“The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us.”
It’s the famous quote from Bennett Miller’s movie Moneyball, telling the story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics. In 2002, the Athletics lost Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhausen to free agency. General manager Billy Beane had to figure out how to assemble a competitive team with Oakland’s limited budget.
While the NFL has a salary cap, it’s a situation that’s still eerily similar to what the 2023 Los Angeles Rams and general manager Les Snead are facing. They traded away Jalen Ramsey and then cut edge rusher Leonard Floyd and linebacker Bobby Wagner. That doesn’t even begin to mention the losses of Greg Gaines, A’Shawn Robinson, Nick Scott, and Taylor Rapp.
Replacing some of those pieces wouldn’t normally be a bad thing. However, the Rams are facing over $50M in dead cap this season according to Spotrac which is the fourth-most in the NFL behind only the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The next closest team to the Rams is the Tennessee Titans who have $36.8M in dead cap.
Snead and the Rams may not hold the most dead money, but they are in a league of their own. The $14M gap between the Rams at four and Titans at five is the same between the Titans at 5 and New York Giants at 12.
Without a quarterback on a rookie deal like the Philadelphia Eagles, it makes being able to overcome this amount of dead money very difficult. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers are both in rebuild mold. Meanwhile, the Rams have repeatedly stated that they are looking to compete in 2023.
Competing while holding dead cap is very possible. As mentioned the Eagles were in the top-5 last season and managed to go to the Super Bowl. The Rams were in the top-5 the year before and won the Super Bowl.
The Rams aren’t going to outright replace Ramsey, Floyd, or Gaines/Robinson. With the cap space that they have available, doing so is simply going to be impossible. OverTheCap currently has the Rams with $4.1M in effective cap space.
What Snead and the Rams can try to do is re-create their production.
“Guys, you’re still trying to replace Giambi. I told you we can’t do it, and we can’t do it. Now, what we might be able to do is re-create him. Re-create him in the aggregate” - Billy Bean in Moneyball
With it being the opening weekend of baseball, it only makes sense to use a baseball analogy. Can the Rams spend less, but still get the same production from a numbers standpoint that they are losing from their former star players? They won’t be able to afford to buy another player of Ramsey or Floyd’s caliber. However, can they re-create them?
It’s an interesting proposition. Scott Hatteberg may have been a liability at first base defensively. However, Hatteberg got on base as a hitter which is what Beane and the A’s cared about the most.
The Rams aren’t going to replace Ramsey’s versatility and overall effect in the secondary. It’s going to be difficult to replace Leonard Floyd’s ability as a run defender. How much does that stuff matter though is the question. Can they get the same ball production in terms of interceptions, pass breakups, and sacks from lesser valued players?
Let’s use Floyd has an example. Floyd recorded nine sacks last season and 9.5 the year before. Outside of 2018 in which Donald had 20.5 sacks, when the Rams have had a clear number one pass rusher on the edge, that player has had at least 8.5 sacks. Robert Quinn had 8.5 sacks in 2017 and Dante Fowler Jr. totaled 11.5 sacks in 2019. The number to shoot for to replace Floyd should be around nine sacks.
Where those nine sacks come from is what the Rams will need to figure out. As shown from the production above, the Aaron Donald effect is a real thing. He creates advantageous situations for the players around him
Over the final six games of 2022, Michael Hoecht started at edge and recorded 4.5 sacks in those games. If you take that production and span it over 17 games, it’s 12.75 sacks.
Obviously, it’s not that simple and that’s not how stats in the NFL works. Between Weeks 13-18 when Hoecht played more of a full-time role on the edge, he still trailed Floyd in pass-rush win-percentage 14.0 to 12.3 percent and had seven fewer pressures according to Pro Football Focus. However, Hoecht had the same number of pressures and a higher win percentage than Floyd in true pass sets.
With a full offseason to train and work at edge, can Hoecht be just as effective as Floyd was last season as a pass rusher in all situations? Even if Hoecht only ends up in the 6-8 sack range, the Rams may be able to find the remaining three sacks from another edge rusher or two on the roster.
In the scenario that the Rams do draft an edge rusher such as Will McDonald IV in the second-round, it’s unrealistic to expect him to come up with nine sacks as a rookie. In the past three seasons, Azeez Ojulari in 2021 has the most sacks among second-round edge rushers during their rookie season with eight. The average is just 2.54.
Josh Uche is a very good up-and-coming edge rusher. However, as the 60th overall pick in 2020, he had just a single sack. The Rams will likely be relying on players already on the roster and Donald to have a superhuman-like season for their sack production.
A player like Ramsey is going to be more difficult to replace. Interceptions are a lot more random. From Weeks 14-18 when Cobie Durant took on more of a full-time role, he had two interceptions to Ramsey’s three and allowed a reception on 70 percent of his targets to Ramsey’s 53.6.
It’s worth noting that Ramsey’s back-half of 2022 was much better than his first-half. Taking the full season into account, it was much closer with Durant allowing a reception on 68 percent of his targets to Ramsey’s 65.1. The rookie finished with three interceptions to Ramsey’s four in 441 fewer snaps. Durant also allowed a lower passer rating when targeted.
The Rams will be relying on Robert Rochell, Derion Kendrick, and likely a rookie to replace Ramsey. Similar to the edge rusher positions, that’s lofty expectations for a rookie drafted in the second or third-round. It will be up to the players currently on the roster to fill this void.
Safety and defensive line is where this becomes a little easier. The Rams have done this in the past at safety. Instead of paying John Johnson following 2020, the defense integrated Jordan Fuller into more of a full-time role along with Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott. With both of those players leaving and Fuller getting healthy, Russ Yeast and Quentin Lake should be able to jump into their roles.
The Rams also lost Sebastian Joseph-Day following the 2021 season. Greg Gaines stepped in last year after having a limited role in much of the first 2.5 years of his career. Bobby Brown has been on a similar trajectory and Larrell Murchison is a player to watch here as well.
When it comes to players like Floyd an Robinson, it may be difficult to replace their effect in the run game. However, in a passing league, that aspect of their games may be overrated.
“The Boston Red Sox see Johnny Damon and they see a star who’s worth seven and half million dollars a year. When I see Johnny Damon, what I see is... is... an imperfect understanding of where runs come from. The guy’s got a great glove. He’s a decent leadoff hitter. He can steal bases. But is he worth the seven and half million dollars a year that the Boston Red Sox are paying him? No.” - Peter Brand in Moneyball
It’s an interesting proposition. At the end of the day, you still need talent in the NFL to win. Football is the ultimate team sport. Still, the Rams are in a difficult position that they created for themselves and will need to get creative. A “moneyball” formula might be what the Rams need to compete in 2023.