SportsPulse: NFL insider Mike Jones dives into what went horribly wrong for the Rams on Super Sunday.
The Rams reached the Super Bowl in just their third year back in Los Angeles, though the season ended in disappointing fashion with a 13-3 loss to the Patriots. As they look to make these types of runs into February a habit, what are their pressing questions as the offseason begins?
1. Is it time to back up the Brink’s truck for Sean McVay?
The 33-year-old has three years left on the five-year deal he signed when the Rams made their gamble on the youngest head coach in modern NFL history in Jan. 2017. But McVay has transformed the franchise on and off the field in a little more than 24 months, putting them in position to compete not just with the Chargers, but also the Lakers and Dodgers in the sprawling Los Angeles market. If McVay’s mentor, Jon Gruden, is worth $100 million over 10 years to the Raiders, certainly Rams owner Stan Kroenke would be smart to lock up his most important asset for a long time.
2. Is there any way to keep the offensive line together?
Besides McVay’s turnaround of Jared Goff, perhaps the biggest factor in the Rams’ rise over the past two seasons has been the fortification of the offensive line. When the quintet won the NFL’s offensive line of the year award at NFL Honors on Saturday, the group completed a rise that began when Pro Football Focus rated it No. 31 in the league entering the 2016 season. A year later, it was transformed by the free agent signings of tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan and the hiring of Aaron Kromer as line coach. But Whitworth, 37, and Sullivan, 33, could retire in the offseason, and guard Rodger Saffold, one of the team’s longest-tenured players, is an unrestricted free agent. The team prepared for this moment by drafting tackle Joe Noteboom in the third round, center Brian Allen in the fourth round and guard Jamil Demby in the sixth round last April, but that much turnover up front could mean for some turbulence this fall.
3. Is the secondary set for a reshuffle?
The Rams have former all-pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters under contract for the 2019 season at a combined $17.1 million, according to overthecap.com. But both could be potential cap casualties, if needed. Talib was excellent when he was healthy, not allowing a single touchdown in coverage during the regular season, but he was only able to play eight games. Peters, acquired from Kansas City to be a playmaker on the back end, largely struggled in 2018, especially when Talib was sidelined. Playing on a franchise tag, free safety Lamarcus Joyner saw his performance dip, especially in the postseason. So there is a scenario in which strong safety John Johnson and slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman are the lone returners. Reserves Blake Countess, Troy Hill and Kevin Peterson, all restricted free agents, could be cheap candidates to compete for starting roles.
4. Will any of the one-year rentals return?
Impending unrestricted free agents Ndamukong Suh, Dante Fowler Jr. and running back C.J. Anderson all made significant contributions to the Rams run to Atlanta. After a regular season in which he posted just 4 1/2 sacks, four tackles for loss and 19 hurries, Suh turned it on in the postseason, when he was one of the team’s top performers. Fowler only had two sacks after coming over from Jacksonville via trade on Oct. 30, but he made one of the biggest plays of the postseason, when his pressure on Drew Brees contributed to Johnson’s overtime interception in the NFC Championship Game. Of course, Anderson’s performance after being signed off the street on Dec. 18 was one of the best stories of the postseason. But, besides Fowler, who may be needed at outside linebacker, the Rams may not be willing or able to give any of these veteran rentals a multi-year deal.
5. Will there be more value in the Rams’ rental market?
The Rams have one more year left to maximize Goff’s rookie contract. The first overall pick of the 2016 season will play on a $8.9 million cap hit in 2019 before he is eligible for a fifth-year option in 2020 that will more than double that figure. With such value at the game’s most expensive position, the Rams have been able to load up on one-year rentals like Suh, Fowler, and cornerback Sam Shields. Receiver DeSean Jackson became the first veteran of the offseason to publicly declare he’d like to join the Rams, telling the Simms and Lefkoe podcast, “If anything, I would like to end up in L.A., being a Ram.” Not that the Rams have a need for a veteran receiver, but Jackson’s come-get-me plea could be a sign that veteran free agents are interested to play in Los Angeles at a discounted rate. That would help the Rams continue to construct a balanced roster, despite paying big money to stars Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Aaron Donald and, eventually, Jared Goff.
Joe Curley writes for the Ventura County Star, part of the USA TODAY Network.