Jalen Ramsey and the Rams look to contend for a playoff spot in the rugged NFC West
The Rams go into 2020 with a new stadium, new uniforms, new coordinators, a new running back and new blood in the heart of the defense. And new appreciation for how hard it is to stay on top in the NFL.
Last year, the league caught up with the innovative offense that had taken the Rams to the Super Bowl and made Sean McVay the prototype for young head coaches.
This year, their own big spending on contract extensions for the NFC championship heroes is catching up with the Rams' whole roster and putting McVay and GM Les Snead on the spot.
Salary-cap issues played a part in the early-offseason release of Todd Gurley II, the trade of Brandin Cooks, the failure to re-sign top free agents Cory Littleton and Dante Fowler Jr. and the inability to sign a surefire replacement for any of them.
McVay likes to address the unpredictability of the NFL from season to season by saying: "Each year is a new year."
That's a way of saying: The Rams never expected to go into a new season with so many questions so soon after seeming to have all the answers.
For the first time since 2017, the Rams officially have an offensive coordinator, former Redskins OC and NFL backup quarterback Kevin O'Connell. But McVay will continue to call the plays while O'Connell provides an extra pair of eyes and works with quarterback Jared Goff — shades of the useful roles that Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor played under McVay before leaving to coach the Packers and Bengals, respectively.
Now, if McVay and O'Connell can just figure out how to make the offense hum as it did when a healthy Gurley was running for 1,200 yards and setting up Goff's effective play-action passes while a healthy Cooks used his speed to open up defenses.
In the backfield, it could be running back by committee with second-round draft pick Cam Akers (Florida State), second-year Darrell Henderson Jr. and career backup Malcolm Brown. It will be better, though, if the hard-running Akers hits his high ceiling and takes over the position.
On the flanks, super sub Josh Reynolds should finally get his chance to be featured alongside Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp in three-wide-receiver sets. He'll be asked to be the deep threat who creates the space for short passes that Woods and Kupp exploit so well. Second-round draft pick Van Jefferson (Florida) is seen more in the mold of a slot receiver like Kupp, running polished routes.
One big question: How often will the Rams go with three wide receivers? The offense hit its best stride in 2019 after Cooks' and Woods' unavailability for one game forced McVay to use more two-tight-end sets, and the switch stuck. Tyler Higbee took advantage with a huge December catching the ball, and the extra blocking took some heat off the offensive line. Expect to see a lot of Higbee with Gerald Everett or Johnny Mundt.
A mostly young and somewhat maligned O-line went through nine starters last season because of performance and injury issues. But it wasn't half bad once Austin Corbett, Austin Blythe, David Edwards and Bobby Evans settled in under Andrew Whitworth's wing. The Rams seem to have convinced themselves the unit isn't a major liability. At least not the kind that they could correct through the draft or free agency.
All of that will help determine if Goff's numbers bounce back to a level worthy of the $33.5 million-per-year extension he signed last September. Goff wasn't often the solution for the offense last season, but he was far from the problem some fans imagined. He'll be a playoff quarterback again if he gets enough help from the play-calling, ground game and offensive line. Key word: If.
In some ways, the Rams' defense outplayed the offense last season, yet they decided to move on from popular defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, 73, and hire former Bears and Broncos assistant Brandon Staley, 37, for his first pro coordinator job.
Staley immediately indicated he would keep the Rams' 3-4 primary alignment. We'll have to see what shape the defense takes, though, because he said that before the linebacker corps was weakened by the free-agent losses of Littleton from the inside and Fowler from the edge, plus the release of OLB Clay Matthews.
The defensive line will be solid again. Of course, Aaron Donald plus a fire hydrant and a candlestick would be solid. Michael Brockers re-signed, and former Lions tackle A'Shawn Robinson was added as a free agent during the short time when it appeared Brockers was going to the Ravens. Young Sebastian Joseph-Day and Greg Gaines remain in the mix in the line's interior.
The secondary can absorb the loss of slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman (whose option was declined) and safety Eric Weddle (retired). Shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey's presence makes everyone on the defense better, and Troy Hill stepped in with one of the league's lowest completions-against rates. Rookie Taylor Rapp led the team in tackles during the absence of injured John Johnson III, and now they'll form as a strong, young safety combo. Third-round pick Terrell Burgess (Utah) will be a valuable backup, able to play safety and slot corner.
One challenge is to restore consistency to the unit, which tripped up the team's late-season playoff run with a few terrible lapses. Another is to conjure up more timely, game-changing big plays, a shortage of which was one reason the team that staged an epic comeback in the 2018 NFC title game never overcame a deficit of more than four points to win in 2020.
But it all comes back to the linebackers. Replacing Littleton, a top-10 tackler the past two seasons, will fall to one of an inexperienced crew. Replacing Fowler, tied for fifth in the NFL in tackles for a loss, falls to former Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd or talented but unrefined third-round pick Terrell Lewis (Alabama). For the task of developing an edge rusher, Staley looks like the right man: He was Khalil Mack's position coach with the Bears and then was Von Miller's position coach with the Broncos.
The band broke up after eight years when Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel left for the same role with the Cowboys, and kicker Greg Zuerlein followed him to Dallas. Veteran NFL assistant John Bonamego comes in as coordinator needing to identify a kicker from among seventh-round draft pick Samuel Sloman and free-agent signings Lirim Hajrullahu (CFL) and Austin MacGinnis (XFL), and a kick and punt returner to replace JoJo Natson, who was waived. It might have been time for a change in the special teams anyway. Zuerlein misfired more than usual in 2019, and the unit went from elite to below average.
The expansion of the NFL playoffs from six to seven teams per conference comes at a good time for the Rams. They look no better than third in the league's toughest division and will need a lot to go right to return to contention this year. It's Goff's offense more than ever with Gurley gone, but he can't succeed unless an answer at running back emerges and the young interior of the offensive line improves. It's also Donald's defense more than ever, but he needs an edge rusher to take the pressure off. A year ago, the Rams faced questions about the imaginary Super Bowl Loser's Curse. Those were easy compared to the real challenges they face now.