The Super Bowl-bound Los Angeles Rams are a fascinating exercise in modern NFL team-building. While their opponents in Atlanta, the dynastic New England Patriots, seldom break the bank for anybody other than quarterback Tom Brady — who has been under center for a record nine Super Bowls with the Pats — the Rams spent aggressively after the end of last season. They opened the pocketbook for homegrown stars such as Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley, who each signed massive extensions, and also made a handful of outside pickups, including Brandin Cooks, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Dante Fowler Jr.
All told, the spree left L.A. with 34 percent of its 2018 salary-cap dollars committed to returning veteran players on fresh extensions (tops among playoff teams) and an additional 22 percent of the cap spent on incoming veterans (third only to the Bears and Texans among playoff teams), according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. The result was a star-studded roster that many called the dreaded D-word — “dream team” — a label that has come to symbolize a roster concept that doesn’t always work in the NFL. But unlike previous dream-team iterations, the Rams have made it work, primarily by relying less on the newcomers and more on the talent they’ve developed. And that might provide a blueprint for future champions, if not exactly future dynasties.
The dream-team paradigm has gone through several permutations over the years. In the era before the salary cap, star-powered rosters could stay together for many consecutive seasons, resulting in monstrous talent collections such as the Steel Curtain-era Pittsburgh Steelers (who had an absurd nine Hall of Famers on their roster in 1978) and even more recent teams such as Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers and Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys. But the advent of free agency in 1993 — and the subsequent addition of the salary cap — made such dream teams more difficult to keep together, whether by pre-emptively forcing teams to let useful players go or penalizing for years teams that tried to skirt the cap by pushing player paydays into the future.
More recent dream team attempts have been the subject of ridicule, such as when the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles signed a group of veteran free agents that included Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jason Babin and — of course — Vince Young. When Young was asked to describe Philly’s new squad, he infamously responded with a smile and two words: “dream team.” In the end, the Eagles went a disappointing 8-8, writing a cautionary tale for future free-agent spending sprees.
But around the same time, the NFL’s current preferred team-building strategy began to come into focus as young, cheap (at the time) quarterbacks such as Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Seattle’s Russell Wilson won Super Bowls. With a change to the league’s collective bargaining agreement significantly lowering the price tags on incoming rookie QBs, teams realized that they could use the draft to acquire the most important asset in football — a star quarterback — for a relatively low price and then trick out the rest of their roster with the savings. The dream team concept was reborn.
Take the 2017 champion Eagles, who spent a combined 4.5 percent of the cap on signal-callers Carson Wentz and Nick Foles — the former of whom vied for league MVP honors before a knee injury ended his season and the latter of whom was the Super Bowl MVP. That Philly team was laden with non-QB talent, and many of its members were productive veterans (Ronald Darby, Jay Ajayi, Alshon Jeffery, Timmy Jernigan, etc.) who had been plucked from other teams.
This season’s Rams have taken a version of that same formula and run with it even further. They got 40 total points of Approximate Value1 out of veteran newcomers, which would rank 10th among Super Bowl winners, and that was with Talib, Peters, Suh and Fowler all having relative down seasons.
That last part makes the Rams a bit different from other successful dream teams of the past. The 1994 49ers, for instance, were jam-packed with talented veteran newcomers — including Rickey Jackson, Ken Norton Jr. and Bart Oates, each of whom posted double-digit AV the previous season. The crown jewel, of course, was Deion Sanders, who arrived from Atlanta in free agency. They were all meaningful contributors to the Niners’ Super Bowl win that season, most notably Sanders, who won defensive player of the year honors. Similarly, the 1999 St. Louis Rams picked up Marshall Faulk from the Indianapolis Colts, along with many other newcomers, and went on to win the Super Bowl thanks to Faulk’s NFL offensive player of the year season.2
The 2018 Rams don’t have anyone with the instant impact of a Sanders or Faulk. But one thing that makes them intriguing is how they’ve supplemented the dream-teamers they do have with younger, cheaper talent. The average age (weighted by AV) for the 10 Super Bowl champs most laden with new veteran talent3 was 27.6 years old; for L.A. this season, that number is 26.8. The Rams’ four best players by AV — Gurley, Donald, Jared Goff and Robert Woods — are all 27 or younger, and none of them were among the newcomers L.A. brought in this season. (And only Donald and Gurley were playing on contracts guaranteeing more than $30 million.) Whereas yesterday’s dream teams rose or fell more on the performances of their incoming stars, the new formula for general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay has been to use them as supplemental pieces to help support a young core.
Not that the current Rams have nothing in common with their dream-team precursors, mind you. Even though teams have gotten much savvier about using contractual tricks to free up cap space and avoid the kind of “salary-cap hell” that, say, the 49ers found themselves in during the late 1990s, the Rams’ aggressive roster moves have still ratcheted up the pressure to win in a relatively short window of time. While most of the Rams’ key starters are still locked up in 2019 as well (with the exceptions of Suh, Cory Littleton and Rodger Saffold), they will begin facing tough salary constraints in the offseason before 2020 — when most of the current secondary and offensive line hits free agency — and particularly before 2021, when Goff will need to sign an extension. Compounding things, L.A. also traded away its second- and third-round draft picks this spring to snag Peters and Fowler.4 Even a smartly managed win-now strategy has an expiration date.
But then again, so does every team-building tactic in the NFL — unless we’re talking about the Patriots. The Rams are exactly where they knew they’d need to be to justify their all-in roster strategy. They have the young stars and the veteran talent, plus the right coach to steer things in McVay. All that’s left is one more win to prove that dream teams are a viable way to build an NFL champion after all.