Stafford, Donald, Kupp: Bang, Marry, or Dump?
NFL Week 14 - Anyone hoping to salvage the Los Angeles Rams for 2023 and beyond must be ready to play a very expensive game of Bang-Marry-Dump with Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey.
Hmm. Bang-Marry-Dump only has three options, and there are four expensive Rams veterans to deal with. So, perhaps Bang-Marry-Dump-Amicably Divorce, or something.
The Four Horsemen of the Rams Financial Apocalypse are projected to cost the Rams $99 million in 2023 cap space and a stunning $136.7 million in 2024 cap space. (As always, financials come courtesy OverTheCap.com)
Stafford, who turns 35 in February, has been coping with multiple injuries since the preseason and wasn't really all that spectacular when he led the Rams to the Super Bowl; he won't be worth the money down the stretch. Donald, who turns 32 in the offseason and contemplated retirement before signing a huge extension in June, currently has one foot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and one sprained ankle elevated for the foreseeable future. If you are interested in discovering where Ramsey's head will be at the end of a losing season or two, you are made of stronger stuff than Walkthrough is.
So what should the Rams do with their Big Four? Find out in this Super Bowl 72-hour-observation-level hangover edition of…
Los Angeles Rams TankWatch
The Rams Story So Far
The Rams traded a half-decade's worth of first-round draft picks and pawned their grandma's wedding ring for a victory in Super Bowl LVI. Now they are paying the bills.
Even before Stafford, Donald, and Kupp got injured, the Rams offense was hamstrung by a rickety offensive line and a lack of auxiliary playmakers. Their defense was better early in the season, but not stout enough to shut down quality opponents.
With everyone injured, Sean McVay and company have been reduced to making things up as they go along.
What Is Going Right?
Very, very little:
- Bobby Wagner has played well, with two sacks and an interception against the Seahawks in Week 13 and some rugged run defense. When a 32-year-old linebacker with a chunky contract leads off a TankWatch "what's going right" segment, you know that a team is in trouble.
- The Rams run defense ranks fifth in DVOA, thanks in large part to Wagner, Donald, and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson.
- Kupp was an Offensive Player of the Year frontrunner before getting injured.
- An odd little factoid: the Rams offense ranks first in DVOA in third-/fourth-and-short situations. Rams quarterbacks are 12-of-14 for 191 yards and three touchdowns in these situations. It may be a reminder that Sean McVay can still cross defenses up with unexpected play calls and designs.
What Has Gone Wrong?
In addition to obvious things like the Stafford-Kupp-Donald injuries:
- Allen Robinson was an expensive bust as a free-agent acquisition before getting injured. Robinson ranks 46th in DYAR, with a handful of red zone touchdowns buoying his numbers.
- Ramsey draws tough coverage assignments week after week and performs well on a per-snap basis, but he has allowed six touchdown receptions according to Sports Info Solutions.
- The Rams have shuffled through three different centers and five different left tackles so far in 2022. They rank last in the NFL in adjusted line yards.
- The Rams rank 29th in special teams. They have suffered two blocked punts and a muffed return.
- Opponents have outscored the Rams 100-40 in the fourth quarter. Not great!
Poor special teams play, constant line shuffling, and fourth-quarter collapses all underscore the fact that the Rams just lack depth and rank-and-file talent due to the draft picks they traded away and expenditures at the top of their payroll.
Heh. There's no one on the Rams roster right now who can seriously be described as a "top prospect." Before you say "Van Jefferson:" he's already 26 years old and has 11 receptions through six games.
Safety Taylor Rapp, who turns 25 in a few days, is probably the Rams' best truly young player. He's a free agent in 2023.
Ugh. The Rams' first-round pick belongs to the Lions thanks to the Stafford trade.
The Rams have negative-$5.7 million in effective cap space for 2023; as of now, they would have a hard time assembling a 53-man roster next year, because so much money is tied up with the Big Four and so few depth players are under contract beyond 2022.
The Rams are actually showing an effective cap-space deficit of over $12 million for 2024, which is astounding. They are facing two years of cap cleanup.
The salary cap will rise enough to keep the Rams solvent, but it won't rise enough to make them free-agent shoppers. Even retaining the few in-house free agents worth keeping (Rapp, Robinson) will be a struggle.
