Building a Winner: How the Rams’ Blueprint Stacks Up With the Saints, Patriots and Chiefs

The Rams felt a sense of urgency after last year’s early playoff exit, but it was less a grand plan than a series of market dominoes that made them the big players in the offseason. Now L.A. looks to be set up well to win now—while the window is open. Plus, the team-building commonalities among the four title-game franchises, players in the spotlight on conference championship weekend, two draft prospects to eye in Saturday’s all-star games, and your questions on the Colts’ future, the Giants’ draft plans, where the Raiders might play in 2019 and more.
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Les Snead was in the air without wifi when divisional-playoff Sunday kicked off last January. He was in a cab when word got to him that the Jaguars beat the Steelers. And try as he might to ignore football on his getaway to Hawaii—that was the whole point of the trip—he couldn’t help but notice a certain restlessness later that day in the restaurant he was in, or that it might have been a football game that caused it.

The Minneapolis Miracle had just gone down, and it was a matter of time before Snead heard more about it. Which prompted two reactions from the Rams GM.

First, he sent a text to Case Keenum, his old quarterback and the triggerman behind the Vikings’ breathtaking, last-gasp play to knock off the Saints and advance to the NFC Championship Game. Second, he vowed to not forget what being left out felt like, just a week after the Rams’ season ended with a wild-card loss to the Falcons at home.

And then he remembered Alabama coach Nick Saban having a saying plastered everywhere after the Tide lost the national title game in January 2017 to Deshaun Watson and Clemson: Don’t waste that feeling.

“Remember the disappointment,” Snead said from his office on Wednesday afternoon. “That helps. I’ve had it written across different things in my office. So it’s everything you do—it’s improving the roster, but it’s also improving this gadget, it’s improving how we do food, how we travel, all those things. It’s the minutiae of trying to get better on a Tuesday in March.

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“When that no longer stings, read that line and say, ‘Know what? That did sting. And let’s do better than we did last year.’”

Snead swears now that the Rams’ explosion of aggressiveness during the 2017 offseason happened organically—moves driven in reaction to circumstances and opportunity. But he has no problem conceding that it was also an outgrowth of the loss at the Coliseum, the feeling it left, and that moment a week later in Hawaii.

This year he wasn’t in Hawaii for the divisional round. He was back in the Coliseum, watching his Rams run the Cowboys out of the building to advance to play a Saints team that suffered an even more painful ending last January.

And so as we take our annual look at the roster construction of the four conference finalists, this is a year when there are few big overarching trends in the construction of the teams (outside of significant investment in offensive and defensive linemen). But with each roster, there is a certain urgency with which they were put together, and nowhere is that true more than in Los Angeles.

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In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to give you answers in the mailbag—why the league’s timeline for coaching hires shouldn’t change, what the Giants might do in the draft, where the Colts go from here, and whether Bill Simmons’ playoff plan is a good one. And we’re going to give you a key player to watch on each conference finalist, and a couple college players to take a look at on Saturday.

But we’re starting with a project I began three years ago, and have carried over in the years since, with a look at how each of the final four teams is built. So here’s what the study showed.

Homegrown on 53: 25 (21 draftees/four college free agents)
Outside free agents on 53: 21
Trades/waivers on 53: Seven
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Patrick Mahomes 10th overall in 2017 (traded 27th and 91st overall picks, 2018 first-round pick for 10th overall pick).
Last five first-round picks: QB Patrick Mahomes (2017, 10); CB Marcus Peters (2015, 22); DE Dee Ford (2014, 23); OT Eric Fisher (2013, 1); DT Dontari Poe (2012, 11).
Top five cap figures: OLB Justin Houston $20.60 million; OT Eric Fisher $13.95 million; S Eric Berry $13.00 million; TE Travis Kelce $9.96 million; DE Allen Bailey $7.97 million.

Homegrown on 53: 33 (26 draftees/Seven college free agents)
Outside free agents on 53: 11
Trades/waivers on 53: Nine
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Jared Goff first overall in 2016 (traded 15th, 43rd, 45th and 76th overall picks, and 2017 first- and third round picks for first, 113th, and 177th overall picks).
Last five first-round picks: QB Jared Goff (2016, 1); RB Todd Gurley (2015, 10); OT Greg Robinson (2014, 2); DT Aaron Donald (2014, 13); WR Tavon Austin/LB Alec Ogletree (2013, 8/30).
Top five cap figures: DT Ndamukong Suh $14.50 million; OT Andrew Whitworth $12.67 million; S Lamarcus Joyner $11.29 million; CB Aqib Talib $11.01 million; DL Michael Brockers $10.76 million.

