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The Lookaround: The state of the LA Rams

Houston Texans v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

I feel like this is a reference that works, and only works, in a Seattle-based environment like FieldGulls, but growing up I used to listen to The T-Man every morning. The T-Man will always be one of my main reference points for region-based nostalgia, especially in my teens and early 20s, as well as the many characters who’d drop in and out of his morning radio show. (“in weather like this....eating a HAM sammich!”)

The T-Man (whose real name is Rob Tepper, if I remember correctly) was like a Howard Stern-lite that never quite took off nationally — though I think he was talented enough to do so — and for some reason one thing he used to always say that has stuck with me through the years has been this: someone in every relationship is always doing the other person a favor. Every relationship has one person doing the other a favor, there are no “equals.” I don’t want to get into examples because that’s kind of mean, but I think you get the idea.

I guess a non-mean example could involve fictional characters, so I think in The Office you could say that Angela was doing Dwight a favor by being in a relationship with him. It’s almost always a subtle favor, but in every relationship someone is “winning” and someone is “losing.”

I think this is just as true in the NFL, where the most important relationship of all could be the head coach and the quarterback; and in all of those instances, someone is doing the other a favor, helping them look a little bit better than they actually are. Which brings us to the LA Rams.

Sean McVay is certainly doing Jared Goff a favor.

Every successful NFL franchise, with few exceptions, is getting by on either its head coach or its quarterback. Usually it’s a bit of both but there’s always going to be a lean to one or the other. In the case of the New England Patriots, it’s more Bill Belichick than it is Tom Brady, but the reason they’ve had the greatest run in league history is that they’re both phenomenal. Peyton Manning always did his coaches a favor. Aaron Rodgers is doing Mike McCarthy a favor. I think it’s most often the quarterback, but not always.

Tom Coughlin did Eli Manning a favor. Mike Tomlin is doing Ben Roethlisberger a favor. Doug Pederson may be trending towards doing all of Philadelphia a favor. There’s some question there, but there’s little doubt that McVay is the reason the LA Rams are expected to win the division and compete for a Super Bowl this year. Goff is his main area of concern, but the Rams have invested tens upon tens of millions of dollars into the roster this offseason, and they’ve really focused on winning right now.

It still likely depends on what we see next from Goff. So how are things going with LA this past month as training camp and preseason has transpired? Besides any Aaron Donald holdout talk, here’s some thoughts and observations, with help from Turf Show Times’ Joe McAtee.

Offensive line having issues?

The Rams are expected to have one of the best left tackles in the game with Andrew Whitworth, their big free agent signing of 2017, but Joe says that Whitworth is in fact starting to show his 37 years. He also notes that other than Rob Havenstein, who was signed to a big contract extension earlier this month, the rest of the offensive line for 2019 and beyond is in doubt:

The Rams got extremely fortunate that the two free agents they signed last year, LT Andrew Whitworth and C John Sullivan, played well and played every game. It sets up the two-year window here where they’re going to have to transition from the failed line of the Jeff Fisher era and the stopgap solution they plugged in now for the early McVay years into something different. I said at the end of the season that the Rams perhaps didn’t have a single lineman on the roster that would be on their Week 1 lineup in 2020 when the new stadium opens. That has since changed with the extension of Havenstein, but the other four positions look tenuous. Whitworth is showing signs of age. LG Rodger Saffold is in a contract year at 30-years old, Sullivan just turned 33 and, like Whitworth, have contracts that end after next year. RG Jamon Brown is probably the weak link and is kicking off his contract year with a two-game suspension.

The good news, if you’re a Rams fan, is that one of Joe’s spotlight players for training camp has been tackle Joseph Noteboom, a third round pick out of TCU. (“Noteboom might have had the best preseason of anyone on the roster.”) If Whitworth must be replaced in 2019, Noteboom could be the guy to do it. Concerns still abound though for all the interior jobs by next season.

The big thing to see here perhaps though is the potential signs of age from Whitworth. (“His technique is still great and physically, he’s a monster. But he’s getting beaten sometimes by mediocre edge talent with speed.”) That will be a very difficult player to replace unless Noteboom is the steal of the draft. McAtee also likes sixth round guard Jamil Demby, for what it’s worth.

