Rams Set to Become NFL Season's Biggest Losers If They Can't Defeat BuccaneersJanuary 20, 2022
The Los Angeles Rams are gearing up to meet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round of the 2021 playoffs. It's a game that not only has L.A.'s season riding on it but also the franchise's Super Bowl window.
The Rams went all-in to win a title this year, frustrated by a missed playoff appearance and second-round exit in the years following their Super Bowl LIII appearance.
While splashy transactions have undoubtedly helped Los Angeles take a leap forward—the team won the NFC West for the first time since 2018 and obliterated the rival Arizona Cardinals in the Wild Card Round—these moves also make anything short of a championship run a failure.
No franchise has invested as much into star talent and mortgaged as much of its future to win now.
The Rams traded away the majority of their early-round picks in the next two drafts to acquire just two players: Von Miller and Matthew Stafford.
Both have undoubtedly been strong additions to the roster. Stafford threw for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns this year—respectively the third- and second-best marks in the league—while Miller notched five sacks over the final four games and another in the Wild Card Round.
As good as L.A.'s marquee pickups have been, the team now has little in the way of reinforcements arriving if this roster can't break through as it is currently constructed.
Stafford and Miller were just the latest in a string of high-cost moves that have depleted the team's war chest.
While the Rams are no stranger to dealing their top picks—they gave up a 2018 first-rounder for Brandin Cooks, a 2018 second-rounder for Sammy Watkins, a 2019 second-rounder for Marcus Peters, a 2019 third-rounder for Dante Fowler Jr. and 2020 and 2021 first-rounders for Jalen Ramsey—they sent out more high-end draft capital in 2021 than ever before.
L.A. won't be on the clock until its compensatory third-round selection this year. The organization shipped off its first-rounder for Stafford—the first of two Round 1 picks the QB cost the club—and second- and third-rounders to acquire Miller.
The Rams will be missing more than a first-rounder next year, too, as they coughed up a fourth-round selection, as well as a 2022 sixth-rounder, to pry Sony Michel away from the Patriots.
With only one second-round pick and a pair of third-rounders to work with over the next two years, the Rams will be in rough shape if this lineup can't navigate past the Bucs this weekend.
Not only will there be few, if any blue-chip prospects arriving in Southern California through the draft, but L.A. will also find it difficult to acquire free-agent talent on the open market.
Los Angeles is one of just five franchises that Over the Cap is projecting will be in the red this coming offseason. The organization will have to clear $4.5 million from the books to get compliant before the new league year begins.
The Rams have almost no salary-cap rollover going into next season, either. They'll be getting a meager $137,725 tacked onto the cap next year, the third-least in the NFL. In comparison, the Kansas City Chiefs will have an additional $1.3 million in cap space next year.
The Rams have options to cut costs, but they aren't pretty.
They could save $15.5 million by releasing Andrew Whitworth, but the 40-year-old has been one of the NFL's most reliable left tackles—earning an impressive 86.1 PFF grade—during a historic 2021 campaign.
Robert Woods may be the most sensible cut, a move that would shed $10 million if the Rams cut him after June 1, but the 29-year-old was the club's second-best wideout before going down with a season-ending ACL tear.
Other cost-saving cuts, such as defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson and offensive tackle Rob Havenstein, have been significant contributors this year.
It's readily apparent that the Rams do not have a large window to win the Super Bowl with these financial problems, especially with key players like Miller, Austin Corbett and Odell Beckham Jr. among the 13 players hitting unrestricted free agency this coming offseason.
The front office will struggle to offer new deals to these stars and find a way to bring in more free-agent depth while staying under the cap.
Aaron Donald, perhaps the biggest star on a team full of them, recently spoke about the talent level in Los Angeles (per ESPN's Lindsey Thiry).
"We definitely got a special group with a lot of big-time talent," he said. "It is surreal when you look at it, but you just expect big things. ... Me, personally, knowing the players we got, with the coaches we got, it's like sky is the limit."
While Donald is spot-on that this organization employs some of the NFL's best players, the Rams were far from perfect during the 2021 season.
Three of their five losses were by double-digit margins, they lost more games at home than on the road and squandered a chance to improve their seeding in the season finale.
The 49ers finished a sweep of Los Angeles in that Week 18 contest, coming back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to win in overtime, knocking the Rams down to the NFC's No. 4 seed in the process.
Some of the Rams' most fatal flaws are a result of their hefty commitment to star players.
The club has a weak secondary around Ramsey and has been unable to consistently stop the run despite Donald's presence in the defensive trenches.
LA ranked No. 17 in total defense and No. 15 in scoring defense this year, a significant step back from last year's unit that led the league in both categories.
Even Stafford hasn't had a tremendous amount of success throwing the ball outside of Cooper Kupp, the MVP candidate wideout who accomplished a rare receiving triple crown this year.
Kupp's 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns accounted for a large portion of Stafford's statistics, with only one other wideout—Van Jefferson—eclipsing 600 yards or five scores this season.
L.A. may have ripped off a statement win over Arizona on Monday, but it faces a much bigger challenge during this upcoming trip to Tampa.
While the Rams secured a convincing 34-24 win over the Bucs in Week 3, the stakes are much higher this time around.
No quarterback has had as much success in the playoffs as Tom Brady, the future Hall of Famer who Los Angeles will need to vanquish to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive.
Brady memorably got the best of McVay's side with the Lombardi Trophy on the line three years ago with the Patriots, and the QB looked to be in peak form against the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend.
Head coach Sean McVay believes L.A.'s wild-card win, the club's second straight opening-round playoff victory, was a confidence-builder but knows his players can't rest on their laurels, per Nicholas Cothrel of SI.com.
"I certainly think you can take a lot of confidence from it," he said. "I think our guys also know that what they did last night won't have anything to do with what we need to do on Sunday in Tampa."
If the Rams can't become the first squad to beat Brady's Bucs in the playoffs, they'll be exiting in the divisional round for the second consecutive year.
It would be a defeat that not only makes L.A. the biggest loser of the 2021 season but also slams shut a Super Bowl window that will quickly become too costly to keep open.