Remember the great Los Angeles Rams teams of the late 2010s? Boy-genius head coach Sean McVay? Franchise quarterback Jared Goff? 2017 Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley? A star-studded defense led by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald? An offensive system so innovative that anyone who ever shared a microbrew sampler with McVay was an instant head-coach candidate short lister? C’mon, we know 2020 has been a long century, but try to remember: It was only about 18 months ago that the Rams were poised to be the NFL’s next great dynasty.
Times have changed. McVay is starting to look like a one-hit-wonder. Goff couldn’t even earn honorable mention in this offseason’s weekly Dak Prescott-vs-Carson Wentz debates. Gurley has been exiled to the realm of stat compilation and disappointment (the Atlanta Falcons). Donald still slaps (he ranked first overall on PFN’s Top 100 NFL Players of 2020 list), but even though CB Jalen Ramsey and a few others remain, the defense around him has been depleted. Even the system looked a little stale last year.
This year’s Rams are beginning to foot the bill for that failed 2018 Super Bowl run. But they could still be a factor in the playoffs if the big names rise to the occasion and McVay lives up to his billing.
The Los Angeles Rams of 2020
Goff proves that he can take a little more than McVay’s system gives him. McVay proves that there’s more to his system than the stuff Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots exposed in the Super Bowl. New playmakers like rookie RB Cam Akers and wide receiver Van Jefferson diversify the attack. New pass rushers like free agent Leonard Floyd fill some of the void left by Clay Matthews (unsigned) and Dante Fowler (Falcons). This year’s Rams look a lot like last year’s San Francisco 49ers, who in turn looked a lot like the previous year’s Rams.
The deteriorating offensive line collapses, exposing all of Goff’s limits, while Donald gets triple-teamed. The Rams could easily fall to last place in the tough NFC West.
Per Football Outsiders Almanac, Goff played four games against bottom 10 defenses last year (Arizona Cardinals twice, Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals) and completed 64% of his passes for 8.9 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions, and two sacks. He played four games against top five defenses (San Francisco 49ers twice, Baltimore Ravens, Patriots) and completed just under 60% of his passes for 5.8 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, five interceptions, 10 sacks, and (yikes) six fumbles.
Most quarterbacks play better against weaker defenses, of course, but those splits reinforce the impression that Goff and McVay look brilliant when they can dictate terms to weaker opponents but don’t have much of a Plan B when the going gets tougher.
The loss of Fowler and Matthews
Fowler and Matthews combined not just for 19.5 sacks but 65 hurries and 93 pass pressures in 2019. Floyd provided 33 hurries and 38 pressures but just three sacks for the Bears, who really needed a complimentary pass rusher for Khalil Mack. The Rams are hoping to get some juice off the edge from Samson Ebukam and/or Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, a pair of mid-round draft projects who have not yet paid dividends.
The offensive line
The Rams offensive line allowed just 22 sacks but was forced to cycle through a lot of personnel due to injuries and ineffectiveness; nine different linemen played at least 100 snaps in 2019. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is back at age 38 to anchor the unit, but the Rams don’t really have a consistent high-level starter at any other position. And due to their lack of draft picks or cap space, the Rams couldn’t acquire significant reinforcements.
Ramsey allowed just a 79.7 efficiency rating on passes to his receivers, while fellow CB Troy Hill allowed an excellent 54.0 rating. But the Rams secondary safety lost Eric Weddle (retirement) and the properly-labeled Nickell Robey-Coleman (Eagles), and top coverage linebacker Cory Littleton (Raiders) is also gone. To continue the theme from previous bullet points: The Rams couldn’t afford substantial replacements at these positions because they spent all their money and traded away most of their draft picks.
Cooper Kupp led the NFL with eight receptions inside the 10-yard line last season, with six touchdowns on 10 targets from that range. McVay likes designing plays for his receivers near the goal line, so Kupp should continue to earn short touchdown opportunities. Kupp also led the NFL in third-down receptions (37) and receptions that led to conversions (29). Don’t be afraid to make Kupp a WR1: He’s integral to the Rams offense and one of a handful of reliable contributors to a once-loaded offense.
Don’t let RB Cam Akers’ good-not-great college production (2,875 rushing yards in three seasons, 5.1 yards per touch from scrimmage) fool you: Akers is a fast, elusive, rugged back who needs to mash every button just to reach the line of scrimmage in the dysfunctional Florida State offense. Akers won’t replicate Gurley’s production — the Rams won’t fall into the “workhorse runner” trap again — but he’s likely to emerge as the chairman of the Malcolm Brown/Darrell Henderson committee and at least put up RB2-worthy numbers.
Football Outsiders Almanac projects a possible bounce-back season for the Rams — they have a 64% chance of being playoff contenders in 2020 — in part because the projection system sees a team that went 33-15 over three seasons and retained both its head coach and QB and calculates that they’re likely to keep producing 11-5 type seasons.
However, projections may not be able to account for just how much the Rams have lost from their roster infrastructure and how little they got in return this offseason. If the Rams do rebound, it will mean that all the things that were said about McVay two years ago really are true.
Los Angeles Rams Final Projection
8-8, third place in the NFC West.