Squawka NFL

Super Bowl LVI: Ultra-aggressive trades key to the LA Rams success

By Nat Coombs

Published: 17:00, 4 February 2022

In Nat Coombs latest column for Squawka NFL, our expert rules the roost over the NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams and their aggressive roster building methodology to secure a Super Bowl berth – the Rams take on the Cincinnati Bengals at SoFi Stadium on Sunday, February 13.

I’m not sure how many people picked a Rams-Bengals Super Bowl at the start of the season – and if you’re out there, I want proof, not just your word for it! But in many respects, it’s an entirely logical match up.

For starters, it’s been a wide-open season, even by NFL standards where typically each season a case can be made for many of the playoff contenders to kick on and win the whole thing.

Not often does the team with the best regular season record go on to win it all, and often a team that’s been distinctly average during the regular season times its run perfectly and benefits from favourable match ups, applies smart situational play, sees players hitting their upside and/or ceiling at the right moment – not to mention some good, old fashioned luck, particularly on the injury front, to put them in the frame.

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Both the Rams and the Bengals, though altogether different constructs, sit in this group. Reasonably solid seasons – that’s why they made the playoffs in the first place – with flashes of brilliance, big wins, surprising losses, some remarkable individual talent, but inconsistencies and flaws apparent.

Yet both have built an energy in the playoffs, the underdog Bengals most notably with a narrow win over the heavily favoured Tennessee Titans, and an AFC Championship triumph against Kansas City – overturning a 21-3 deficit to shock Mahomes and co.

The Rams have masterminded comebacks of their own to make the Big Show – pulling out of a ten-point hole in the fourth quarter against the 49ers, following some clutch quarterbacking from Matthew Stafford against the Bucs in the previous round to shut down another improbable Tom Brady comeback.

The teams have built their rosters very differently, but both represent paths to success. The Bengals possessed the worst record in football two years ago, which led general manager and owner Mike Brown to select quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins in the 2020 draft. They drafted highly again this year, where they took Ja’Marr Chase with the 5th overall pick.

That Cincinnati are in the Super Bowl is unusually ahead of the curve for a team that’s rebuilding to the degree that they have, and they’ve certainly used free agency to strengthen alongside their picks, Trey Hendrickson, arriving from the Saints, with the most notable impact.

The NFL is structured to ensure balance, where possible. It’s an egalitarian construct, where the (mostly) billionaire owners preside over a system that ensures parity through a salary cap, draft system, and scheduling process, the latter two enabling struggling teams to become contenders before too long.

Within the cyclical eco-system there are outliers. The Patriots most notably, under Bill Belichick, have challenged for most of the two decades he’s been in charge.

Within this eco system, teams are at differing stages of development. Most of the struggling sides this season were expected to find the going tough – and teams like the Jets, Jaguars and the Texans are near the start of multi-year reboots, unlikely to contend for the next few years. Miami razed their team to the ground a few years back, dealing many talented players in exchange for future Draft capital, knowing that they had multiple holes to plug, conceding that it would take time for them to become competitive. Yet they missed the playoffs this year. So, the Bengals fast turnaround is even more impressive in this context.

Conversely, teams like the LA Rams have gone all-in on a win now approach engineered by their front office led by GM Les Snead. In opposition to rebuilding teams like the Dolphins, the Rams have been dealing away draft picks like they’re going out of style, to accumulate a superstar roster.

This approach has the duality of giving up future opportunities to snag the best fresh new talent, but also typically means a lot of pressure is put on salary cap. All-Pro talent contracts are much more expensive than rookie deals or those in the middle of their first agreement.

The Rams upgraded at quarterback this off-season, dealing two first round picks and incumbent Jared Goff to the Lions in exchange for Matthew Stafford, a talented veteran who’d been in the Detroit wilderness for years.

They’d already dealt their 2020 and 2021 first round picks (and a fourth rounder) to the Jaguars for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, regarded as one of the very best defensive players in the NFL.

The move to land another All-Pro defensive star, Von Miller, from the Broncos earlier in the season cost them a second and third round pick in next year’s Draft.

Other picks were dealt for running back Sony Michel after an injury to their starter Cam Akers in pre-season, though Akers has retuned and will play in the Super Bowl.

And, if that wasn’t enough, the most recent drafts have seen the Rams already short stacked after giving up capital from legacy deals, ironically including the move that saw them trade up to get Jared Goff in the 2016 Draft.

Superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr was added mid-season and has been steadily increasing his contribution after the injury to WR Robert Woods. Beckham, still capable of making big plays, has somewhat re-invented himself within the Rams offense, particular with Cooper Kupp established as the number 1 receiver.

Defensively, a unit that features Miller, Aaron Donald, and a shutdown corner as good as Ramsey (with Darious Williams on the other side another high calibre operator) garners a lot of attention, and that veteran, playmaking ability can often come up trumps in the deep waters of the playoffs against more untested talent, though doubters suggest it doesn’t have the depth it needs beyond the big names.

The emergence of Gregg Gaines, who sits alongside Donald, and rookie Ernest Jones, who Von Miller described as the “Kyler Murray of their defense” suggests otherwise. Veteran Eric Weddle came out of retirement to strengthen their hand, and what a call that has proved to be on both sides. “After this Super Bowl, I move on and go back to my old life” he told an LA radio station this week.

Weddle is all-in, much like the team he now plays for, the last game of his career will deliver the ultimate win, or the most disappointing of losses.

Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season. He also host the Nat Coombs Show podcast.

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