Homegrown on 53: 31 (23 draftees/eight college free agents)
Outside free agents on 53: 14
Trades/waivers on 53: Eight
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Tom Brady 199th overall in 2000.
Last five first-round picks: OL Isaiah Wynn/RB Sony Michel (2018, 23/31); DT Malcom Brown (2015, 32); DL Dominique Easley (2014, 29); DE Chandler Jones/LB Don’t’a Hightower (2012, 21/25).
Top five cap figures: QB Tom Brady $22.00 million; CB Stephon Gilmore $12.513 million; S Devin McCourty $11.94 million; TE Rob Gronkowski $10.91 million; LB Dont’a Hightower $8.53 million.

Homegrown on 53: 28 (20 draftees/eight college free agents)
Outside free agents on 53: 20
Trades/waivers on 53: five
Quarterback acquired: Signed Drew Brees to a six-year, $60 million free-agent deal in 2006.
Last five first-round picks: DE Marcus Davenport (2018, 14); CB Marshon Lattimore/OT Ryan Ramczyk (2017, 11/32); DT Sheldon Rankins (2016, 12); OL Andrus Peat/LB Stephone Anthony (2015, 13/31).
Top five cap figures: QB Drew Brees $24.00 million; DE Cam Jordan $14.50 million; OT Terron Armstead $13.5 million; OG Larry Warford $9.01 million; C Max Unger $8.01 million.

So what to take away? Three things I noticed:

One, more players on these rosters are landing there via trade or waiver claims than before. The 2015 quartet of Arizona, Carolina, Denver and New England had acquired a total of 18 of their players that way going into championship weekend. In 2016, that number dipped to 12 for the conference finalist. Last year, it was up to 26. This year, it’s 29. So these teams are working the waiver wire and trade market.

Two, there’s a huge gap in age at quarterback—and in method of their acquisition. Brady is 41 and Brees is 40. Goff is 24 and Mahomes is 23. Brady and Brees came into the NFL as non-first-rounders, and Brees was allowed to hit the free-agent market by his drafting team (the Chargers) due to injury. Both Goff and Mahomes were traded up for in the Top 10. Conclusion? Quarterbacks don’t slip through the cracks much anymore.

Three, the investment in linemen, as we said, is noticeable. Take the five highest cap numbers on the rosters of the Chiefs, Rams and Saints, and 11 of those 15 players (including Houston, an on-ball linebacker) are linemen. And the Patriots spent three of their last four first-round picks on linemen, and have three offensive linemen on second contracts playing for trench wizard Dante Scarnecchia.

And that brings us back to Snead, and the aggression-born-of-disappointment within the Ram organization that took the team from up-and-comer to juggernaut in one offseason.

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There wasn’t some seminal meeting to map things out, nor was there a detailed plan to go and collect stars like a director would assemble an ensemble cast. In fact, as Snead explains it now, the Rams’ splashy 2018 really was more a step-by-step reaction to the conditions facing the team. And it started with a simple decision.

“It was definitely organic. We didn’t put the cart before the horse,” said Snead. “The news of the day was ‘Who are they gonna franchise? Sammy [Watkins], Trumaine [Johnson] or Lamarcus [Joyner]?’ One of them being a receiver, two of them being DBs, we did know that there would be disruption in the defensive backfield. If we franchised Sammy, two are on the market. And we knew if we picked one of the DBs, there’d be disruption at receiver.”

That Johnson had been tagged twice already made the call not to tag him (it’d be at the quarterback number) easy. And looking at the price points for Watkins ($15.982 million) and Joyner ($11.287 million), it made sense to ease the loss of one DB, and roll the dice on being able to keep Watkins after he hit the market. And that opened the door to rework the defense in coordinator Wade Phillips’ vision.

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So the dominoes started falling.

• Ahead of the combine, the Rams worked out a deal to send second- and fourth-round picks to the Chiefs for a sixth-round pick and Pro Bowl corner Marcus Peters, whose disruptive and selfish behavior in Kansas City landed him on the trade block. For all his problems, Peters brought elite ability to L.A., and only cost $1.7 million for 2018, with a $9.1 million team option for 2019.

