Let's say the Rams have the ball on offense and are starting a drive. On first down, they hand the ball off to Cam Akers and try to run it, but he gets stuffed at the line of scrimmage for no gain. On second down, there is a false start penalty that moves them back 5 yards. Then, Matthew Stafford rolls out after a play action fake, but there is heavy pass rush pressure and no one is open, so he has to throw the ball away.
It is now 3rd&15. The Rams call timeout. Stafford wants to be aggressive and says "We should try to throw it deep." Mike LaFleur wants to be more conservative and suggests a draw play or a quick WR screen pass. Sean McVay wants to do something in between, telling Stafford that if they get a certain coverage to try to throw an intermediate pass short of the sticks to Cooper Kupp and see if Kupp can gain the rest of the yardage with YAC.
On some level, does this "debate" really matter? It is 3rd&15. No matter what the Rams try to do, the statistical odds are that they are going to end up punting no matter what they try. Sure, maybe if you get the right block, that WR screen pass could break (e.g. Robert Woods taking one all the way for a long TD) or the draw could bust (e.g. Todd Gurley vs the Seahawks running past a gimpy Bobby Wagner) or a longer pass could get completed. Maybe you could get a defensive pass interference, holding, facemask or roughing the passer call. Just as likely, however, you might get Stafford sacked. He could fumble or throw an interception. The most common result is probably that the pass would fall incomplete or get broken up and it would result in 4th&15.
If you wanted to convert and pick up the first down, what the Rams really needed to do on that drive was be more productive on their 1st and 2nd down plays. They needed to avoid that penalty that moved the ball backwards. Once they painted themselves into a corner in a 3rd and very long situation, there was no "good solution" to their predicament, only varying degrees of not as bad outcomes.
That's essentially where the Rams stand as a team entering the 2023 NFL draft. From a roster perspective, they are facing a 3rd&15 square in the face. Sure, theoretically, the Rams could draft 3 instant Pro Bowlers this year. Yeah, and that 3rd&15 draw play could result in an 85 yard Cam Akers TD gallop. Fans want to get hyped about the draft. I get that. The reality, however, is that the "current set of downs" might already be a lost cause. At best, the Rams are just trying to improve their "field position" so that when they get the ball next on their "next set of downs" they can start that drive on the right foot.
Taking the 2022 draft as an example, what if we applied some of the frequently proposed Rams draft moves to that class?
1. Draft an EDGE rusher early.
Beginning with Jermaine Johnson at pick 26, there were 9 EDGE defenders drafted through pick 61. Those players averaged a total of 2.9 sacks as rookies. Michael Hoecht, a former UDFA, had 4.5 sacks for the Rams last year. Only one of those rookies (George Karlaftis for the Chiefs) was able to match that total.
Karlaftis only had 0.5 sacks in the first 10 games of the year. Nearly all of his production came in a flurry in the second half of the regular season as he finished with a total of 6 sacks. He started all of KC's games and had a 52.0 PFF grade on the season. Hoecht had a 65.4 PFF grade last year. I was surprised Karlaftis was even drafted as late as he went, I thought he was a good prospect and was going to go higher in the 1st round.
Arnold Ebiketie (38th overall) is at least as good as any edge rusher the Rams could get in the 2023 draft. I liked Ebiketie and suggested that if the Rams had kept their pick at the very end of the 2022 first round that he would have been the player I would have targeted. Ebiketie had 2.5 sacks as a rookie. He had a 64.5 PFF grade. Ebiketie only started one game all year for the Falcons. He was primarily a rotational backup.
On paper, it might look good to have a Karlaftis or Ebiketie on the roster instead of trying to start someone like Hoecht. Who wouldn't want a guy who was a 1st round prospect and a star at a power conference school over an Ivy League player who was an UDFA? The reality of the situation, however, is that the "big name" rookie you just drafted is really just a backup level player in Year 1 and might not be superior in performance compared to a veteran who was an UDFA. An average of 3 sacks on the year isn't going to move the needle in terms of boosting the pass rush for the Rams in 2023. The Rams could probably just sign some random bargain basement street free agent and get the same level of production. They could put in a waiver claim and just grab some guy cut at the end of the preseason off another team's roster.
