In 2016, the Los Angeles Rams struggled to a 4-12 record and it was equal opportunity bad, the offense was the worst in the NFL and the defense ranked in the bottom 1/3. No one was surprised when a bevy of changes hit La-La Land — big changes.
Jump forward to 2023, L.A. finished 5-12 and while the offense wasn’t the worst, it was definitely a bottom five unit. The defense mirrors that 2016 group, finishing in the bottom third. Rumblings of big changes are again heard in SoCal. And why not, the last time the Rams were this bad, heads rolled.
Alas, all is not lost. Dispassionately, the Rams are in a better place than when Jeff Fisher and his staff were exorcised. As of today, the Rams have a dozen top-end players that are one year separated from a Super Bowl win, another dozen young players who have shown promise and received plenty of game experience in the 2022 debacle and another group that have promise, but the jury is still out on.
Just follow the blueprint and use the strategies from 2017. While it is certainly more complicated than just repeating the four simple foundations of their first turnaround, but if Sean McVay and Les Snead can simply mirror the moves they made back when first united, the sky in L.A. won’t be falling anytime soon. Polluted, maybe, but falling, no.
#1 - Bring in a new blood on the coaching staff
When McVay took over in 2017 he mostly brought his own staff, but did keep on a few of the previous regime’s coaches and brought in two new coordinators. In 2023, the Rams are again bringing in two new coordinators, kept some last year’s staff, and brought in new blood to coach running backs, the offensive line and linebackers.
Coaching staff churn on McVay’s staff is not anything new, but the new hires appear to be a nice mix of fresh, young ideas and experience. Raheem Morris’ return as Defensive Coordinator may have influence on what style of defenders are added, either in free agency or through the draft. Mike LaFleur’s addition brings a wealth of passing game understanding and he surely must have absorbed some run game knowledge in his four years with the San Francisco 49ers. New Special Teams Coordinator Chase Blackburn brings some success, but will have his hands full, L.A. does not have any specialists (punter, placekicker, returner) under contract.
#2 - Trim out some of the dead wood
This doesn’t have to be limited to on-field performance, moving on from ill-spent money or not re-upping players that cannot justify their worth are just as effective tools as jettisoning a player who is lower-yield.
Dead money be damned. The way today’s NFL contracts are structured to manipulate the salary cap, it’s just another detail to manage, not fear like the plague. The Rams lived through and stayed competitive through the Brandin Cooks, Todd Gurley, and Jared Goff dead money contract debacles that cost over $20 mil each. As of today, L.A. has only pulled the plug on Bobby Wagner, whose $4.5 mil dead money brings the Rams up to a little over $11 mil total for 2023.
Back in 2017, McVay and Snead changed out (by my best count) 28 players and while there's certainly some roster churn every season, scrapping half a roster can certainly be defined as trimming dead wood, if not clear cutting it. And it wasn’t just bottom of the roster guys, 14 of the 28 players had at least four starts. Here’s a list of the expunged players with starters and/or highly used rotational players in italics.
Quarterback- Case Keenum
Running back - Benny Cunningham and Chase Reynolds
Wide receivers - Brian Quick, Kenny Britt, and Bradley Marquez
Tight ends - Lance Kendricks, Tamarrick Hemingway, and Cory Harkey
Offensive line - Greg Robinson, Tim Barnes, Cody Wichman, Andrew Donnal, Demetrius Rhaney, Pace Murphy, and David Arkin
Defensive line - William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Dominique Easley, and Cam Thomas
Linebacker - Josh Forrest and Nicholas Grigsby
Defensive backs - E.J. Gaines, T.J. McDonald, Coty Sensabaugh, Mike Jordan, Steve Williams, and Dewayne Gratz
Looking ahead to 2023, the roster mirrors what happened back in McVay’s maiden season. Of the 50 players currently under contract, 27 have logged multiple starts or been part of a rotation and played substantial snaps.
#3 - Add a handful of solid talent through free agency and/or trades
Back in 2017. the additions of Andrew Whitworth and Robert Woods not only turned out to be productive moves on-field, but were cornerstones of leadership in the Rams rise from the ashes. But they weren’t the only ones. Snead and McVay supported these higher-profile signings with additions of journeyman free agents to plug roster gaps.
Center John Sullivan, edge Conner Barwin, cornerbacks Nickel Robey-Coleman, and Kelvin Webster began the season as starters. Lance Dunbar was supposed to be the complimentary receiving running back and fit the McVay offense well. but was hampered with injuries. Street free agent defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker chipped in four starts and over 400 snaps on defense and special teams. Center/guard Austin Blythe was a waiver claim and logged 300 snaps mostly on offense.
Snead pulled off two trades, bringing in veteran wide receiver Sammy Watkins and tight end Derek Carrier. Watkins gave the Rams a true deep threat and tallied eight touchdowns on 39 catches. Carrier struggled with minor injuries, but did get three starts on offense and 450 snaps.
This category remains to be played out and fans likely won’t know how much capital the Rams have to use until the deadline for NFL teams to be under the salary cap, March 15 at 4p.m. EST. Waiting until late in the process has been the recent history in L.A. It is likely that negotiations to restructure contracts, and offers to in-house free agents are near to fruition.
#4 - Build for the future with draft picks
Of that first 2017 draft of the Snead/McVay regime, five of the eight went on to become NFL starters and Tanzel Smart got four starts in his rookie year and is still knocking around the league.
Rd.2 #44 - Gerald Everett, tight end
Rd.3 #69 - Cooper Kupp, wide receiver
Rd.3 #91 - John Johnson, safety
Rd.4 #117 - Josh Reynolds, wide receiver
Rd.4 #125 - Samson Ebukam, edge
Rd. 6 #189 - Tanzel Smart, defensive tackle
Rd. 6 #206 - Sam Rogers, fullback
Rd.7 #234 - Ejuan Price, edge
With 10 picks, it is not too much to expect that this years draft class has the potential to offer five contributors, #36 is the highest pick the Rams have had since 2016 and there should still be top talent around at #69. Depending on how active L.A. is in free agency, Snead may trade back a bit and try to garner 3 or 4 picks within the top 100.
The basis is there for a comeback
Rebuild, remodel, reset. Call it what you will, it’s all about getting the Rams back to relevance. There are no easy fixes, the 2022 season was just as dispiriting as 2016, but this time around, Snead and McVay have a stronger foundation to build upon.
On offense, the Rams return QB#1, RB#1, TE#1 and a very good receiver room. Just as in 2017, the line does need some upgrading and a lot more luck in the injury department. On the defensive side there’s work to do, but Aaron Donald, Ernest Jones, and Jalen Ramsey give each level a fine building block.
A silver lining to enduring last season’s injury woes was the play time that young Rams and backups were able to accrue. That cannot be overlooked and 6-10 of those players look like they will be able to provide value in the NFL.
The future is not bleak, just not yet into focus. All Sean McVay and Les Snead have to do is follow the blueprint they drew up back in 2017.