Each offseason in the NFL brings a renewed sense of optimism, and the Los Angeles Rams should feel good about the current state of the franchise. They make quick work of their rebuild and returned to the playoffs largely in part to a strong draft class by Les Snead that saw two mid-round picks finish as finalists in the offensive and defensive rookie of the year awards: Puka Nacua and Kobie Turner.
But growth is not linear in the NFL. The league is full of parity and there are unseen forces constant pulling both good and bad teams back towards average. The Rams were able to defy the odds and make it to the playoffs ahead of their team building schedule, but that doesn’t mean their guaranteed to take a step forward again next year.
Blaine Grisak here at Turf Show Times listed five boxes the Rams must check in order to earn a trip to the Super Bowl next year. I’m going to offer a more pessimistic side of the coin, as I tend to do, and give you 5 reasons why Los Angeles won’t make it to the big game.
Les Snead’s draft success is not sustainable
Finding a potential defensive rookie of the year with your second pick of the third round is already almost unheard of, and Snead managed to find a strong candidate on the offensive side of the ball as well in Nacua. Nacua was not only a fifth round pick, but he was LA’s fourth pick within that round—selected after Nick Hampton, Warren McClendon, and Davis Allen.
Call it whatever you want. Yes, there is likely some measure of skill and talent evaluation involved; however, if the Rams truly knew Nacua was going to be a star they would have picked him much earlier than they did. I say it’s luck and these are outcomes the Rams will have difficulty replicating in 2024 and beyond. The 2023 draft class is historic for Los Angeles and we must appreciate it as such.
I really don't like to get hyperbolic.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) December 12, 2023
However, I think it's worth discussing if this is the best Rams draft class of all-time, based off of their rookie seasons. You end up with:
How do you beat that?
Rams lack star talent on defense; Free agent investments are risky
We know LA spent last offseason effectively sacrificing it’s defense while expecting the offense to keep them afloat and hopefully competitive. The Rams moved on from costly veterans such as Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Floyd, Bobby Wagner, and others. They were left with basically Aaron Donald and a handful of young players that performed much better than we realistically could have expected.
So now that the Rams have more resources—both from a draft capital and salary cap perspective—we’d expect them to begin retooling the defense and balance out the roster. Everyone assumes that means signing a star edge rusher or corner in free agency, but that could prove much more difficult than anticipated.
First, the best players never seem to make it to free agency and their teams find ways to keep them. That could realistically happen with Brian Burns and the Carolina Panthers, L’Jarius Snead and the Kansas City Chiefs, Josh Allen and the Jacksonville Jaguars, and probably others. The end result is that teams are left in bidding wars over less than blue chip players, and more often than not they are disappointed with the results a year or two later.
One answer is to trade for a proven commodity that might not be in the other team’s future plans in lieu of dipping into the free agent pool, but the Rams have see the price tag of such trades driven up substantially. This is a problem of their own making.
Matthew Stafford’s age, potential decline
Matthew Stafford is easily the oldest starting quarterback in the NFC. He’d be the oldest starter in the NFL if it weren’t for Aaron Rodgers, who is surrounded by more than his fair share of questions after missing nearly all of the 2023 season with a torn Achilles and using his time off to stir controversy off the field.
With that said, Stafford had maybe the best individual season of his career last year—and the finishing stretch was very impressive. Why did the Rams offense struggle early in the year? Even if you are able to answer that question, there are clear warning signs with Stafford if you look close enough.
No matter how you observe or chart the data, Stafford is now one of the most inaccurate passers in the NFL. He saw an uptick in his adjusted completion percentage during his strong stretch late in the year, but still he finished at just 74.3% for the season (including playoffs). That’s tied for the 16th best mark in the NFL with Justin Fields and ranks behind the likes of Derek Carr and Sam Howell. Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff led the NFL in this measure at 79.0% and 78.8%, respectively.
Charted turnover-worthy vs highly-accurate passing when kept clean pic.twitter.com/7flt1aDWEj— Football Insights (@fball_insights) January 19, 2024
A four or five percent difference doesn’t sound like much on the surface, but when you apply that fraction across Stafford’s 557 passing attempts this year he effectively missed 26 passes more than Mahomes and Goff. That’s 7.5% of Stafford’s 2023 completions (351).
Give Stafford credit for cutting down the turnovers and playing well late into the year. But decline with older quarterbacks isn’t gradual. It usually comes as a cliff as we saw with Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. Is it time for the Rams to be concerned? Will they have a contingency plan in place?
Not solving the team’s kicker issue
The Rams have tried to go cheap at kicker after Matt Gay signed with the Indianapolis Colts in free agency last year, but they got what they paid for. They signed Brett Maher before the dawn of the regular season and released him after a handful of games. LA picked up Lucas Havrisik off the Cleveland Browns practice squad but ultimately felt going back to Maher was the better move.
If the Rams want stability at kicker they are either going to need to invest sound free agent dollars in a veteran or spend a draft pick to bring in a rookie.
Sean McVay’s conservatism on fourth down
Even with the team’s kicking woes, McVay has maintained his conservative ways in terms of fourth down decisions. This is something that could hold the Rams back, especially when there are coaches in the NFC like Nick Sirianni and Dan Campbell that keep their foot on the gas and add value to their team through modern decision making.
The below chart indicates the Rams go for it on fourth down less than 50% of the time when analytics would suggest it adds at least 1.5% of win probability. Sean McVay is leaving meat on the bone for his team, and it’s an area where he must improve.