(John and I ended up writing similar articles at the same time, without knowing it, so I’m just posting the articles close together instead of spread randomly a day or two apart. Read both!)
If there’s a logical pick right now for the 2018 NFC West champions, the LA Rams would be it. Not only did the Rams win the division by two games last season, but they did so on the back of something very key to a franchise improving rather than remaining stagnant or moving backwards: Youth.
Jared Goff and Todd Gurley were only 23. Aaron Donald, 26. Cooper Kupp and Jamon Brown, 24. Lamarcus Joyner and Michael Brockers, 27. Rob Havenstein and Robert Woods, 25. John Johnson and Pharoh Cooper, just 22. Added to the mix is Marcus Peters, who just turned 25. That’s twelve good players, 27 or younger, who are supposed to return next season. Not to discount veterans like Andrew Whitworth, John Sullivan, Rodger Saffold, Mark Barron, and Aqib Talib, or key role players with room for more, like Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Kayvon Webster. This week, that group got even more talented with the one-year addition of Ndamukong Suh, a 31-year-old building a Hall of Fame resume.
The Rams are good on paper, and the rightful favorites in an NFC West that doesn’t have an obvious contender to dethrone LA from their 2017 heights. But if we’re being totally objective, then we can’t ignore the flaws that the Rams have right now, and this isn’t picking nits. Sean McVay — a head coach with all of 17 games of experience — has plenty left to do before he turns this “winner of the arms race” (a title that rarely did the Seahawks any favors over the last four seasons) into an actual NFL games winner.
Most people are looking at the Rams with the glass half full, especially with rumors out there that on top of Peters, Talib, and Suh, that LA is trying to acquire Odell Beckham, Jr., but how does this picture look when asking yourself: “What’s going on with that part of the glass that’s only holding air?”
Where Youth Does Not Exist
As John Gilbert has noted several times, Andrew Whitworth is the oldest offensive lineman in the NFL, and that was true last season. Meaning that in 2018, Whitworth could have an even larger gap between him and the next-oldest lineman (therefore, usually, the oldest players in the NFL who aren’t kickers, punters, or quarterbacks) and that’s not something to be ignored. Whitworth turns 37 in December and the last offensive lineman of that age to start 16 games was Casey Wiegmann in 2011, when he was 38. Before that, Kevin Mawae was a regular until he was 38 and Chris Gray started 16 games at guard for the Seahawks in 2007, when he was 37.
The point isn’t that it’s impossible, the point is that it’s rare. Whitworth could have another three years left at a high level (Bruce Matthews made the Pro Bowl at guard or center every year from when he was 27 until he was 40) or he could go the way of almost every tackle in history and be nearing his end. The last pure tackle, age 37 or older, to start a full season was Lomas Brown in 2001 with the Giants.
With that in mind, center John Sullivan, credited as a key part of LA’s turnaround on the offensive line in 2017, is turning 33 in August. He’s about two years removed from microfracture surgery that caused the Vikings to release him and Washington to use him as only a backup in 2016. LA’s backup center position could prove to be a more important position for the Rams than backup center is for most teams.
Here's what the Rams offensive line depth chart looks like in 2019:— Ryan McCrystal (@Ryan_McCrystal) March 21, 2018
LT - 37-year-old Andrew Whitworth
LG - free agent
C - 33-year old John Sullivan
RG - free agent
RT - free agent
Think they might draft a lineman or two this year?
And while age may not prove to be a factor for Suh (31) and Talib (32), they’re undeniably at that stage where age does begin to become a consideration. If you were worried about Richard Sherman’s age (30) or injury history, note that many of LA’s new acquisitions carry similar or worse circumstances.
Will The New Players Even Fit?
If it seems “obvious” to you that there’s no way that talented additions can be disappointments, or that the Rams would not have signed them if they didn’t fit into what they’d do, I’d wonder if you’ve monitored NFL transactions at all over the past “X” number of years. Choose a year, and I’ll point you to a free agent signee, trade acquisition, or draftee who ended up making absolutely zero sense for what that team ultimately ended up wanting to do on offense or defense.
DeMarco Murray or Nnamdi Asomugha on the Eagles.
Jimmy Graham or Percy Harvin on the Seahawks.
Almost any player the Giants signed in 2016.
