The Rams’ blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford has souped up their offense and allowed them to dream of playing in the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in February. But to match what the Buccaneers and Tom Brady did last season by winning a Super Bowl on home turf, the Rams need a lot more to go right than one fortuitous trade.
They need free-agent acquisition DeSean Jackson to stay healthy and provide the long-missing deep receiving threat, the running game to produce without the services of last season's leading rusher, and the offensive line to overcome age and injury worries.
They need defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey to maintain the standards of last year’s league-leading defense after opponents poached several of the unit’s on-field leaders and its innovative coordinator.
And they need smart work from the coaching staff after Sean McVay took the departures of seven assistants as a chance to make sweeping changes in his sideline roster.
Super or not, one thing the Stafford-led Rams should be is more fun to watch.
Getting the passing attack back up near the top of the league is vital if the Rams want to improve on last season’s 10 wins and first-round playoff victory.
General manager Les Snead pounced on “a chance to go from good to great” at quarterback when Stafford asked the Lions to trade him just as the Rams were wondering whether to move on from Jared Goff. Then Snead used the one major free agent signing the Rams could squeeze under the salary cap to acquire Jackson, the NFL’s active leader in yards per catch. And finally, he used the Rams’ first draft pick, 57th overall, not to restock the defense but to take 5'9", 155-pound wide receiver Tutu Atwell — a player McVay referred to as “DeSean Jackson Jr.” — to add yet another deep threat.
Those additions can give McVay’s offense the “explosives” he craves, while wide receiver Robert Woods and slot receiver Cooper Kupp, both in the top 10 in the league in yards after the catch, continue to command underneath and intermediate routes.
Something to watch is how McVay uses tight ends and how much Tyler Higbee can produce after playing through injuries last year. The departure of free agent Gerald Everett could reduce the use of two-tight-end sets. Or second-year Brycen Hopkins could be ready to slip into Everett’s receiving gloves.
The Rams were hoping for big things from second-year running back Cam Akers, who emerged from a three-man committee to average 92 yards over his last seven games (one of which was a 171-yard showing). Unfortunately, Akers tore his Achilles in a workout prior to the start of training camp and is out for the season. Darrell Henderson Jr. will be asked to take on a heavier load and someone else on the roster will need to emerge as a reliable complement. That could be former Patriot Sony Michel, who the Rams acquired in a trade during the preseason.
On the offensive line, the Rams are making a bet that they have everybody they need in-house, not adding a lineman during the major signing period or in the draft. That’s risky: Center Austin Blythe departed in free agency; backup Brian Allen missed all of 2020 with a knee injury; and left tackle Andrew Whitworth turns 40 in December and is coming off a knee injury.
McVay plans to give offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell a bigger role in play-calling in his second season with the Rams after the team exercised its right to block him from interviewing for a lateral move to the Chargers. But this remains McVay’s offense. It has the talent and onus to improve.
For the Rams’ defense, a successful 2020 season led to an offseason of changes. The team paid the price for success when the Chargers snapped up defensive coordinator Brandon Staley to be their head coach, and other teams signed safety (and defensive signal-caller) John Johnson III, cornerback Troy Hill, valuable lineman Morgan Fox and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam. Topping it off, the franchise’s salary-cap squeeze prompted Snead to trade defensive end (and beloved locker-room leader) Michael Brockers.
What’s amazing is how much the NFL’s top defense in 2020 still has going for it. The Rams allowed only 4.6 yards per play, a third of a yard better than anyone in the league. New defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, the former Bucs head coach, has said he’ll keep the 3-4 base scheme that the Rams played under Staley and Wade Phillips before him. Morris would do well to keep Staley’s emphasis on position flexibility.
When your best players are three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year defensive tackle Donald and two-time All-Pro cornerback Ramsey, you get as much as you can out of them. And you watch them make their teammates better, something that happened for the Rams on their way to allowing the fewest points and yards in the league in 2020.
Donald is one big reason, of course, that the Rams will again be one of the toughest teams to run against. Another is the continued emergence of Sebastian Joseph-Day, the line’s leading tackler last season. Brockers’ vacancy will be filled in part by a full season of A’Shawn Robinson, who missed much of 2020 with a heart condition, and in part by draftees Bobby Brown III and Earnest Brown IV.
The Rams made their biggest financial commitment during free agent season to re-sign edge rusher Leonard Floyd after he took advantage of his pass-rush partnership with Donald and recorded a career-high 10.5 sacks to go with Donald’s 13.5. Candidates to replace Ebukam on the other side include second-year Terrell Lewis (whose college injury woes continued), Justin Hollins and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.
The Rams have enough depth and versatility in the secondary to weather the losses of Hill and Johnson, both of whom were signed by the Browns.
Darious Williams, who joined Ramsey among the 10 cornerbacks allowing the lowest passer rating on balls thrown their way, signed on as a restricted free agent for one more season of manning the outside. David Long Jr., drafted in the third round in 2019, will get first crack at Hill’s former position. Terrell Burgess is a safety who also can play in the slot.
If Burgess ends up in the slot, Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller will be the safeties. Each has had ups and downs, but they’re young and show enough promise to deserve the role.
It might be too much to expect the defense to be as good as a year ago. But if the offense is more consistent, it won’t have to be.
Veteran NFL special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis takes over for John Bonamego and must restore the pride in a unit that bottomed out in 2020 after the departures of popular coordinator John Fassel and kicker Greg Zuerlein. Punter Johnny Hekker looks to bounce back from an off year by the standards of a four-time All-Pro. The Bills brought in Corey Bojorquez to compete with him. A full season of kicker Matt Gay will prevent the PAT and field-goal anxiety of early 2020. Improving coverage was a focus in the draft, where the Rams chose a handful of experienced college special teamers.
Whoever returns punts and kicks must do better than Nsimba Webster last season, whether that’s Jackson, Atwell, Raymond Calais or Webster again.
McVay has the team he wants, and he’s willing to accept the added pressure of expectations. L.A., home of the 2020 champion Lakers and Dodgers, wants its teams to win as well as entertain. It’s no sure thing the Rams will survive the ultra-competitive NFC West, let alone the postseason gauntlet. But anything short of a deep playoff run will be considered a failure, and the questions for McVay could get more difficult.