The Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl in February of last year and despite being under no obligation to do so, soon after handed out new contracts to Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Aaron Donald. Stafford was given a four-year extension, while Kupp and Donald simply got more money than they were owed despite Kupp having signed an extension in 2020 and Donald getting a six-year deal in 2018.
If any of them had threatened to retire without new contracts, what the Rams should have said was...”Okay.”
Instead, Los Angeles suffered through their worst season since the Jeff Fisher era and have since torn down any part of the roster that was expendable for cost savings, including trading Jalen Ramsey and cutting Bobby Wagner and Leonard Floyd. The list of players lost in free agency, including Baker Mayfield, A’Shawn Robinson, Greg Gaines, David Edwards, Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott, Matt Gay, Riley Dixon, Troy Hill, and David Long should net four day three compensatory picks in 2024. In addition to trading Allen Robinson to the Steelers to save a few million dollars, the 2023 Rams will look much different than the 2022 Rams.
Those changes are not all negative. Apart from Ramsey, Wagner, and Gay atop all the others, the Rams could get a better bang for their buck with the changes at most positions. Even Ramsey and Wagner have their best days behind them, not ahead.
However, the Rams have stopped short on fully rebuilding in part because they are financially incapable of trading Stafford, Donald, and/or Kupp. This is not me commenting on whether or not L.A. should have done that or should do that, it’s merely fact: The Rams have gone 90-percent of the way with rebuilding in basically every move they’ve made during the 2023 offseason and the other 10-percent would have involved getting something in return for their three biggest assets.
It would be a different story if any of them were at the beginning or middle of their careers and were expected to still be on the Rams when the team is fortified at key positions. But at 35 (Stafford), 32 (Donald), and 30 (Kupp), that is unlikely to be the case.
Now it is easy and fair to point to the fact that L.A. is financially incapable of making the roster better around Stafford, Donald, and Kupp. As it currently stands, before signing their rookie class and having to count them against the 2023 salary cap, the Rams have only $1.98 million in cap room. That’s not enough money, even when you don’t have a first round pick to pay. Something will have to happen to make room.
But being financially incapable of improving the roster only explains why L.A. hasn’t done anything to get better around their big-three players—Can the Rams protect 35-year-old Stafford? Will defenses have to account for literally any other weapon on offense other than Kupp? Will offenses have to account for literally any other defensive player other than Donald?—it doesn’t change the fact that the Rams are what the Rams are.
And then we get to the part that’s trickiest of all: You would think that if the L.A. Rams somehow manage to get through the 2023 season surviving, with Stafford, Kupp, and Donald still intact by 2024, that they could then assess their options with a 36-year-old QB, a 33-year-old defensive tackle, and a 31-year-old receiver because surely by then their contracts will be maneuverable.
You would be wrong.
Trading Cooper Kupp next year will prove impossible
According to OvertheCap.com, if the Rams trade Kupp this fall, they would save $20 million against the 2023 salary cap and $10 million against the 2024 salary cap. However, if the Rams keep Kupp for 2023, and are then forced to cut Kupp in 2024, they would have $36.6 million in dead money remaining and owe an additional $10.3 million against the 2024 salary cap. If they find a trade partner, then they would save $9.7 million, but that requires that a team wants to trade for a 31-year-old receiver and pay him $20 million.
If any team is forced to pay Kupp his $15 million salary and roster bonus, both fully-guaranteed, in 2024, then they would much rather do so if they know they’re getting his 2023 season also. The Rams will find it near-impossible to trade Kupp in 2024, but they also won’t be financially capable of releasing him unless it comes with a post-June 1 designation; however, there are no salary cap savings with a post-June 1 release in 2024.
It’s nearly as hard to trade Matthew Stafford in 2024 as it was this Spring
The best time to trade Stafford would be this fall, when the Rams potentially wait and see if an injury opens the door for a team to get desperate at the quarterback position. Teams that could be interested depending on those circumstances would include the Dolphins, Patriots, Commanders, Falcons, and Buccaneers.
Financially speaking, almost any team could afford to pay Stafford his $1.5 million base salary in 2023. What if Tua Tagovailoa “isn’t right” when the Dolphins get to the third week of training camp? Miami’s been in a “win now” mentality over the last two years and may get anxious having witnessed Aaron Rodgers join Josh Allen in the division.
The thing is, if the Rams hold onto Stafford and go 5-12 again, then he becomes much harder to trade next March. Just as he was impossible to trade this March because of that contract that L.A. gave him last offseason. Trading Stafford next March incurs $55.5 million in dead money and a $6 million hit to the 2024 salary cap. Cutting him would take $37 million away from the Rams against the salary cap. It’s impossible. If Stafford does play for the Rams next season and suffers a career-ending injury, it’s a financial hole that will take the L.A. Rams at least two years to climb out of based on how Stafford’s contract is setup.
