The Rams won the Super Bowl in the 2021 season, after finishing the regular season with a 12-5 record and the 5th highest DVOA in the league, but repeating was always going to be difficult for them. Not only are repeat champions rare, with none in the last two decades or so, the Rams went all in for a few years to try to win a Super Bowl, which worked out, but it left them with very little long-term flexibility. During the 2022 off-season, the Rams had no choice but to move on from several key contributors for financial reasons and, not having their own first round pick for the 6th straight year, they didn’t have much draft capital to rebuild their roster either.
All that being said, I don’t think anyone expected what happened to the Rams in 2022. Not only did they miss the key contributors they lost from their 2021 team, but they also had arguably the worst injury luck in the league, which diminished this team significantly and led to them finishing just 5-12, the worst record ever by a defending Super Bowl champion. In terms of adjusted games lost, the Rams had the second most in the NFL and, if you take into account that those injuries disproportionately affected their most important players, the Rams were probably impacted by injuries more than any other team in the league last season.
It’s easy to see how the Rams could be significantly better in 2023 with better health. Not only does adjusted games lost as a stat tend to regress to the mean, but the Rams were actually one of the healthiest teams in the league for years prior to last season, ranking in the top-10 in fewest adjusted games lost to injury in each of the previous six seasons. However, it’s not as easy as saying the Rams will be healthier this year so they’ll be back to being contenders. Not only did the Rams lose key contributors from this Super Bowl team last off-season, they lost even more this off-season and they were once again without their own first round pick, which was 6th overall as a result of the Rams’ struggles last season.
I’ll get into the differences between this team’s roster and their Super Bowl team’s roster later, but the Rams at least still have quarterback Matt Stafford, who completed 67.2% of his passes for an average of 8.13 YPA, 41 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions and earned a 80.7 grade from PFF. That was nothing new for Stafford, who had received a PFF of 77 or higher in each of his five previous seasons prior to 2021 as well, while completing 65.2% of his passes for an average of 7.55 YPA, 119 touchdowns, and 46 interceptions over that stretch.
However, there is reason to be concerned that Stafford might not play at his highest level again in 2023. Not only is he now heading into his age 35 season, but he’s coming off of a very disappointing 2022 campaign in which he received just a 67.0 PFF grade, his worst since 2015, and completed 68.0% of his passes for an average of 6.89 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, a 87.4 QB rating that is his worst since 2014. Stafford also was limited to just nine starts by head and neck injuries that at one point left his long-term future somewhat in doubt.
It’s possible Stafford could return to form in 2023 and he’s not totally over the hill yet, but I think it’s more likely that his best days are behind him. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll struggle this year, as even at less than his best he can still be an above average starting quarterback, and he should play more games and be more effective than a year ago, but there’s more reason for concern with Stafford than there was two years ago.
Given Stafford’s age and recent injury history, backup quarterback could end up being an important position for the Rams this season. Last season, they tried three different options, with internal options Bryce Perkins (53.7 QB rating) and John Wolford (64.6 QB rating) both struggling, before veteran Baker Mayfield was claimed on waivers, giving the Rams a more reliable option down the stretch (86.4 QB rating). Mayfield is no longer with the team though and the only veteran option the Rams added this off-season was Brett Rypien, who has a 62.9 QB rating in three career starts in four seasons in the league, making him a very underwhelming option.
The Rams did add Stetson Bennett in the 4th round of the draft and are probably hoping he can beat out Rypien for the #2 quarterback job. Bennett would probably struggle if forced into significant action as a rookie, but he’s more NFL ready than most 4th round quarterbacks, so he might not be a bad option and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he developed into a capable backup long-term, even if he’s probably not a real candidate to be Stafford’s long-term successor. Either way, this team will obviously be in better shape if Stafford can stay healthy the whole year, even if he doesn’t play quite up to his usual standards.