High-end weapons

Among the skill players that McAtee has really liked this August are running back John Kelly and wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Of course, Kupp had a great rookie campaign, hauling in 62 passes for 869 yards. I thought Kupp was the real deal going into the draft and even the acquisition of Brandin Cooks shouldn’t hold him back from at least matching his production from 2017. He was “unstoppable” in a joint practice with the Ravens.

Cooks slots in for Sammy Watkins and is likely a better and more productive receiver at this point. He’s averaged 1,131 yards and eight touchdowns over the last three years, though he’s been catching passes from Drew Brees and Tom Brady, who are in a slightly different category than Goff. (Or most any quarterback to ever live.) Tripling up with Robert Woods, that gives LA three very good starting receivers, potentially the best top-3 in the league.

Todd Gurley is Todd Gurley, so there’s that.

One skill player that has not had a great August is tight end Gerald Everett. A second round pick last year, Everett had 16 catches for 244 yards as a rookie, but he’s been sidelined for three weeks with a shoulder injury; he is on track to play Week 1, but that’s a lot of developmental time missed.

The Goff/McVay thing

Let me hand it over to Joe:

Fun thought exercise (though less fun for Rams fans). If you’ve got a capable offensive line, an above average WR corps, a weapon like Todd Gurley out of the backfield and a coach like Sean McVay organizing the offense...what’s the worst your QB could do?

I’m not suggesting Jared Goff is the worst QB in the NFL or that he represents the worst a QB could do in this environment, but how much worse would a below-average QB perform with all that support around him?

I only set that up because Jared Goff is going to need to get better individually. He is going to have to command more of the offense on his own. Last year, the system McVay installed simplified things for Goff both in terms of working through things verbally pre-snap and isolating the decision points for Goff as he assessed the defense. And obviously, it worked.

But it also limited what Goff could do based on the playcall, a limitation that clearly came back to bite them in the playoffs.

Enter Year 2. Goff simply has to improve. He has a skill set to suggest he should. And depending on McVay’s comfort level early on, there should be an opportunity for Goff to take on more complexity with the offense and more individual responsibility. I think the question is how many chances he’ll have to take center stage, to provide the kind of late-game heroics that often propel QBs into a tier that Goff, to be fair, isn’t in yet.

I wouldn’t be surprised though if a year from now, we’re all acknowledging that he’s made it into that tier of confusingly undefinable boundaries. But it’s going to take some very obvious, very undebatable performances and will require any potential postseason performances to avoid undercutting any regular season heroics.

Kind of an important Year 3, here.

There you have it.

To his “credit” at least Goff is a bargain. With cap hits of $7.6 million and $8.8 million in 2018 and 2019, plus a fifth-year option in 2020, Goff is a capable starting quarterback whose relatively low QB salary has helped the team add players like Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Cooks, Whitworth, Sullivan, Woods ... I mean, not literally all of these players are in LA because of Goff’s low salary, but it helps a ton. I keep saying it: the best thing you can have in the league in 2018 is a very good quarterback who is on a rookie contract, or at least very cheap.

The 2017 final four included Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, Nick Foles (in place of Carson Wentz), and Tom Brady. All of those players represent quarterback bargains.

I don’t think I can see Goff playing so poorly that he gets benched, especially not with Sean Mannion as his backup, and so that at least gives LA flexibility despite him and add costly players because of him. At least, costly players besides their best player.

Potentially-elite secondary

The Rams added Talib and Peters, which should be an upgrade but it’s not like Trumaine Johnson was a bad cornerback. There’s some lateral movement to that end.

The other thing is that the Rams already had a great pass defense. This wasn’t necessarily a part of their game that they needed significant improvement on, but if they now have a historically-great pass defense, then surely it puts them closer to a Super Bowl ring. As of now, there’s not been much said about Peters’ apparent attitude issues that got him in trouble at both UW and with the Chiefs, so they’ve got that going for them. Joe also says he likes what he’s seen from free agent signee Sam Shields and safety Marqui Christian, a fifth rounder in 2016. Said McVay on Christian:

“Yeah, he’s done a great job. I think really, he’s playing some safety — he’s done some different things, playing a dime linebacker spot. You see the athleticism, you see the burst, the suddenness shows up. I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with the different things.”

Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson also seem like at least a very good safety tandem. Hate to admit it, but the Rams secondary could be as talented as their receivers/backs.

Still mostly unknown linebackers

People know of Mark Barron and that’s easily the most famous linebacker on this team. Barron had surgery on both his right shoulder and his left heel, only returning to practice on August 20. He’s on track to start Week 1, but injuries, or at least the memories of injuries, will likely linger.

Next to him could be Micah Kiser, another player that Joe highlighted for good reasons this August. Kiser was a fifth round pick out of Virginia but could start at middle linebacker after the team traded Alec Ogletree in the offseason. After that, lots of apparent question marks. Joe doesn’t like the August that Samson Ebukam, a fourth rounder a year ago, has had. Then you’ve got Matt Longacre, Justin Lawler, Ejuan Price, Ramik Wilson, Cory Littleton, and Tegray Scales, among some others. Veteran first round disappointment Dominique Easley could also be working at linebacker this season.

Linebacker would seem to be a weak area on a very strong roster. What happened here? Joe has some thoughts:

While there remain spots on offense that lack suitable depth or potential, it’s the defense where that’s made more apparent. And perhaps that’s a factor of the draft trades of the last three years.

The trade for Jared Goff saw the Rams lose their 2016 second- and third-round picks, two players who would be in their third years now. A year later, it was another first-rounder gone from the same trade; that player would be in Year 2. And this year, it was a first-rounder traded for Brandin Cook and a second-rounder for Sammy Watkins who isn’t on the team. And it will continue next year with a second-round pick ceded along with a 2018 pick for CB Marcus Peters. So the cost of all these moves has been to stuff the roster with depth and youthful potential.

That cost is largely being felt on defense.

Rookies abound on this side of the ball and necessarily so, but we’ll have to see who makes it through the 53-man roster cleaving. It’s perhaps a minor concern given the relative strength of the starting unit, but a concern nonetheless.

Defensive Line

Depth at defensive line may only matter if Donald doesn’t report, but by virtually all accounts he will be there by Week 1. In that case, it’s Donald, Suh, and Michael Brockers. That alone is quite insane.

Depth-wise, the team drafted John Franklin-Myers out of Stephen F Austin. McVay:

“He’s done a really good job,” head coach Sean McVay said this week. “I think you’re seeing a guy that’s got a natural rush ability. We’ve talked about it, from the very early stages of him being here, he was a guy that kind of showed up. He was always in the backfield disrupting things, especially in those passing situations.”

Ethan Westbrooks has apparently had a good training camp and preseason also, potentially giving LA yet another quality player in the defensive trenches.

If they fold in Donald soon, it could be argued this is the best front-3 for a 3-4 defense ... in history?

Bottom Line:

If the Rams don’t get the number one seed in the NFC, by far the stronger conference between the two, I think it has to be considered a significant disappointment and a major indictment on the development and quality of Jared Goff. Why?

Folks could and would argue that the Rams have:

  • The best running back
  • A high-end number one, a high-end number two, and a high-end number three receiver
  • A top-ranked tackle duo and two quality interior offensive linemen
  • The best secondary in the NFL, potentially out-dueling the Jaguars because of a safety duo that very well could surpass Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, plus a better slot corner
  • The best defensive line in the NFL

If you took this roster and put Matthew Stafford on it (I’m intentionally choosing a good QB without much of any success, rather than a slam dunk), I think LA could go 14-2 or 15-1. Goff has to at least get them to 13-3. Not that there isn’t a floor that includes disaster.

Can Talib, Peters, and Suh all coexist on the same defense? Can the offensive line stay healthy and hold up? Is Whitworth too old? Was Cooks overrated? Are they really gonna continue to drag their heels on Donald? The Rams are not assured a division title, but it’s certainly theirs to grab.

If not, what a hilarious waste of an offseason and what a nightmare to deal with in 2019, 2020, and so on.