I think what is most exciting for Rams’ fans might be the stability they currently have on offense: The continuity on the offensive line (all five starters return), plus Goff, Gurley, Everett, and Higbee. They’re also set to bring back their top two receivers, Woods and Kupp, with the only major shift being the loss of Sammy Watkins on the outside.
Defensively, however, there are a lot of changes: Robert Quinn, Connor Barwin, Alec Ogletree, Trumaine Johnson are all out, while Brockers has been replaced at nose tackle by Suh. Two new starting corners and four new starters in the front-seven. It could work out, but if continuity on offense is good, then certainly a myriad of change on defense could have negative consequences. The most important thing may just be that those players are healthy and available during training camp and spring training, giving them that much more time to gel together on the field.
The Rams’ Obvious Faults That We’re Often Ignoring
It’s easy to talk about the “good” changes because that allows the imagination to run wild over what Suh next to Donald or Peters playing for Wade Phillips could look like, but what we do far less often is imagine what the “bad” changes or losses could do.
LA lost Watkins to free agency (after apparently hoping they could retain him, but I think smartly letting him walk over a $16 million APY) and unless they trade for Beckham (unlikely and not free) they haven’t done anything to replace him. His production may have been 593 yards, but consider where the Rams must turn to next after Kupp and Woods: Josh Reynolds is the only other receiver on the roster who caught a touchdown (1) last season. The others currently on the roster are Tavon Austin, Mike Thomas, Pharoh Cooper, and Fred Brown.
Cooper had 11 catches for 84 yards. Thomas had five for 93. Reynolds had 11 for 104. Austin had 13 for 47.
Forgetting that Kupp and Woods are both limited and potentially too similar to one another, it’s still entirely possible that LA has enough pass catchers for 2018 with those two, Gurley, Everett, and Higbee. I mean, Seattle won a Super Bowl with Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate. But the Rams would be going after OBJ for a reason: That they still lack a true number one threat, the threats they do have are mostly unproven past this most recent season, and the depth is downright bad.
Less concerning — but always a consideration for every team — is: “Can the running back remain healthy and consistently good?” Gurley was the only back to top 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2017, after the only player to do that in 2016 was David Johnson. Of course, Johnson missed all of 2017. Nobody did it in 2015, but in 2014 it was Murray (aforementioned failed season in Philly followed that) and Le’Veon Bell, who missed 10 games the following year.
In 2013, it was LeSean McCoy, and he followed his 2,146-yard season with 1,474 yards. In 2012, it was Adrian Peterson and he went from 2,314 yards to 1,437 yards. Ray Rice went from 2,068 yards in 2011 to 1,621 yards in 2012. These are all of the 2,000-yard backs in the previous six seasons. They all got hurt or lost roughly 25-40% of their production the following year.
Is it so hard to believe that Gurley, who averaged 3.2 YPC in 2016, could revert back to having a 1,200-1,400-yard season? That would be good, but let’s acknowledge that it is 1,400 yards and not necessarily another 2,093-yard season like many are projecting.
Finally on offense, we can’t give a total pass to Jared Goff. He was the worst quarterback in the NFL in 2016, which is understandable for a rookie, and then very decent in 2017, which is encouraging for his believers. His development curve is where it is supposed to be at, but there are a lot more questions as to the future of Goff than there are with most QBs in the NFC: Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith, and Eli Manning are all far more established. Goff may turn out to be better than some of them, but we at least know where many of them stand, which is not nearly the case with Goff yet. Is he even going to be better than Carson Wentz, the QB who went directly after him? What about Dak Prescott? What if Mitch Trubisky has the same second-season step forward that Goff had? And where do you rank Goff in relation to Jimmy Garoppolo?
I’d be curious to see where people rank Goff among the NFC quarterbacks after actually reading through who the NFC quarterbacks are expected to be. Better than Sam Bradford and ... who else?
15 expected NFC QBs:— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) March 28, 2018
Curious: Where do you rank Goff among NFC QBs?
We may be living in an era where a conference has never been so stacked at quarterback, but it’s worth acknowledging that the Rams probably don’t have a top-10 QB within that conference. They might only have the third-best QB in their own division. I consider the Keenum-Foles-Bortles-Brady conference championship weekend to be one of the true anomalies of NFL playoffs history, so I’d still say that for Goff and the Rams to make it deep in the playoffs, he’ll need to take huge strides forward or he’ll need the defense to be truly exceptional.
