While the Los Angeles Rams are far from finished with proving how far they can go in 2023, emerging as a playoff contender despite a roster that was largely constructed out of a necessity to react to trading their early draft picks and signing players to contracts that did more harm than good, it’s not too early to say that this season’s surprisingly positive results could lead to a faster return the top tier than anticipated. If not this year’s playoffs, then at least next year’s playoffs based on two factors:
The Rams are better than most people expected.
The Rams have more advantages in the next offseason than they had in the last offseason.
The team has a better glob of clay to mold and they also have a lot more time and resources in the studio. These three advantages next year compared to 2023 could lead to the Rams being back in the Super Bowl faster than anticipated.
A first round draft pick
For the first time since 2019, the Los Angeles Rams will go into an offseason with their first round draft pick in pocket. And though it’s too early to confirm anything yet because never count Les Snead out from making a trade, it seems wise for the Rams to actually use a first round pick on a player for the first time since picking Jared Goff in 2016.
The Rams had their first round pick in 2019, only to trade down several times until finally picking Taylor Rapp at 61st overall.
It’s been said many times before, but the Rams have gone seven drafts in a row without selecting a player in the first round. It now finally looks like 2024 will be the first time that we can not only mock players to L.A. in the first round, but that they’ll actually use it.
A few weeks ago, the Rams were in position to pick sixth overall. Now they’re slated at 14th overall and with playoffs hopes looking realistic again, L.A. could drop into the 20s.
Let’s just say that for now nobody has any good idea where the Rams will eventually land in the draft order but that it would be a huge advantage—relative to past Rams rosters—to finally get to add a day one prospect to the roster. If done right, that’s a potential starter who will give the team financial flexibility by being a cost-controlled asset for 4-5 years who is providing a net value against the salary cap that L.A. has desperately needed for awhile.
Just look at how lucky the Rams are to have players like Puka Nacua, Steve Avila, Kyren Williams, Byron Young, Kobie Turner, Ernest Jones, and Jordan Fuller punching above their salary cap hits on rookie contracts.
But you just can’t rely on landing day three draft steals every year. At some point, shoot your high percentage shots.
That being said, let’s just say that Les Snead does decide to trade it again. It’s actually been since 2015 that Snead has let a year pass without trading his first round pick, since he traded up for Goff. You’d need to go all the way back to Todd Gurley for that.
Even trading the pick gives the Rams an advantage that they didn’t have this year. Because the Rams traded two first round picks for Jalen Ramsey and two first round picks for Matthew Stafford, they haven’t even had first round picks to trade half the time. So if Snead decides he wants to trade down and accumulate more capital, trade up for a better prospect, or trade it for a veteran, L.A. will have that option that they haven’t had since 2021.
Assuming that the Rams do select a player, which is certainly what I would recommend at this stage, there’s basically no position that wouldn’t make sense because of how the roster is constructed and the various stages of career that their best players are at right now. Quarterback? Sure. Offensive tackle? Absolutely. Edge rusher? You bet. Cornerback? Why not. Receiver? Yes, that too. Tight end? If he’s the right one.
And you don’t have to worry about a running back, if that’s a concern; as far as I know, none are being projected for the first round.
No matter who the Rams do decide to draft, he should be a good fit for their needs. And drafting a day one player is something fans of the draft have needed for a long time.
Salary cap space
While the Rams may not end up with a lot of salary cap space, they’re definitely on track to have more than they’ve had in a long time. Giving Snead the ability to re-sign the Rams that McVay likes and to go out and add some more that he wants.
L.A. is currently projected by OvertheCap with $57.4 million in cap space against a projected $260.3 million salary cap.
Relative to other teams, that ranks 12th in the NFL.
Compare that to this past offseason, when the Rams basically couldn’t do anything other than get rid of players, often with little-to-no cap savings. It got to the point where now the Rams have the least-expensive defense in the NFL (with the majority of the money going to Aaron Donald) at $51.6 million.
No other team in the league spends less than $60 million on their defense, while the top three teams are all over $100 million. Again, Donald makes $26 million just by himself, while Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Floyd have dead money cap hits around $20 million each. That means that L.A. had to allocate over $70 million in 2023 cap space just for Donald, Ramsey, Floyd, and Bobby Wagner.
