The Los Angeles Rams enter the 2019 NFL Draft with seven choices hoping to find the missing pieces for a Super Bowl title. Searching for three starters, can wonder-boy Sean McVay continue to dazzle with his talent selection methods?
The Los Angeles Rams and third-year head coach Sean McVay are fresh off a Super Bowl appearance. The offense is loaded, featuring fourth-year quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley. With wide receivers Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, and a returning Cooper Kupp, the offense should continue to sizzle. As a result, the Rams are the clear favorite in the NFC West.
Defensively, Aaron Donald is a generational talent at defensive tackle. With Dante Fowler signing a one year prove it deal totaling $12 million and Clay Matthews signing a team-friendly two-year deal, the Rams have potential at edge rusher. Plus, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib possess shut-down corner capabilities, and Peters is playing for a new contract.
The Rams, relatively quiet in free agency, are finding themselves in need of a nose tackle to replace Ndamakung Suh. Inside linebacker Mark Barron signing with Pittsburgh is creating a hole, especially with back-up Ramik Wilson remaining unsigned. With Talib turning 33 this season and Peters on his fifth-year option, the Rams will be searching for youth in the secondary. And, in 2020, the Rams will not be able to pay the shut-down corner they envisioned when they traded for Peters two years ago.
2019 closes McVay’s first window for a title
Appearing in Super Bowl LIII a season after leading the Rams to a surprising playoff berth in 2017 creates expectations for the next step. A Super Bowl LIV win is almost a must now. In 2020, Donald will cost $25 million against the cap, Gurley will count for $17 million, Cooks will cost $16 million, and Goff will eventually need a new deal because 2020 is his fifth-year option. With left tackle Andrew Whitworth most likely retiring after this season according to ramsnation.com, a gigantic hole on the offensive line will require filling. Talib and Peters will be unrestricted free agents, and one wonders if Peters will earn top corner money based on his all-pro year. Entering 2020, the Rams will spend 40 percent of the cap on six players.
These seven 2019 NFL Draft picks could fill the missing pieces and answer these questions, resulting in a 2020 title.
Round 1 (Pick 31): Trade
With the Rams sitting out the first round in McVay’s first two seasons, I expect 2019 to be no different. There will be a team wanting to move into the first round to secure a fifth-year option on a player of their choice. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Washington Redskins are candidates to trade up to 31 overall and select a quarterback. The best overall candidate for a quarterback to be taken by a team moving back into the first round is Will Grier from West Virginia. Daniel Jones, QB, Duke, is another candidate.
McVay will require the team trading into the first round for a QB to pay a heavy price. Washington moves up from 46 overall costing a 2021 first rounder, pick 46, and pick 173 (fifth round compensatory). The Rams place a new price tag on moving into the back-end of the first round. As a result, the league will continue chasing McVay and the Rams.
Round 2 (Pick 46, Acquired from Washington): Rock Ya-Sin, CB, Temple
A regular mock for the Rams will have a safety with one of their first two draft choices. Signing Weddle through the end of the collective bargaining agreement satisfies the need at free safety. John Johnson III is in the upper echelon of strong safeties, and as a result, I don’t see S as a need in this draft for the Rams.
Most agree Suh’s replacement on the defensive line (a 3-4 NT) is a top priority. An edge rusher to compete with an erratic Fowler and an aging Matthew describe other team needs. What position does McVay go with his first pick? Corner, since McVay recognizes, and pays for, the concept of shutdown cornerbacks. Ya-Sin is a long, physical cornerback who has the potential to be one of those shutdown cornerbacks.
Round 3 (Pick 94): Joejuan Williams, CB, Vanderbilt
The Vanderbilt product moved up draft boards after his performance at the NFL Combine this past month. His physical measurements like hand size and arm length impressed, while his 40-yard dash time, 4.64, is being weighted too heavily as a metric in the process McVay is using to make draft picks. McVay doesn’t need first round picks because his analytical process of evaluating talent means he can select a safety in the third round in 2017 and turn him into the seventh-best safety in the league a year later (Johnson III).
Williams, after his combine performance, is being ranked as the 11th best corner by USA Today. He could be available here, and yes, Sean McVay will use his first two draft picks on CBs even though Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are on the squad. If you, as an NFL organization, are not hiring “passing game” coordinators and “running game” coordinators, you’re way behind the power curve.
Round 3 (Pick 99, Compensatory): Connor McGovern, C/G, Penn State
The departure of Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan have created the need for two new starters. Joseph Noteboom takes over at left guard for Saffold while Brian Allen helms the center position. Certainly, McVay will want to add another option on the interior of his offensive line due to Noteboom and Allen having limited experience and both being in their second year. Versatility on the offensive line, meaning a prospect can play more than one position, is an underrated metric in the same fashion 40-yard dash time is an overrated metric.