• Two weeks later, L.A. landed a bookend for Peters, trading a fifth-round pick to Denver for five-time Pro Bowler Aqib Talib, who fell out of favor with the Broncos because his performance went south with that of the team at the end of 2017. The feeling was he could pull teammates either way, and the Broncos saw that as an issue as they looked to get younger. Clearing the 32-year-old off the roster also would give them a better look at former first-round pick Bradley Roby.

• Phillips’ defense prizes two types of players—cover corners and pressure guys. With the former taken care of, and the Rams having moved front-seven fixtures Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree to create flexibility, the hunt was on for the latter. They could spend their first-rounder on a pass rusher. Or they could keep it as a chip and pursue defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. In Miami, Suh wasn’t a problem so much as he’d done nothing to help fix problems that arose there, which positioned him as an easy casualty of a culture overhaul. On the flip side, the Rams had strength coach, Ted Rath, who worked with Suh in Detroit, to vouch for him, and help grease the skids for a one-year deal to get done.

• The receiver market exploded in free agency. The Chiefs outbid the Rams for Watkins, landing him at $48 million over three years, which in a roundabout way created opportunity. New England’s Brandin Cooks was headed into a contract year, and the new bar for paying receivers set too rich a price for the Patriots to extend him. When the Rams initially asked about Cooks, they got a flat ‘no.’ In March it was a ‘maybe.’ In early April, that 1 they deemed a chip (with Suh filling the need for a pass-rusher) was to Foxboro for the receiver that McVay wanted in 2017 before settling for Watkins.

The Rams, of course, weren’t done there. They stayed out of the offensive line market, figuring they could use the draft to get younger and deeper, which they did. There still was a need for an edge player to complement Donald, addressed at the trade deadline with a deal for Dante Fowler. And along the way, they actually inquired about Odell Beckham and got in on the Khalil Mack sweepstakes in July, later offering Oakland close to what the Bears spent for him.

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But the theme was the same throughout. And while, yes, it was partly facilitated by having a quarterback on a rookie deal, the Rams’ push was more than just that.

“There’s a sense of urgency,” Snead said. “But you need to use that cap space right. So how do you best support the environment to help get your rookie quarterback to what we’d call the ‘O.K., we got one’ stage. That’s step one. You get him to the point where you’re saying, ‘O.K., he’s definitely one.’ Now he’s earned that status [and in 2017] we got this team that not only can win the division, but did win the division.

“So there’s this element—you’ve proven you’re in this window, having a quarterback on a rookie contract, and having that quarterback playing well enough for your team to be a division and playoff contender. That window is only going to last so long, so you want to take advantage of that.”

What’s interesting is that the Rams have mortgaged little of their future in their construction of a contender. They bet that the strength of their infrastructure in coaching (and with McVay in particular), the locker room (with guys like Gurley and Donald) and elsewhere would allow them to absorb the risks they took on in Suh, Peters and Talib. The team has been right in that regard thus far, but theyaren’t tied to any of those guys long-term. Nor are there are many contracts that put the team in the lurch after this year.

And if you look at the three trends we identified with the conference finalist, all are A-plus areas for the Rams. They’ve been aggressive on trades. They have a 24-year-old at quarterback. They’ve invested heavily in their lines. Their biggest decision coming out of 2018, in fact, might be whether or not to hang on to guard Rodger Saffold.

To be sure, Saffold’s been a good player. But that this is about to be the pressing issue should illustrate the kind of shape they’re in going forward. I could sense Snead is well aware of that when I gave him the roster makeup chart to analyze.

“Well, what I did like about it, of the four teams, we have the most homegrown players,” Snead said. “You have a nice nucleus. You build, build, then there’s a breakthrough, and now you’re in what you’d term the ‘alive’ stage. Well, how do you stay alive? There’s an element of variables that make that a challenge.

“Obviously, being a winning team, you’re going to have others who want players from your team, you’re not going to be able to re-sign all of them. … The other variable, when you’re in that alive stage, you’re drafting later.”

And then I stopped Snead—Good problem to have?

“Yeah,” he answered. “It’s the problem you want to have.”

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Four players in the spotlight in the championship games.

Patriots LB Don’t’a Hightower. The seventh-year linebacker isn’t what he once was, but he still has playmaking ability, and his versatility is key to what New England will do to bait Patrick Mahomes into mistakes. In fact, there’s a perfect example of it from when the teams played in October. In the first quarter, Hightower came up on a play-fake from Mahomes, creating the illusion that he was playing the run, then fell off, right into a hole in front of Travis Kelce. Mahomes threw the ball right to him, and the pick set up New England’s first touchdown and meant plenty in the 43-40 Patriot win. The Patriots’ biggest strength is in their secondary. Next is the presence of chameleons like Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Patrick Chung.