That’s a lot more than what their actual defense is paid.
Snead and his team did what they had to in order to field a 53-man roster and practice squad that could fit into the salary cap, which meant finding discounted players like Ahkello Witherspoon, John Johnson, Demarcus Robinson, Royce Freeman, as well as keeping the most rookies in the NFL.
It’s STUNNING that L.A. is 5-6 with a shot at the playoffs.
And though their “effective salary cap” (subtracting some money that the Rams will need to spend against the cap in 2024) drops to $41.3 million next year (projected, not confirmed), that’s still a lot better than what the team was dealing with in 2023. Assuming that the Rams will continue to see themselves as contenders based on the relative success happening this season, L.A. can actually keep Stafford, Donald, and Cooper Kupp without needing to weigh their options of cap savings and rebuilding.
That isn’t what they decided to do in 2022 or 2023, and it appears they probably won’t do it in 2024.
Rams 2024 free agents
Among L.A.’s top 2024 free agents are several of their bargains from 2023: Witherspoon has gone from an afterthought to a must-keep; Kevin Dotson has gone from a late offseason trade acquisition to a should-keep; Carson Wentz and John Johnson will be on the table as potential re-signs; Michael Hoecht, A.J. Jackson, Christian Rozeboom, and Jonah Williams are restricted free agents who should not cost much to keep.
In fact, L.A. should be able to keep these players and still have plenty of money left over to test the waters of first and second wave free agency. We know how much the Rams like to swim in that lake when they can.
Maybe it’s only one or two high-profile players, but those additions could change a lot as far as the makeup of the roster. If the Rams want another weapon, receivers Tee Higgins and Mike Evans are likely to hit free agency. If they want to push A.J. Jackson and spend their first round pick on a different position, the tackle market could include Mehki Becton, Jonah Williams, Mike Onwenu, and Tyron Smith. They could give the defensive line a huge boost with Justin Madubuike or Leonard Williams. The Rams could finally complete that deal for Brian Burns, if not Danielle Hunter or Jonathan Greenard on a cheaper deal. Among free agent safeties are Antoine Winfield Jr and Geno Stone, to go with corners Jaylon Johnson and Kendall Fuller.
Though free agency can be a red herring and often leads to disappointing results, the Rams have definitely benefited from these big moves in the past. Now they should have the option to try again.
Finally, the Rams will have roster flexibility in 2024 that they did not have in 2023: The ability to move players that they wouldn’t have so easily moved this past offseason.
Though again, L.A. may not want to part with Donald, Stafford, or Kupp, which is perfectly understandable, they really had few options and little choice in 2023 anyway. All options are on the table in 2024. They could trade or release any of them—if they absolutely had to, don’t bark at me, I’m not saying that they should—and be able to swallow the cap ramifications.
That wasn’t even much of a choice in 2023.
The Rams are in a similar position with Rob Havenstein. He makes $14 million in 2024 and will almost certainly be the team’s right tackle again because of his contract. The recently-extended Tyler Higbee will be the tight end.
However, the options really open up from there.
The Rams could, and almost definitely will, release or trade Joe Noteboom. Either way, the team saves $5 million with $15 million in dead money left on the cap. The other thing they could do is restructure Noteboom, bring his cap hit down to $10.75 million, and keep him in 2025 for about the same amount. Is that good value for a utility backup?
The Rams can release Brian Allen and save $4.9 million.
Make those two moves, releasing those linemen, and the Rams projected cap goes to $67.3 million and over $50 million in effective cap space.
If the Rams are feeling very confident in their star players, there’s even more flexibility: The team could restructure Kupp to save as much as $12.5 million in 2024 cap space. They have the same options with Stafford and Donald, but should only consider it if a) they desperately need the money and b) they think both players will still be in the league in 2025.
Either way, this is flexibility that did not exist before.
2024 plans for the roster
With these 3 advantages, the Rams could actually build out an even better team around Stafford, Donald, Kupp, Puka, some emerging starters on the offensive line, Kyren, Turner, Young, Witherspoon, Jones, and etc.
Draft, free agency, trades, and flexibility.
Whatever the Rams end up doing this season is almost icing on the cake for what could come next. The options are opening up to “rebuild” much faster than anticipated.