Not only did the Rams lose Stafford for the year mid-season in 2022, but they also lost his top receiver Cooper Kupp for the year right around the same time, a devastating blow that left this offense completely anemic for the rest of the season. The Rams were 4-4 going into the week 10 game against the Cardinals in which Kupp got hurt and they wound up losing 8 of their final 9 games as a result of the injuries to Kupp and Stafford. Not only is Kupp one of the best wide receivers in the league, receiving PFF grades of 80.8, 92.3, and 86.3 in 2020, 2021, and 2022 respectively, while averaging 2.53 yards per route run, but the Rams didn’t have another reliable pass catching option behind him on the depth chart, with Odell Beckham, the #2 wide receiver on their Super Bowl team not getting retained due to injuries of his own.
The Rams tried to replace Beckham with Allen Robinson, giving him a 3-year, 46.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season, even though he struggled mightily in 2021, with a 38/410/1 slash line and 1.13 yards per route run, but that move proved to be a disaster, as Robinson did not return to form in his new home with the Rams, finishing with a 33/339/3 slash line and 0.93 yards per route run. This off-season, the Rams gave up on Robinson, sending him to the Steelers for a swap of late round picks and eating 10.25 million of his 15.25 million dollar guaranteed salary in the process.
Robinson wasn’t replaced though, so the Rams will once again be highly reliant on Cooper Kupp staying healthy, without another good wide receiver on this depth chart. Kupp should still be expected to be one of the best wide receivers in the league in 2023, but he’s heading into his age 30 season and coming off of a major injury, so he might not be quite as good as he has been in recent years and, even if he is, the Rams’ lack of another good wide receiver will hurt this offense.
Van Jefferson and Bennett Skowronek are probably penciled in as the other starting wide receivers, but Jefferson hasn’t shown much in three seasons since the Rams selected him in the 2nd round in 2020, averaging 1.38 yards per route run, while Skowronek is a 2021 7th round pick who averaged just 0.91 yards per route run in the first extended action of his career in 2022 in Kupp’s absence. The Rams also have 2021 2nd round pick Tutu Atwell and used a 5th round pick in this year’s draft on Puka Nacua, but Atwell has played just 318 snaps on offense in two seasons in the league and might be too small at 5-9 165 to be an every down wide receiver, while Nacua is probably too raw to contribute in a significant way as a rookie.
With Kupp missing about half the season, the Rams were led in targets by tight end Tyler Higbee, but he wasn’t efficient with those targets, turning 108 targets into a 72/620/3 slash line, an average of 5.74 yards per target. Higbee is a solid starting tight end who has received a grade of 60 or higher from PFF in six straight seasons, but he’s also averaged just 1.40 yards per route run for his career and shouldn’t be a huge part of their passing game. Without another good wide receiver behind Kupp on the depth chart, Higbee could end up finishing second on the team with targets, which would not be a good thing for this offense.
The Rams don’t use a lot of two tight end sets, even when Kupp was hurt last season, with #2 tight end Brycen Hopkins playing just 173 snaps. Hopkins has played just 234 snaps total since entering the league as a 4th round pick in 2020, but could remain the #2 tight end in this offense. His biggest competition will come from Hunter Long, a 2021 3rd round pick that the Rams acquired via trade this offense. Long played just 184 snaps in two seasons with the Dolphins and has shown very little, but the Rams seem to still believe in his upside and he could be better in his new home, still only in his third season in the league. Either way, the Rams backup tight end won’t have a big role in this passing game, which once again lacks a reliable #2 option after Cooper Kupp.
The Rams’ offensive line was also significantly worse in 2022 than 2021. They were already going to be worse heading into the season, after losing left tackle Andrew Whitworth (86.1 PFF grade in 2021) to retirement and right guard Austin Corbett (68.8 PFF grade in 2021) in free agency, but, making matters worse, they lost replacement left tackle Joe Noteboom, starting center Brian Allen, and left guard David Edwards to injuries that limited them to just 325 snaps, 373 snaps, and 230 snaps respectively in 2022.
Edwards wasn’t retained this off-season, meaning the Rams will be without three of their five starters from their 2021 offensive line even if they can stay healthier this season. The Rams did at least make upgrading their offensive line a priority this off-season, though they did so without much flexibility to improve this roster, using their first draft pick, 36th overall, on TCU’s Steve Avila, who ended up being their only selection in the top-70 picks.
