons from 2023 through 2026—meaning you only need to account for $3M of the converted money now. Kupp is owed $5.5M of his initial signing bonus and is scheduled for a $5M roster bonus on the third day of the league year next March. Add in a previously deferred $2.3M from a prior restructure and Kupp’s cap hit for 2023 with a restructure would be $18.8M—down from the $27.8M he’s currently owed for an additional $9M in cap savings. 

You can do this with plenty of contracts. But the challenge is doing it with the RIGHT contracts to ensure you’ll live through the “pay the piper” year down the line and not have a bunch of sunk cost that handcuffs you and forces you to let more second-contract players out the door—which is what we’ve seen from the Rams too much the last two years. 

ADDING CHEAP VETERAN PLAYERS

So we’ve created extra draft picks with our compensatory picks (credit to Snead there) and a hypothetical trade down from the top choice to pool more ammunition to move forward with (credit to me). And with just two restructures of star players, we’ve created some $20M in cap space to proceed with.

“The salary cap is fake!” cry out the replies once again.

Well, hold on. How we spend from here is significantly important to course correcting the erosion the Rams risk facing year over year.

Instead of spending big on two players (like Robinson and Wagner), why not get more bang for your buck and strategically spend later in the free agency cycle? After all, signings over the summer won’t impact the compensatory pick formula, so if players like Rapp or Scott or Gaines, or Edwards pull out for big-money contracts elsewhere, you will still collect future 2024 capital for your trouble.

How about some of these summer 2022 signings? 

  • DE Carlos Dunlap to the Chiefs (1 year, $3M)
  • OLB Melvin Ingram to the Dolphins (1 year, $4M)
  • WR Julio Jones to the Bucs (1 year, $5.485M)
  • OT Riley Reiff to the Bears (1 year, $3M plus incentives)
  • IDL Larry Ogunjobi to the Steelers (1 year, $8M)
  • IDL Akiem Hicks to the Bucs (1 year, $7.294M)
  • LB Jon Bostic to the Saints (1 year, $1.12M)
  • LB Anthony Barr to the Cowboys (1 year, $2M)

These are the kind of summer signings that the Rams can pivot to in order to construct a more experienced, even-keeled roster. Sure, the drop-off in play for these veterans is an unknown variable. But so, too, was replacing Whitworth and Corbett with rookie Bruss and Noteboom. So was giving 29-year-old Robinson $46.5M after he posted 410 receiving yards for Chicago in 2021. 

These kinds of signings are fiscally responsible and offer exponentially greater options for exit strategies and long-term flexibility. They also provide, in many cases, players with winning pedigrees that don’t need the long-term deal but rather a chance to win. The Rams, with their core nucleus of talent, can provide that. But they need a better complementary cast than the one they have in 2022.

My plan would be to exercise more restraint early in free agency unless a bargain comes drifting my way for a player willing to take less (and not 6%+ of my total cap) to play in Los Angeles. 

A BIG TRADE 

Brandin Cooks. Jalen Ramsey. Matthew Stafford. Von Miller. The Rams have swung big. They’ve also swung the other way, sending away players like Marcus Peters, Robert Quinn, and Brandin Cooks (welp!). 

I don’t have a big plan or master scheme for the Rams to execute here, but it is something to be mindful of. Los Angeles will have that 2024 first-round pick burning a hole in Snead’s pocket by this time next year, if not sooner. And while I don’t foresee a rookie in the second round of 2023 sufficiently “solving” one position room’s issues, an established NFL player worth a future first-round pick could. With the proposed focus on summer free agent spending on veterans, the Rams could fit another hefty contract down the road, especially as they look to move away from big-contract players like Floyd and quite frankly, Robinson. The sooner the better on that front, although Robinson should be expected to play with the team through the end of 2023 with his guaranteed money commitments.

Remember, the Rams haven’t spent a first-round pick on an actual rookie since Jared Goff in 2016. There’s little reason to think that trend won’t continue if the Rams make the necessary moves to better position themselves to restock with both cheap youth and veteran talent.

So there you have it. I’m not Les Snead, but I tried my best to honor his cutting-edge team-building approach with the journey we’ve taken through the Rams’ roster and options for the year or so ahead. Just don’t mind the bumps in the road Los Angeles is experiencing now—although it is likely to stay that way for the next few months and through the end of the year. 

The aggressive driving of 2021 has taken its toll on the ride now and reinforcements aren’t just off the nearest exit. But, hey, if you’re getting car sick, just take a look in that rearview mirror and smile at the fading Lombardi Trophy dipping into the horizon and smile. For now. It’s all we can do.

Written By

Kyle Crabbs