Aggressive or Reckless: A Deep Dive into the LA Rams Strategy

In 2017, the then-middling LA Rams, with the youngest coach in the league and a 2nd year QB that looked abysmal as a rookie, took the league by storm. With a single breath of fresh air, they turned from Jeff Fisher’s average, tired team, into the hottest upstarts in the NFL. They took control of the division from the Seahawks behind Todd Gurley, who finished second to Tom Brady in the MVP voting that year. What’s more impressive was the way they turned Jared Goff from what appeared to be a bust after his rookie year, into a franchise quarterback.

After losing their first playoff game to the Falcons, the Rams knew the time was now. Before the start of the 2018 season they placed their chips in the center of the table. They signed Ndamukong Suh to a one-year mercenary deal, extended their star RB Todd Gurley to a massive contract, and traded for Chiefs corner Marcus Peters as well as Broncos corner Aqib Talib. In the summer they worked out lucrative contract extensions with wide-out Brandin Cooks and maybe the NFL’s best athlete in Aaron Donald. Before the trade deadline that fall, the Rams added yet another piece, acquiring edge defender Dante Fowler from the Jaguars to gear up for their Super Bowl run.

At the time, it was hard to argue with anything the Rams were doing in the front office because of the sheer dominance with which they were dismantling their opponents. Nobody could figure out McVay’s offense and Gurley continued to run wild in 2018. The Greatest Show on Turf was making a curtain call in the LA Coliseum for all to see, and America was loving it. They rolled to the NFC Championship game, where lady luck graced the Rams in the famous no-call pass interference against the Saints. They then took on quite possibly the greatest sports dynasty in American sports history, where they fell in a defensive struggle to Bill Belichick’s Patriots. No shame in that, right?

For GM Les Snead and the rest of the Rams executives, they probably went into the 2019 off-season thinking they had a team on the cusp of being the best in the NFL, and how could they not? After all, their aggressive style had paid off, at least in 2018. So, what have they decided to do again this season when they’ve seen an opportunity to improve? They’ve snatched it, obviously. Due in part to a contract dispute, Jacksonville corner Jalen Ramsey has been upset with the front office since training camp, to the point of requesting a trade. The Jaguars understandably have been reluctant to grant his request as he’s probably one of the best corners in the league, but Les Snead was willing to meet their steep asking price, sending two 1st round picks as well as a 4th to Jacksonville in exchange for Ramsey. In addition to trading for Ramsey, they also shipped off Marcus Peters to the Ravens for backup linebacker Kenny Young and an undisclosed draft pick.

Again, the theme of the Rams’ management style has been clear. They want to win a Super Bowl right now, and they haven’t been shy about it. In fact, the national media narrative will spin largely around whether they’re able to win the Super Bowl soon because as the saying goes, “Flags fly forever.” To a degree, it’s true. If you can acquire an asset you know will put you over the top to win it all, but potentially hurt you down the road, you do it ten times out of ten. But if you need to make several of those moves, it’s a different conversation – and that’s what the Rams have done to themselves.

So, let’s do some cost balancing. Since 2016 when they traded up to take Jared Goff, LA hasn’t had a 1st round pick. The Goff trade cost them their 1st round picks in ’16 and ’17, two 2nd rounders in ’16, and their 3rd rounders in ’16 and ’17 – for one player. When they acquired Brandin Cooks from the Patriots they gave up their 1st rounder in 2018, and in 2019 did the same to trade back and accumulate back some of the draft capital they had lost. Since 2016 LA has picked only twice in the 2nd round as well, turning those into tight end Gerald Everett and safety Taylor Rapp. The reason for this? They gave up a 2nd and a 4th rounder for Marcus Peters, who they just shipped off a year after acquiring him for a backup linebacker. The good part for the Rams is despite giving away all their draft picks, they’ve still been able to find a diamond in the rough or two. Cooper Kupp, who they drafted in the 3rd round, is the team’s best receiver and fellow 3rd round pick safety John Johnson has been exceptional out of Boston College.

Even so, the net has clearly been a negative for the Rams draft-wise. Goff, while certainly much improved, isn’t at the level of his contemporary Carson Wentz and largely benefits from Sean McVay’s excellent offense. Cooks might be the third-best receiver behind Kupp and Robert Woods, and Peters was a sunk cost.

While the future has obviously been on the back-burner for LA, to be fair, draft picks have never won the Super Bowl. So how have they managed the assets they’ve acquired? This season the Rams made a long-term move, locking up their franchise QB – extending Goff for 4 years/134 million, which won’t kick in against the salary cap until next year. Goff’s 1 million salary in 2019 is roughly 5% of the Rams cap right now. Next year, it’ll be over three times that number (17%), and the rest of the impact players are on a similar trajectory. Gurley is 4.8% of the cap this year, and 8.5% next before settling back around 5% for the rest of the contract. Cooks will eat around 8% through 2023. Aaron Donald, their best player is being paid 9%, but over the life of his contract will balloon up to nearly 20% of the salary cap in 2024, although by then he’ll almost certainly be restructured or have some of that converted into a signing bonus. In 2024 as it stands now, the Rams have two players under contract (Goff & Donald) – and they’re consuming over 40% of the cap space for a 53-man roster.

When you get down to brass tax, LA has set themselves up for potential disaster. In addition to the contracts already signed, they still must work out what will certainly be a lucrative extension for Jalen Ramsey, who they just paid a handsome price in draft picks for. What’s more than the money they’ve spent is what they’ll still lose because of it. In total, the Rams have 19 players that will be unrestricted free agents at season’s end, some of which are very important cogs on their side of the ball. Starters include their left tackle Andrew Whitworth, DT Michael Brockers, OLB Dante Fowler, CB Aqib Talib, LB Cory Littleton, and K Greg Zuerlein. If you look another year out, players that will need new deals after 2020 include CB Jalen Ramsey, WR Cooper Kupp, S John Johnson, LB Clay Matthews, TE Gerald Everett, LB Samson Ebukam, and CB Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Are there ways around some of the problems the Rams front office has created? Of course, and some of those will certainly be exercised in the future. There will be surprise cuts, contract restructures, and trades. But just like in The Office, Les Snead won’t be able to declare bankruptcy Michael Scott style and make all his problems disappear. The team is what it is, and because of their lack of cap space and draft capital, they’ve left themselves little chance to improve the roster. Whether you’re a fan of the team, or a St. Louis-born Stan Kroenke hater, to see how the Rams handle this situation going forward will be interesting to monitor to say the least.