How Super Bowl LVI is a fascinating case study on successful NFL roster-building

Super Bowl LVI is a little over a week away from kickoff, and the Bengals and the Rams are both looking to cross the finish line of the longest NFL season ever in 1st place. 

This matchup is a curious one; these teams are connected in a number of ways, but they’re seemingly complete opposites in the way they were constructed. It provides a fascinating case study on how to successfully build a championship roster in the modern NFL. Let’s take a look at how these teams compare, and how they both got here:

Cincinatti’s meteoric rise

In 2019, the Bengals were the worst team in the entire league. Andy Dalton and company went 2-14, earning them the top selection in the 2020 draft. Dalton clearly wasn’t the answer, and the roster needed a serious overhaul. So in a top-heavy quarterback draft, the Bengals made a franchise-altering decision: they chose Ohio native Joe Burrow to become the new face of their team. They made some other fantastic decisions in that draft, taking WR Tee Higgins and LB Logan Wilson as well. 

Their 2020 campaign was far from successful but showed real promise. Burrow looked pretty good despite his horrific pass protection, that is until he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 10 at Washington. The team cratered after he went down, finishing 4-11. Once again, the Bengals were in a fantastic draft position.

The 2021 draft turned out to be another hit when the Bengals somewhat controversially used their first-round pick on WR Ja’Marr Chase instead of LT Penei Sewell. While Sewell had a very nice rookie season in Detroit, Chase broke the rookie record for most receiving yards in a single game and is likely to soon be named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Cincinnati also drafted K Evan McPherson who has proven to be a rising star, kicking lights-out throughout the playoffs.

The Bengals dramatically upgraded their roster in the span of 2 offseasons, at times through free agency, but primarily through the draft. Those very young upgrades took some time to figure it out; it didn’t all gel at first. If you look at the odds for the Super Bowl, you’ll find the Bengals had long-shot +18000 odds to win it all as recently as mid-September. 

They got hot at the right time, however, and now find themselves four quarters away from their first-ever Lombardi Trophy. They chose to take the conventional roster-building route, and back-to-back knockout drafts have gotten them all the way to the big dance. 

Los Angeles gets over the hump

Now let’s look at the Rams through the lens of similarities and differences with the Bengals. This is where things get interesting:

Unlike the Bengals, LA was a winning team the past two seasons. Going 9-7 in 2019 and 10-6 in 2020, they were nothing to sneeze at; but the organization realized they’d reached their ceiling. Franchise QB Jared Goff was constantly facing questions about his ability to carry an offense, and in the city of stars, this team didn’t have many. 

Sean McVay decided it was time to change that.

In October of 2019, the Rams sent two first-round and a fourth-round pick to the Jaguars to acquire star CB Jalen Ramsey. And so began the Rams’ envelope-pushing, definitively modern strategy: buy established stars, and throw your future salary cap and draft security to the wind to pay for them. In other words, go all in.

The Chicago Bears released OLB Leonard Floyd following the 2019 season, and the Rams paid him handsomely in free agency to join their pass rush. He re-signed to a long-term deal after an impressive first year with the team, and in the offseason of 2021, the Rams had just gotten started. 

Jared Goff had taken this team far—all the way to the Super Bowl, in fact— but his ceiling was more than apparent. He was a trailer, and McVay wanted a tractor. So in the blockbuster deal of the year, Los Angeles traded Goff to Detroit for Matthew Stafford. 

He was the big step-up in talent this team wanted desperately, and because the Rams also wanted to offload Goff’s massive contract as well, this upgrade came at a very steep price. In order to get the Lions to take the 4-year, $104 million salary off of their hands, the Rams gave Detroit two first-round picks and a third-round pick to sweeten the deal.

McVay wasn’t done. In the middle of the 2021 season, the Rams made two more splash additions. In November they traded a second and third-round pick to the Broncos for star LB Von Miller, and less than two weeks later picked up star WR Odell Beckham Jr. from his short-lived free agency. 

All this star power managed to carry the Rams through a somewhat turbulent middle of the season, and it all clicked at the right time in the end. Stafford, Miller, Beckham Jr, Ramsey, and Floyd played fantastic in the playoffs, lifting them to a Super Bowl berth.

Like the Bengals, the Rams have been led by a young up-start coach to their final game. Bengals’ third-year HC Zac Taylor was actually a protégé of Rams fifth-year HC Sean McVay, the two men 38 and 36 years old respectively.

But unlike the Bengals, McVay bucked the conventional roster-building route to get to where he is. The Rams reached the big game on the back of a veteran star quarterback that they traded for. The Bengals reached the big game on the back of a second-year star quarterback they got in the draft.

The Rams built the foundation of their team on trades, free agency acquisitions, and star power. Some might argue “mortgaging their future” should be added to that list… but that part is yet to be seen. The Bengals built the foundation of their team on the draft and player development; the way it’s traditionally been done.

These two teams should make for a fantastic Super Bowl matchup. Will the veteran, star-studded Rams win with their edge of experience? Or will the young-gun Bengals pull yet another upset? However it goes down, it just goes to show there’s more than one way to build a championship roster in the NFL.

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