McGovern worked out at all three offensive line positions at the combine this past month. Plus, how can you not draft a position of need with someone who refers to themselves as a “swordfish” because a swordfish is agile? One of the weird questions asked of prospects at the Combine: What kind of fish would you be? McGovern impressed with his answer and his performance at guard, center, and tackle.
Round 4 (Pick 133): T.J. Edwards, ILB, Wisconsin
Barron is gone, and Matthews listing on the depth chart at inside linebacker requires Los Angeles to address the position. Ranking 13th among ILBs in the 2019 NFL Draft according to USA Today, the Wisconsin product can form a tandem with Cory Littleton. Littleton, an undrafted free agent, signed in 2016, has thrived under McVay’s hierarchical coaching structure. Ranking as a top one-third inside linebacker, Littleton should continue to develop in his fourth year and has a chance to be paired with the run stuffing Edwards.
The first thing jumping off the page regarding Edwards is intelligence, and there are no red flags. Edwards, a four-year starter for the Badgers, is described as punishing against the run but will struggle in coverage. Pairing Edwards with Littleton, who excels in coverage, will help the Rams win now. According to Pro Football Focus, Littleton was the third best coverage LB in 2018.
Round 5 (Pick 169): Renell Wren, DT, Arizona State
The Rams take a shot at Suh’s replacement with Wren. Maybe Donald will play a lighter than usual, extremely nimble nose tackle in their 3-4 base defense. Wren’s combine measurables are comparable to Suh regarding hand size and arm length. Wren jumped three inches further than Suh in broad jump but three inches less in the vertical jump. Suh’s three-cone time impressed in 2010 and was .45 seconds faster than Wren’s in 2019. How does McVay evaluate talent?
Consider Kupp, McVay’s 6-foot 2 slot receiver. Kupp’s selection in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft (69 overall) demonstrates McVay’s acumen when evaluating talent. When you think of NFL “slot receiver” do you envision 6-foot 2 receivers like Kupp, or do you imagine someone 5-foot 10 like Cooks?
McVay’s draft picks in 2019 could finish the puzzle and result in a title this season. There is plenty of evidence stating McVay’s draft picks are outstanding and Wren could be the next mid-round surprise.
Round 5 (Pick 173, acquired from Washington): Christian Miller, Edge/OLB, Alabama
A non-invite to the Combine in 2019, Miller was a situational Edge rusher for Bama during his tenure. He is an ideal candidate to situationally rush the quarterback in place of Matthews. With non-invites to the combine cast aside in the draft selection process, Miller could offer the upside McVay is looking for. Rounds five through seven in any NFL draft are a perfect time to throw darts at edge rushers, wide receivers, and running backs. Also, you can consider developmental candidates on the defensive line and tight ends. Day three picks are an adventure for any NFL franchise, and the fruit is potentially bountiful.
I’m looking for the next George Kittle, Tyreek Hill, Telvin Smith, Richard Sherman, Charles Leno, Antonio Brown, and Tom Brady. Drafting a Pro Bowler in the fifth round makes winning NFL games easier. Selecting a Hall of Fame wide receiver in the sixth round wins divisions. Choosing Hall of Famers at the game’s most important position in the sixth round wins titles.
Round 6 (Pick 203): David Montgomery, RB, Iowa State
Some have Justice Hill, the running back from Oklahoma State, available at the Rams selection in the sixth round. Justice Hill will be off the board on day two of the 2019 NFL Draft in my opinion. Montgomery has a shot at being available in the sixth round because the scouts and front offices do not like his 40 yard dash time. Analytics users like Montgomery because of his size and he can catch out of the backfield. Coaching will help any prospect’s route-running capabilities, and hopefully, after six months in an NFL conditioning program, Montgomery will be faster and quicker.
Round 7 (Pick 251, compensatory): Justin Hollis, Edge/OLB, Oregon
McVay selects another 3-4 defense edge rusher, known as an outside linebacker. They don’t always rush the quarterback. There are other responsibilities for an OLB in a 3-4 base defense. The popularization of the term “edge defender,” synonymous with “one rushing the quarterback on a passing down attempting to sack him,” is beyond ridiculous.
At what point is a defender in an NFL football game no longer defending the edge of the field? After the opposing offense runs it down the sidelines for an 80-yard touchdown because their 6’3″ wide receiver beat our 5’10” corner one on one? After the free safety makes the tackle on the sideline? Is an NFL team no longer defending the “Edge” when the opposing offensive player runs out of bounds?
Sean McVay is playing Class B, category three chess, while most NFL franchises are still playing checkers. The Cleveland Browns are pioneers in bringing analytics to the NFL. The Oakland Raiders hiring an analytics person to be their General Manager (Mike Maycock) and franchises opening their very first “analytics” departments are cementing the principles of mathematics in the National Football League. McVay is ahead of the game, and with a draft like this, the Rams could be headed to another Super Bowl.