Following an aggressive offseason, its Super Bowl or bust for the Rams
When Sean McVay became the youngest coach in NFL history last offseason, the first-time head man inherited a floundering franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs in over a decade. It took McVay exactly one season to win the NFC West, run away with NFL Coach of the Year honors and turn the Rams into Super Bowl contenders. You could call it a pretty successful debut.
But McVay and Co. have even more ambitious plans for Year 2. It’s Super Bowl or bust this season in L.A. That much was clear this offseason, when general manager Les Snead swung three trades for All-Pro players and then signed another All-Pro in free agency. The flurry of huge moves was a signal to the rest of the league: The Rams are going for it.
In the midst of one of the most profound turnarounds in NFL history, L.A. sure looks like a legitimate contender. Will its wunderkind coach continue to build on the insane success of his first season? Or could the Rams’ Super Bowl push be for naught? One thing is certain: All eyes will be on Los Angeles this season.
Before McVay took over, the Rams offense ranked dead last in the league. With averages of 262.7 yards and 14.0 points per game, Jeff Fisher’s final Rams team had one of the worst offenses the league had seen in years.
In just one year, McVay turned that moribund offense into an electrifying juggernaut that scored twice as many points and added just under 100 extra yards per game to its offensive production. Jared Goff emerged as one of the league’s best young quarterbacks. Todd Gurley bounced back from a down season to finish second in voting for league MVP. McVay’s offense, for all intents and purposes, was a revelation.
But will that success last? That depends largely on Goff, who took a huge leap in his sophomore season under McVay but will no longer have his quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator from a year ago. If he can iron out some of his inconsistencies, he could be even better in 2018. His progress could be directly tied to the Rams’ Super Bowl hopes.
He won’t have the services of Sammy Watkins, with whom he connected for eight touchdowns a year ago. But newly acquired wideout Brandin Cooks is a more-than-adequate replacement. An ideal deep threat for McVay’s offense, Cooks is one of four receivers in NFL history to record three seasons with 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns before turning 25. Odell Beckham Jr. and Randy Moss are two of the others.
Cooks has the speed to take the top off of defenses, leaving Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp to continue doing good work underneath and on intermediate routes. Unlike Watkins, Cooks is a bit more varied in his routes, adding another layer of confusion for defenses to deal with. If the Rams can get a meaningful contribution from their young tight ends, Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett, the passing game could be one of the league’s best.
Still, the main attraction on offense remains Gurley, who’s entering the last year of his deal in 2018. He’ll be motivated to prove that he’s the league’s best running back, deserving of a huge long-term extension. It’ll be hard to improve on his 2,093-yard, 19-touchdown campaign, but he’ll get every chance to as the centerpiece of an offense built to get him the ball and let him do his thing.
To replicate that sort of success, it’s going to require a clean bill of health from the offensive line. That’s no easy task for a group that relies heavily on contributions from a 36-year old left tackle (Andrew Whitworth) and a 32-year-old center (John Sullivan). Depth is a concern on the line, which is probably the biggest question mark for this offense and will be tested early with starting right guard Jamon Brown suspended the first two games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
The Rams don’t need to reinvent the wheel from a year ago. This was one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL in 2017, and if Cooks’ addition unlocks yet another facet of McVay’s system, it could be even more explosive in 2018.
It’s not often that a team adds three All-Pro players on one side of the ball. Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib were added via trade, and Ndamukong Suh was signed to a one-year deal, giving the Rams one of the league’s most aggressive, ball-hawking defenses. Peters has 19 interceptions in his three stellar seasons, while Talib has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past five seasons. Both are perfect fits for Wade Phillips’ scheme. Combined with star-in-the-making safety Lamarcus Joyner and sophomore cornerback John Johnson, the Rams could have the league’s most ferocious secondary.
That pairs quite nicely with an interior pass rush quite possibly unlike anything the NFL has ever seen. Fresh off another All-Pro season, dominant defensive tackle Aaron Donald will now form a tandem with Suh that should strike fear into the hearts of offensive linemen everywhere. Throw in the always-underrated Michael Brockers, and it’s unclear how defenses will handle the Rams’ multi-faceted interior rush.
More than likely, opposing offenses will respond by aiming for the edge, where the Rams are thin. Offseason trades sent veterans Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree packing, and the team didn’t exactly replace the vacancies at outside linebacker. The Rams weren’t all that concerned with going after linebackers in the draft, suggesting that they’re pleased with what they have at the position. They’ll count on young players such as Samson Ebukam, Cory Littleton and Matt Longacre to step up, and rookies Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Micah Kiser will be given a shot to contribute.
Their inexperience may not matter, given the sheer force of the defense’s interior rush. Donald, as the league’s best technician inside, and Suh, a sheer bull-rushing force, are perfect complements on the inside. And while Suh will play nose tackle, a position he didn’t play much in Miami, he expresses little concern about making an impact in his new role.
With so many players in new roles, it’s fair to wonder how all the new pieces might fit. In addition to big talent, the Rams added a few big personalities to their defense. Talib has had his share of issues. Peters irked team officials in Kansas City. Suh has rubbed people the wrong way both in Detroit and Miami. Some envision some problems. Phillips, meanwhile, sees the potential for an elite defense. “I want them to have personalities,” he says. “A lot of them are really good because of their personalities.”
Before a back injury prematurely ended his 2017 season, Greg Zuerlein was on pace for the greatest kicking campaign in NFL history. With two games remaining, Zuerlein finished eight points short of David Akers’ scoring record. He’ll get another chance to go for the record this season, provided his back cooperates -- and the Rams offense does too. With a better offense, punter Johnny Hekker wasn’t needed quite as often last season. But he remains an invaluable field position weapon and arguably the NFL’s best punter. At returner, Pharoh Cooper proved he was already one of the NFL’s best last season. Still, his two turnovers in the playoff loss last season loom large, and the Pro Bowl returner will be expected to right that wrong in 2018.
There’s no other way to interpret the Rams’ aggressive offseason: L.A. is aiming for the Super Bowl. A once-middling defense now might boast the best interior rush and secondary in the NFL. An explosive offense replaced one Pro Bowl vertical threat with another, better weapon and still has a 2,000-yard MVP candidate in the backfield. All signs point to the Rams continuing their NFC West supremacy and pushing toward a deep playoff run. But do they have enough for a Super Bowl run? In an insanely deep NFC race, they’re going to need all the weapons they can muster.