The Rams weren’t built in a day.
As Minnesota Vikings fans watch the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl and wonder if new coach Kevin O’Connell can bring some of that Sean McVay magic to the Midwest, there’s something everyone needs to keep in mind first: This Rams team didn’t just plop Matthew Stafford onto the depth chart and then profit. The NFC’s Super Bowl representatives put together their squad over a number of years and then took a big swing when they saw their winning window fly wide open.
Flashy moves like the Matthew Stafford trade, Odell Beckham Jr. signing and Von Miller acquisition are easier to spot than the development of a complete team. As the Vikings enter their first offseason with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah at the helm, putting together a top-to-bottom contender should be the focus rather than aiming for a few stars to carry the way.
If we run a comparison of the Vikings and Rams on the offensive side, there are some similarities. Kirk Cousins and Stafford do not have wildly different statistics, for starters. Since 2018, they both average 7.7 yards per pass attempt and Cousins is a shade ahead in quarterback rating and completion percentage. Cousins had a better Pro Football Focus grade this season but they have largely been neck-and-neck in that area over the years. The devil may be in the details about each player’s skill set and style – Stafford is more aggressive and has more big-time throws, while Cousins has fewer turnover-worthy plays. But let’s just say for this exercise that it’s kind of a wash.
As far as weapons go, Stafford has two elite receivers in Beckham Jr. and Cooper Kupp, while Cousins has Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. The Vikings have a better running back. Both teams have effective tight ends.
Beyond those areas, the 2021 Rams have massive advantages over the Vikings’ current roster. They were graded by PFF No. 1 in the NFL in pass blocking and No. 1 in pass rush. They have the NFL’s best defensive lineman and best cornerback and depth at all positions.
There are guys you have never heard of that have done great things for the Rams. Defensive tackle Greg Gaines had a pass rush pressure rate similar to Leonard Williams and Fletcher Cox. Center Brian Allen graded as the fourth best player at his position in the NFL. Van Jefferson caught 50 passes for 802 yards.
It’s not that the Vikings have none of these things. If they keep Danielle Hunter, they’ll have an elite edge rusher. Harrison Smith is still good. Brain O’Neill is becoming one of the best right tackles in the game. KJ Osborn had a breakout season as a No. 3 receiver. But the rest of the roster looks like a beat up 1997 Ford Ranger while the Rams have a Lincoln Navigator.
The Vikings ranked 27th in pass blocking. Christian Darrisaw and Ezra Cleveland need development while the center and right guard spots need replacements. The Vikings ranked 16th in pass rush. They are in dire need of at least two more defensive linemen who can get after the passer. There is one player on the defensive roster under the age of 25 who has a strong chance of starting long term and that’s cornerback Cam Dantzler.
The interesting thing about the Rams’ roster is that you have to go back several years in the draft to find all the players that have filled these key spots that go beyond the superstars. Right tackle Rob Havenstein, 12th among tackles by PFF, was a 2015 second-round pick who got better as the years went along. Tight end Tyler Higbee, who had 61 catches, was a fourth rounder. So was Brian Allen and Greg Gaines. Starting safety Jordan Fuller, 18th at his position by PFF, was taken in the sixth round in 2020.
In comparison, the Vikings have been less fortunate in the draft. They have zero players on the team from the 2016 draft, only Dalvin Cook from 2017, only Brian O’Neill from 2018 (if Tyler Conklin leaves in free agency) and just five starters from 2019-2021.
There is still hope for the 2021 draft. Kene Nwangwu, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Cam Bynum flashed in tiny spurts. None of them are locks to become important future players.
So as you watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, it might be easy to look at Stafford under center and remember how he looked many times as a member of the Lions and think that Adofo-Mensah can raise the level of his quarterback’s performance in the same way. You might have an inkling that it’s possible to take a guy who is considered a mid-pack QB, give him McVay’s right-hand man, throw the ball to Jefferson more and solve all the world’s problems but that would be ignoring something important: The Vikings’ current roster is closer to the Detroit Lions’ when they traded Stafford than it is the Rams right now.
Can they get there? There is certainly a path with players like Jefferson, O’Neill, Darrisaw and Irv Smith Jr. in place. There is not a path that looks like the Rams this year where they fell backwards into Beckham Jr. and traded the farm for Von Miller. The Vikings made those moves in the recent past by signing Patrick Peterson and trading for Yannick Ngakoue. The results were what happened when you put the pedal to the metal on that 1997 Ford Ranger.
It would be natural for Adofo-Mensh to want to turn things around quickly, but the Rams weren’t built in a day and the Vikings can’t become a true Super Bowl contender in one offseason. If they rush to be the Rams, they may end up stuck in gear just like the last regime.