Rams can challenge in NFC West
It's not just creating debate, it's about an abundance of cheap talent
Updated: March 21, 2013, 9:12 PM ET
By Chris Sprow
| ESPN Insider
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesThe Rams are loaded with young, affordable talent, including rising running back Daryl Richardson.
If you polled evaluators across the NFL and asked them to pick out the league's most talented rosters, you'd end up with results that placed the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers at or near the top. It doesn't take a war room-trained eye to see it, which is why the latest ESPN NFL Power Rankings had those two teams at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, as we wrap up free agency and look toward the draft.
This doesn't just happen because of very good drafting and talent evaluation -- and the Seahawks and 49ers have had plenty of both -- it's also about money.
In a league where the salary cap forces teams to creatively allocate resources and often cut players they'd prefer to keep, what you pay your quarterback drives roster construction. The top five QB cap hits for 2013 (as it stands now) will average about $19.6 million in 2013. That total is more than 15 percent of the NFL cap number, which means that on a per-player basis, those teams will have to pay the rest of a 53-man roster with the remaining 85 percent. In simple terms, if "NFL quarterback" is the most important, deterministic position in sports, paying a good one like an average player allows you to build a deeper, middle-class roster. This is why the offseason has been defined not just by signing QBs, but by making really good QBs financially realistic luxuries. (See: Brady, Tom.) NFL rosters are an oligarchy, but Seattle and San Francisco, with Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick at QB, respectively, will take cap hits of slightly more than $2 million total for their starting QBs in 2013. This won't hold true forever -- if Kaepernick and Wilson keep it up, the cash will come -- but in the meantime, it's 100-proof gravy.
In terms of roster-building in sports, there isn't a market inefficiency anywhere that can compare to paying so little for a player who determines so much. The Seahawks have utilized this current luxury by making a huge splash in free agency, deepening their pass rush in particular. The 49ers, meanwhile, dealt higher-priced Alex Smith and now have a league-high number of draft picks in 2013, this for a roster so deep they barely used A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James, their first- and second-round picks in 2012.
But the St. Louis Rams, seemingly a given for third fiddle in the NFC West headed into 2013, have an advantage of their own, even as Sam Bradford makes good money after being drafted under the old collective bargaining agreement. And when you combine that edge with what they already have on the field, there's no reason to discount the Rams as both legit contenders for the NFC West title as soon as the coming season, and as favorites in the years to come.
First take a look at the current team.
The 2012 Rams are now billed as a team that experienced a nice year of growth after a burnt-out crater of a season in 2011. The 2012 Rams won five more games than the year before, improved their plus-minus in point differential by 165 points (a whopping 10-plus points per week!), and went a combined 2-1-1 against the Seahawks and 49ers. The improvement was so great, in fact, it almost begs for the "regression" label in 2013. Teams that improve so quickly usually do, in fact, hit recline for a year until they get used to the new posture.
But a setback in 2013 isn't certain for the Rams, in part because the 2012 team could have been even better. Last season, St. Louis held leads in six of its eight losses, and saw 80 percent of that negative point differential wrapped up in one game. It was outscored by 49 points all season, but 38 of those points came via a 45-7 Week 8 thrashing by New England. The 2012 Rams weren't particularly lucky on turnovers (minus-1 for the season), and also played one of the NFL's toughest schedules. And that winning record against the teams we now consider the best in the NFL wasn't a fluke, because the Rams have plenty of talent, and are about to add a lot more.
Seattle and San Francisco can maintain deep rosters for another couple of years because they pay so little at quarterback, but the Rams can too because they pay so little for so many key players. The trade that gave the Redskins Robert Griffin III wasn't just necessary because St. Louis is locked into Sam Bradford, it will also hand the Rams an obscene surplus of cheap, young talent. The Rams turned that No. 2 overall pick into four total first- and second-round picks in 2012, and they still have two first-round picks coming in both the 2013 and 2014 drafts. And Washington's success didn't really diminish the value of those picks, because even as St. Louis dropped on the draft board with every game both they and the Redskins won in 2012, the Rams gained an economic advantage: Those good young players keep getting cheaper. Combined, St. Louis took a cap hit of about $6 million for the four first- and second-round picks in 2012, and the Rams could take similar hits for the total value of the picks they select in the next two years from those rounds.