2. Draft a CB early.
David Long was a disappointing 3rd round 2019 pick for the Rams. I was hoping that he'd develop into a better player and become a reliable starter, but he never seemed to turn the corner. In Years 3 and 4 of his career, he had an average PFF grade of 56.2.
There were 6 CBs drafted between picks 23 and 60 in the 2022 draft. As rookies, that group had an average PFF grade of 54.2, exactly 2 points lower than David Long's recent average. Only one CB from that group (Roger McCreary) had a PFF grade of at least 57.
David Long got a dirt cheap one year contract to join the Raiders, only $1.5 million. A mediocre 3rd or 4th year vet like Long was just as effective as trying to plug and play many of the top CB rookie prospects from the 2022 draft.
For the Bills, Christian Benford, a 6th rd rookie who played at Villanova (an FCS football program), was about as effective as Elam, their 1st round CB. Benford beat out Elam for playing time, but went on IR in the middle of the season. Benford had a 55.7 PFF grade, while Elam was at 56.7.
3. Draft OL early.
You'd be hard pressed to find an interior OL prospect who was a better match for the Rams than Cole Strange in last year's draft. Strange was versatile, able to play both center and guard, athletic and mobile. He was drafted in the 1st round by the Pats. Strange had a 54.6 PFF grade as a rookie. Strange struggled pass blocking early in the year, but improved as the season went on. He needs to get stronger.
It has been suggested that the Rams need to draft a bunch of new OL, because otherwise Stafford won't have good protection. In my view, this narrative is misleading. It doesn't matter whether the Rams draft a lineman in the 2nd, 3rd or 6th rounds. In most instances, if the Rams actually tried to start that rookie, the result would be exactly the same as if they plugged in one of their current supposedly deficient backup level guys (e.g. someone like Tremayne Anchrum), Stafford would still get hit repeatedly.
4. Trade Down and Get More Picks
The Rams have a bunch of holes, so we need more picks, right? The New York Giants held the 36th overall pick in last year's draft. They traded down to slot 38, picking up a 5th round selection. They then traded down a 2nd time, to pick 43, gaining a 4th round pick.
With the 4th round pick, they took a safety, Dane Belton out of Iowa. With the extra 5th rounder, they got Micah McFadden, a linebacker out of Indiana. Both Belton and McFadden started at least 5 games, so you might say that the NYG needed those guys to play. On the other hand, McFadden had a 38.7 PFF grade and Belton had a 30.6 PFF grade. Lousy. They probably just could have used a couple of UDFAs and gotten similar results.
At slot 43, the NYG drafted Wan'Dale Robinson, a small slot WR from Kentucky. Robinson got hurt in the very first game of the season, but returned in the middle of the year. He had 227 receiving yards as a rookie, but towards the end of the year he tore his ACL and went on IR. Due to his unfortunate injuries, Robinson's impact in 2022 was similar to Tutu Atwell's impact last year for the Rams.
The NYG had two top 10 picks last year (Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal). Thibodeaux is an outstanding young talent who could become of of the best pass rushers in the NFL someday. He looked good as a rookie with a 71.9 PFF grade. He also only had 4 sacks in 14 starts. I believe that Evan Neal also could be a very good OT someday. As a rookie, he had a 44.1 PFF grade, ranking 80th out of 81 offensive tackles. The 7th overall selection in the draft was almost literally the worst OT in the league last year.
