The Los Angeles Rams have traded Jalen Ramsey to the Miami Dolphins for a 2023 third-round pick and tight end Hunter Long, according to ESPN. The move helps the Dolphins remain competitive in an increasingly strong division, but for the Rams, it might mean acknowledgment that their time competing for the top spot in the NFC is over.
This is meaningful because Ramsey is still a top-five NFL cornerback. Los Angeles is not trading away an aging veteran past his prime, but a player who has more to contribute than almost any other defensive back in the league.
Ramsey wasn’t traded for a king’s ransom, and adding Long, who did not start any games last year and caught zero passes, doesn’t move the needle. This could be a sign that the good times are over in Los Angeles and have been for some time.
Will the Los Angeles Rams Have a Roster Exodus?
After a 5-12 season following their 2021 Super Bowl campaign, the Rams’ roster underperformed and suffered from significant injury. Rumors swirled in both the previous offseasons about potential retirements for Sean McVay, Aaron Donald, and Matthew Stafford, with McVay acknowledging in a presser on March 10 that it’s not helpful for a potential retirement to be in the news cycle every year.
“What I didn’t want to do,” said McVay, “was make a decision that it comes up every year, because I think when you reflect on, particularly the last two years … you can become a story unintentionally, or you’re really working through things, and you’re open about it, and it becomes more of a distraction than what it’s worth.”
This news comes on the heels of Los Angeles releasing Bobby Wagner in February and letting go of Leonard Floyd and seven other players in the past several days, potentially signaling a mass exodus of veteran talent from the Rams roster. Without a contract re-work, they would not be able to trade away Stafford or Donald, both of whom would cost more against the cap if traded than if they remained on the roster.
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But everyone aside from those two and Rob Havenstein presents salary cap savings opportunities in a trade scenario, and it might be the only way that LA can quickly get younger and competitive for a run at the 2024 season with 2023 and 2024 draft picks in hand.
The Rams have a dire cap situation and, unlike teams like the Buccaneers or Vikings, don’t have a lot of flexibility in restructuring or otherwise changing the contract situations of their high-cap players to push cap down the road.
As general manager Les Snead outlined in a March 9 press conference, “What’s interesting for us this year, step one is actually getting under the cap. Let’s call it when the bell rings on Wednesday, and that sometimes will limit your ability to hold on to a player until June 1, even though you can designate him [as a post-June 1 cut], he is still counting right in the moment.”
He added, “So, there’s a lot of calculus that goes into that, especially with our roster. It’s a very complicated, complex situation that we got to work through. And I think what big picture is, this year different than probably the past five years for us, we definitely have to engineer a healthier cap situation.”
That cap priority didn’t hit the Rams as hard in the previous several years as they sacrificed draft picks to go all-in on a high-level veteran roster. As Snead said, this will be a new approach, even as they try to maintain their philosophy.
“Our DNA is to attack, hit the gas,” said Snead. “We’re going to hit the brakes a little bit, that does not change how we’re going to approach the season, how we’re going to approach the day-to-day, but it might definitely it will definitely change how we approach constructing the roster.”
Put that way, the exodus of veterans seems inevitable. The way Snead put it, they won’t lose any competitiveness, but there has definitely been talk about moving on from long-time stalwarts, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
“Unfortunately, our situation is that we’re going to move on from some veteran players,” he pointed out. “And with that being said, going back to the weight-bearing walls, we’re definitely going to rely on Sean his coaching staff even, Rahim and his coaching staff, even if we do make it harder on them.”
He added, “In terms of maybe having to play with new partners, younger, less experienced players, we’ve got to continue relying on our scouts, coaching staff, even front office to listen to and make the sound decisions.”
That leaves the Rams in essentially a spot to rebuild.
Do the Rams Have the Ability To Rebuild?
The Rams once again do not have a first-round pick in the NFL draft, marking the seventh consecutive year without a first-round selection, with their prior three picks in the first round resulting in Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and Greg Robinson.
With a second-round pick and two third-rounders, Los Angeles should be able to take advantage of a strong cornerback class and some of the edge rusher talent that characterizes this year’s pool of available players. But it will be tough to replace a top-five corner and a top-five linebacker on top of very functional pieces like Floyd.
When asked about this problem, Snead brought up an approach that hasn’t been common in Los Angeles — finding acceptable performances instead of a roster full of stars filled in with cheap talent around them. “If, as an example, you don’t think there’s one person who can [rush the passer], is there an element of, let’s call it, constructing a collective,” he said.
“That usually is some version of a four- to five-man rush. And let’s just try to keep it simple. Aaron Donald’s an ‘A’ player, but let’s just say we can’t get another ‘A’ player. Can we find some, let’s call it three to four other ‘B’ players that can partner with Aaron, and then, as a collective, they may be an ‘A’ bunch, an ‘A-’ bunch.”
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That’s not a bad approach for a unit that relies on emphasizing strengths, but pass rush tends to be a “strong link” function in a defense, where the only thing that needs to work out for a play to be a success is one player winning his rep. Coverage is a “weak link” function in a defense, where your weakest player determines your level of play — because everyone has to succeed for it to work.
If they can do that at cornerback, that would be a nice substitution for Ramsey. But with a roster currently featuring just one starting DB under contract — subpackage safety Jordan Fuller — the Rams will have to find ways to re-sign or replace Troy Hill, Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott, and David Long Jr., in addition to Ramsey.
That’s a tall order. But it’s probably the best move for the franchise if they can’t compete now.
Is Los Angeles Giving Up?
LA will need to find a solution for Ramsey’s absence in the long term, and moving on from him now makes that process easier and more efficient. That’s fine, but it’s an open question whether the Rams have the ability to compete in 2023 or whether or not they’ve kicked the can down the road.
As McVay tells it, that’s not the case. In an attempt to focus on what he can control, he said, “We are in some situations and circumstances as it relates to the cap, as it relates to some of the different things that have occurred over the last handful of years. We say, ‘Well, what are our options?’ And what’s the best way that we can figure it out?”
He added that his experience coming into the team in 2017 was in many ways similar because no one knew how competitive they could be or what they needed to do. “Let’s not try to write the story before we even open up the first page of the book,” he said. “Let’s figure out what can we do with the circumstances while there are going to be a lot of tough decisions. I don’t expect to not try to put together the most competitive roster that we can… and then let’s go see what happens.”
More concretely, he pointed out, “We do expect to be able to have some really core pieces that you’re not asking them to be anybody but themselves. And then there will be a need to develop and go with some younger guys, through the draft and through undrafted free agency and have a little bit different approach. But those were things that we have known you work through.”
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That’s a nice sentiment, and his parallel to the 2017 squad is a good one, but it’s difficult to think that the Rams can find a way to win. The Rams seem like a team content with not winning in 2023, but that probably isn’t the case.
The Rams put it all on the line and got a ring; 2023 is just paying the bill when it comes due. They’ll try to win, but don’t expect stellar results. In the meantime, they added a third-round pick and a backup tight end.