It’s hard to argue with the idea that veteran MLB Bobby Wagner was the single-most valuable player on the 2022 Los Angeles Rams, but that’s more of a sign of how far the Rams fell than Wagner finding a second wind late in his career.
Once attrition set in - taking away Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Aaron Donald - just Wagner and Jalen Ramsey were the only foundational stars left for Los Angeles. Ramsey had an up-and-down season while Wagner helped the Rams become one of the best run-stopping defenses in the entire NFL - though it’s fair to question how much return on investment you get from a top rushing defense. When Les Snead inked the veteran linebacker last offseason, Wagner was supposed to be a complementary piece. Instead, he was the most consistent player left available.
Then there’s the fact that investing heavily at inside linebacker was out of character for the Rams.
Despite flashing strong pass coverage skills and manning the middle of a Super Bowl defense, LA let Cory Littleton walk at the expiration of his deal after the 2019 season. They then turned to late round draft picks like Micah Kiser and Travin Howard as well as UDFA’s such as Troy Reeder. These guys certainly had their flaws, but LA showed that you can overcome a lack of an all-star MLB if you can rush the passer and cover receivers at a high level. Most defenses use nickel as their base personnel package anyways, so three-down linebackers are becoming a dying breed.
Signing Wagner was a major departure from one of the main tenants of the Rams’ team building philosophy, and moving on is a sign of reversing course more than pivoting to a full roster rebuild.
While Wagner led the best rushing defense the Rams have put on the field in recent memory, he also struggled in pass coverage and that’s just not something you can stomach in the modern NFL. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF) data, the veteran was targeted in coverage 48 times during his first (and seemingly only) season in LA - allowing 37 catches and a 77% completion percentage. Receivers in Wagner’s coverage accumulated 420 yards and a touchdown, while he forced two interceptions. Opposing quarterbacks tallied a quarterback passer rating of 92.4 when targeting Wagner in coverage.
So yes, Wagner is still an elite run defender and his PFF rushing defense grade of 90.1 backs that up; however, the aforementioned target data and his pass coverage grade of 76.1 show his coverage skills are in decline - and that’s a major reason why Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks decided to move on from the linebacker a year ago.
While NFL defenses sell out to stop explosive passes, offenses have leaned more heavily on the running game. There’s a role for players like Wagner, but it’s still smarter to force offenses to beat you five yards at a time on the ground and die a death by a thousand paper cuts than roll the dice against quarterbacks and receivers that seemingly get better and better every year.
Moving on from Bobby Wagner a year after signing him in free agency isn’t a sign that the Rams are headed to a full rebuild. Instead, it shows that Les Snead is returning to the core tenants of his team building model and looking to allocate the resources for Wagner to more valuable positions on the 2023 roster. Could that be a second corner or explosive pass catching threat on offense? Well, the Rams would be better served to invest in those areas of the team versus a linebacker with a niche role.
What move is next for Snead and the Rams?