PHOENIX — Last year, the Los Angeles Rams identified a window to go all-in, acquire the best players available to round out a talented roster and make a deep playoff run.
The result: a Super Bowl appearance for the first time in 17 seasons, though it ended in a 13-3 loss to the New England Patriots.
As the Rams prepare for the 2019 season, the window remains wide open, even as coach Sean McVay emphasizes the difficult nature of a repeat run.
“People say, ‘Well, you’ll be back,'” McVay said at the NFL’s annual meetings. “But it’s not like that.”
However, with the return of several stars and minimal turnover in starting positions, it is within the realm of possibility. Several teams spanning the past three decades, including the Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers, have made consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
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The Rams have the talent and budget to join the list.
“Any time you have a young head coach and a young quarterback, somewhat young core players, you’re in the window to do some of the things that we’ve talked about,” general manager Les Snead said. “And you’re always navigating that based on who comes on the roster and who comes off it.”
Coming off a 13-3 season and back-to-back division titles, the Rams return star playmakers Aaron Donald, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year; quarterback Jared Goff, a two-time Pro Bowl selection; and running back Todd Gurley, a two-time All-Pro. Plus, a few key additions have been made in free agency.
Let’s look at the defense.
Before the legal tampering period, the Rams secured a bargain in a hot market for pass-rushers when they signed outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. to a one-year contract worth up to $12 million. Fowler started 11 games last season after the Rams acquired him from the Jacksonville Jaguars at the trade deadline. He proved himself valuable, especially in the NFC Championship Game, in which he pressured New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees into an errant pass that resulted in an interception and spurred the Rams to an overtime win.
The Rams also have added veteran safety Eric Weddle on a two-year, $12.78 million contract and veteran outside linebacker Clay Matthews on a two-year, $9.3 million deal.
Weddle’s addition will soften the loss of Lamarcus Joyner, who departed for the Oakland Raiders in free agency. A 12-year veteran, Weddle is in the twilight of his career, and it remains to be seen after a season in which he produced no interceptions whether he still has elite playmaking ability.
Matthews, a 10-year pro who also has limited seasons remaining, knows how to win a Super Bowl. Given his experience playing inside and outside, he can provide flexibility in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.
But keeping in mind that the draft is yet to come, questions remain on the defense. Who will plug the hole left by Ndamukong Suh? The defensive tackle is not expected to return because of budgetary constraints (the Rams have about $4.8 million remaining in their salary cap, according to ESPN Roster Management). If promoted to a starter, will second-year pro Micah Kiser suffice in place of inside linebacker Mark Barron, who was released to save $6.33 million in salary?
On offense, few changes are expected on a unit that ranked second in the NFL in scoring last season, averaging 32.9 points per game.
Goff is entering Year 4 of his rookie contract, which allows for resources to be spent elsewhere. But a big payday is likely on the horizon, as he has steadily climbed the quarterback rankings. Last season, he not only recorded a perfect passer rating in a Week 4 win over the Minnesota Vikings but also finished the season with 4,688 yards, 32 touchdowns and 12 interceptions and helped orchestrate a come-from-behind win in the NFC Championship Game.
Goff’s go-to targets return, notably Gurley and receivers Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, who will be coming off a season-ending knee injury. Last season, the three receivers were each on pace to record 1,000 receiving yards, and Cooks and Woods reached the mark.
Last season, Gurley rushed for more than 1,000 yards for a second consecutive season and added a league-best 21 touchdowns, though questions about the long-term durability of his left knee remain. “It’s good,” McVay said when asked about the status of Gurley’s knee at the owners meetings.
Beside Gurley’s knee, the biggest question looming on offense is how it will operate without two key veteran players. Left guard Rodger Saffold departed for the Tennessee Titans in free agency, and the Rams did not pick up the second-year option on center John Sullivan’s contract.
The decision to move on from Sullivan and the loss of Saffold cannot be overstated. They contributed on the only offensive line to maintain the same five starters throughout the season, and they were among the top-rated groups in the league.
But the Rams entered last year’s draft planning specifically for the line’s future when they selected Joseph Noteboom from TCU in the third round and Brian Allen from Michigan State in the fourth round. Noteboom is expected to start in place of Saffold, and Allen will take over for Sullivan. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth’s decision to hold off retirement eases the transition.
“Coming out of this season, what we do know is we can win back-to-back divisions. What we didn’t know after the ’17 season was, can we win a playoff game?” Snead said. “This year, we know that we can. … The big-picture answer to the question: We know what we’re capable of, but 2019 is different than ’18.”
After this season, everything could change. The contracts of Whitworth and cornerback Aqib Talib are set to expire, along with that of defensive lineman Michael Brockers.
The Rams certainly will have to pay Goff, and contract decisions must be made on the young core, which includes possible paydays for right guard Austin Blythe, cornerback Marcus Peters, linebacker Cory Littleton and safety John Johnson III, who intercepted a team-best four passes last season and couldn’t help but smile when asked during free agency if he noticed the money doled out to safeties.
But those are issues for the future.
For now, it’s Super Bowl or bust — again.