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The Rams played their last card by trading for Jalen Ramsey

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The Rams are betting it all on a five-man core. If that doesn’t work out, they’re screwed.

Wild Card Round - Buffalo Bills v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Rams’ defense was lost. A 3-0 start had devolved into a 3-3 record by mid-October, and suddenly Los Angeles was left staring up at the Seahawks and 49ers in their own division. If the season ended today, the reigning NFC champions would be stuck on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

Head coach Sean McVay is hoping one of the league’s best cornerbacks can help his team find its way.

Los Angeles swung the biggest trade of the 2019 regular season to date by freeing Jalen Ramsey from Jacksonville’s football purgatory. He now stands as the crown jewel of a secondary that has allowed more than 290 passing yards per game in a three-week losing streak. His presence gives the team an immediate replacement for boom-or-bust corner Marcus Peters, who was traded to Baltimore hours earlier, and aging veteran Aqib Talib, who was placed on injured reserve earlier in the week.

The Rams’ theory is that Aaron Donald will be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks into mistakes downfield, then Ramsey — or the extra help defense available to shadow receivers Ramsey isn’t covering — will clean up that mess. It’s an idea that sounds great in theory. Los Angeles will pair two of the league’s most dominant defenders in hopes they’ll be able to hold things down long enough for a dormant offense to roar back to life.

But if that doesn’t add the extra gear that turns an NFC Champion into a Super Bowl one, LA doesn’t have many other options to find the missing piece that could push them from good to great. Adding Ramsey means the Rams’ core is effectively set for the foreseeable future. If this group can’t bring a title to the west coast, it may be a long time before Los Angeles contends again.

This is what the Rams are now, because there aren’t many other ways to add high impact help

Ramsey is an inexpensive addition, salary cap-wise, in 2019. The fourth year of his rookie contract only pays him $2.3 million this fall. But that number jumps to $13.7 million in 2020, and that’s only in the unlikely scenario the team doesn’t sign him to the market-setting contract extension he’d been angling for in Jacksonville. Instead, he’ll likely be paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 million annually starting next season.

The Rams will have no choice but to pay up after sending a Khalil Mack-esque ransom to Florida for the All-Pro corner. And that means cap space is going to be a rarity in Los Angeles for the next three seasons.

Depending on the terms of Ramsey’s extension, the Rams will likely have five different players who will make $13 million or more next season. Donald, Ramsey, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, and Brandin Cooks are slated to take up nearly $109 million in cap space next spring. Using a salary cap estimate of $204 million and Ramsey’s current contract, that means more than 53 percent of the team’s space will be devoted to just five players. Factor in outstanding cap hits for Robert Woods ($9.17m), Tyler Higbee ($8.6m), and Rob Havenstein ($7.8m) and you’ve got just $70 million left for the 45 other guys on the active roster.

And that’s without re-signing veterans like Talib, Michael Brockers, or Andrew Whitworth, all of whom will be free agents in 2020.

How can the team fill those gaps? They’ve only got an estimated $22 million to work with in cap space as is next season, though releasing some combination of Woods, Clay Matthews, and Eric Weddle could push that number over $30 million. Per Spotrac, that’s only the 27th-most spending room in the league for the upcoming season. Ramsey’s sure-to-be-costly extension will only further stuff a cap situation that ranks 23rd and 28th in 2021 and 2022, respectively, when it comes to available cash.

So adding high impact free agent help is out. The Rams’ meager spending money will instead go toward filling the gaps left by the starters who are set to depart in free agency in the immediate future.

That leaves the draft as LA’s primary talent pipeline. Rookie contracts give teams an inexpensive way to add vital players to the lineup. The Rams’ best shot at adding an impact starter the next two seasons now belongs to the Jaguars, who hold their first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 (as well as their 2021 fourth-round pick). This hasn’t held Los Angeles back in recent years — they also traded away Day 1 selections in 2017 (to draft Goff a year earlier), 2018 (to acquire Cooks), and 2019 (a trade back from No. 31 that eventually net a second-round pick and two third rounders).

This strategy worked out for McVay’s team, so they dialed it up again. The Rams have found useful talent in Day 2 and beyond by adding starters like Cooper Kupp, Joseph Noteboom, Brian Allen, John Johnson, and Sebastian Joseph in recent years. Their upcoming exodus of free agents will likely deliver a handful of compensatory picks in 2021 and beyond as well. The bad news is those selections are no sure thing (depending on who the team signs the next two offseasons) and wouldn’t come until the end of the third round at the earliest.

With few reliable options left to acquire impact players, the Rams you see now are the Rams you’re going to get, more or less, through 2020. And while there’s no doubt Ramsey’s addition will help, he may not be the panacea this struggling team needs to rise back to the top of the NFC.

A smothering defense might not be enough if the offense remains stuck in neutral

From Week 1 of 2018 to that year’s conference championship game, the Rams scored 33.4 points per game. In their seven games since — Super Bowl 53 and Weeks 1-6 of 2019 — they’ve averaged 22.3 points per game.

There are several concerning factors behind LA’s fall back through the stratosphere. Todd Gurley has battled a handful of injuries that threaten his status as an every-down back. His 4.2 yards per carry is more than a half-yard dropoff from his previous two seasons. His 15.6 touches per game are a career low.

His inability to break open defenses has had an effect on his quarterback’s play. Jared Goff spent much of 2018 as a legitimate MVP candidate, but he’s backslid considerably since then.

Jared Goff’s 2019 dropoff

Jared Goff Record Cmp% Yds/GM TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Rate
Jared Goff Record Cmp% Yds/GM TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Rate
2018 13-3 64.9% 293.0 32 5.7% 12 2.1% 8.4 101.1
Super Bowl 53 + 2019 3-4 60.6% 279.4 7 2.5% 8 2.8% 6.9 77.7

This has happened even after Kupp has returned from a torn ACL to emerge as one of the league’s most reliable targets. So what’s to blame?

A leaky offensive line is a good place to start. The Rams’ pass blocking ranks 31st in the league through six weeks, per PFF — ahead of only the hapless Dolphins this fall. After a stellar 2018, right tackle Rob Havenstein’s blown block rate has increased by 250 percent. Interior lineman Austin Blythe’s outlier 2018 has led to a major regression in 2019. Joseph Noteboom was useful at guard, but he’s out for the season with a torn ACL. He may soon be replaced by a newly-acquired backup from another struggling offensive line, former Brown Austin Corbett.

Getting Noteboom back in 2020 will help, but left tackle Andrew Whitworth is 37 years old and, as previously mentioned, not under contract after this year. The Rams may be in the market for a blindside protector soon. That’s typically a need filled on the first day of the draft or with an expensive foray into free agency. Neither is an option for the Rams, and the offensive line woes that have kept Sean McVay’s offense stuck in quicksand may not only be an early 2019 problem.

Give Los Angeles credit; they’re going for it. The Rams have sold off some blue chip stocks — i.e. a growing list of first-round picks — for the assets needed to keep riding the momentum of their recent breakthrough. There’s no questioning the team’s talent on both sides of the ball. Adding an All-Pro cornerback, however, may not be the cure-all LA needs to plug up the growing number of holes that threaten to sink its Super Bowl hopes.

Adding Jalen Ramsey is, objectively, a good thing for McVay. But it’s an expensive acquisition any way you look at it. Los Angeles is building its present by mortgaging its future. If that doesn’t pay off in 2019 or 2020, this whole deal could go bust for the Rams.