Even as a rookie, Avila is likely to start, due to the lack of a better option. With David Edwards missing most of last season, the Rams top guards in terms of snaps played were Matt Skura (466 snaps), Alaric Jackson (422 snaps), Oday Aboushi (339 snaps), and Bobby Evans (314 snaps), but Skura, Aboushi, and Evans are no longer on the team and, while Jackson was decent with a 64.1 PFF grade, he’s a converted swing tackle who was only playing guard out of necessity and the Rams seem to prefer the 2021 undrafted free agent at tackle long-term.
It’s possible Jackson could compete for the other starting guard job out of necessity, as could Coleman Shelton, who mostly played center last season in the absence of Brian Allen, but who has the versatility to play any of the interior offensive line spots. However, Shelton earned just a 58.0 PFF grade in the first significant action of the 2018 undrafted free agent’s career last season, so he would be an underwhelming option, and it seems more likely that the Rams will keep Jackson at tackle and start 2022 3rd round pick Logan Bruss at the other guard spot opposite Avila.
Bruss could have been a starter as a rookie and, after Edwards got hurt he almost definitely would have been, but he ended up missing his whole rookie season with injuries of his own. He still has the upside to develop into a solid starter long-term, but he’s completely inexperienced and, even if he does become a long-term starter, that doesn’t mean he won’t have growing pains in his first year in that role. Bruss and Avila have upside at the guard position, which is more than you could say about most of the guards who started for the Rams in 2022, but with neither of them ever having played an NFL snap, there’s downside here as well.
Noteboom and Allen return to starting roles at left tackle and center respectively after their injury plagued 2022 seasons. Noteboom is still pretty inexperienced, starting his career as a reserve behind Andrew Whitworth and getting hurt in his first full season as the starter in 2022, but he’s made 23 starts over the past four seasons, so he’s not totally inexperienced, and he’s finished with PFF grades higher than 60 in each of the past three seasons, including a 67.0 PFF grade in 2022 before the injury. His return from a torn achilles complicates things for him, especially since he also has had a torn ACL (2019) in his past, and, even if he’s at his best, he’ll still be a big downgrade from what Whitworth was for them before retiring, but Noteboom’s return will still be a welcome one for a team that struggled to find a consistent left tackle in his absence last season.
Allen’s return will also be a welcome one, but it’s far from a guarantee that he’ll match his 2021 level of play, when he was PFF’s 5th ranked center with a 80.2 grade, as he has PFF grades of 58.6 and 63.8 in his other two seasons as a starter and he has a pretty extensive injury history, missing 32 games over the past four seasons combined. It won’t be hard for Allen to be an upgrade on Coleman Shelton, but I wouldn’t expect him to play at the same level as he did in 2021.
The only Rams offensive lineman to start most of the season at the same position in 2022 as he did in 2021 is right tackle Rob Havenstein, who was a bright spot on this offensive line with a 73.2 PFF grade in 17 starts. Havenstein remains in that same spot this season and should give the Rams more of the same, having finished with a PFF grade of 70 or higher in six of his eight seasons in the league. His age is a bit of a concern in his age 31 season and he could begin declining this season, but, even if he’s not quite at his best, he should remain a solid starter at the very least.
Overall, this offensive line should be better than a year ago, but that could be largely by default, after how bad they were upfront a year ago. The Rams’ starting guards are both completely inexperienced, Noteboom and Allen are coming off significant injuries with extensive injury histories, Havenstein is on the wrong side of 30, and their depth is suspect, so there is still plenty of reason for concern with this group, even if they have the upside to be a lot better than last year’s injury riddled group.
