It took just seven days in July for the Los Angeles Rams to lock in their offensive identity for the remainder of the decade. What happens next is less certain. A week after signing Brandin Cooks to a five-year, $81 million extension before the former New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots wideout had even played a game for the franchise, the Rams followed up by giving star back Todd Gurley a four-year, $60 million extension with $45 million in guarantees.
In terms of talent, you can't fault Rams general manager Les Snead for making these bets. Gurley was a legitimate MVP candidate last season. Cooks has benefited from playing with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in a pass-happy era, but he has the sixth-most receiving yards in history for any wideout through the age of 24. Any team in the league would want two young players entering the prime of their careers with the pedigree and recent production of Cooks and Gurley.
Once you get the price tags involved, though, there are fair questions to raise about what the Rams are doing. What they did in 2017 with the arrival of Sean McVay and the ascension of Jared Goff came absolutely out of nowhere, but there are some elements that might not be sustainable. And while the Rams' ceiling is certainly at its highest with Cooks and Gurley, they might be neglecting a critical element of the game in the process.
Not enough (out of) Cooks?
Let's take these one at a time. The Cooks contract is about what you would expect for a wide receiver who is one year away from unrestricted free agency, especially given the amount of money spent on wideouts in free agency this offseason. The Oregon State product gets a five-year extension on top of the $8.5 million he was set to receive this season on his fifth-year option for a total of six years and $89.5 million. The $81 million in new money is just behind Mike Evans' $82.5 million mark.
What's unique about the deal isn't the price tag but, instead, the structure. Cooks gets only $11 million in 2018 (from a $7 million signing bonus and a $4 million base salary), but that figure rises to $27.5 million in 2019 thanks to both an option bonus and a roster bonus, netting him $38.5 million through two years. As OverTheCap.com's Jason Fitzgerald pointed out, that's $30 million in new money over the next 12 months, which is more than any other wideout in the league. Unless the Rams cut Cooks after this season and eat $9.5 million in dead money, Cooks will be in line to make a minimum of $50.5 million over three years, which would be the second-largest figure behind Evans.
Cooks will have to be a true No. 1 wideout to justify that money, which means he will need to take another step forward. He has played with Drew Brees and Tom Brady, but those are two quarterbacks who have been extremely aggressive about spreading the ball around and not focusing on any one target, which has kept Cooks' numbers down. He has yet to top 130 targets or 1,200 receiving yards in a single season. Cooks will be taking over the Sammy Watkins role in the Rams' offense, but Watkins was targeted only 70 times in 15 games last season. Nobody on the team was targeted more than Cooper Kupp's 94 passes.
Goff probably will throw more than 477 times in the years to come, but can Cooks get the sort of target volume to justify this deal? He adds value as a player who can win one-on-one and occupy safeties to keep them away from the running game, but so do the likes of Evans, DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown, and they're also more productive.
The Gurley extension, and the fallout
If the Rams plan on throwing more as Goff grows more experienced, it would theoretically come at the expense of carries for Gurley, who signed a four-year extension that reportedly has $45 million in guarantees. It's not a surprise that the Rams would want to re-sign their former first-round pick, but the timing of this deal is out of left field. Gurley still had two years and just under $12 million remaining on his rookie deal, so even if the Rams needed to franchise him in 2020, they could have had him for the next three years at less than $30 million.
While we don't have the specifics of his deal as of yet, Gurley is certainly going to make more than that $10 million per year figure, given that it should break down as a six-year, $72 million pact. Teams generally don't make those sorts of offers years in advance, as I mentioned last summer in breaking down would-be Odell Beckham Jr. and Aaron Donald extensions. Gurley is the 12th player to sign an extension to his rookie deal after three years under the new CBA, a list that includes former Rams Tavon Austin and Robert Quinn, neither of whom lived up to expectations after signing their new contract.
It would be unfair to compare Gurley to Austin and Quinn just because they were Rams, but let's consider the veteran market for running backs. The largest multiyear annual average for any running back before this Gurley deal was the $8 million given to LeSean McCoy. The largest annual average for a back in league history was the $14.4 million Adrian Peterson got on his second deal, back in 2011. We don't know how the deal will actually be paid out, but in terms of average annual salary, Gurley's deal is nearly 50 percent higher than any other running back on the market.
The Rams reasonably feel as if it's a good thing to keep around a guy who was the best back in football. Gurley's skill set is certainly versatile enough to justify the move, given his abilities as a receiver and a pass-blocker. He won't turn 24 until next month. He improved dramatically upon a dismal 2016 season, and a 2015 campaign that had been built upon an unsustainable number of long runs. Gurley's rushing yards per game were roughly similar between his rookie campaign and last season, but he ranked 36th in success rate in 2015 and fifth a year ago.
