The 2016 preseason was full of compelling story lines. How would the Patriots deal with Tom Brady’s suspension? Could the Cowboys still compete with Dak Prescott? While they were interesting, neither narrative compared to the return of the Los Angeles Rams. The city and fan base was swirling with excitement and hope about their long lost franchise coming home. Sadly, it wasn’t a story book ending for the Rams this year. Once again, Los Angeles Rams fans have hope approaching the 2017 season with the hiring of Sean McVay. Will it be enough to overcome the many problems that currently plague this franchise?
2016 EVALUATION – OFFENSE
If you watched any Rams game this year, it’s not hard to identify what this team is lacking. Their offensive production in terms of points and yards were both last in the NFL. That’s easy to see, but let’s dive deeper into the Rams offensive woes.
I’m sure you’ve heard coaches and analysts say that you build a team from inside out. They’re right. The best way to build a balanced, productive offense is to have consistent play from the offensive line. While the Rams are not the worst group, they certainly have room to improve. I like to use Pro Football Focus ratings as a means to objectively evaluate players and compare them to others at their position group. Here is a snapshot of the Rams’ line and their ratings.
Each player is graded on a 0-100 scale and is assigned a color based on the range they fall in. For the most part, this is an average offensive line. What absolutely hamstrings this unit’s effectiveness is that their worst player plays the most critical position: left tackle. This season, 73 other players were better than Greg Robinson at tackle. Robinson is a liability in pass protection and struggles as a run blocker, given his 36.1 run-block rating. While his poor play contributed to the offensive struggles, he is by no means the only one to blame.
The Rams wanted to be a run-first team. With Todd Gurley in the backfield, that’s totally understandable. However, when the opposition knows stopping Gurley means beating the Rams, the burden is placed on the passing game. In this particular instance, the blame falls on the offensive staff, but more on that later.
2016 EVALUATION – DEFENSE
Conversely, the Los Angeles Rams have proved that they can draft and develop defensive players. Their end of the year rankings are somewhat deceiving. The Rams finished 23rd in terms of points allowed and ninth in yards allowed. Their ranking as the 23rd best scoring defense is misleading. This defense had to deal with constantly being on the field, below average field position, and their own offense scoring points for the other team via turnovers.
On strictly a personnel basis, this defense is built to dominate the line of scrimmage. With All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald alongside quality defenders like Michael Brockers, William Hayes, and Robert Quinn, this team will be getting after the quarterback for years to come. Sadly, Robert Quinn was sidelined for four games this season and played on a limited basis after week six.
Other notable defensive players include: Alec Ogletree, who had a productive year bouncing back from injury, Trumaine Johnson, and Maurice Alexander. As a whole, what is keeping this defense from ascending into the top-five or top-three realm is their offense. If this defense can just stay healthy and possibly upgrade their second corner position, they will easily be among the top 12 in major statistical categories.
The NFC West was once considered the best division in football, but with the flailing 49ers, struggling Rams, and regressed Cardinals, it is anything but the best. So what do the Rams need to challenge Seattle for the division crown?
First and foremost, they need a competent offensive coaching staff. The new hire of Sean McVay is a step in the right direction. Yes, by now everyone knows he’s the youngest coach in NFL history. However, do not automatically assume that inexperienced equals incompetence. McVay has clearly impressed enough people in the NFL just to warrant an interview at his age. McVay’s biggest challenge will be winning over the veteran players. Not to mention, he won’t be coaching Kirk Cousins, Jordan Reed, or DeSean Jackson. Hopefully McVay isn’t afraid to let coaches who are currently on the staff go. In order for this to work, he has to have an entire staff that truly believes in him as well as his system.
Second, the Rams need to address the left tackle position. Yes, I know they need a quarterback, but with no first or third-round pick in 2017 and the history of free agents at that position failing, it’s not happening this year. It’s also unfair to say absolutely that Goff isn’t capable of playing well after not even playing a full season. Greg Robinson just simply hasn’t worked. Robinson has never played like the second overall pick in the draft and the Rams need to actively search for someone else. When you have to face Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Calais Campbell, Markus Golden, and the emerging DeForest Buckner twice a year, you need a reliable left tackle.
Outside of addressing depth on the defense, the third biggest need of this team is a receiving tight end. Here me out. The Cardinals and the Seahawks have elite talent at cornerback. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, despite their greatness, are still susceptible to getting beat in man to man coverage. Therefore, the best way to attack these defenses is 10-20 yards down the middle of the defense.
Now let’s shift our attention to McVay, who had Jordan Reed when he was in Washington. Reed provided Cousins with a red zone threat, a safety outlet against pressure, and he drew coverage away from Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Finally, let’s look at Philadelphia. Carson Wentz has a similar situation to Goff as far as offensive weapons. He has very little outside of Jordan Matthews, but he has Zach Ertz. Having a tight end that was able to work the middle of the field allowed Wentz to move the ball without great playmakers on offense. Both Goff and McVay could benefit tremendously if they can acquire a receiving tight end for the 2017 season.
When it comes to predicting postseason success, some metrics are more important than others. Here are the following offensive and defensive statistics that best determine postseason viability and where the Rams stack up.
Clearly there’s room to improve. I do think Sean McVay will have an immediate impact on these different metrics given his offensive background. I also think that Jared Goff will inevitably be better than he was this year. The important point is, the Rams don’t have to be top five or top 10 in these categories to have success. They just can’t be meddling at the bottom of the league. All of the current playoff teams are top 15 or better in at least two of these offensive categories.
As stated earlier, Los Angeles is tremendously talented on defense. We talked earlier about how the terrible offense is contributing to below average defensive rankings. For example, it’s hard for the Rams to record sacks when they are losing by two possessions in the third and fourth quarter, as the opposition is looking to run the clock. This same logic can be applied to points allowed and turnovers. In the two categories that the defense alone controls, they are top 10.
Overall, the offense has to make significant strides this offseason in order for the Rams to have a chance to compete in the postseason.
The future of the Los Angeles Rams is bright and hopeful, but not the immediate future. Last year’s acquisition of the number one pick from the Tennessee Titans leaves the Rams without a first or third-round pick this year. I don’t see them being able to acquire many impact players through the draft. It’s logical to think they will want to address depth on both sides of the ball. This way, they aren’t relying on late-round picks to start.
It’s also hard to predict how active the Rams will be in free agency given the new head coach. The Rams will be better next year, but not by much. They won’t be able to get impact players like Cam Robinson, Mike McGlinchey, or O.J. Howard to immediately boost the talent level on offense. I think the Rams will finish 5-12 in 2017, tied with the 49ers, but will lose the divisional tiebreaker. Los Angeles just doesn’t have enough resources available to catapult them from a four win team to a nine win team.
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