One bright spot for this offense in 2022 was the return of running back Cam Akers from a torn Achilles that cost him almost all of the 2021 season. Akers’ 4.18 YPC average on 188 carries doesn’t seem that impressive, but his 54% carry success rate ranked 12th in the NFL, so he did an above average job keeping this offense on schedule, despite all of the problems around him on this unit. Overall, Akers finished the season as PFF’s 16th ranked running back overall. A third round pick in 2020, Akers also rushed for 4.31 YPC with a 48% carry success rate on 145 carries, albeit on a much better offense as a rookie, with a lost season due to injury in between. Still only in his age 24 season, another year removed from the injury, Akers could have another strong season in 2023, this time with likely more room to run than he had a year ago.
Akers isn’t much of a contributor in the passing game, with a 0.89 yards per route run average for his career, leaving Darrell Henderson to be their primary passing down back last season, but he was underwhelming in that role, averaging 0.51 yards per route run, 4.04 yards per carry on 70 carries, and managing just a 57.7 PFF grade, leading to the Rams not retaining him this off-season. With Henderson gone, the passing down and #2 back role will likely fall to 2022 5th round pick Kyren Williams, who played just 142 snaps in an injury plagued rookie season.
Williams showed promise in limited action (67.2 PFF grade) and has some upside if he can stay healthy, but is mostly their #2 back for lack of a better option. The Rams also added Mississippi’s Zach Evans in the 6th round of this year’s draft, but he had just 30 catches in his collegiate career, so he’s more of a depth option than a realistic candidate to be their passing down back. It’s also possible Akers sees a bigger workload and more passing game work in his second season back from injury, even if he’s not much of an asset in the passing game. Akers is an above average lead back as a runner, but he’s not a true feature back because of his lack of pass catching ability and depth is suspect at this position, which hurts their overall grade.
As much as the Rams have lost on offense since their Super Bowl win, they’ve actually lost a lot more on defense. In fact, of the 15 players who played at least 250 snaps on this defense in 2021, amazingly just three remain on the roster as of this writing. At the edge defender position, the Rams first started by losing Von Miller in free agency last off-season, after the mid-season trade acquisition had a 83.6 PFF grade on 434 snaps in 8 regular season games as the Rams’ top edge defender in 2021. The Rams then followed that by cutting their 2nd best edge defender in 2021, Leonard Floyd, this off-season, a move that saved them 15.5 million dollars.
Floyd wasn’t outstanding in 2022 or anything, with a PFF grade of 65.7, but he played 932 snaps in Miller’s absence and the only reinforcements the Rams added this off-season came from the draft, with Tennessee’s Byron Young added in the 3rd round, Appalachian State’s Nick Hampton added in the 5th round, and Nebraska’s Ochaun Mathis being added in the 6th round. Even as rookies, at least a couple of those three players will likely have to play significant roles in year one, as could 2022 7th round pick Daniel Hardy, who played 41 just underwhelming snaps as a rookie.
Terrell Lewis (332 snaps) and Justin Hollins (307 snaps) saw somewhat significant action last season, but struggled (PFF grades of 46.1 and 54.4 respectively) and, like Leonard Floyd, they are also not back with the team in 2023, leaving Michael Hoecht as the only even somewhat experienced edge defender on the roster. Hoecht showed potential with a 65.4 PFF grade on 409 snaps in 2022, but he was undrafted in 2020 and had only played 126 career snaps before moving into the starting lineup in week 12 of last season, so it would be asking a lot of him to be their top edge defender in 2023, which it looks like he will be by default. This is arguably the thinnest group of edge defenders in the league, almost entirely relying on very inexperienced young players, none of whom were premium draft picks.
The Rams didn’t have as many injuries on defense (13th most adjusted games lost) as they had on offense (first in adjusted games lost), but they were without stud interior defender Aaron Donald for the final 6 games of the season. Donald had never missed a game with injury prior to that, despite averaging 897 snaps per season in the previous 7 seasons, and getting a full season from him will be a boost to this defense, but Donald is now heading into his age 32 season and showed some small signs of decline last year even before getting hurt.
