Ranking the LA Rams players looks a lot different for pretty much any other team in the league. In most cases, it would just be a list of the stars. But the big difference for the Rams is they are not ‘all-in’ this season. Just look at their spending. The Rams spent the least amount of money in free agency, so far, this offseason, just over $9 million. Dead last.
For comparison, the Cardinals, who are also decidedly not ‘all-in,’ sit at 27th in free agent spending. They spent $63 million, seven times more than the Rams. There are many other figures that could be listed to drive home the point, but the Rams know they aren’t going to win a lot of games in the coming season.
Football players don’t tank, they have too much on the line, but it is quite evident that the Rams front office is tanking. We all understand that the Rams have to get their finances back in order, but this austere approach changes what success means for the 2023 Rams. Are Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald important to this team?
Of course, but historic seasons out of the two stars wouldn’t add up to much. The development and improvement of the following players will be a more telling storyline of what is to come for the Rams.
The Most Important Offensive Rams Players
Matthew Stafford had the best year of his career in 2021. In 2022 it was one of his worst. A lot of his struggles can be attributed to awful offensive line play. He was sacked 29 times in nine games in 2022, one shy of his 2021 total. But looking at numbers in which the pocket was kept clean, Stafford still saw a significant drop-off. When facing no pressure, he just ranked 28th in expected points added (EPA).
Stafford has always been a rhythm QB, so the pressure still could have had an effect on his overall performance. You can’t find a rhythm if you’re getting hit regularly.
But there are other metrics that reveal a confidence problem for Stafford. For one, Stafford wasn’t pushing the ball down the field. In 2021, he ranked 8th in intended air yards per attempt. In 2022, he was ranked 35th. He also wasn’t good when trying to thread the needle in tight window situations. Stafford ranked 45th in EPA against man coverage in 2022. He was #1 against man in 2021. And he went from 3rd to 15th when throwing between the numbers. Those two situations create more traffic and tighter throwing lanes.
He often forced the ball to Cooper Kupp. Kupp was the only Rams receiver that consistently create separation. He was targeted on almost one-third of all of Stafford’s passes. Stafford seemed to lack confidence in either the receiver or his ability to make the tough throws.
What was the cause of Stafford’s lack of confidence? Was it the mysterious elbow injury? Lack of chemistry with his non-Kupp pass catchers? That’s between him and his shrink, but Stafford will have to find that 2021 mojo again to keep his job. There were rumors circulating that the Rams were open to trading Stafford earlier this year, so the Rams are open to replacing him. Also, if there isn’t a return to form, the Rams will be squarely in the running for Caleb Williams or Drake Maye.
Coach Sean McVay has said that Stafford will have ‘no limitations’ through training camp. This is good in two ways, he will get more time with the new receivers, but more importantly, it means that Stafford is fully healthy, rather than having a pitch count like last training camp. When it comes to the quarterback, the Rams always say the right thing. At this point, he has a lot to prove.
The Rams don’t often resign players after their rookie contracts. Joseph Noteboom is among three players from the McVay tenure that the Rams have retained beyond their first contract after being drafted. They gave Noteboom a 3-year, $40 million contract after starting just 17 games over four seasons, making him the 15th highest-paid left tackle in football. This all seems to be proof that the Rams see something in him that hasn’t been on display for the general public.
The Rams also don’t often fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, which is actually a vote of confidence for Noteboom because he is still on the team despite his $6.5 million cap hit, the 6th highest on the team. Cutting him wouldn’t help them in that respect, but the Rams have never been afraid to take on dead money to move on from a player. Noteboom’s cap hit also balloons to $20 million in 2024. He has to prove he is worth it in 2023.
Noteboom isn’t just important because he is expensive, but he is also important because he is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of Rams left tackles, he is their only hope. There isn’t a proven player behind him on the depth chart. Alaric Jackson played well in a short stint at the position and there has been some buzz about AJ Arcuri, but nothing concrete. The Rams haven’t invested much to hedge their bet on Noteboom. They haven’t used a significant draft pick to add a left tackle in several years.
On the bright side, Noteboom has looked competent for stretches. He only gave up two pressures and zero sacks over the 221 snaps he played at left tackle in 2021. His 2022 is generally looked at as a terrible performance before getting hurt in Week 6 and there is some truth to that.
He had two very bad games. He gave up 3 sacks to Buffalo and 2 to the 49ers. But zero in the other three games. 70 percent of all the pressures he allowed came in those two games. Buffalo and the 49ers were two of the best pass-rush teams in the league last year. It’s not ideal, but there are plenty of good linemen that have had bad days against Von Miller and Nick Bosa. Noteboom held up well against another pass rush powerhouse, the Cowboys, allowing just three pressures among the 20 that the Rams allowed.
He is also important because he is protecting a 35-year-old quarterback. Stafford has 2-3 good years left in his career, maybe less. The Donald/Kupp window is only open if Stafford makes it till 2024 and that’s Noteboom’s most important job this year. Second, if he is able to prove to be the player they think he is, it will save them a lot of money or a high draft pick.
When the Rams passing game wasn’t working, did Sean McVay lean into the ground and pound? Of course not. He went so far as to say that he felt like he was wasting plays when calling a run. That is part of why the team ranked 26th in rushing attempts last season, the lowest rank of the McVay era. Another part is that the team wasn’t executing when runs were called. It’s hard to know who is to blame for the poor performance of the running game, but Cam Akers shares some of the weight.
The running game keeps defenses honest, Akers doesn’t need to be MVP-level Todd Gurley, but he does need to pose a threat. Stafford struggles against the two high safeties of the Fangio/Staley defense. Running the ball effectively forces defenses to drop a safety into the box to aid on the second level.
He just has to be as good as he was in his rookie year or as good as Sony Michel was in 2021. 800 yards, 4.0 yards per carry.
The Rams have drafted a running back in every draft of the McVay, but none have been drafted higher than Akers. There has been plenty of investment from that aspect If the Rams expect to compete in 2024 one of the three drafted running backs currently on the roster will have to work out and Akers has proved that he can be the back they need.