As the Rams prepared to open training camp, general manager Les Snead reflected on an eventful offseason in which he worked to reach that goal.
“It was interesting in who you got and how you got them,” Snead said. “Trades instead of the draft or free agency.”
The Rams set out to find a cornerback with their No. 23 pick in the draft, where the search for an interior lineman also began. They never thought the answer to their needs would be found in three All-Pros.
The Rams also landed receiver Brandin Cooks via trade and signed running back Todd Gurley II to a $60 million extension. Even as defensive lineman Aaron Donald holds out of training camp because of a contract dispute that dates to 2017, expectations have soared for a team coming off its most successful season in more than a decade.
Here’s how the Rams won the offseason:
Aloha, Marcus Peters
A light rain fell along the shore of Wailea, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It was the last Thursday in February, three days before the start of the NFL scouting combine and the first opportunity for Snead to take a family vacation.
Snead sat at a steakhouse adjacent to the pool at the Four Seasons, sipping a glass of red wine and eating a filet mignon. He appeared to relish the downtime following a season that spanned seven months and included the Rams' first division title in 14 seasons and first playoff appearance since 2004.
Snead gave no hint that he had spent the day holed up in his hotel room with his family at the beach.
When he departed Los Angeles a day earlier, he thought negotiations for Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters were dead. The Chiefs' asking price was more than the Rams GM was willing to spend. So Snead boarded a five-hour afternoon flight across the Pacific, leaving behind the thought of acquiring a two-time Pro Bowl selection.
He awoke the next morning to a flurry of text messages and voicemails. Four time zones away from Kansas City, Snead had slept through the Chiefs’ attempts to jump-start the negotiations.
"I'm like, 'Holy cow, I'm playing really hard to get,'" Snead said. "But really I was just sleeping."
As his wife, Kara, and the kids went out to explore the island, Snead stayed behind to orchestrate a move to answer the Rams' pressing questions at cornerback.
Snead called chief operating officer Kevin Demoff, senior assistant Tony Pastoors and coach Sean McVay. Pastoors drew up the paperwork. McVay alerted the staff to gather film, and the head coach vetted the 25-year-old Peters, who was kicked off the University of Washington football team in 2014 and faced a one-game suspension last season after he threw a penalty flag into the stands before exiting the field for the locker room.
"You talk to the people that have been around him, that you really value their opinion, you trust it," McVay said. "Got a lot of good things that came back in terms of a guy that loves football, does a lot of really good things for his community."
Defensive coordinator Wade Philips and the defensive backs coaches watched more than 200 plays that focused on Peters' strengths and areas that needed improvement. Each walked away with the same conclusion.
"It was unanimous," McVay said. "We all wanted him."
Peters was a proven playmaker. The one-time All-Pro had 19 interceptions in three seasons and was the prototypical corner to play man-to-man in Phillips' scheme.
By the time the sun set in Maui, Snead thought there was a "99 percent chance" the deal would get done.
The next morning, as Snead and his wife sat in the hotel lobby drinking their morning coffee, his phone rang. It was ESPN's Adam Schefter, seeking confirmation that the Rams had completed a trade for Peters.
The deal with Kansas City had closed. The Rams had acquired Peters and a sixth-round pick for a fourth-rounder and 2019 second-round draft pick.
Snead finally tucked his phone away. He was going zip-lining.
Talib’s trade block
A meeting in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine had long been on the calendar, and the agenda was clear: Snead and CAA agent Todd France were discussing Aaron Donald's contract.
Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, also represented by France, wasn't on the agenda.
But Snead had seen reports that the veteran was on the trading block as the Broncos tried to clear salary-cap space in search of a quarterback. Despite trading for Peters a week earlier, Snead inquired about Talib.
"I decided not to go take that physical." Aqib Talib
According to France, Talib favored two destinations: the Rams and the New England Patriots.
With the Rams, Talib could reunite with Phillips, who effectively deployed Talib on the way to a Super Bowl victory following the 2015 season.
The thought of a reunion excited the 71-year-old coordinator, though he did not want to get ahead of himself. "He's a great player, and he's a really good guy, and he's a great leader," Phillips said. "I really can't tell you how many great things he did that Super Bowl year that really helped us defensively."
But when Snead called Broncos general manager John Elway to inquire about a deal for the five-time Pro Bowl selection, the Broncos seemed to be moving in another direction.
"They were asking probably more than we were willing to give," Snead said. "So it was just, 'OK, let us know if something changes.'"
Back in his hometown of Dallas, Talib was in his gym when Elway called to tell him that he had been traded to the San Francisco 49ers. Talib, however, had other thoughts. "I got a call from John, and he said that we agreed to some terms with San Fran," Talib said. "I was like, 'All right, y'all did. That doesn't really mean I did.'"
Talib wanted to play somewhere he felt comfortable. The 49ers -- a new city, with a new playbook and new coaching staff -- didn't fit the bill. The Rams or Patriots, with whom Talib played in 2012 and 2013, would.
"I knew my comfort level would be higher not having to learn a new playbook," Talib said. "Knew I would be comfortable with Wade."
Talib knew a physical would be required for the Broncos and 49ers to complete the trade.
"I decided not to go take that physical," Talib said.