Which they might be, but don’t gloss over the aging offensive line, the lack of proven talent and depth at receiver, and the fact that you can never put too much stock into a single running back.
Let’s talk about that defense too though.
Suh-Donald-Brockers-Barron-Peters-Talib-Joyner-Johnson seems a good octet to start your defense with, but it’ll really have to be. Ethan Westbrooks leaves a lot to be desired on the edge after trading Robert Quinn. Playing in Phillips’ 3-4 defense, that leaves plenty of room for the linebackers to get involved, but in LA’s case that includes Samson Ebukam (fourth round pick in 2017), Matt Longacre (UDFA with one career start), and Bryce Hager (former seventh rounder with one career start). Maybe linebacker won’t turn out to be a weakness. Maybe linebacker will be a weakness and it won’t matter because they’re stout up front and blanketing players deep. But LA, like Seattle, started shedding talent (Quinn, Ogletree, Barwin) because they wanted talent elsewhere.
So yes, they added talent, but they also lost some too, and the replacements look like replacements.
Let’s also keep in mind that the new guys have had serious issues with behavior in the past: Ndamukong Suh. Aqib Talib. Marcus Peters. All of these players have shown rare talent and had their former teams move on from them much sooner than anyone ever expected because those franchises tired of the behavioral issues, to some degree. The Rams took them all on. They’re not worried about behavioral issues. Maybe they have a great plan for that. Maybe it’ll work. But the risk is much more present than most have readily acknowledged.
Everything considered, I would think at the moment — before the draft (Rams pick 23rd, traded their 2nd rounder to the Bills for Watkins, and then 87th in the third) — that LA seems poised to be a more talented team than the 2017 Eagles, and much more so than the Philly team that went into the playoffs with Nick Foles. One huge advantage to that Eagles team was having the number one seed; it gave them a bye week, a home divisional game, and a home game in the conference championship against the Vikings. The Rams, like any team, will desperately want that number one seed if they want to reach the Super Bowl. And their schedule is set to put them to a sincerely difficult test: Packers, Vikings, Chiefs, Chargers, Eagles, Saints, Broncos, Raiders, Lions, Bears, Seahawks, Seahawks, 49ers, 49ers, Cardinals, Cardinals.
That’s a tough road for all the NFC West teams, which is not so much the case for some really good teams within the conference.
I think it’ll be a minor upset (acknowledging that we are only in March) if any team from the West gets a bye week in the NFC. I think the AFC West is the best division in the AFC and the NFC North has two obvious Super Bowl contenders and one Super Bowl sleeper. So if you think I’m writing about the Rams in a negative way and just “hating” because I’m a Seahawks fan, I’m in fact telling you that I think all the teams in the division are a little more screwed than the rest of the conference, including Seattle. And I’ll go a step further and say that Seattle is more screwed, because the Seahawks have a clearly large gap in talent to make up between themselves and LA. They didn’t even get that much of a break in their non-common opponents, with the Seahawks having to face the Cowboys and Panthers, who I think could end up being just as good as the Eagles and Vikings, if not better.
So how much better did the LA Rams get this offseason? I honestly wonder if they’ll be able to top their 11-5 record from 2017. The Rams were already first in scoring, sixth in offensive DVOA, sixth on defensive DVOA, and third against the pass by DVOA. Third against the pass. This was a great pass defense already, and they decimated their cornerbacks group. Many would argue that Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are much more talented than Trumaine Johnson and the combination of Webster and Robey-Coleman, but the results were already there.
If they think that’s going to be as effective as Jalen Ramsey/A.J. Bouye, I think they’ll end up disappointed. So they could remain a top-3 pass defense and not have improved all that much.
Offensively, they’ve already featured an MVP-type season from the running back and a 100.5 rating from the quarterback, so what’s honestly next? I think there’s reason to believe that both could still be “good” while also taking a couple of steps back. They could improve their efficiency on offense, and that would be good, but it’s not likely to top their 29.9 PPG output from a year ago. All of that got them to 11-5 last season and I’d say this season’s schedule is much tougher.
That’s why my guess is that they’d likely top out at 11 wins, which is still very good, and probably good enough to win the division. But won’t likely improve their road in the playoffs, which proves insurmountable for most teams. Good enough to make the playoffs, maybe not good enough to go deep into the playoffs; that’s about as half-full/half-empty as you can get.