No one saw it coming. That at the season’s mid-point, the Los Angeles Rams would be out of contention to defend their Super Bowl title and fans would be considering pulling the plug and looking forward to 2023. Sneaking in to playoffs is still mathematically possible, but the way the offense unit is performing, even the most fervent fans would be hard- pressed to believe L.A. can score enough to garner a long string of victories.
The reasons for the collapse are many. Roster decisions, changes in schemes, and unimaginative game plans all deserve scrutiny, but injuries to the offensive line are first and foremost. It is simply impossible for a team to get up a head of steam when you have a different starting front line in every single game.
For fans, there were many questions before the season even began about how the Rams had handled the post-Lombardi Trophy roster. They handed out raises for a select few and did not reload for players lost. Looking forward to 2023, that reload is looking more like a rebuild. Putting aside the current on-field performance of players and coaches, it’s the salary cap money that points directly at a roster overhaul.
Overthecap is currently projecting the Rams to have $6.85 mil salary cap space in 2023 with 37 players under contract. The simplest of math points to that leaving only $425,00 per player to fill out an active roster of 53, far under league minimums. They also project L.A. to have draft pick (at #11 overall) liability of $9 mil. These are only projections and even leaving some wriggle room for how the rest of this season plays out and any other miscellaneous, it is obvious some serious monetary reckoning is due.
The NFL salary minimums for 2023 range between minimum of $750,000 for a rookie free agent to just north of $1 mil for vets with seven years or more of service. There are three main levels of free agency, unrestricted (UFA), restricted (RFA), and exclusive rights (ERFA).
UFA’s can negotiate with all teams and sign for whatever their market will bear. RFA’s are tagged with either a 1st ($5.4mil), 2nd ($4mil), original round ($2.5mil), or right of first refusal ($2.4mil) designation (the amounts are from 2022). The tagged player is free to negotiate and sign an offer sheet with any team and if his original team decides not to match it, they can receive the draft pick coinciding with the designation. If the original team wants to re-sign the player, the can match any offer or pay the designated amount. EFRA’s have an expiring contract, two accrued years or less in the league and can be paid the league minimum.
The players, their 2023 contract status, and cap hit
Under contract (1): Matthew Stafford ($20m)
RFA: John Wolford ERFA: Bryce Perkins
The only move here is at backup. Both can be be had/kept at a low price. Is it time to draft development-type youngster? Or go with a veteran with a history of play time? Keeping a low-cost alternative, like Wolford and Perkins, who aren’t particularly a good fit into the Rams current offensive schemes seems a recipe for struggle.
If you believe Stafford is going to continue to be relatively healthy, then it’s time to spend some draft capital on a developmental player. If next season’s offensive line doesn’t project to get better, Staff will continue to take a beating and you have to consider an experienced player that fits the system.
Under contract (2): Cam Akers ($2m), Kyren Williams ($947t)
UFA: Darrell Henderson
PS: Ronnie Rivers, Malcom Brown
Obviously, Akers will be gone. Whether or not the Rams can squeeze a late draft pick for him is academic. Drafting him at #52, L.A. took a swing with Akers as lead back, but since returning from his Achilles injury, it hasn’t looked promising. Even though both sides have put a fairly good face on the staff/player tensions, a split is inevitable.
Although Williams impact remains to be seen, he is from a similar vein as Henderson, more of a complimentary back than lead dog. If he can prove to be patient and read blocks well enough, catch a few passes, and secure the ball, he can replace Henderson at half the price. Even if he fulfills his potential, the Rams still need a true #1.
Bringing back Henderson on a friendly contract wouldn’t hurt, but honestly, he is a known commodity and can't be expected to improve much more or be expected to be the lead guy. A lot of backs will offer a similar skillset at less money. Let me put in one caveat on his overall play and the possibility of his return, if the Rams go to more gap blocking scheme and they did use some versus the Arizona Cardinals, it suits Henderson’s style.
Under contract (6): Cooper Kupp ($27.8m), Allen Robinson ($18m), Van Jefferson ($1.8m), Tutu Atwell ($1.6m), Bennett Skowronek ($961t), Lance McCutcheon ($870t)
UFA: Brandon Powell
PS: Austin Trammel
L.A. could stand pat here, six is a pretty full room. Lots of money at the top of this unit, probably too much. If Kupp is going to continue to be the primary target on routes, screens, and jet sweeps, then paying Robinson is overkill. The rest of the unit all have substantive value contracts and should all be retained.
An addition that could be made is a player with speed and/or open field running skills. As a kick returner, Powell fits the latter, could be brought back at a good price, and is serviceable, but an eye should be kept out for a true playmaker.
Atwell could fill this role, but he needs to play to show it. And not just a situational rep or two, he needs to show he can stand the rigors of being a integral part of the offense. Most of fan’s doubt lies in his size and draft position, even though there just isn’t enough of a body of work to make a real decision on his value potential.
