Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Los Angeles Rams Season Preview

In a matter of just two seasons, he’d taken one of the league’s worst franchises to the brink of a Super Bowl, but on the biggest stage, Sean McVay had been outcoached, and his Rams had been outplayed. The sting of that painful realization would linger months after their 13–3 loss to the Patriots in Atlanta.

But the youngest coach ever to lead a team to the Super Bowl understands that dwelling on that devastating defeat could doom the Rams. It’s no coincidence that the game’s losers so rarely return right away. Last year’s Patriots are the only team in the past 25 seasons to get back to the biggest stage following a loss.

“If you can’t handle getting gut-punched and responding, this business probably isn’t for you,” McVay said shortly after the Super Bowl.

McVay has vowed to return to that stage, and the Rams, under his watch, haven’t given any reason to doubt them. But while the offense should still be explosive and the defence, with a couple of veteran additions, could be improved, there are plenty of questions still left unanswered, even as Super Bowl expectations in L.A. are more outsized than ever before.

The Rams were easily one of the most exciting teams to watch this season. Their offense shifted into another gear this year improving in practically every facet. Their offense put up more points this year (527) than last (478). They also put up more yards (6,738) than last year (5,784) as well. They were the second-best offense in the NFL this year behind only the Kansas City Chiefs.

The offensive improvements can directly be correlated to the progression of quarterback Jared Goff. Goff had an MVP calibre season throwing for 32 touchdowns, 4,688 yards, and only 12 interceptions. He also had a 101.1 passer rating and a 65.9 quarterback rating.

Goff’s football IQ took another step as he was able to dissect defences more efficiently. Last season many did not trust Goff as a legitimate franchise quarterback. Particularly because of the putrid rookie year he had to play under Jeff Fisher.

It’s Goff’s continued improvement which has left me pleased with the results of his new contract. 

He was able to dispel a majority of that sentiment this season with his play. Head coach Sean McVay ‘s system along with a variety of versatile weapons expounded Goff’s talents. The Rams use of play-action was where Goff was truly able to shine.

It was a tool that would incorporate each of their elite offensive talents in Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, and Robert Woods. The nature of the Rams play-action would freeze the defence allowing the offense to always be one step ahead. The offense was so effective that the Rams were on pace to have three 1,000 yards receivers prior to Kupp’s injury.

However, the offense was not able to show up on the biggest stage when they needed to the most. The biggest success of the season was equally its biggest pitfall. The Rams Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots. A game where their offense was only able to muster three points.

Although, their defence was able to hold the Patriots to only 13 points. An impressive feat considering the Patriots had the fourth-best offense in the NFL this year. However, the Rams defence did not perform to this level all year.

On defence the contrary, they were below average. The Rams defence was 19th in yards and 20th in points allowed. It was a surprise they were not better on defence considering all their big-name additions.

The Rams made a push this offseason to accumulate the most talent available in order to make their Super Bowl run. However, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Lamarcus Joyner could all be on other teams next year. Another reason why their inability to finish the job cuts a bit deeper.

However, getting to the Super Bowl itself is an impressive feat. One that should not be taken for granted. The Rams also took care of their core for the foreseeable future in Gurley, Cooks and Aaron Donald. Each player receiving extensions that will keep them Rams for a few years at least.

Coaching Changes

Biggest change – Zac Taylor (QB Coach) got hired by the Bengals to be their HC after Mike Brown (Bengals Owner) discovered Zac had wafted McVay’s legendary scent. See new coaches below. 

Shane Waldron promoted to QB coach
Shane was the Rams TE coach in 2017, then promoted to “pass game coordinator” after Matt LeFleur left to be OC with the Titans. Once again, a Ram’s employee leaves to try his hand at the big leagues, and as per tradition, Shane Waldron absorbed Zac Taylor’s old role. 

Zac Robinson hired as assistant QB coach
The Rams have already established that it’ll be Robinson, not Waldron that will lead the QB room. Robinson previously led Pro Football Focus’ QB evaluation team, also playing as a backup in the NFL many years prior. 

Out of any active QB coach in the NFL, Zac Robinson has without a doubt watched the most QB film over the past 3 years; it’s basically all he did at PFF. This in-depth film study, combined with his experience as a QB in the NFL, makes him an ideal coaching hire, and one I’m very excited to follow as the season progresses.

