On Sunday the Los Angeles Rams defeated the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game, thanks in no small part to a non-call from officials on a late third down pass by the Saints. It’s a non-call that will live on in football debate circles for a long time, but at the end of the day it will become nothing more than a footnote because the Rams are on their way to Atlanta to play the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
However, let’s go ahead and look past the Super Bowl, because there will be enough talk about the Patriots and the Rams over the next two weeks for all of us to go around. For now let’s go ahead and jump right to 2019 and take a look at what the Rams could look like when it comes to next season. Specifically, how many starters will the team be returning on each side of the ball, and what are the chances that they will again be a formidable opponent going forward?
Starting with the defense, which had significant issues in converting from Jeff Fisher’s 4-3 to Wade Phillips’ 3-4, let’s take a look at the eleven starters and see what their contract status is.
- DE Michael Brockers - under contract through 2019
- NT Ndamukong Suh - Unrestricted Free Agent
- DT Aaron Donald - under contract through 2024
- DE Dante Fowler - Unrestricted Free Agent
- LB Mark Barron - under contract through 2020
- LB Samson Ebukam - under contract through 2020
- LB Cory Littleton - Restricted Free Agent
- LCB Marcus Peters - under contract through 2019
- RCB Aqib Talib - under contract through 2019
- NCB Nickell Robey-Coleman - under contract through 2020
- SS John Johnson - under contract through 2020
- FS Lamarcus Joyner - Unrestricted Free Agent
So, with just Suh, Joyner and Fowler set to hit free agency in March, it seems possible that the Rams defense could improve in 2019. Obviously, I’ve listed twelve names on the list of starters, but that’s because I’ve included both a nickel corner and a fourth linebacker, as the two positions split snaps.
In any case, the two big holes here are obviously at free safety, where Lamarcus Joyner is not all that good to begin with and on the defensive line, where Suh’s presence would certainly be missed. The Rams could certainly be in the market for a presence on the defensive line to replace Suh, however, the more pressing need seems to be at free safety.
Joyner, despite being on the franchise tag, is simply not great, which hurts Phillips’ ability to play the type of defense he prefers. Multiple times this season Peters was beaten deep by wide receivers, and a safety who has the ability to play center field over the top could represent a massive step forward for the Rams defense. Now, I haven’t taken a long look around at all the names that might be available this offseason at free safety, but I’m sure when I get around to looking at the names that could be on the market there will be some names that would be worth the Rams investment.
Moving to the offensive side of the ball, here’s a look at the Rams starters. I’ll list thirteen names on this side of the ball, putting two tight ends and four wide receivers.
- QB Jared Goff - under contract through 2019 (team option for 2020)
- RB Todd Gurley - under contract through 2023
- TE Gerald Everett - under contract through 2020
- TE Tyler Higbee - under contract through 2019
- WR Brandin Cooks - under contract through 2023
- WR Robert Woods - under contract through 2021
- WR Josh Reynolds - under contract through 2020
- WR Cooper Kupp (on IR) - under contract through 2020
- LT Andrew Whitworth - under contract through 2019
- LG Rodger Saffold - Unrestricted Free Agent
- C John Sullivan - under contract through 2019
- RG Austin Blythe - under contract through 2019
- RT Rob Havenstein - under contract through 2022
So, on the offensive side of the ball the Rams have ten of eleven starters under contract with only left guard Rodger Saffold not signed for 2019. That is a scary thought for a team that finished with the second highest scoring offense in the NFL this season, and the eleventh highest scoring offense in NFL history.
However, Saffold is not the only player on the offensive line the Rams could lose this offseason. Yes, he is the only one of the five starters slated to be a free agent, but at 30 years of age, he is also the youngest member of the left side of the team’s offensive line. He is will turn 31 in June, and has played well this season, so it would not be a shock to see him sign an extension if the Rams lose the players that line up on either side of him.
What could lead the Rams to lose both Whitworth and Sullivan is father time. Here is a list of the ten oldest starting offensive linemen in 2018 who made at least ten appearances:
- Andrew Whitworth (37), Los Angeles Rams
- Jason Peters (36), Philadelphia Eagles
- Joe Staley (34), San Francisco 49ers
- Marshal Yanda (34), Baltimore Ravens
- Duane Brown (33), Seattle Seahawks
- Chris Clark (33), Carolina Panthers
- Demar Dotson (33), Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Ryan Kalil (33), Carolina Panthers
- Alex Mack (33), Atlanta Falcons
- John Sullivan (33), Los Angeles Rams
So, it is entirely possible that if the Rams win the Super Bowl that both Sullivan and Whitworth could ride off into the sunset as champions. That would greatly complicate things for the Rams, as they would then be looking for an entire left side of the offensive line, however, if Sullivan and/or Whitworth were to announce their intentions prior to free agency, L.A. could then sign Saffold to an extension and ensure some form of continuity. Specifically, if only one of Sullivan or Whitworth retire, they could extend Saffold and then only be in the market for one new starting offensive lineman.
As for where the Rams would look to replenish that line is rather simple. Of the eleven draft picks L.A. had in 2018, they used three on offensive linemen, including three of their first seven picks and both of their top two picks. Whether any of those picks would be ready to start in 2019 is anyone’s guess since they played a whopping 114 offensive snaps this season combined, but they did take the steps necessary to restock the line for the future.
Obviously there would likely be some growing pains, but we’ve seen how poorly Jared Goff plays when put under pressure and how young offensive linemen play. Thus, there is hope for division rivals in terms of the L.A. offense potentially taking a step back and regressing, but as it stands right now, the Rams appear to be set up to be competitors again in 2019.