Josua Ezeudu, their 3rd round pick, was a backup offensive lineman. He had a 46.0 PFF grade. Cordale Flott was acquired with an extra pick the Giants got from a trade in the 2021 draft. He had a solid 67.8 PFF grade, ranking 40th best among CBs, but this comes with an asterisk. He was only a part time player and likely wouldn't even have gotten those snaps if it weren't for other players on the team getting injured. One of the players they drafted I really liked was Daniel Bellinger, a TE. He had 268 receiving yards in 11 starts. In the 6th round, they drafted Darrian Beavers, a LB. He tore his ACL in the preseason and was out the entire year. Their 5th rd pick also tore his ACL in preseason.
The Giants drafted 11 players and 7 of those players were top 120 picks. On paper, the group looked strong and down the road it could prove to be a very good draft. In 2022, however, the overall impact of this group of rookies was relatively muted.
The Draft is About the Future
I say the same thing every year. The NFL draft is less about the upcoming season and more about setting the stage for about 3 to 4 years down the road. Only in rare (and typically very lucky) instances will a team manage to land a group of instant impact rookie performers.
The group that the 2023 Rams were supposed to rely on for the upcoming season was the players the Rams drafted in the 2020 and 2021 classes (Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Terrell Lewis, Terrell Burgess, Brycen Hopkins, Tutu Atwell, E. Jones, Bobby Brown, R. Rochell, Jacob Harris) and if something "goes wrong" in 2023, the roots of those roster holes can be traced back to moves that were made years ago, draft misses that already happened.
The Rams didn't have 1st round picks in those drafts. The 2020 first rounder could have become Justin Jefferson. The 2021 first rounder could have turned into someone like Joe Tryon Shoyinka. JTS only had a 51.9 PFF grade as a rookie, just another example of a talented EDGE prospect not making a big splash. In his 2nd year, he improved to a 67.1 PFF grade. If he takes another step forward in year 3, he could develop into impact NFL pass rusher. To get EDGE help, the Rams needed to "plant the seed" with someone like JTS two years ago, then allow him time to grow and get experience. It isn't as feasible to try to fix the problem by starting that process now in the 2023 draft, you are 2 years too late.
Snead and McVay didn't have a "plan for the future" approach when it came to building the roster. To chase the Super Bowl, they wanted to try to win right away and they were willing to sacrifice long term goals to try to maximize the team's ability to win in the short term. The gamble for the most part paid off, because the Rams were able to capture a SB trophy. The bill began to come due in the 2022 season. The way the Rams approached the salary cap and the draft wasn't sustainable. I don't think Snead and Demoff ever intended for it to be sustainable, they felt the Rams had a fixed window to contend and they went "all in" to try to win before that window expired.
Whether you want to call it a retool or a rebuild, the reality is the ship had to change course. The big picture perspective has changed. The team's leadership isn't solely focused on maximizing wins in 2023, they have taken a longer term POV and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Now that the Rams have their SB, Snead can try to plot a path to try to build another contender and sometimes the only way to get there is to take a step backwards so that you can take 2 steps forward.
Rams fans might not want to hear it, but the 2023 season might already be too far gone to be salvaged. The upcoming draft is about trying to lay the foundation for 2024 and beyond. In that vein, I don't think it matters what position the Rams target first. The team simply needs strong building blocks. It doesn't matter if that rookie kind of stinks in Year 1 and doesn't play much or doesn't play well. As long as that player develops into a core leader down the road, it would be a great draft pick. While the 2nd rd pick for the Rams is very important, trying to steal a future star with some of those late Day 3 picks is also vital if the Rams are going to make a quick rebound.
Sometimes, when you are facing a 3rd&15, it is okay to plan on punting. Live to fight another day. Don't throw a pick six and give up a defensive TD, taking a bad situation and make it even worse, digging yourself into a deeper hole. While a Hail Mary would always be nice to complete, all the Rams really need in the 2023 draft is to make some forward progress. This isn't the time to chase their tail, trying to make up for questionable moves Snead made 2 to 3 years ago. Like a QB making a smart game management play and not trying to make a desperation "hero throw", forcing the ball into double coverage.