Eric Henderson – Hired as Defensive Line Coach
Eric Henderson was snatched away from the Chargers (Assistant Dline Coach) this offseason, Eric has already begun making waves as the newest addition to the Rams D coaching staff. Aaron Donald himself said Eric Henderson was the reason he came to OTAs & training camp;

One-hundred per cent,” Donald said when asked if Henderson was the reason he wanted to be at OTAs. “He’s definitely a guy – once I saw the drills, after I got to talk to him and get to pick his brain a little bit – he’s a big reason why I wanted to continue to learn and I felt like what he was teaching me could benefit me and help me a whole lot as far as improving my game. It’s like I always say, I want to get better, and that’s what I’ve got to do. Listen to coach and work it.”

Henderson is only 36 and doesn’t have a particularly storied career to date. However, basically everyone’s been complimentary about his coaching, and like Zac Robinson, I absolutely love the hire. 

Wes Phillips hired as the TE coach
Wes Phillips was sprung from Wade Phillips’ loins. The younger Phillips was on Wade’s staff in Dallas in 2007 and stayed on under Jason Garrett as an offensive assistant through the 2013 season. In 2014, Wes landed in Washington, where he worked under Jay Gruden and then OC Sean McVay.

Wes kept that role through 2018 until he was hired by the Rams in 2019. Honestly, I can’t help but feel he was hired partly because he shares the same last name as the Defensive Coordinator, and though I have no issues with the hire, I don’t see it as a particularly impressive one.

Off-Season Review

Mark Barron (ILB) – Cut
Blake Countess (DB) – Cut
Rodger Saffold (LG) – Contract Expiration
Ndamukong Suh (DT) – Contract Expiration
Lamarcus Joyner (FS) – Contract Expiration
CJ Anderson (RB) – Contract Expiration
John Sullivan (C) – Declined Option

The biggest losses here without a doubt are Rodger Saffold & Suh – both positions have very solid replacements (more on that later), but it’s difficult to imagine they’ll be replaced to the same level. Joyner could potentially be a significant loss as well, but I honestly doubt it given his replacement (Eric Weddle). Overall, these losses aren’t big ones – most were considered weaker links within the team. 

Dante Fowler Jr., OLB – 1Yr/$14M
Malcom Brown, RB – Signed 2Yr/$3.25M
Cory Littleton, ILB – Tendered

Exclusive Rights FA:
DE Morgan Fox
DB Dominique Hatfield
WR Khadarel Hodge
WR JoJo Natson
DB Kevin Peterson

The big one here is Dante Fowler Jr., who joined the team last year to average success. Instead of walking, Fowler signed a $14M “prove it deal” through 2019. Malcolm Brown was re-upped for 2 years, and Cory Littleton (Starting ILB) singed an RFA tender.

New Signings
OLB Clay Matthews – 2Yr/$9.25M 
QB Blake Bortles – 1Yr/$1M
FS Eric Weddle – 2Yr/$10.5M
LB Ketner Kupp – 3Yr/$1.755M
LB Bryce Hager – 1Yr/$805K
P Brock (Samson) Miller – 1Yr/$495K

I love a lot of what the Rams have done this offseason, Blake Bortles as a backup on a very cheap deal is an amazing deal. Eric Weddle (Ravens) & Clay Matthews (Packers) are continuing the Rams latest strategy of signing veterans to fill small roster holes. 

NFL Draft

Taylor Rapp, S – 61st Pick (Round 2), Washington
Rapp comes in from Washington, where he was a three-year starter on his way to racking up 8.5 TFL, six sacks, seven interceptions, six passes defended, & two forced fumbles. He can play all over the field, both in the run & pass, modelled similarly to versatile safeties like Earl Thomas & Derwin James. Though I have no illusions that he’ll be as good as either those players, he displays many of the qualities you want in a modern swiss army knife player; versatility, phenomenal tackling ability, and great ball skills.

Darrell Henderson, RB – 70th Pick (Round 3), Memphis
From Memphis, Darrell Henderson played three seasons in a bell-cow role for the Tigers. He’s only 5’8, but he was easily one of the most explosive backs in this year’s draft after averaging 8.9 YPC in his last two years (8.2 over all three). He’s a classic home run hitter, and can also contribute in the passing game (63 catches for 758 in college); he’s also surprisingly great at breaking tackles, considering his small frame, and has been compared somewhat to a “mini-Beast Mode”. He’s not coming in to be the starter, but he’ll certainly take the pressure off from Gurley to be hyper explosive in every game (cue spicy hot takes that Gurley’s knees are CGI).