Under contract (2): Tyler Higbee ($8.6m), Brycen Hopkins ($1.2m)
PS: Jacob Harris, Roger Carter, Jared Pinkney, Kendall Blanton
Higbee is serviceable, but is hard not to believe there aren’t other options at much less money. One addition that would help, and the Rams wouldn’t have to wait until next year, is adding a true blocking tight end. None of the current squad can be considered average blockers. I would certainly keep Jacob Harris, his potential/cost is worth it.
Under contract (7): Joseph Noteboom ($15.5m), Rob Havenstein ($8.7m), Brian Allen ($6.8m), Coleman Shelton ($1.8m), Logan Bruss ($1.1m), Tremayne Anchrum ($1m), Alaric Jackson ($947t)
UFA: David Edwards, Matt Skura, Ty Nseke, Bobby Evans
ERFA: Chandler Brewer
PS: A.J. Arcuri, Jeremiah Kolone, Max Pircher
While injuries have been the major problem, some of the the candidates have a long past with them. This unit definitely needs to be rebuilt and honestly all should be on the hot seat. Havenstein’s new contract would create a costly exit, so expect him to be untouchable.
Under contract: None
UFA: Matt Gay, Riley Dixon
RFA: Matt Orzech
Do the Rams stay with the status quo and re-sign the trio as a unit? They should at least keep an eye out for upgrades. There have been two blocked punts already this season, the most in McVay’s tenure and both have come from right up the middle.
Even so, long snapper Orzech can be kept at a minimum price and Dixon is serviceable as a punter and has done a good job as holder. Gay on the other hand, carried a RFA designation last year and was tendered at $2.54 mil. Spotrac places a valuation of $5.1 mil on him, so he may choose to test the free agent waters.
Under contract (4): Aaron Donald ($26m), A’Shawn Robinson ($1.5m), Bobby Brown ($1.1m), Jonah Williams ($940t)
UFA: Greg Gaines
ERFA: Marquise Copeland, Michael Hoecht
PS: Earnest Brown, T.J Carter, Elijah Garcia
Aaron Donald and A’Shawn Robinson are a good base to build around, Donald is still at the top of his game and the Rams have an option to bring Robinson back at a bargain rate.
A true nose tackle (a behemoth) would be a nice addition. It all depends on how often the L.A. defense is going to use their traditional 3-4 base. If they go with four down linemen, the best move may be to load up on end/edge sized players and stay with whom they have on contract.
Brown has not, in year two, shown a lot of progress and Williams has tweener size that might be better served on the outside. Both Copeland and Hoecht are serviceable and cost effective at the bottom of the unit. Hoecht at 310 lbs., is a special teams stalwart.
Under contract (3): Leonard Floyd ($22m), Terrell Lewis ($1.4m), Daniel Hardy ($895t)
UFA: Justin Hollins
PS: Keir Thomas, Brayden Thomas, Zach VanValkenberg
Floyd is way over-priced for 2023, but if the Rams jettison him, they will need a pair of starting-grade edges. Lewis will be fine in a backup role, but hasn’t shown enough juice to be considered a dangerous pass rusher. Hardy, a relatively small edge, will have to show he can take the physical beating of the NFL and excellent agents regular season competition.
Keir Thomas, I thought, showed potential on the edge against both the pass and run, although only in preseason. Keep him out of pass coverage situations and I think he can have some value. The other Thomas, Brayden, and Van Valkenberg are still developing.
Off ball linebacker
Under contract (3): Bobby Wagner ($12m), Ernest Jones ($1.3), Jake Hummel ($872t)
UFA: Travin Howard, Jake Gervase
ERFA: Christian Rozeboom
A solid unit and considering how many snaps Wagner and Jones consume, a good value. If either through the draft or free agency, the Rams can grab a youngster with some development upside, fine, but this unit can wait too addressed in 2024. Unless things really go off the tracks, the backups should be special teams demons.
Injuries have gotten me over Howard, he just cannot stay on the field and Gervase, Hummel, and Rozeboom are all serviceable on special teams. If L.A. cannot upgrade these role with more speed and athleticism, they could all be brought back around the league minimum.
Under contract (3): Jordan Fuller (1.1m), Russ Yeast (889t), Quintin Lake (903t)
UFA: Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott
PS: T.J. Carter
Yikes! Definitely need some rebuilding here. Fans will howl if Rapp is brought back and Scott is limited in what he brings to the defense. Fuller has missed multiple games in two of his three seasons and both Yeast and Lake are late round picks. All three have only fair athleticism.