Simultaneously, though, it's also a reality that teams who pay a star player after one MVP-caliber season and expect to get multiple seasons at that level rarely get their money's worth. Gurley was a mess in 2016, and if he does that while making $12 million per year, the Rams would be underwater on his contract. There isn't much of a precedent for even the best backs in a given season staying atop the charts again the following season, and Gurley already has suffered a noncontact torn ACL in college that cost him the end of his final season at Georgia and part of his rookie season for the Rams. If the Rams get the 2017 version of Gurley, they'll be laughing all the way to the bank. If they get a lesser -- or injured -- version of the same player, the value proposition on this extension will be far dicier. And history suggests that they're more likely to get the latter than the former over the course of this extension.
In one form or another, this deal should reset the running back market. If you think David Johnson is as good as Gurley -- and in his breakout season in 2016 he had more yards from scrimmage and touchdowns than Gurley last season -- he's in line to get $13 million or so per year when the cap rises next offseason. Ezekiel Elliott might have three seasons like his 2016 campaign on the books by the time he hits free agency in 2021.
And as for the guy everyone's thinking about next, Le'Veon Bell turned down more than $12 million per year from the Steelers, but if you think he's better than Gurley, $15 million per year doesn't seem as outlandish anymore. Even before this deal, it seemed likely that a healthy Bell would end up getting something in the $15 million per range this offseason, if only because there were going to be too many teams with money to spend in a free-agent period where the best wide receiver available might be Kelvin Benjamin if Odell Beckham Jr. and Stefon Diggs stay put. The league might not have valued Bell north of a $15 million annual salary, but with 32 teams, one would have been able to talk itself into paying him twice as much as any other back in football. Now, unless both Bell and Gurley totally flop in 2018, it wouldn't be a surprise to see multiple teams talking themselves into that sort of deal for Pittsburgh's star back.
Gurley hits gym after signing new deal
Fresh off a four-year contract extension with the Rams, Todd Gurley II celebrates with an intense workout.
Should anyone be resetting the RB market?
I'm not so sure. The reason running back salaries collapsed was because teams realized they could get nearly as much production from cheaper backs on rookie contracts as they could from veterans at a fraction of the cost, while a series of expensive free-agent backs failed to move the needle for their new teams. Has any of that changed?
On the broadest possible scale, running backs handle less of the workload in a pass-happy league than ever before. From 2005 to '07, running backs were responsible for 41.2 percent of all yards from scrimmage. Fast-forward a decade and look at 2015-17, and that's down to 37.4 percent of all yards from scrimmage. In a typical season, that's about 8,000 yards -- or more than 9 percent of all running back production -- that has shifted from backs to receivers. The number ticked up slightly in 2017, probably thanks to the quarterback injury rate, but backs play a smaller part than they did a decade ago.
Younger, cheaper backs are playing a much bigger role than they did a decade ago. From 2005-07, 32.2 percent of running back yards from scrimmage came from backs who were in the first four years of their pro career who were not first-round picks. From 2015 to '17, that figure rose to 54.3 percent. Those backs averaged 4.1 yards per carry, 8.2 yards per catch, and turned 22.4 percent of their touches into first downs or touchdowns. The league's other backs averaged 4.0 yards per carry, 8.2 yards per catch, and turned 23.6 percent of their touches into first downs or scores. Teams don't appear to be missing out on much by going with backs on their rookie deals.
Teams also haven't been worried about grabbing talent at the top of the draft, although there has been one back taken in the top five in each of the past three classes. Compare that to 2005, when three backs were taken among the first five picks. From 2005-07, the NFL used 10.7 percent of its draft capital on backs, including nine first-round picks. From 2015-17, the league dropped that figure to 6.9 percent and used five first-rounders on running backs, although we saw three come off the board in the first round in 2018.
Are contracts for veteran backs turning out more positively? Not really. Since the current CBA was signed in 2011, the vast majority of large running back contracts have turned out to be inconsistent or worse. Peterson won an MVP title, but he also missed chunks of two seasons because of injuries and suspensions, leading the Vikings to restructure his deal after 2014. Chris Johnson went downhill after signing his extension in 2011. The Panthers spent years trying to save their cap from the extension given to Jonathan Stewart and the deal they signed to keep DeAngelo Williams. DeMarco Murray lasted one year before the Eagles traded him away. Doug Martin signed a five-year extension and was arguably the worst back in football before being released by Tampa. Second-tier signings such as Chris Ivory and Lamar Miller have been disappointing.
