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Los Angeles Rams: 2022 Preseason Predictions and Preview

Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and the Rams are ready to run it back after winning the franchise's first Super Bowl title.

Rams players, coaches and fans celebrated their first Super Bowl victory as a Los Angeles team with a parade and rally outside the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, their old, on-and-off home. It was a reminder of the franchise's colorful, peripatetic past. It turned into a statement about the champions' hopes for the future.

"Run it back!" — that is, let's do this again — became the rally's motto and the chant after the on-stage moment when Sean McVay tried to goad Aaron Donald into affirming his commitment to trying for a Super Bowl repeat. The Rams coach's and defensive icon's commitment became official only after McVay heard TV networks offer commentator jobs, and Donald publicly considered retiring at 30.

Some elements of the title run are gone, like left tackle Andrew Whitworth, edge rusher Von Miller and wide receiver Robert Woods. But GM Les Snead's knack for bold, decisive moves means the offseason brought some improvements, too. As long as McVay is there with Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp powering the offense and Donald and Jalen Ramsey leading the defense, the Rams are threats to, indeed, run it back.

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OFFENSE

A year after the trade for Stafford that began the Rams' now-or-never push to win in the season SoFi Stadium hosted the Super Bowl, they made the offense his for the foreseeable future by signing the 34-year-old quarterback to a four-year contract extension in March. It's easy to forget, given the way Stafford led late game-winning drives against the Buccaneers and 49ers in the playoffs and the Bengals in the Super Bowl, that there's room for improvement. Stafford was only the second quarterback to win a Super Bowl in a season he led the NFL in interceptions (joining Eli Manning of the 2007 Giants).

Plenty already is changing around Stafford on the ninth-ranked offense, with Woods traded in a salary-cap-motivated move, ex-Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson II signed to a three-year deal, running back Cam Akers fully recovered from an Achilles tendon injury and two offensive-line positions in flux.

Receiving Triple Crown winner Kupp should remain Stafford's favorite target. Robinson, whose talent for winning jump balls enhances the downfield threat, provides more of a contrast in styles from Kupp than Woods did. Van Jefferson is penciled in as No. 3 wide receiver but could face a fight for snaps from second-year Ben Skowronek and Jacob Harris. As for Tutu Atwell, the Rams are still hoping he'll mature and stay healthy and vindicate spending a 2021 second-round draft pick on the diminutive speedster.

In the spring, Odell Beckham Jr. remained unsigned, but he could be a Ram again by the time his Super Bowl knee injury is healed, which is expected to be well into the season.

The Rams bid farewell to running back Sony Michel, who carried the Rams through some rough times before Akers returned to action surprisingly quickly late last season. Akers' production was disappointing in the postseason, and now he must return to form as a ball carrier and pass-catcher.

Whether the offensive line remains near the top of the league depends on Joe Noteboom, who is finally getting his turn replacing the retired Whitworth at left tackle, and Logan Bruss, the third-round draft pick from Wisconsin who'll get a shot at replacing free-agent departure Austin Corbett at right guard.

With Kevin O'Connell moving on to coach the Vikings, former Rams position coach Liam Coen returns to be offensive coordinator after a successful year in that role at Kentucky. But this remains McVay's playbook, and Stafford's offense on the field.

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DEFENSE

When Donald finished off the Super Bowl by forcing an incomplete pass with a ferocious rush on the Bengals' Joe Burrow, he capped the season-long improvement of a Rams defense that got off to an uncertain start in 2021 after ranking first in the league the year before.

New coordinator Raheem Morris kept Brandon Staley's 3-4 base scheme and emphasis on position flexibility. The November trade for Miller improved a pass rush that already featured Donald and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. Still, the defense ranked only 17th in 2021 and quickly faced the free-agent departures of Miller and cornerback Darious Williams.

The Rams didn't replace Miller with a signing or draft pick and will hope that 2020 waiver pickup Justin Hollins or injury-plagued 2020 third-round pick Terrell Lewis can step up on that edge.

But they improved their inside linebacking corps by signing free agent Bobby Wagner, who was motivated in part by a return to his native Southern California. Snead always regretted not drafting Wagner eight picks before the Seahawks got him in the second round in 2012, and McVay hated game-planning against him. Now he's a Ram, teaming with second-year Ernest Jones at linebacker, and the inside run defense will be better for it.

The Rams did replace Williams by re-acquiring cornerback Troy Hill in a trade with the Browns on the same day they drafted four defensive backs. Hill became a big-play machine in 2020, leading the league in non-offensive touchdowns by running back two interceptions and one fumble. Anything like that would make a difference for a defense that didn't score a touchdown in 2021.

The secondary is marked by depth, important after safeties Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp both ended the season on IR, and versatility. Ramsey, with back-to-back All-Pro honors, should be hitting his prime and finding new ways to change games after not only ranking among the leaders in passes defended but also tying for the lead among defensive backs in tackles for a loss (nine) in '21.

Depth behind Donald, Greg Gaines and A'Shawn Robinson could be an issue on the defensive line, but Donald gives it league-leading talent all by himself. Now 31, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year says he sometimes takes longer to recover now. Nobody else can see a difference in his famous physique or his performance.

The Rams' defense has a chance to be one of the best in the league again.

SPECIALISTS

It's a new era in the Rams' kicking game after the release of the high-paid Johnny Hekker following yards-per-punt declines in the last two years of his decade in St. Louis and L.A. Like the defense, the Rams special teams had a new coordinator last season in Joe DeCamillis and got better as the championship season went on. By the end, kicker Matt Gay had become a hero of playoff wins over the Buccaneers and 49ers and a Pro Bowl selection, and punt and kick returner Brandon Powell had provided a game-breaking threat. The Rams picked up Riley Dixon, released by the Giants, but he should have training-camp competition to fill Hekker's punting shoe.

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Rams are well aware that no team has repeated as Super Bowl winners since the 2003-04 Patriots and Tom Brady. This time, the Rams won't feel the urgency that came from trying to reach Super Bowl LVI on home turf at SoFi Stadium. But they should be ready to face the challenge because they have high-character leaders, and McVay is good at reading and reacting to the team's moods.

Sixteen of 22 starters remain, and three of the other six spots were arguably upgraded with the additions of Robinson, Wagner and Hill. They'll need Stafford, Kupp, Donald and Ramsey to stay healthy again, which would be no mean feat after they felt the strain of pro football's longest-ever season in 2021. If Snead's moves click again, McVay's and Morris' game-planning shines and their many stars align, the Rams can plan another parade next February.

Prediction: 1st in NFC West