Analysis: Rams' season is at crossroads but barring playoff run, building blocks are set for 2024

Rams head coach Sean McVay gives instructions in the second half against the Steelers.
Rams coach Sean McVay has given many directions to his young roster this season. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Maybe it’s only coincidence, but the Rams’ midseason signing of Carson Wentz sure feels like 2016.

Not because of what Wentz might do — if anything — as a backup quarterback for a team that is 3-6 and suffering through a three-game losing streak. If starter Matthew Stafford returns from a right thumb injury for the Nov. 19 game against the Seattle Seahawks, Wentz might never see the field in a game for the Rams.

But you can’t mention Wentz and the Rams without thinking about the NFL draft seven years ago — and where the Rams might be heading in next year’s draft.

History lesson: In 2016, following another 7-9 season under Jeff Fisher and with the need to make a splash in their return to Los Angeles, the Rams traded up a record 14 spots in the draft to No. 1. In the blockbuster deal, they sent the Tennessee Titans their No. 15 pick, two second-round picks, a third-round pick, and first- and third-round picks in 2017.

The Rams chose quarterback Jared Goff over Wentz, who was taken No. 2 by the Philadelphia Eagles. Before the 2017 season, the Rams hired 30-year-old Sean McVay as coach. A year later they went to the Super Bowl.

Read more: Rams to sign veteran quarterback Carson Wentz

After the 2020 season, the Rams dumped Goff, sending him and first- and third-round picks to the Detroit Lions for Stafford.

That deal worked out well for the Rams. Stafford led them to victory in Super Bowl LVI at owner Stan Kroenke’s SoFi Stadium. (Goff returns to SoFi Stadium on Sunday as the leader of a resurgent Lions team that will play the Chargers.)

Stafford, 35, is under contract through 2026. His salary next year is guaranteed. When physically sound, Stafford shows no sign of having lost any of the arm talent that has made him one of the NFL’s premier passers for 15 seasons.

But like 2016, when two quarterbacks were at the top of draft projections, USC’s Caleb Williams and North Carolina’s Drake Maye are regarded as rare prospects.

Read more: NFL scouts are torn on whether Caleb Williams will be No. 1 pick of draft

Rams general manager Les Snead showed he will go beyond creative to get to the top of the draft and select a quarterback. Regardless of cost.

In ensuing years, he traded one or multiple first-round picks for receiver Brandin Cooks, cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Stafford.

In the upcoming draft, for the first time since selecting Goff, the Rams have a first-round pick. But there is no guarantee Snead will hold on to that pick, or future first-round picks, if the player they want is available.

The Rams have the NFL’s sixth-worst winning percentage. The Arizona Cardinals (1-8), Carolina Panthers (1-7), Chicago Bears (2-7), New York Giants (2-7) and New England Patriots (2-7) also are in the running for the first or second pick.

The Rams could play themselves out of contention for a top pick by making a run to the playoffs. Based on their performance through eight games, that seems like a long shot.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford slides to the turf after scrambling for yardage.
Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is signed through 2026 and his 2024 salary is guaranteed, but can he stay healthy? (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

But there is reason for cautious optimism.

Stafford, offensive lineman Rob Haventsein and linebacker Ernest Jones are expected to return from injuries that sidelined them for the Rams’ 20-3 defeat to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

Running back Kyren Williams is eligible to return from injured reserve for the Nov. 26 game against the Cardinals.

Rookie receiver Puka Nacua, rookie edge rusher Byron Young and rookie defensive lineman Kobie Turner are positioned to build on their impressive starts.

Read more: NFL roundtable: Can Chargers' D take next step? How Rams reinforcements could help

But McVay must find a way to help receiver Cooper Kupp emerge from a three-game slump and to consistently blend Kupp, Nacua and receiver Tutu Atwell into the offense.

Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris must improve a secondary that has received solid play from cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safety Jordan Fuller.

And kicker Lucas Havrisik and the Rams special teams must consistently convert opportunities and control or disrupt opponents.

As for Wentz, he’s not the first former first-round pick to sign with the Rams.

In 2019, with the Jacksonville Jaguars still owing him millions, Blake Bortles served as Goff’s back-up. Last season, with Stafford sidelined because of a spinal injury and John Wolford struggling through a shoulder injury, Baker Mayfield started the final five games.

Read more: NFL Week 10 picks: Can Chargers keep up with Lions' offense? Jaguars a test for 49ers

Mayfield, after being traded by the Cleveland Browns and released by the Panthers, parlayed his Rams experience into a starting opportunity with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wentz, traded by the Eagles and the Indianapolis Colts and released by the Washington Commanders, is no doubt aiming for a similar rebirth that might produce a starting opportunity with another team next year.

After last season’s Super Bowl hangover disaster, the Rams essentially told fans to be patient and wait until 2024. They would have a first-round pick and about $50 million in salary-cap space.

SoFi Stadium could make another appearance in the Super Bowl rotation, possibly as soon as the 2025 or 2026 seasons.

The Rams would like nothing better to win another Super Bowl in their home stadium. That journey could start with next year’s draft.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.