David Long, CB – 79th Pick (Round 3), Michigan
Since Aqib & Peters are both up for FA after 2019, the Rams knew they had to come away with a corner to eventually replace one of those spots. They got their guy in David Long, a smallish but hyper-productive CB. He lacks the ideal height & length coveted at CB, but he almost never lets that bring down his game; on Long’s 595 coverage snaps, he allowed just 18 receptions on 60 targets for 130 yards. And of the 18 receptions, only three resulted in first downs and just one resulted in a touchdown.

Bobby Evans, OT – 97th Pick (Round 3), Oklahoma
Bobby Evans was the blindside protector for this year’s golden boy selection Kyler Murray. Though his 2018 at LT was a solid one, it’s really his 2017 at RT that impresses, meaning he possesses versatility on the offensive line. He also moves very well and is proficient at getting downfield to run block at the second level. If you know anything about the Rams offense, you’ll know they (Kromer specifically) loves lineman with all these traits, so it makes sense to target Evans so early.

Greg Gaines, DT – 134th Pick (Round 4), Washington
A great value in the 4th round, Gaines was thought to have been drafted to replace Ndamukong Suh at NT in the Rams’ front three. Gaines isn’t an especially large Nose, but he’s been an excellent run stuffer in four seasons with Washington. His combination of shortness & speed off the ball in 1-v-1 drills during the Senior Bowl makes me think of Aaron Donald a bit, but I’m not out here declaring he’s about to be a fat, white AD. I will say I’d been mocking him here to us, and I really love his skill set and mentality (he’s a bit gritty). It sounds like there’s competition to start at NT, so don’t be surprised if in a few years they try to work him in as a 3 Tech occasionally, giving AD more work on the edge instead.

David Edwards, OT – 169th Pick (Round 5), Wisconsin
Edwards draft stock took a hit after 2017, which proved to be an example of having more tape can give teams more film of your warts in your game. His injury also didn’t help, I had Edwards as a late day two selection, to see him taken late in day 3 is an absolute steal in my books.

Nick Scott, S – 243rd Pick (Round 7), Penn State
Scott was a four-year contributor at Penn State, though not all of it came at safety. He’s actually lined up at running back (2015), cornerback (2016), and safety (2017/18). Not to mention he has the added dimension of value on special teams. Scott totalled 113 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, three interceptions, two pass deflections, and two fumble recoveries over the course of his college career.

Scott is an interesting and solid addition, especially when you consider how little the Rams invested in acquiring his services. Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel promised Scott on a pre-draft visit that he’d do whatever he could to get the Rams to select Scott, and that ultimately came to fruition. A positive in that regard is that Fassel knows how valuable and respected Scott is as a guy and special teams commodity, so he could have a role right out of the gate as a guy who will do the dirty work on ST’s. 

Scott also has the ability to play some defence, though to what extent I’m not sure. He’s not likely to receive playing time on the defensive side of the ball with how deep the roster is for the Rams at the time being, though his value and shot at cracking the 53-man roster comes through special teams.

Dakota Allen, LB – 251st Pick (Round 7), Texas Tech
I believe Allen is a kid who learned from his mistakes and now truly understands that his future is in his own hands. Having a scholarship taken away will make you realize how precious that opportunity is. He fought his way back by doing all the right things, and his teammates saw all the effort and how he had changed. For all that, his teammates elected him as the defensive captain, which says a lot about what he meant to his team.

He now highly values the chance he almost flushed away, and I submit he will become a better person than he was before. It’s a pick with almost 0 costs whilst Allen could become a valued member of the starting defence give a little time to develop. 

Every pick from Rapp to Gaines I really liked, everything from then on was suspect; generally speaking, I thought the Rams had a pretty good haul. Taylor Rapp, David Long, and Greg Gaines all have a solid chance to be starters or future starters on defence, whilst Henderson should be utilized immediately.

 Everyone else has a better chance to be ST contributors than actual starters, and I anticipate that Bobby Evans will either replace Joe Noteboom at LG (after Noteboom replaces Whitworth, or Evans will directly replace Whitworth.

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