Chiefs DL Chris Jones. Did you know Kansas City led the NFL in sacks this year? If you read my Monday column, you did. And yes, it’s true—their much-maligned D got after the passer better than anyone else, largely because of the presence of Dee Ford and Justin Houston off the edges, and Jones inside. Making this even more difficult for New England is that the game is at Arrowhead, where Ford had nine of his 13 sacks, Houston had six of his nine, and Jones had 8.5 of his 15.5. All those guys were factors in harassing Andrew Luck last week at home, too, using the crowd noise to get off the ball faster than the offensive line could. So why did I pluck Jones out of these three? Brady’s more susceptible to inside pressure than edge pressure.

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Saints G Andrus Peat. Peat really struggled against the Eagles, and we found out why earlier this week—he broke his hand in Week 17 against Carolina and had surgery during New Orleans’ bye. No one can question his toughness. But his ability to function at a high level is certainly an issue this week, given that the challenge may be even tougher than the one he faced last week—having to deal with the Rams’ interior trio of Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers on a regular basis. This one is, without question, worth keeping an eye on.

Rams CB Marcus Peters. Sometimes you have to take the low-hanging fruit when it’s hanging there for you—and so I’ll bite. This is the easy storyline. Peters got lit up by Saints star Michael Thomas for a game-clinching 72-yard touchdown back in November. Then New Orleans coach Sean Payton said the Saints had the matchup they wanted on the play, to which Peters responded, “Tell Sean Payton to keep talking that s---, we gonna see him soon. Yeah, because I like what he was saying on the sidelines too, tell him to keep talking that s---. I hope he sees me soon, then we’re gonna have a good little, nice little bowl of gumbo together.” And then … Peters tweeted “Gumbo Week” a couple days ago (which got deleted). So this one is rich. You have the history of that play. You have the jawing back-and-forth. You have the investment the Rams made in Peters and Aqib Talib. And you even have Peters’ old team playing in the other conference title game without him. There’s a lot there.

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A pair of draft prospects to watch in the all-star bowls.

Colorado State WR Olabisi Johnson (NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, FS1, 4 p.m. ET). It’s all-star season, and the NFLPA game is one of two warmups for next week’s Senior Bowl in Mobile. This week you’re scratching a little more for top prospects, but Johnson’s put together a good week in California. “He was overshadowed by Michael Gallup two years ago and Preston Williams last year [at Colorado State],” said one AFC college scouting director. “So he’s always been the second or third guy, but he’s a damn good player. Good size, good athletic ability. Not super fast, but still a good athlete over all. Good hands. And he’s tough and strong enough to play special teams.” Johnson had three pretty productive seasons at Colorado State, and caught 54 balls for 796 yards and four touchdowns last year at 6-foot and 203 pounds.

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Sioux Falls OT Trey Pipkins (East/West Shrine Game, NFL Network, 3 p.m. ET). Pipkins is exactly the kind of player these games are made for—a guy who physically looks the part and needs more experience against better competition, and for coaches to see how he stacks up against players from higher levels of college football. “He’s got length, good height and athletic ability,” said one AFC evaluator who was at practice this week. “He played guard and tackle in college, and that’ll help him. I didn’t see him getting beat a lot. To me, he’s gonna be that guy—small school guy who holds own, looks the part, and then generates some buzz.” Pipkins, a two-time all-conference player at Sioux Falls, is listed at 6’7” and 300 pounds.

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From Rob G (@OnTourForever): Why can’t the NFL force teams to wait until after the Super Bowl for them to hire new coaches? That would allow coaches on playoff teams to have a better chance for a position upgrade.

Rob, that sounds great on paper. The problem is how fast the offseason moves. Even at this early juncture, we’re only nine days away from the completion of the college all-star game circuit, and free-agent meetings are coming soon. You’ve heard Bill Belichick say after Super Bowls that the Patriots were behind on all of that as a result of making it to the big game, and he wasn’t lying.

And so for these teams that are already playing catch-up, and in some cases have decision-makers and power-brokers just getting to know each other, setting the process back five weeks would be a major problem.

