As 49ers look to make leap forward, NFC champion Rams provide the blueprint

Division rivals set to take on Patriots in Super Bowl as Niners prepare for No. 2 pick

Tommy Call
January 31, 2019 - 10:05 am

Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.

A statement you hear in goofy action films, or cringeworthy speeches, but for the 49ers that phrase holds weight when it comes to watching their division rival, the Los Angeles Rams play in the Super Bowl LIII this Sunday.

The 49ers brass would be wise to take note of the steps the Rams took to reach the top of the football mountain.

Before looking back into the Rams recent history, it’s necessary to ask how much better are the Rams than the 49ers right now. Is the gap as wide as a 4-12 team versus the NFC’s representative for the Super Bowl suggests?

It starts with head coaches Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay: How much better of a coach is McVay than Shanahan?

There isn’t much doubt McVay has more talent on his roster and he has the wins on his record, but from a pure X’s and O’s standpoint, is McVay that much more innovative than Shanahan? Probably not, at least it’s not crazy to claim McVay and Shanahan are close in tiers of coaches.

Moving onto the most important player on the field, the quarterback — Jared Goff versus Jimmy Garoppolo. Yes, we can factor in Garoppolo’s missed time, but when it comes to quarterback play, how close are Garoppolo and Goff?

A tough question because we’ve seen more of Goff than we have Garoppolo. When it comes to comparing them as passers, similar to McVay and Shanahan, it’s not insane to think they are in a similar realm. They’re both young and considered franchise guys by many.

Not saying either or is better, but when it comes to breaking down these two teams we have to look at some of the pieces in place before seeing what went wrong for the 49ers and what went right for the Rams. If the quarterbacks and coaches are at least comparable, how are the 49ers preparing for the No. 2 overall pick while the Rams are prepping for the Super Bowl?

Spending money in free agency.

The Rams pulled out all the stops when it came to free agency, but they primarily took care of their own.

Resigning Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley and Rob Havenstein. On top of that, they went and paid the price tag for Robert Woods, Ndamukong Suh and Andrew Whitworth.

The 49ers have been largely dormant in free agency. Even when they’ve had money to spend, CEO Jed York, general manager John Lynch and Shanahan have shown hesitancy in pulling the trigger on expensive free agents. Blowing the big bucks on any player that walks through the door isn’t good, but some activity needs to happen. Players the 49ers have tapped in free agency like Weston Richburg and Malcolm Smith haven't worked out as planned, which has stunted the 49ers ability to keep pace with the Rams.

Being active in the trade market.

The Rams have been incredibly active when it comes to trades, consistently moving picks and players to fit their plan. The Rams wasted no time in trading players like Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn, who were once contributors on bad teams, but had more starpower in name than skill on the field.

Acquiring and distributing draft capital has been an area of expertise for the Rams. The Rams haven’t hesitated to trade draft picks for talented players. Something that can be a bit of an NFL taboo — moving draft picks for players. When the NFL zigged on this topic, the Rams zagged.

The Rams moved six total picks to acquire Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Dante Fowler, all significant players in their championship run. The picks consisted of a first, a second, a third, a fourth and two fifth rounders. Would you trade all those picks knowing you’d get a chance at the Super Bowl? The answer should be yes.

This should serve as a specific lesson when it comes to the rumors that surround Antonio Brown and the 49ers.

The No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft feels too steep for a (supremely gifted) wide receiver who turns 31 in July and who had infamous locker-room problems in Pittsburgh.

But the Rams are a great example of getting creative in the draft to acquire talent. Even if the 49ers only have five picks in 2019, it’s time for Lynch to get inventive when it comes to the draft. Whether that’s trading back and acquiring more picks or moving future picks beyond 2019 in a Brown or AJ Green trade package. The Rams have opened up unique alleys in the draft to add talent outside the prospect pool.

Acing the mid-rounds of the draft.

The Rams front office has had a lot of leniency to deal some of their picks because they’ve succeeded in finding talent in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft.

A quick look back at the history shows the Rams have added several starters in rounds three or later. In 2017, they drafted WR Cooper Kupp, WR Josh Reynolds, and LB Samson Ebukam. We know how great Kupp and Reynolds have fared in McVay’s offense, but Eubukam has filled in greatly at outside linebacker for the Rams.

You may remember Ebukam for his two touchdowns in the Rams-Chiefs Monday Night thriller. The Rams have also landed players like Gerald Everett, Tyler Higbee, Lamarcus Joyner, and Havenstein — all starters outside the first round.

The 49ers have severely struggled with finding proven talent in the mid-rounds. DeAndre Smelter, John Theus, and Joe Williams have all been complete misses which is somewhat understandable because all teams have their busts, but this is the difference when it comes to closing the distance on a club like the Rams.  

On top of killing the mid-rounds, the Rams have also iced their early round picks. Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and Goff were all found in the first round.

Greg Robinson, the Rams selection from 2014 was a miss, but they backed it up with finding Donald 11 picks later. The 49ers have floundered with Solomon Thomas, Reuben Foster, Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward in the first round. DeForest Buckner looks like a blue-chip piece, and the audience is still out on Thomas and Armstead, but again it may be stark, but this is the difference when it comes to rivaling a Super Bowl contender.

Thriving on special teams.

One thing that is an important trend to note when looking at the Rams is their emphasis and consistency on special teams.

Kicking in the NFL has been wildly inconsistent, almost like we’ve never seen before, except for the Rams. They have placekicker Greg Zuerlein who they drafted in 2012 and punter Johnny Hekker, two of the best at their respective specialist positions. Outside of drafting Bradley Pinion in 2015, The 49ers haven’t drafted an actual placekicker in years. They have had the luxury of players like Robbie Gould kicking the ball for them, but with the veteran’s contract set to expire,  they need to look at kickers or risk being in the Chicago Bears position.

Some of the arguments in this story may be scoffed upon, but as we’ve heard time and time again football is a game of inches and it’s the same when it comes to building teams. With only subtle difference between the quarterbacks and coaches the 49ers need to take emphasis on what the Rams are doing to be able to counter them and close the gap.

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