It’s not like the Rams just get that money back if Stafford gets hurt. It works the opposite of that way. The player is protected if he’s injured, not the team. His $31 million base salary in 2024 is fully guaranteed.
Just like Kupp, it only makes sense that a team would take on that $31 million base salary if they knew they were also getting Stafford’s discounted rate in 2023. Why trade assets for a 36-year-old QB who costs $31 million over one year when they could trade assets for a 35-year-old QB who costs $32.5 million over two years?
Expecting Stafford to retire and sacrifice tens of millions of dollars out of the goodness of his heart is not rational. If a doctor deems him unable to physically continue because of the toll taken on his body—say, because he’s playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL—then he’ll be able to walk away from the game with all of his injury-guaranteed money. And the Rams will be hard-pressed to field a good roster in 2024 as they’re paying off Stafford for yet another year.
If the Rams cut Stafford with a post-June 1 designation in 2024, they will have $49.5 million in dead money and zero salary cap savings. Same as Kupp.
The Aaron Donald question
So, this offseason the Titans gave Jeffery Simmons a huge contract that goes well above and beyond 99-percent of defensive tackle contracts and he is 26-years-old. Simmons will make $23.5 million per year on his new contract. There is only one defensive tackle contract bigger than his: Aaron Donald, who signed his contract at 31-years-old, makes $31.6 million per year.
That’s $8 million more per year than the second-biggest defensive tackle contract in the NFL and it was signed 12 months before Simmons and Daron Payne, who makes $22.5 million per year and Javon Hargrave who makes $21 million per year.
You have to ask the question of whether the Rams are making decisions with their hearts or their heads. Aaron Donald is arguably the greatest player in the history of the organization. Is that an acceptable reason to hamstring the franchise’s financials for a couple of years after winning a Super Bowl?
If the Rams found a taker for Donald this year, they would save $13.5 million against the 2023 salary cap and $6 million against the 2024 salary cap. They could also convince a good team to trade a late first round draft pick in 2024; L.A. gave up two day two picks for Von Miller under similar circumstances in 2024, so getting one first round pick for Donald seems reasonable. If not the same deal for Miller, a second and a third, or two seconds.
I might point to a team like the Packers, as they have a little extra draft capital thanks to the Aaron Rodgers trade and defensive coordinator Joe Barry has worked with Aaron Donald before.
However, if the Rams hang onto Donald and ask him to carry the least-experienced defense he’s been on in his 10-year career next season, then cut him next March, they will have $33.5 million in dead money and only $666,666 in cap savings. The numbers say it all: 666,666.
If they find a trade partner next season, assuming Donald wants to keep playing, they will save $5.6 million. If they give him a post-June 1 designation, then they will save $16.6 million with $17.5 million in cap savings.
Really, there are two decisions facing the Rams with all three of these players:
- Keep them on the roster this season, which surely would imply that L.A. thinks they can win a Super Bowl with these three players and the other 49 expected to be on the team in 2023; but then they will face even more dire financial consequences in 2024
- Trade them at some point between June 1st and the NFL trade deadline, which would not only save the team more money this year, it would also save the Rams a lot of money in 2024 and it would probably be their last opportunity to receive first, second, and third round (if any) trade compensation; but it would mean that yes, the Rams do not think they can win a Super Bowl this season
These contracts were bad business
I don’t think that Sean McVay returned to the Rams this year because he expects to win a Super Bowl. I think that McVay saw how it would look if he left the team in their current state and that he wants to see it through for at least two more seasons because for the first time in his career, he will have a chance to model a team around a first round pick in 2024. If not multiple first round picks, depending on how the Rams handle these three veteran contracts and their trade market.
But everything that we’re seeing happen in 2023 is what L.A. should have done in 2022.
They should not have signed Wagner or Robinson. They should not have given Kupp and Donald new contracts. It’s understandable why they paid Stafford, because they traded two first round picks for him and it would be a little unfair to get a Super Bowl out of him on a relatively cheap contract and then to never pay him; but ultimately there is no guarantee that Stafford will ever play again as he did in 2021. Stafford didn’t look that bad when he was out there last season, but there is a question of how much longer he can play because he sat out a lot of 2022 training camp and then missed half of the season.
He isn’t on a better roster in 2023. He could be on a healthier roster, but there’s no recourse for saying that L.A. looks “better”.
The best way for the Rams to bite the bullet and admit their mistakes with these contracts is to try and flip them into 2024 draft capital and two years worth of salary cap relief. If Les Snead and company do not do that, then they will not be able to trade them or get salary cap relief for either the 2023 or 2024 seasons.
That would be even worse business.