This is gonna be ugly:
- Step 1: Set a Timetable
The Rams should designate 2023 a credit repair season. Active rebuilding can begin in 2024. Their goal should be to return to serious playoff contention in 2025.
A smart timetable is essential: any quick fix general manager Les Snead and McVay might dream up (our next four draft classes for Brian Burns and DJ Moore!) is almost certain to make matters worse. But the Rams shouldn't be content to drift into eternal rebuilding, either.
- Step 2: Bang-Marry-Dump
Let's do this…
Marry Cooper Kupp. Kupp's future cap hits ($26 million to $27 million) will be high but manageable, and he's likely to remain a productive player well into his early thirties. Kupp could be there for the Rams when they are competitive again.
Bang Matthew Stafford. The Rams will need to swallow Stafford's prorated $86-million bonus through 2023 and perhaps 2024. They can release him for a manageable $18.5-million one-time cap hit before the start of the 2025 season. (Roster bonuses also kick in starting in 2025; the Rams probably never planned to keep Stafford that long.)
Stafford will be a premium-priced bridge quarterback for the foreseeable future. Unless they can sucker the Colts or Commanders into a trade (the joke never gets stale), the Rams just have to live with that.
Dump Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey may have the most trade value of the Big Four. He just turned 28 in October and has the skills of an elite cornerback. He can help a contender but is likely to be a surly presence in a losing locker room. The Rams should shop Ramsey hard in the offseason.
Potential trade suitors will realize that the Rams are motivated sellers, of course, and that Ramsey's contract is a potential budget-buster. The Rams should be ready to settle for the sort of deal the Bears and Chargers agreed upon for Khalil Mack: second- and sixth-round picks, perhaps a little more.
Amicably Divorce Aaron Donald. His cap number is $26 million next year and $34.1 million in 2024. The Rams simply cannot afford to keep Donald through what's likely to be his decline phase at those prices when they are not contenders. And Donald likely has little interest in getting pummeled by double teams for a losing team.
Snead must try to craft a radical restructuring of Donald's contract: a big 2023 guarantee, easy outs for both sides after that. Donald might agree to such a deal in the name of future freedom; if he chooses, he could spend his late career as a Hall of Famer for hire the way Von Miller has done, or just earn a living as a sportsbook spokesman until his gold jacket arrives. Of course, Snead must find some 2023 cap space first. Hence, the need for a Ramsey trade.
Setting Donald free would be a bold, risky move. Trading all the first-round picks in the world for veterans and paying them the gross domestic product of Norway was also a series of bold, risky moves. Snead, McVay and the Rams need to justify their "smartest guys in the league" status by shooting their way out of this slump.
- Step 3: The Purge
Wagner, like Donald, must be set free; that will save the Rams about $4 million in base salary and roster bonus. Tight end Tyler Higbee and his $8.6-million cap figure in 2023 must go: the Rams have no use for a soon-to-be 30-year-old C-plus-tier tight end.
A'Shawn Robinson can walk in free agency; he'll be well compensated on the open market and could fetch a future compensatory pick. Leonard Floyd can still play at a high level, but the Rams will be forced to eat $26 million in future prorated bonuses and should leap at the chance to send his high cap numbers elsewhere in exchange for some mid-round picks.
Somehow, Allen Robinson's contract was so poorly structured that the Rams won't save any money by releasing him. That's what happens when a spending spree crosses the event horizon and becomes a drunken night in a Wild West brothel.
The Rams should only spend money this offseason on re-signing Rapp, perhaps crafting a Jefferson extension, and retaining some bottom-of-the-roster guys such as Michael Hoecht who are likely to be useful through a two-year prebuild/rebuild. Otherwise, 2023 will be all about munching on Stafford/Donald bucks and ramen noodles.
- Step 4: Quarterback Prospect Reclamation Time
This has already started! The Baker Mayfield signing probably won't amount to much, but the Rams need to pick up every crumpled betting slip in the racetrack parking lot and hope that someone made a mistake. So give the Rams your tired, your poor, your Jameis Winston, Zach Wilson, and Drew Lock. Even a medium-sized hit would take a lot of sting out of the next few years.