Donald still finished with a 90.5 PFF grade, playing the run at a high level and totaling 5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate, but Donald has been so dominant in his career that last season was actually his lowest PFF grade since his rookie season, with seven straight #1 finishes among interior defenders from 2015-2021, while totaling 89 sacks, 124 hits, and a 15.6% pressure rate over that stretch. At this point, Donald’s best days are probably behind him and he could easily decline further in 2023, but, even at less than his best, Donald should still be one of the best players in the league at his position and, even if he declines from last season, the Rams should still benefit from having him on the field for more games this season.
Donald is one of the three key contributors remaining on this defense from their Super Bowl team, but the rest of this position group has completely changed since then. This off-season it was Greg Gaines (731 snaps) and A’Shawn Robinson (360 snaps) who weren’t retained, leaving the Rams to rely more heavily on reserves Marquise Copeland (343 snaps) and Jonah Williams (342 snaps) and third year players Bobby Brown (164 snaps) and Earnest Brown (136 snaps), as well as 3rd round rookie Kobie Turner.
None of the aforementioned options have any real experience. Copeland and Williams are undrafted free agents from the 2019 and 2020 class respectively and had played just 111 career snaps and 97 career snaps respectively before being decent in limited action last season, while Bobby and Earnest Brown have played just 186 and 136 career snaps total, since being selected in the 4th and 5th round respectively in 2021. It’s unclear if any of them can handle a larger workload without being a liability, so this is a very questionable position group outside of Donald, who obviously elevates the group as a whole in a significant way even if he isn’t quite at his best anymore.
The one big addition the Rams made on defense from 2021 to 2022 was off ball linebacker Bobby Wagner and, between Wagner excelling with a 90.7 PFF grade on 1,079 snaps and one of their few holdovers from their Super Bowl defense Ernest Jones having a solid year with a 63.6 grade on 723 snaps, linebacker was a position of strength for the Rams in 2022. However, Wagner was cut this off-season to save 11.5 million and was not replaced, which will be a massive loss.
With Wagner gone, Jones will become their top linebacker and will probably play more snaps than he did a year ago, perhaps about as many as Wagner did in 2022. A 3rd round pick in 2021, Jones has developed into a capable starter, having a solid season last year after posting a 59.3 PFF grade on 440 snaps as a rookie, and he has the potential to be more, now going into his third season in the league, but he could be a little overstretched in Bobby Wagner’s old role and the Rams now have minimal depth behind Jones on the depth chart.
In fact, the Rams second returning linebacker in terms of snaps played last season is Christian Rozeboom, who played just 8 snaps last season, the first defensive action of the 2020 undrafted free agent’s career. Without any additions made to this group this off-season, Rozeboom will compete for a starting role with 2022 undrafted free agent Jake Hummel, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, and 2023 undrafted free agents DeAndre Square, Ryan Smenda, and Kelechi Anyabelachi, in a very thin position group.
In 2021, the Rams top-4 cornerbacks in terms of snaps played were Jalen Ramsey (1,037 snaps), Darious Williams (924 snaps), David Long (517 snaps), and Donte Deayon (467 snaps), but none are on the roster anymore, with the biggest loss being Ramsey, a bright spot on this defense with a PFF grade of 86.4 in 16 starts in 2022, after a 84.5 grade in 17 starts in 2021, who was traded for a 3rd round pick this off-season to clear 17 million in salary.
In their place are 2021 4th round pick Robert Rochell, who was 5th on the team with 233 snaps played as a rookie, but who struggled in that limited rookie year action and only played 27 snaps last season, and second year cornerbacks Cobie Durant (4th round) and Derion Kendrick (6th round). Kendrick struggled as a rookie with a PFF grade of 43.7 on 483 snaps, while Durant showed a lot more promise with a 73.3 grade, albeit on only 281 snaps.
Durant at least has upside but he’s hard to project as a de facto #1 cornerback in his first year as a starter, while Kendrick and Rochell have shown little in the limited action they’ve received thus far in their careers and were not premium draft picks. They’re likely all locked into roles though, with the Rams not having any other cornerbacks on their roster who have ever played a defensive snap in their careers. The Rams used a 6th round pick in this year’s draft on Tre’vius Hodges-Tomlinson, but he would almost definitely struggle in a significant role if forced into one as a rookie, as would undrafted rookies Jordan Jones and Collin Duncan, who could also compete for reserve roles in what is another very thin position group on this defense.