On the brighter side of the ledger, in addition to that one incredible Peterson season, there's Marshawn Lynch's 2012 deal with the Seahawks, although the two-year, $24 million extension he signed in 2015 ended up amounting to nothing. The best-case scenario is LeSean McCoy's five-year, $45 million deal with the Eagles, which then became a five-year, $40 million extension with the Bills after Chip Kelly dealt away his star back. The jury is still out on the recent deals for Devonta Freeman and Jerick McKinnon, but teams haven't gotten consistent production from highly paid backs, even after proving themselves to be star-level contributors.
Are productive backs lasting longer? Consider it this way. Let's go back five years to 2013 and look at the top of the charts at each offensive category. If you look at the top 15 quarterbacks by passing yards, 12 of the 15 signal-callers are still in the NFL. Take the top 15 receivers by receiving yards and 10 of them are still in the league, a number that could rise to 12 if Dez Bryant or Eric Decker find work.
If you look at the 15 leading rushers in the NFL from 2013, only three are still in the league: McCoy, Lynch and Frank Gore. Four of the top five backs -- Peterson, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles and Alfred Morris -- are either retired or unsigned. Even guys who were 25 or under like Morris, Murray, Eddie Lacy and Zac Stacy are out of the league. From 2005 to '07, there were 11 backs who either started, continued or finished a streak of two or more seasons with 1,200 rushing yards or more. Over the past three seasons, the only one to accomplish that has been Bell. It's a selective endpoint, but the lack of consistency is clear.
This isn't the whole story on backs, of course, but there isn't some obvious, overwhelming piece of evidence suggesting that running backs are suddenly much better bets to deliver significant impact and age well over the course of their second contract than they were a decade ago, or that top-tier backs are worth more. The NFL got to this point with backs because it found that rookies on modest contracts were about as effective as veterans making top-level salaries. Recent history seems to suggest that's still true.
YAC to YAC? Don't count on it ...
You could very well make a case that the Rams should be better on offense in 2018 than they were in 2017. Goff will be in his second year under McVay in a scheme that flummoxed the NFL last season. Cooks should be an upgrade on Watkins. Kupp should improve in Year 2. Robert Woods, who missed four games, should be healthier. The Rams don't have a skill-position player older than 26. In a division in which the Cardinals and Seahawks defenses took a step backward this offseason, the Rams absolutely could score more points in 2018.
There are a few things I'm concerned about in thinking about the 2018 Rams offense, though. I mentioned above how the track record for leading backs like Gurley isn't to stay atop the fantasy charts year after year. The Rams got a healthy season from Gurley, and he delivered about as much as any running back can offer in the modern game. How much better can the former Georgia star be than 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns in 15 games? The Gurley from 2016 is hopefully confined to the Jeff Fisher bin for eternity, but it's more likely that Gurley is a very good back in 2018 as opposed to the MVP candidate we saw last season.
There's another way the Rams stood out in 2017, although it was more subtle than Gurley's incredible campaign. If you watched Los Angeles destroy teams on screens in 2017, you wouldn't be surprised to hear that the Rams led the league in yards after catch per reception last season.
The Rams sat their stars in Week 17 in advance of the playoffs and did little on offense against the 49ers. Through 16 weeks, McVay's offense averaged 6.82 yards after catch. Over that time frame, the second-best team was the Saints at 6.27 yards per catch. ESPN has YAC data going back through 2006, and over that period, the Rams would have had the most YAC of any team in recent memory. When you throw in that Week 17 game, they fall to 6.60 yards after catch per reception, which is the fifth most since 2006.
YAC isn't entirely random from year to year -- about 11 percent of a team's YAC in a given year can be predicted by how they performed a year ago -- but the Rams are an outlier. Twenty-three other teams over that time frame averaged 6.0 or more YAC per reception, and the following year, their YAC per reception dropped by an average of 0.7 yards. Their offense fell off by just under 1 point per game, which isn't going to make or break the offense but could mitigate some of the gains from adding Cooks. It was perhaps worth noting that the Falcons held the Rams to a season-low 2.6 YAC in Los Angeles' 26-13 playoff loss during the wild-card round.
The Rams were also the league's healthiest team on the whole last season, and despite losing Woods for several games, they were the NFL's healthiest offense by adjusted games lost. Their offensive line would have made it through all 16 games as one unit if it weren't for the senior cut day in Week 17, and that played a huge role in making this Rams offense work.