Rapp is good against the run and gets his share of tackles, but lacks in pass coverage and missing nearly 10 percent of tackle attempts, mostly in open field, makes him expendable. Scott Is the same type of player, a strong hitter when coming downhill, but lacks the read-and-react skills over the top in coverage. Both are best suited to sub-package roles where they can be near the line of scrimmage and break straight ahead to the ball.
Under contract (5): Jalen Ramsey ($25.2m), Robert Rochell ($1.2m), Troy Hill ($1m), DeCobie Durant ($996t), Derion Kendrick ($903t)
UFA: David Long, Grant Haley
ERFA: Shaun Jolly
Another starting grade cornerback is needed, maybe two, if the Rams continue to play high shell coverage. Ramsey’s best role in the current scheme is as the “STAR” hybrid safety/linebacker/slot role. He has the proper skillset to read the quarterback’s eyes and moves, react, and break on the ball. He’s both on a path to shatter his personal best in tackles and is doing it at his career-lowest missed tackle rate.
Hill is serviceable in the slot at a good price and L.A. has an option to bring him back in 2023 at $1 mil. Durant has looked active and reactive in his few rookie snaps, but he’s struggled with injuries. Both are feisty, but small.
Rochell doesn’t play much, only a handful of snaps (18), after logging 234 last season. Has he digressed so much that David Long and Derion Kendrick have passed him by? Will he be a later round Terrell Burgess? Kendrick has played pretty much to the form of his scouting report, he comes forward well and is sticky and tough underneath, but he’s a step slow and at a liability when turning and running with wideouts.
Five moves to create $60mil in cap space
For this argument, it’s all about freeing up cap space to finance a quick rebuild. I won’t speculate about what compensation the trades would bring in return, because the possibilities are many, and there should be good to significant value for many of the players named.
#1 - Trade with a “post-June 1” designation to save $44,250,000
Starting with the biggest moves first, trade tackle Joseph Noteboom, wide receiver Allan Robinson, and edge Leonard Floyd. Yes, out the widow with three starters. There will be some dead money to eat, but $44 mil allows the Rams to be active in the upper-tier free agent market. Even if the Rams should decide to cut them post-June 1, the dead money and cap savings would be equal.
All three are good players, just over-priced. Noteboom has played serviceably and just got a new contract, but he is paid like a top 15 left tackle and a string injuries plagued his years in L.A. Robinson is paid like a top 20 receiver and if Cooper Kupp is going to keep getting 1⁄3 of all offensive snaps, or anything close for that matter, he is superfluous. Although Floyd has been a solid contributor, his impact is not that of an explosive playmaker and he being paid like a top 10 edge.
#2 - Trade Brian Allen with a “post-June 1” designation and save $6.8 mil
Another starter out. When not injured, Allen is a good center, but his injury history is long and when he plays nicked up (often) he struggles (like last week). He is not only due $6.8 mil next year, his 2024 cap hit jumps to $7.8 mil. A rebuild is just that and I’m not sure Allen is the guy to build around.
#3 - Cut bait with Cam Akers and save $1,452,000
It doesn’t matter the reason or whose at fault, keeping Akers around next tear is not best for the team. Probably not now, as well. A fresh start for both is best. If the Rams can somehow squeeze a late round draft pick out of somebody, great. The cap savings for either a pre-June 1 cut or trade is equal.
#4 - Do some cleanup at the bottom of the roster and save $2mil
As always, there a few bubble guys that don’t play much that really wouldn’t be missed. Tight end Brycen Hopkins has left fans wanting, he’s not good as a blocker and that’s a major problem considering his position. Wide receiver JJ Koski has been on injured reserve all year and is always a roster bubble player.
What is the final tally and which in-house free agents should be re-signed?
Following these moves, the Rams would have 30 players under contract and $60.5 mil to fill out 23 openings on the roster. L.A. has 10 2023 draft picks and in the past, has kept about 70 percent of their selections on the 53. Low-cost re-signees Marquise Copeland, Michael Hoecht, Jonah Williams, Chandler Brewer, and Matt Orzech all offer value around the league minimum.
Of the Rams UFA’s, Matt Gay needs to be re-upped and if the price doesn’t get too rich, Nick Scott and Greg Gaines would nice to bring back. There are a few others that could/should be considered as well. Some sense of year-to-year roster continuity is important and the Rams really only need to add a handful of mercenaries. Remember that the practice squad can be signed to reserve/futures contracts.
A rebuild is not about replacing the whole team, just wisely remodeling around a solid foundation, and the Rams do have that. Approach the draft with a mindset of moving up for talent, not back to stockpile picks. Adding three proven difference makers, on the offensive line, at the edge and a safety would go a long way to getting L.A. back in the playoff hunt.
When Sean McVay took over in 2017, he didn’t jettison the whole team even though it was a Rams squad with less talent. He was able to identify the dead wood, trim it out and make a few strategic additions that immediately transformed the team. He should embrace that same mindset for 2023.