The Rams at least bring back safety Jordan Fuller, who is the other one of the three significant contributors who is still on the roster from their 2021 team. That’s a good thing, considering the 2020 6th round pick had a 74.3 grade on 1,028 snaps during that 2021 season. Fuller missed most of last season with injury, limited to 90 snaps total, so his return is actually a rare positive on this defense going into 2023. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he did in 2021, but he also had a solid 63.6 grade on 708 snaps as a rookie in 2020 and, only in his age 25 season, has a good chance to remain an above average starter long-term.
Taylor Rapp (76.2 PFF grade on 976 snaps) and Nick Scott (54.2 PFF grade on 984 snaps) were their starters at safety for most of last season with Fuller hurt, but are no longer with the team. Without any good options behind them on the depth chart and with no significant additions at this position this off-season, the other safety spot is yet another position where the Rams are extremely thin. Second year players Russ Yeast and Quentin Lake are the only other safeties on the roster with any NFL playing time, but Yeast and Lake were drafted in only the 7th and 6th round respectively and their NFL experience consists of 113 and 63 nondescript snaps respectively as rookies. Both are likely to struggle if they have to play significant action and one of them will almost definitely have to, with their next best option being 7th round rookie Jason Taylor, who would also likely struggle if forced into significant action. Like much of this defense, this secondary is very thin.
At first glance, the Rams may look like they have bounce back potential in 2023. They are likely to be significantly healthier than a year ago, they’re just a season removed from winning the Super Bowl, and they still have stars Matt Stafford, Aaron Donald, And Cooper Kupp. However, aside from those three, not much else is the same, with just 9 of the 28 players who played at least 250 snaps on either their offense or defense in 2021 still on the team, including just 3 on their defense. The Rams were one of the league leaders in average annual salary for years (top-10 in four of five seasons from 2018-2022) and that allowed them to eventually win a Super Bowl, but they were only able to do that by repeatedly kicking the can on their cap issues and eventually the bill came due.
In the absence of everyone they’ve lost over the past two off-seasons, the Rams have done very little in the way of adding veteran reinforcements, opting to almost exclusively rely on young players on rookie contracts as replacements, and given that they haven’t had a first round pick in 7 seasons and have had just one picks in the top-50 over the past 6 drafts, that means the Rams are relying on a lot of recent mid-to-late round draft picks, many of whom have shown very little thus far in limited action in their careers.
The Rams have done an above average job drafting and developing mid-to-late round picks in recent years, allowing them to maintain depth on their roster behind their stars despite trading away most of their early draft picks, so doubling down on their ability to find gems in the draft makes sense as a strategy, rather than continuing to kick the can on their cap issues by adding more expensive veteran reinforcements, but the Rams are counting on unproven players much more than they ever have, missing many of the star players they used to have.
If we look at the Rams cap/salary structure, we see what looks like a very thin roster that is going through a rebuild. About 32.7% of their cap (72.2 million) is dead cap from players who are no longer on the team, with another 33.5% committed to Stafford, Kupp, and Donald, leaving just 33.8% of the rest of their roster. Their active average annual salary is dead last in the NFL at 197.1 million, after years of being among the league leaders in that metric, a metric that correlates pretty heavily with winning percentage.
Of that active average annual salary, 43.1% is committed to Stafford, Kupp, and Donald alone, all three of whom will be in their age 30 season or later in 2023, meaning the Rams have very little committed to players currently in their primes. Outside of those three aforementioned players, this roster almost resembles a college team, with the amount of unproven players expected to contribute in significant ways.
The Rams ability to draft and develop makes them better suited to navigate this situation than most teams, but it’s worth questioning if the Rams should have gone through a complete rebuild and moved on from Kupp, Stafford, and/or Donald as well, to accumulate much needed premium draft picks. By the time this team is able to compete again, those three could be well past their primes. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.
Prediction: XX-XX, XX in NFC West