Right guard Jamon Brown is already suspended for the first two games of the 2018 season, but the Rams are also likely to need their backup linemen for at least a spot start or two after Brown returns. Center John Sullivan missed 2015 because of a back injury and was limited to reserve work in Washington before playing a full-time role last season. Guard Rodger Saffold has missed 30 games over eight seasons in the league. Star tackle Andrew Whitworth has been healthy for the vast majority of his wildly underrated career, but he'll turn 37 this season, and that's simply uncharted territory for tackles. The last tackle to start 12 or more games during his age-37 (or older) season was Ray Brown, who did it in 2004 at the age of 42. Before him, it was Lomas Brown in 2001 and Mike Kenn in 1994.
Though Whitworth was a major upgrade on the tackles who came before and still played at a high level, he slipped some as a pass protector last season. Stats LLC credits him as allowing six sacks after Whitworth allowed a total of only four over the previous three seasons combined. Offensive line statistics are essentially educated guesses, but that also jibes with what I saw from watching Whitworth and the Rams.
If Whitworth or fourth-year right tackle Rob Havenstein can't go, the Rams don't have many options. Their backup linemen are three rookies (third-round tackle Joe Noteboom, fourth-round center Brian Allen, and sixth-round utility lineman Jamil Demby) along with a pair of waiver-wire claims in Austin Blythe and Cornelius Lucas, each of whom would be a step down from the Los Angeles starting five. It was remarkable that the Rams didn't need to go to their backup linemen for any length of meaningful time last season, but the chances are that they'll be forced to throw an inexperienced player into the fire in 2018.
Donald says Gurley is 'Mr. Swag'
Todd Gurley II and Aaron Donald comment on each other's style at the 2018 ESPYS and what their expectations for the upcoming season are.
What these deals mean for the Rams to come
That issue of depth and leaving the subtler elements of the game untouched would be my concern with the Rams going forward. The Rams had 11 picks in this year's draft, but only one of them was in the top 100, thanks to the trades for Cooks and Watkins. They'll have two high compensatory picks in the 2019 draft, but they're already down a second-round pick in 2019 from the Marcus Peters trade. Snead & Co. have been aggressive in trading draft picks for veteran players who can make an immediate impact, even given that that the Rams' core is relatively young. That's going to come back to bite them, although it's a bigger long-term ailment than it should be in the short term.
For 2018, though, their lack of depth has to be troubling. I covered the offensive line concerns, but their backup to Gurley is Malcolm Brown, who hasn't been an effective back during his pro career. The guy behind Goff is 2015 third-rounder Sean Mannion, who averaged less than 5.0 yards per attempt in that meaningless Week 17 game last season, which doesn't tell us much. If one of the wideouts gets hurt, the next guy up will be return man Pharoh Cooper or 2017 fourth-rounder Josh Reynolds, who might not be ready to start the season after undergoing labrum surgery.
The Rams actually did rank atop the league with the fewest adjusted games lost in 2016, but as Football Outsiders noted in their new book, there hasn't really been a team with a consistent ability to avoid injuries, let alone one that overhauled its coaching staff and personnel as much as the Rams have from 2016 to '18. If the Rams can stay as healthy up and down their roster in 2018 as they did in 2017, their incredible core is as talented as anyone else in football. The chances of them staying that healthy just aren't very high.
It does seem strange that the Rams have a certified offensive genius at coach and have decided to spend significant amounts of money on a running back and a wide receiver. They have cap space after using their draft picks as capital to acquire Goff, but McVay might already be the best coach in football in creating space for his wideouts with picks, motion and the timing of his playcalling. If you have a coach who can make magic out of weapons Fisher seemed to render impotent, wouldn't it be better to use your cap space on positions with which he can't do as much?
That, as with all things Rams-related, leads to Aaron Donald. Maybe we make too much of players being offended by the order in which their contracts are addressed. When Donald gets paid, I suspect nobody will be grumbling about how it came a month or two after the Rams paid their offensive stars. It also can't feel great to hold out, win Defensive Player of the Year, and then see a guy who hasn't played a snap for the franchise get a new deal before you. With Gurley getting a new contract, fellow 2015 classmate Marcus Peters might also be wondering when the Rams are going to commit to him on an extension. Re-signing Gurley two years before his contract expires opens up the same can of worms the Falcons are trying to keep closed with regard to Julio Jones at the moment.
The Rams are going to be one of the three most fascinating teams in football in 2018. No team has a more combustible, promising mix of star-caliber talent on both sides of the ball. They probably have the highest ceiling in the league outside of the Eagles if everything breaks right. Their floor is also lower than you might think, as the second seasons as a head coach for offensive gurus like Adam Gase and Chip Kelly might remind you. This might be the start of a Rams dynasty. It might also reveal that Los Angeles fell too hard for its own plan.