We've already seen those young players tip the scales for the Rams. In 2011, the Rams ranked last in the NFL in Adjusted Games Lost because of injury, according to Football Outsiders. But in part because of the emergence of young talent, they jumped to No. 6 in the NFL in 2012. The Rams' 2012 draft created an abundance of games played from the likes of Michael Brockers,Janoris Jenkins, Chris Givens and Daryl Richardson (not to mention kicker Greg Zuerlein).
Jim Brown/US PresswireJared Cook, who piled up more than 500 yards last season for the Titans
, gives the Rams a dynamic receiving threat.
But this isn't just injury luck. Success in the NFL is defined by talent, but also attrition. Put more young players on the field, and you can expect better health. Because of their draft rewards, the Rams are going to continue to put young talent on the field. Based on Snap-Weighted Age -- a Football Outsiders metric that calculates the average age of players on the field on a per-snap basis -- the Rams were already one of the younger teams in the NFL in 2012 at an average of 26.2 years old, and they'll continue to keep getting younger via the surplus of premium draft picks. This isn't just a young, talented team with reasonable expectations on the health side -- the Rams have more on the way.
And the cheap, young talent creates another advantage.
The CBA now in place doesn't just mean that teams can pay so little for premium young talent, it means that teams have more cash left over to spend in free agency. This offseason, the Rams already have found significant upgrades at left tackle through the addition of Jake Long, and in the passing game with the addition of Jared Cook, a versatile tight end.
While the Rams can assume a measure of good health with more young impact on the way, their competition in the division might assume the opposite. The 49ers were the healthiest team in the NFL last year. They lost on average four times fewer games to injury than the average NFL team. The Seahawks checked in at No. 4 leaguewide -- they lost half of what a typical team did because of injury.
The Rams also aren't taking the assumed health for granted by spending where they don't need to. For instance, "losing" running back Steven Jackson might appear to some as a loss on paper, but St. Louis was smart not to pay a premium for a running back entering his age-30 season, one they'd already gotten more than 10,000 yards and 131 games from over nine seasons. By letting Jackson walk, the Rams may have lost a pretty good player, but they stuck to a philosophy built around the direction of the roster. With more good young players soon to be added, why pay a premium for the decline phase of a veteran?
This is a franchise with a good sense of the direction of its roster.
At the NFL combine, Rams coach Jeff Fisher was asked about utilizing so many young players. "Coaches will … tell you that players make the biggest improvement from Year 1 to Year 2," Fisher said. "They're no longer rookies. They understand what they have to go through. They're gonna come [for] the offseason program. And they're gonna improve."
It's an optimistic outlook. But no team is bound to improve more over the next few seasons than the Rams. If Fisher is right, they'll get improvements from a deep 2012 rookie class in 2013, then a good 2013 rookie class in 2014, and another good 2014 rookie class in 2015.
All the while, they'll be able to maintain both reasonable assumptions of health, and the prospect of continued flexibility in free agency. Bradford's development is obviously a huge aspect to all of this, but he made strides in 2012, and the Rams are capable of adding more weapons through the draft.
As I wrote back in September, the draft isn't the crapshoot many believe it is. The bulk of future stars are drafted early, and save all conspiracy theories about teams simply wanting to play guys they took early. It's not confirmation bias -- it's talent. And no team is in better position to take advantage of this fact than the St. Louis Rams. And even in the meantime, they can't be dismissed as legit contenders in the NFC West based on what they already have.
Chris Sprow is a senior editor for ESPN Insider. He reports on the NFL and other sports, works year-round with Mel Kiper on NFL draft coverage and also oversees ESPN's Rumor Central. He's been a frequent guest on ESPN TV and radio.