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NFC West Preview: Five storylines to watch for the Los Angeles Rams

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NFL: Los Angeles Rams-OTA Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We’re roughly a month-and-a-half away from the first preseason game of the 2017 NFL season, so let’s continue examining the developing storylines for our NFC West rivals. I’ve already covered the Arizona Cardinals, so let’s take a look at the Los Angeles Rams. They finally got rid of Jeff Fisher before they could wrap up a dismal 4-12 season, but will the fresh-faced rookie Sean McVay be any better?

Wade’s World

With Jeff Fisher fired, that means defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ “If he didn’t die, it’s a clean play” scheme is mercifully out of here. Unfortunately, Williams’ replacement is the great Wade Phillips, who was the architect of Denver’s Super Bowl-winning defense. While Wade no longer has Von Miller or that terrific secondary, he does inherit Robert Quinn and Aaron Donald, because of course he does.

The plan is for Quinn to move to OLB under this 3-4 system (which doesn’t change his role that much), with Lamarcus Joyner moving to safety alongside Maurice Alexander. Nickell Robey-Coleman is expected to be the CB2, opposite Trumaine Johnson. Perhaps their biggest defensive acquisition was former Texans and Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin, who gets to be reunited with Phillips. He’s only three seasons removed from a career-high 14.5 sacks, but he wasn’t as productive in 2015 or 2016.

It’s an incredibly small sample size, but the one time the Seahawks played against a Wade Phillips defense under Russell Wilson, they were held to less than 100 net yards passing in the famous 23-20 overtime win in Houston. Now this Seahawks offense has to face a Phillips-coached defense twice a year, and if recent history is a guide, there’s a pretty good chance the Rams will be top-10 in DVOA this season.

Wade Phillips defensive rankings (2011-2013 HOU, 2015-2016 DEN)

Season Defense DVOA Pass DVOA Rush DVOA
Season Defense DVOA Pass DVOA Rush DVOA
2011 6 7 6
2012 4 4 5
2013 18 24 12
2014 N/A N/A N/A
2015 1 1 4
2016 1 1 21
Stats courtesy of Football Outsiders

A revamped offensive line

The 2016 Rams offense was a disaster. Reasons include “everything” and “anything.” Their terrible offensive line ranked 29th in run-blocking and pass-blocking DVOA, which meant bad quarterbacks dealing with pressure they’re not capable of beating, and a promising running back in Todd Gurley who had a major sophomore slump. Not a single Rams RB had a carry of at least 25 yards all season, and their longest rush was 30 by wide receiver Tavon Austin.

Los Angeles addressed their o-line needs by signing former Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency. He was second-team All-Pro in 2014, then upgraded to first-team in 2015. Although Whitworth has played at a high-level for years, he is going to be 36 years old in December, so I don’t know how much longer he’ll be able to defy the aging curve.

Rodger Saffold is expected to retain his spot at left guard, with John Sullivan as the center, Rob Havenstein moving from right tackle to right guard, and I assume it’s an open competition for right tackle after they jettisoned Greg Robinson to Detroit.

Maybe it wasn’t all the o-line’s fault for Todd Gurley’s struggles?

Todd Gurley won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2015, but averaged a pitiful 3.2 yards-per-carry in the 2016 campaign. The prevailing belief is that the blocking woes severely hampered Gurley, which led to numbers that frankly weren’t that different from Trent Richardson’s best season. I did stumble across this little nugget from ESPN:

ESPN NFL Insider K.C. Joyner tracks the situations when running backs receive good blocking via a stat called good blocking yards per attempt. Good blocking, in this instance, roughly refers to the times when offenses do not allow defenses to disrupt a rush attempt. In 2015, while on his way to being named Offensive Rookie of the Year, Gurley averaged 10.9 good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) on 73 carries, the highest rate in the NFL. In 2016, Gurley averaged 6.8 GBYPA on 101 carries, 38th among the 43 running backs with triple-digit good blocking attempts.

This validates what Rams tackle Jamon Brown alluded to at the end of the 2016 season, when he talked about how Gurley and the offensive line "have to get back on the same page." Six weeks after that, running backs coach Skip Peete said sometimes Gurley went away from the playcall.

If the o-line improves as expected but Gurley is unable to recapture his rookie form, then perhaps there’s considerable cause for concern that he isn’t developing as they’d hoped.

Jared Goff is going to be better than that, right? RIGHT?!

At Washington, Sean McVay was able to mold Kirk Cousins into a quarterback who is at least comfortably in the top-half of his field. Cousins at his worst was never even half as bad as Jared Goff’s rookie season. Comfortably last in DYAR, extremely last in DVOA, distantly last in QBR, a sub-55% completion percentage in an era where it’s never been easier to at least reach 60%, and historically inept DVOA when facing pressure in his face. Goff looked like he had no business being in the NFL, so he’s under the gun to improve to at least “fairly mediocre” status.

As for Goff’s set of targets to throw to this year, LA drafted tight-end Gerald Everett in the 2nd round, Eastern Washington WR Cooper Kupp in the 3rd, and Texas A&M WR Josh Reynolds in the 4th. They also added ex-Bills wideout Robert Woods on an absurd 5-year, $39 million deal with $15 million guaranteed. The Rams did lose wide receiver Kenny Britt to the Browns, and also dumped the inconsistent tight-end Josh Kendricks.

Is Tavon “Career average of 9.1 yards-per-catch” Austin ever going to justify that stupid 4-year, $42 million contract extension Les Snead gave him?

Nope.

Los Angeles Rams schedule (all times PT)

vs. Indianapolis Colts (1:05 PM)
vs. Washington Redskins (1:25 PM)
at San Francisco 49ers (5:25 PM, Thursday Night Football)
at Dallas Cowboys (10:00 AM)
vs. Seattle Seahawks (1:05 PM)
at Jacksonville Jaguars (1:05 PM)
vs. Arizona Cardinals (10 AM, London)
BYE (October 29th)
at New York Giants (10 AM)
vs. Houston Texans (1:05 PM)
at Minnesota Vikings (10 AM)
vs. New Orleans Saints (1:05 PM)
at Arizona Cardinals (1:25 PM)
vs. Philadelphia Eagles (1:25 PM)
at Seattle Seahawks (1:05 PM)
at Tennessee Titans (10 AM)
vs. San Francisco 49ers (1:25 PM)