Now, if you want to wait? Well, while it might cause staffing issues, you could do that. Frank Reich is a good example, too, that it can work. But to mandate that teams can’t move on from a bad year ending in a coach firing without sitting on their hands during some kind of moratorium seems ridiculous to me, and unfair to a lot of assistant coaches who are hovering in limbo.

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From Anthony Roman (@arlaxmen): What do the Giants do at number 6?

Whatever Eli Manning asks them to, Anthony? I’m kidding … but … Manning is of course a factor. In the 38-year-old, the Giants have a quarterback who can, at the very least, help them tread water in the short term. And there’s benefit in that, in that they can pass on the 2019 class of quarterbacks altogether if they aren’t gaga over any of them.

If they do take a QB, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins is absolutely a possibility—a guy I thought was amazingly evolved for his relative lack of game experience (14 career starts). If they don’t, they’d be right in the mix to get a top defensive linemen. GM Dave Gettleman’s never been shy about taking those, and the franchise has a pretty good history in developing them.

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From Press Box Sports (@PressBoxSprtsCa): If the NFL is truly considering other markets for Oakland next year, why not look to Vancouver? If it’s a Seahawks territory issue then it’s no different than SF. Van has a 60,000-seat stadium, good NFL fan base and it keeps Raiders West Coast-based.

A lot of it is getting stadiums up to code for NFL teams, and then knowing that investment is going to have some long-term payoff. Take UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium. It’d make sense to play there, right? Well, the Raiders and/or the NFL would have to pay tens of millions to get the place up to NFL standards. And any renovations won’t do much good long-term, since UNLV’s football team will move to the Raiders’ new stadium in 2020, leaving Boyd, more or less, vacant.

For all the ruminating about Reno and San Diego, it still seems like the right move for everyone to keep the Raiders in the Bay Area in 2019—whether it’s at Cal or the Giants’ ballpark, or sharing Levi’s Stadium with the Niners. I’m not totally sure what happens. But I’d guess they’ll be at one of those venues next year.

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From Matt T (@mrturn24): Do you think the Colts will be a serious SB contender next season?

Yes, Matt. If I looked at last weekend’s losers, I’d say what happened with Indy came off most like a hiccup to me. I didn’t like the Chargers’ lack of fight. I thought the Cowboys weren’t playing to their identity. The Eagles, conversely, had nothing to be ashamed of. And the Colts, as I saw it, just sort of laid an egg. They’re a young team, it happens.

Now, if it happens next year? We’re talking about something else. But I look at how they’re set up—with two loaded draft classes, more than $100 million to spend, and the Jets’ second-round pick, in addition to their own picks—and this feels like the beginning, not the end. I think Andrew Luck will be better next year than he was this year, and so will a lot of other guys on that roster. So yeah, they’re coming.

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From Clinton (@ClintonOftedahl): @BillSimmons proposed seven playoff teams per conf. Top seed gets bye, 2/7, 3/6, 4/5 first round. How do you feel about expanding playoffs by one team each conference, and that format?

I don’t totally hate it. I don’t want the league to go to 16 playoff teams, because I love the idea of jockeying for something that big (a bye) down the stretch of the season. And more football sounds great, although I’m not sure exactly how setting up the networks’ take on these games and arranging the weekend would work. I also like it being tough to get in, which it is with just 12 teams making it now.

Thing is, I can’t really remember too many times where I looked at the playoff field and thought to myself, ‘Man, that seventh team really got hosed not getting in.’ So I’m not sure there’s a big need for it. I get worked up about some NFL things. This isn’t one.

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From Panda87 (@LenskyMenachem): Is Kyler Murray set on going to the NFL or only put his name in so he could go to the combine and get a grade, and if he doesn’t like it would be open to going back [baseball]?

We’ll wrap it here, And I’ll tell you what I think, Panda. First, I think Murray really wants to play football, and as a quarterback.

But he’s approaching this as a businessman. In the summer, Murray was still largely unproven as a major college football player, so he took a $4.66 million signing bonus to play baseball for the A’s, who told him he could play one more year of football. Months later, Murray took that one year he got and won the Heisman with it. And because of that, he can leverage his football ability against his baseball negotiation.

I haven’t run across many who think he’s a first-round prospect at quarterback. But being a quarterback, sometimes you don’t need to be one to go in the first round. And if he goes in the first round, there’s a good debate to be had on what he should do. As for the mileposts ahead, the A’s open spring training Feb. 18. And I’d say, on the football side, no NFL team is spending a high pick on him without assurance he’d play football, so he’d certainly have to make his intentions clear by then.

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