New time. New town. New quarterback. But will they be the same old Rams? That’s the question as the franchise returns to Los Angeles after 21 seasons in St. Louis.
The logistics have been complicated, with the team holding spring OTAs and minicamps in one location, training camp in another and regular-season practices in a third. But once it comes to the football, the mission is straightforward. The Rams are counting on stout defense, a strong running game and improved quarterback play to end a streak of 12 consecutive non-winning seasons and 11 straight non-playoff campaigns.
The results could have a lot to say about whether coach Jeff Fisher is around in 2017. He quickly got the Rams back to respectability in his inaugural season in St. Louis (2012), but the program has been struck in neutral ever since. Not many coaches get to stick around after four straight losing seasons. Fisher doesn’t want to test his luck with a fifth.
History shows that a running back coming back from an ACL injury is usually better the second year after surgery. The Rams hope that’s the case with Todd Gurley, because he was better than expected his first season back, topping 1,000 yards in 13 games and earning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. The hope is that Gurley has even more acceleration than he showed in 2015. He needs to stay healthy, because there’s a big drop-off behind him on the depth chart in the disappointing Tre Mason and the workmanlike Benny Cunningham.
The line should be better, but you can expect growing pains because it’s still one of the league’s more inexperienced units. Two keys here: 1.) Left tackle Greg Robinson must progress from his disappointing 2015 season, which included way too many breakdowns in pass protection and way too many penalties. 2.) Guard Rodger Saffold, who has Pro Bowl potential in terms of strength and athleticism, needs to stay healthy. He has played a full 16 games only twice in six NFL seasons and has undergone shoulder surgery in each of the past two seasons.
At wide receiver, the team didn’t do much to address a glaring need for a difference-maker on the outside. Fourth-round pick Pharoh Cooper has potential, but he’s best suited for the slot. So it’s up to veteran Kenny Britt and Brian Quick to play better than ever on the outside. It was surprising to see the team even bring Quick back after a highly disappointing 2015 season coming off a severe shoulder injury. That leaves it up to Tavon Austin, who did score 10 touchdowns a year ago, to be at his elusive best on bubble screens, gadget plays and punt returns. For all of Jared Cook’s problems with consistency and drops, he averaged 47 catches for nearly 600 yards over the past three seasons. Whether it’s veteran Lance Kendricks or draft picks Tyler Higbee and Temarrick Hemingway, that production has to come from somewhere now that Cook is playing in Green Bay.
Fisher says he won’t play quarterback Jared Goff until he’s ready. But do you really trade up to No. 1 overall — and give away a boatload of draft picks in the process — to let a franchise quarterback sit? So look for Goff to be the opening-day starter. Veteran backup Case Keenum is long on intangibles and leadership, but short on arm strength and, to a degree, accuracy.
For the last several years, this group has shown flashes of great promise but has fallen short of expectations. Now in its third year under the tutelage of creative coordinator Gregg Williams, the Rams’ defense has a new look. Four starters from recent years are gone in cornerback Janoris Jenkins, free safety Rodney McLeod, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and end Chris Long. The Rams willingly moved on from Laurinaitis and Long, the team’s longest-tenured players prior to their release in February. Injuries robbed Long of his effectiveness the past two seasons, and the Rams felt that Laurinaitis had lost a step in coverage and that it was time for a change. “Country strong” and one of the team’s emotional leaders, William Hayes has filled in admirably for Long the past two seasons and now becomes a full-time starter.
At linebacker, the key is Alec Ogletree’s ability to replace Laurinaitis in the middle, in terms of physical play and in making important pre-snap checks and adjustments and filling a leadership role. The Rams are betting that Mark Barron, who flourished in a hybrid linebacker-safety role last season, can do the same over a full 16 games as an undersized weak-side linebacker.
The front four should once again be formidable, particularly if two-time Pro Bowler Robert Quinn returns to form after missing half of last season with a back injury. Aaron Donald, the 2014 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a difference-maker inside paired with former first-round pick Michael Brockers, who does a lot of the dirty work taking on extra blockers. The Rams also signed 2014 first-round pick Dominique Easley, who was released in April by New England. The former Patriot has struggled with injuries, but could be a real steal if he’s finally able to maximize on the potential that made him a high draft pick.
The secondary will have two new starters, with E.J. Gaines expected to replace the departed Jenkins at one corner. Gaines was a steady rookie surprise in 2014 then missed the entire ’15 season with a foot injury. Trumaine Johnson, who received the franchise tag in the offseason, must now step up as the team’s top corner after a breakout 2015 season in which he shared the NFC interception lead with seven. Johnson is playing with more confidence and a more physical style; he’s always had good ball skills. But free safety remains an issue with the departure of McLeod to Philadelphia in free agency. Maurice Alexander is one possibility, but his skill set is more suited to strong safety. There has been some talk of moving Lamarcus Joyner back to safety from nickel back.
The Rams have a gem in Johnny Hekker, already a two-time Pro Bowler after just four years in the league and a punter who combines distance with directional skills. Hekker is one of the rare punters who can consistently flip field position, and his passing exploits make him a threat on trick plays. The outlook is murkier when it comes to placekicker Greg Zuerlein, who has yet to fulfill the great promise he showed early in his rookie season of 2012. Zuerlein has great leg strength, and Fisher’s confident enough to use him from long distance. But his accuracy suffered a year ago, and this will be a key preseason for him to regain his touch.
Austin can be one of the league’s most dangerous punt return men, but he still needs to be more decisive and do a better job fielding short kicks. The Rams seemingly search for a new kickoff returner every year, but it always ends up being Cunningham, who isn’t a home-run threat by any means but always seems to get the ball out to the 25 or 30.
The ingredients are there to compete for a playoff berth given the Rams’ frontline talent — if they can get consistent quarterback play. But that’s a big “if” over a full season. Depth is a real issue at linebacker and defensive tackle. And heaven help these guys if something happens to Gurley. The momentum of a new home and the joy of having the NFL back in Los Angeles could carry the team to some early victories. It had that effect 21 years ago when the new home was St. Louis. But sooner or later the talent must take over. And once again there’s a fine line between success for these Rams and yet another losing season.