THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- A season after aggressive trades and record-breaking paydays that led to a Super Bowl LIII run, the 2019 season was intended to be Super Bowl or bust, version 2.0, for the Los Angeles Rams.
The organization went all-in -- signing quarterback Jared Goff to the most guaranteed money in NFL history ($110 million) and traded two first-round picks midseason to acquire star cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
But the Rams finished 9-7, falling to third place in the NFC West after winning back-to-back division titles, and were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 16.
Now? The Rams face some hurdles. They are left to pay the bills on several massive contract extensions. They do not have a first-round pick. And they must figure out how to reload a roster that is significantly strapped for salary-cap space, with five players -- Goff, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, running back Todd Gurley, receiver Brandin Cooks and Ramsey -- projected to account for more than half of their cap charges ($108.75 of approximately $200 million) in 2020.
In case the Rams need help with an offseason to do list, here's a start:
Evaluate the coaching staff
Sean McVay might have called himself an "idiot" for not giving Gurley more touches early in the season, but make no mistake, the Rams' 33-year-old coach remains among the brightest in the NFL.
This offseason will undoubtedly be McVay's toughest yet, however. He faces difficult decisions about his coaching staff, roster personnel and whether he needs to lighten the load on himself.
McVay must decide if he should return to employing a full-time offensive coordinator, rather than relying on a run-game and pass-game coordinator. The two-coordinator system worked in 2018, but as defenses evolved and adapted to McVay's scheme, effective adjustments appeared difficult to implement. McVay made his name as a playcaller, and it would be premature for him to give that up, but a dedicated OC might help.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips contract is expiring and McVay must decide if he wants Phillips and his 3-4 scheme to return or if it would be best to move in a different direction. If Phillips does not return, a new defensive coordinator would probably hire several of his own staff members, which would cause for more turnover and perhaps cause a setback as far as personnel.
Build an offensive line
Goff and the offense won't succeed without improvements along the offensive line. This will be no easy task given the team has a tight budget and no first-round pick. But the Rams cannot make the same mistake in 2020 that they suffered through in 2019 by not carrying enough proven linemen.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and offensive guard/center Austin Blythe are pending free agents. Whitworth has expressed a desire to play into a 15th season, but the only way the Rams could consider bringing him back is at a steep discount to provide veteran support.
The Rams must decide if they think right tackle Rob Havenstein, who signed a four-year, $32.5 million extension before the 2018 season, can return to form after he showed signs of regression before suffering a knee injury in Week 10 that kept him sidelined for the rest of the season.
If there's a silver lining to find through the injuries and inexperience, it's that coaches were able to evaluate their entire position group to determine exactly what they have in young players Austin Corbett, Joe Noteboom, Brian Allen, Bobby Evans, Jamil Demby, and David Edwards.
Determine Todd Gurley's future
This season was expected to provide clarity into Gurley's situation after he spent the final two games of 2018 sidelined, then appeared a shell of his former self in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl. But that wasn't the case.
Load management? Poor playcalling? Motivational issues? Whatever the issue was, Gurley did not have a single 100-yard rushing game and finished with 857 rushing yards with 12 rushing touchdowns a season after finishing with 1,251 and 17.
Something, or perhaps multiple issues, came into play in Gurley's down season and it went far beyond McVay being a self-described "idiot" and an offense that wanted to feature two less experienced backs making a mere fraction of Gurley's money.
Now the Rams must decide if Gurley, who signed to a four-year extension in 2018 that includes $45 million in guarantees, is in their plan moving forward. If he isn't, how can the Rams move on without suffering a severe hit to their salary cap?
Replenish the defense
It remains a possibility that any combination of the three could return after testing the market, but it's likely they will earn larger paydays elsewhere.
Littleton was the Rams' leading tackler the past two season seasons. Fowler produced a career-high 11.5 sacks this season, second on the team only to Donald, who had 12.5. Brockers' numbers did not jump off the stat sheet, but Donald said the veteran lineman was key in stopping the run.
In the secondary, a decision needs to be made about whether to promote rookie Taylor Rapp to starting safety in his second season, or return to veteran Eric Weddle. There's no easy choice here, given Weddle said he would not return for the second season of his contract as a backup, but the group could certainly benefit from a strong veteran presence.
There's also Ramsey, whose addition at midseason made an immediate impact. But as he enters the fifth and final season of his rookie contract, he'll be looking -- rightfully so -- for a record-breaking payday and the Rams have little negotiating leverage given they already traded two first-round picks for him. Once they pay Ramsey, they'll need to ensure that there's a solid presence at the opposite cornerback position, given the likelihood most quarterbacks will be staying away from the All-Pro.
Find great value in the draft
To make their salary cap situation work, with 48 players to pay outside of the five who are commanding more than half of the cap space, the Rams must do well in the draft during the middle-to-late rounds.
That is certainly a possibility. They found outstanding value in receiver Cooper Kupp and safety John Johnson III, both third-round picks in 2017 who have grown into key starters, and developed defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day, a sixth-round pick in 2018, into a key rotational player.
However, there also have been several mid-to-late-round selections recently that have been limited contributors or did not pan out, including defensive end John Franklin-Myers, who was once thought to be on track to eventually replace Brockers before he was cut at the end of training camp.