The Rams' 2022 downfall could've been seen in their salary cap.
High-priced additions paid off in the form of a Super Bowl ring to cap the 2021 season, but a dearth of drafted reinforcements and money to spend on lower-level free agents left the Rams in a top-heavy state. When those players suffered injuries, Los Angeles' lack of depth became painfully evident, leading to a 5-12 finish that lacked intrigue by the time Thanksgiving arrived.
The Rams can't accept a similar outcome in 2023. It's time for general manager Les Snead to initiate a remodel of the franchise, and he's planning on doing so with Matthew Stafford as his team's foundation.
"I think we're going to definitely rely on Matthew, he's definitely one of our pillars," Snead said on Thursday during his pre-free agency news conference.
After leading Los Angeles to a title in his first season, Stafford's injuries cut short his 2022 campaign and forced the Rams to cycle through John Wolford, Bryce Perkins and finally, free-agent addition Baker Mayfield.
Without Stafford, the Rams can't expect to achieve much more than their third-place finish in 2022. And because Stafford remains on the roster, Snead believes the Rams can improve quicker than a traditional rebuild.
Stafford's existence -- and a cap number that stands at $20 million in 2023 before ballooning to $49.5 million in 2024 -- means the Rams have reason to act with a focus on the short term. That approach, of course, led to their downfall in 2022, but did earn them a coveted Super Bowl ring.
Because of cap constraints, a second pursuit of a title likely won't include all of the same key contributors who helped Stafford win his first Lombardi Trophy. And the Rams aren't operating with the luxury of a decade's worth of time; At 35 years old, Stafford doesn't have forever.
"Step one of this thing is getting under the cap, and unfortunately to get under the cap, that usually means deletion, right, with some of your better veteran players who are making higher salaries, and it can also mean there's an unrestricted free agent or two or three or four that you can't necessarily re-sign to get under the cap," Snead said. "But there are some players that have been here, that have done that, that have shown they can change the math in a football game, Matthew Stafford being one of them. Unfortunately last year he went through a tough time with the injuries, so the recency bias in the last year is inconsistent for him other than the fact that there was a lot of injuries around him. He's definitely someone we're going to rely on, and someone we're going to have to rely on as we do remodel this. ...
"And the reason I said remodel and not rebuild is a player like Matthew Stafford. To me in a rebuild you would just bulldoze the house down, and again rebuilding from the ground up. But when you have someone like Matthew Stafford, players like Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, there's some weight-bearing walls there that we still have, and we're going to rely on those -- don't want to put pressure on them -- and then at point remodel around them with maybe different teammates, different partners. And then even ask some of the players who've been here to keep evolving and going in that direction, so it'll be interesting. But I did want to articulate that that's why I've turned to the remodel."
Remodel, not rebuild. It's not quite a full gutting out a house, but a renovation. Both require work, but the latter won't be as resource- and time-consuming as the former. For this reason, Snead remains optimistic.
There is a downside, though, as Snead mentioned. The Rams parted ways with linebacker Bobby Wagner after one season together, and he might not be the only one won't be able to go big game hunting as they have in the past. Los Angeles has had trade talks regarding cornerback Jalen Ramsey, NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero reported Feb. 24, and it's likely he'll be moved in the coming weeks.
Los Angeles also isn't expected to have the same purchasing power -- such as the assets needed to acquire a player like Ramsey -- it had in past seasons. Rams fans shouldn't expect Snead to turn this structure into a mansion, but it certainly could be more than a starter home.
The responsibility will land on the shoulders of Snead to work as financially efficiently as possible with this remodel. Luxurious fixtures can't fill out the wish list in 2023.
"A lot of variables involved there," Snead said of spreading out dead money accrued from necessary roster moves. "What's interesting for us this year is step one is getting under the cap. ... And that sometimes will limit your ability to hold on to a player till June 1, even though you could release him Wednesday and designate him post-June 1, he's still counting in the moment, so there's a lot of calculus that goes into that, especially with our roster.
"It's a very complicated, complex situation that we've got to work through, and I think what big picture is different this year than probably the last five years for us is we definitely have to engineer a healthier cap situation, just because obviously we're not in a luxury tax situation."
Unlike title-contending teams in the NBA, the Rams don't exist in a league that allows a team to go over a soft cap and pay a luxury tax as a repeat offender. Snead has less room to work with, meaning sacrifices will need to be made to reshape the Rams into a team that can contend for the NFC West. Eventually, when a team takes on massive contracts and gives up substantial assets to acquire immediate difference-makers, the time comes to pay up.
Snead is hoping his mathematical work and talent evaluation skills can fix these Rams. They just might not have the same aspirations as they did two seasons ago.