- Step 5: Draft Quantity, Not Quality
Well, the Rams need to draft quantity and quality, but they cannot afford to get precious about their selections.
The Rams have second- and third-round picks in 2023; they traded their fourth-rounder for (holy cow, seriously, HOLY COW) Sony Michel back in 1974. That second-round pick will likely be in the top 35, the third-rounder in the top 70. They should trade down in both rounds to grab as many fourth-/fifth-/sixth-rounders as they can for 2023 and 2024. It's imperative that they bulwark the roster, particularly the offensive line, with warm bodies who have a reasonable chance to develop.
Also, the days of swinging hard for small-school workout warriors (Cobie Durant, who might still pay dividends) and tiny specialists (Tutu Atwell, who will never be more than a WR4) are over. Every selection must be someone who could conceivably play a meaningful role right away.
Oh, and no more running backs until the sixth round. Thanks.
- Step 6: Hope Everyone has the Patience for This
McVay signed a whopping extension through 2026 in September after an offseason of rumors that he might be tempted to chill in a broadcast booth for a few years after winning the Super Bowl. Snead also earned an offseason extension. Neither appeared very interested in slogging through a rebuilding cycle at the time, and neither has shown any interest in making soup from stock in the past. Owner Stan Kroenke is also no longer getting the boffo returns on his investment that he expected and has the resources to punt on McVay and Snead now that the party's over.
McVay is supposed to be a genius. He should be able to manufacture an offense out of spare parts, develop young playmakers, and attract the coaching talent needed to rebuild the defense. Snead's aggressive wheeling and dealing not only won the Rams a Super Bowl but kept them in deep contention from 2017 through last year. These guys should be able to turn the Rams around if they choose to.
Imagine the devil appeared on your shoulder and offered you a deal: your favorite team wins one Super Bowl, then finishes in last place for the next nine years. Ol' Scratch even vows to wipe your memory of the pact so the Super Bowl and losing seasons come as a surprise and feels earned. What do you say?
How you respond may depend on what team you root for. Jets and Browns fans may figure that they can handle a decade of losing standing on their heads and sign up for that Super Bowl. (The Faustian/Browns angle is too obvious to belabor.) A Patriots fan would likely shun such a deal. So would fans of the Steelers, Ravens, or Chiefs who are used to seeing their teams in more or less perpetual contention.
Your response might also depend on the nature of your fandom. If you own a PSL and tailgate in the stadium parking lot for every home game, you would probably turn down a decade in last place and the months of miserable Sundays that come with it. If you cheer for your favorites from the couch while also checking fantasy lineups, placing wagers around the league, and debating about mock drafts on Discord, then you might find it easy to enjoy NFL Sundays while your team plunges into hopeless rebuilding. Ironically, the more visceral your fandom, the more likely you are to regret trading the entire future for one parade.
The Rams did not trade nine years of failure for one Super Bowl. So far, they have traded one year of failure for one Super Bowl. That's a justifiable trade. They may have traded two or three years for one Super Bowl: a hefty price, but one most fans would agree was worth it. If the rebuilding program stretches into the mid-to-late 2020s, however, the "flags fly forever" justification for what the Rams have done also stretches, perhaps to a breaking point.
The stated goal of every NFL team is to win a Super Bowl, but the unstated goal is to make every Sunday exciting and relevant to maximize television ratings, ticket revenues, and jersey sales. Both goals are important to the fan experience, and serving the first at the expense of the second ("F*ck Them Picks" mode) or the second at the expense of the first (Colts-Vikings style wild-card perpetuity) can each have diminishing returns. The Rams cannot still be talking about what they did to win Super Bowl LVI when fans are wearing the Stafford jerseys they once bought for $120 to clean out the garage.
The Rams have a lot of work to do before they can be exciting and relevant again. The first step will be for them to sober up and perform a roster/budget cleanse. It won't be fun, and it will make things worse before they get better. But hard work and tightened belts in 2023 will put them in position to rebrand themselves as scrappy young underdogs by 2024.
In that respect, bottoming out instead of going 10-7 or so this year has been a disguised blessing. The Rams can get started on building a brighter future right away instead of trying to extend a window which has already slammed shut. And really, they have no choice, because living in the past will be too darn expensive.