Then Elway got back on the phone, and Snead was among his calls.
"From there, we haggled on compensation," said Snead, who added Talib on March 8. "And then it felt like, 'OK, for the price this would be a good move.'"
Celebrities, sushi and Suh
Situated off Pacific Coast Highway on the shores of Malibu, L.A.'s most notable celebrities dined at Nobu. It was a Tuesday night in late March, and the Rams decided on the famous sushi restaurant to show Ndamukong Suh all that Southern California has to offer.
With comedians James Corden and Chris Rock and actor David Spade among those seated in the restaurant, Suh sat next to Rams billionaire owner Stan Kroenke at a table that included Stan’s son Josh Kroenke, Les and Kara Snead, Kevin Demoff and Suh's girlfriend, Katya Leick.
The Rams had done their homework and had an inkling that the five-time Pro Bowl selection, who lists Warren Buffett among his mentors and has a well-documented interest in investing and finance, would hit it off with Kroenke.
"Mr. Kroenke was instrumental in that," said McVay, who unsurprisingly just wanted to talk football.
When the Miami Dolphins released Suh six days earlier, Snead had thought it nearly unimaginable that the ninth-year pro would join the Rams, who already boasted a top defensive line with Donald and Michael Brockers. But a close relationship with Suh's agent, Jimmy Sexton, resulted in a phone call to inquire about Suh's motives. Sexton informed Snead that his client sought a strong culture and a team that could achieve immediate success.
But it had to be on terms that could satisfy both sides. The Rams needed an interior lineman, but they also needed to be mindful of a pending payday for Donald, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"We laid out the deal. We got Aaron Donald, gave a little bit of range financially," Snead said. "If this isn't what you all are thinking, let's don't waste each other's time. So we were honest with each other from the start."
And so the Rams were penciled in as the third stop on Suh's free-agency tour, which resembled a college recruitment.
McVay talked with Donald and Brockers before Suh arrived so that they weren't left to guess what the acquisition of an All-Pro lineman meant for their status or contracts. Then, after trips to the Tennessee Titans and New Orleans Saints, Suh flew to L.A.
When defensive line coach Bill Johnson initially heard that the Rams had a chance to acquire Suh, he couldn't believe it. "I was like, 'How's that gonna work?'"
But the two sides quickly took to each other. A short film session turned into a three-hour marathon discussing scheme fits, technique and ideas. At one point, McVay checked in after hearing the excitable Johnson from down the hallway.
"When I first went in there, I thought [Suh] was looking at his phone," McVay said. "But he was taking notes on his phone, and I think that kind of goes to show you, he's real thorough, very intentional about everything that he does."
It was at about that point that coaches realized they had found a fit.
By the time Suh departed L.A., coaches and executives felt confident about their recruiting ability, but it was never a "shoe-in," according to Snead. "There were different opportunities, and there were different, let's call it longer-term contracts, more money, different situations. So in that situation, Ndamukong had to weigh some things because each bucket had a different rose."
After visiting the Rams, Suh canceled a scheduled visit with the Oakland Raiders. Six days later, on March 26, Snead and McVay peeled off at the annual league meeting in Orlando, Florida, to sneak into an abandoned Nike suite. Sexton had called and wanted to get the deal done.
Meanwhile, Johnson sat at a sports bar at the L'Auberge casino in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he was waiting to meet friends. The Rams defensive line coach saw the "Suh to the Rams" alert scroll across the screen as he watched ESPN.
"It just started repeatin' it and repeatin' it and repeatin' it," Johnson said with a chuckle. "And everybody is asking me, and I'm like, 'Ahh, I knew it was possible!'"
Putting it all together
Three All-Pro acquisitions, plus the addition of Brandin Cooks in exchange for a first-round and sixth-round pick via a trade with the New England Patriots, and the Rams have ascended from playoff contenders to Super Bowl favorites.
“I’d rather be a contender than try to become a contender,” Snead said. “Because you earn that.”
Phillips hopes that these additions will improve his 19th-ranked defense and keep pace with McVay's offense, which led the league in scoring last season.
"You know you normally don't get two Pro Bowl corners and a Pro Bowl defensive lineman," Phillips said. "You just don't get three Pro Bowl guys in one year."
Each defensive acquisition has a proven résumé on the field but also carries a larger-than-life reputation that will need to be monitored.
McVay isn't worried, saying that the 71-year-old Phillips has "more swag" than all of them combined and can keep them in line. He's also confident that the Rams established a culture so strong last season that it won't be disrupted.
"These are small victories because you feel like these things give you a chance to get better and improve on some of the things that you want to do," McVay said. "There was a lot of excitement, but then there's also, 'OK, we're excited, but let's go to work and make sure we indoctrinate these guys into our systems and into the culture that these players have created.'"
But even with Todd Gurley II signing a four-year extension worth $60 million and Cooks signing a five-year extension worth $80 million, Donald’s situation hangs over training camp.
Donald is scheduled to earn $6.9 million in the final season of his rookie contract and is seeking a contract that will pay him in excess of $20 million per season, which would make him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history and rank his salary among the elite quarterbacks.
But if Snead has proven anything this season, it's that he has a knack for getting deals done.
"We want to make Donald a Ram for a long, long time," he said.