Sep 042016
 

Quarterback

The Rams’ offense finished the 2015 season dead last in rate of moving the chains and by a pretty significant margin. They finished at 62.47%, while the 49ers, who finished 2nd worst, finished at 64.40%. The running game wasn’t really the problem, as their 4.56 yards per carry average was 6th in the NFL (more on that in a bit), so the obvious culprit is the passing game. In fact, between two different starting quarterbacks (Nick Foles and Case Keenum) the Rams completed just 57.7% of their passes for an average of 6.20 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, a QB rating of 74.1 that was worst in the NFL.

Despite giving Case Keenum a 1st round tender worth 3.635 million dollars as a restricted free agent and talking him up as a starter early this off-season, the Rams knew all off-season they needed to upgrade the quarterback position. Foles was arguably the worst quarterback in the league last year and has since been released, while Keenum is an undersized former undrafted free agent with a 79.8 career QB rating on 455 career pass attempts who isn’t anything more than a backup going into his 5th year in the league. It’s very possible that the Rams were smoke screening all along by talking up Keenum, in order to not seem as desperate in negotiations to move up from 15 to draft a quarterback.

The Rams still paid a fortune to move all the way up to #1 though. In essentially a reverse RG3 trade, the Rams sent the Titans both of their 2nd round picks, their 3rd round pick, and a 1st and 3rd round pick next year to move up from 15 to 1 to select California quarterback Jared Goff (the Rams also received a 4th and 6th from the Titans). It’s obvious why they made the move, given their weakness at the quarterback position and the importance of that position in today’s NFL, but I was not a fan of the move. Goff was not a can’t miss prospect like even RG3 was and the Rams’ offensive struggles go far deeper than the quarterback position. He may not even begin the season as the starter, if the Rams decide to go with the veteran Keenum to start the year. Goff has looked really bad this pre-season.

Given how bad their offense was last season, it’s tough to say they were just a quarterback away from being a good offense and the trade made it so the Rams didn’t pick again until the 4th round. They didn’t make any major additions on offense outside of Goff all off-season, so he walks into a nearly impossible situation for a young quarterback. Goff is now the face of the franchise for a team with the 4th longest active playoff drought in the NFL (11 years), in their first season back in Los Angeles, and has arguably the worst offensive supporting cast of any quarterback in the league. They would have been better off signing a veteran stopgap like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Robert Griffin this off-season and building around the quarterback through the draft, rather than going all in on Goff. Goff will improve this offense, but they’re a long way away from being even passable on offense.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

The one bright spot on this offense, as I mentioned, was the running game, led by standout running back Todd Gurley, last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. A rare running back talent, Todd Gurley tore his ACL midway through his junior year at the University of Georgia in 2014, but the Rams still took a chance on him with the 10th overall pick, despite running back not being an obvious need. Gurley was limited to 13 games by injury as a rookie, sitting out the first two games of the season rehabbing from the ACL injury, but rushed for 1106 yards and 10 touchdowns on 229 carries (4.83 YPC) and finished the season 15th among running backs on Pro Football Focus.

Another year removed from the injury, Gurley could be even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2016, still only his age 22 season. He’s likely to play more games and see more carries than he did as a rookie. In fact, he’s one of the few true feature backs in the NFL and should be considered one of the early favorites to lead the NFL in rushing, even on a bad offense, as there isn’t another serious threat for carries on this roster. He finished 3rd in rushing last season, as the league had just seven 1000-yard rushers in 2015. The Rams had good running back depth when they drafted Gurley, but they’ve since traded Zac Stacy, while 2014 3rd round pick Tre Mason, who led the team in carries as a rookie in 2014, is no longer with the team after several off-season arrests and mental health concerns. He’s not expected to play this season.

Benny Cunningham returns as the passing down back, after leading the team in passing down snaps by a running back in 2015, but he had just 37 carries despite Gurley missing 3 games with injury. The 2013 undrafted free agent has averaged just 4.31 yards per carry on 150 career carries, despite largely running in situations where the defense is expecting the pass. Todd Gurley will have to carry this running back group and this offense as a whole. He finished just 11th in rushing first downs, despite having the 3rd most rushing yards, and didn’t produce much in the passing game (21 catches for 188 yards), but still obviously has a bright future and is by far their best offensive player.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Gurley can’t do it by himself though and, even with Goff coming in, the Rams have an alarming lack of talent on this offense. The receiving corps is probably their worst unit, as Kenny Britt led the way with 681 receiving yards last season. In fact, no Ram receiver has gone over 800 yards since the 2007 season. A lot of that has been because of consistently poor quarterback play, especially last season, but the wide receivers deserve a lot of blame as well, as they’ve really lacked in that department since Torry Holt was in his prime.

Even with a better quarterback coming in, it’s unlikely any Ram receiver passes that 800-yard threshold in 2016. Kenny Britt is likely to lead the team in receiving yards again and he’s not great. A former 1st round pick, Britt’s career was off to a solid start in 2009 and 2010, but he was limited to 73 catches in 29 games from 2011-2013 by injuries. He’s bounced back over the past 2 seasons with the Rams, grading out above average in both 2014 and 2015, but he’s not the player it looked like he would be early in his career, just barely grading out above average in both seasons.

Tavon Austin returns as the starter opposite him. Also a former 1st round pick (2013), Austin hasn’t been much more than a gadget player in his career, grading out significantly below average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league. Last season was the best of his career in terms of receiving numbers, but he still caught just 52 passes for 473 yards and 4 touchdowns and ran a very limited route tree, with his average catch coming 2.63 yards from the line of scrimmage.

He has blazing speed, but is a limited player at 5-9 174 whose biggest contributions have come as a runner and a return man. He’s rushed for 809 yards and 3 touchdowns on 97 carries (8.34 YPC) in his career, while grading out above average as a runner in all 3 seasons in the league, and has added 3 touchdowns as a punt returner, but, as a wide receiver, he’s best off as a #3 receiver. He’s a nice player to have, but the Rams massively overpaid him on a 4-year, 42 million dollar extension this off-season, with still 2 years left on his rookie deal.

Even after trading away all of those draft picks, the Rams still drafted two wide receivers and for obvious reasons. Neither of them are likely to be good as a rookie though, as South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper was a 4th round pick and Southern Missisippi’s Mike Thomas was a 6th round pick. Both could compete for playing time in arguably the league’s thinnest receiving corps though. After Britt and Austin, the next 3 wide receivers on the team in catches last season were Wes Welker (13), Stedman Bailey (12), and Brian Quick (10) and the team inexplicably didn’t add any help in free agency.

Welker is expected to retire ahead of his age 35 season and remains unsigned as of this writing, while Stedman Bailey’s NFL career is at least on hold after suffering a gunshot wound late last season. Quick, meanwhile, will compete with Pharoh Cooper and a host of other inexperienced players for the #3 wide receiver job. Being the only other wide receiver on the team with an NFL catch, he seems like the early favorite, after being re-signed for 1.75 million over 1 year this off-season.

A 2nd round pick in 2012, Quick came into the league with a lot of upside and was on a 64/973/8 pace through 6 games in his 3rd year in the league in 2014, but suffered a season ending shoulder injury. Still not fully healthy, Quick was limited to 10 catches in 13 games in 2015. He’s still never topped 25 catches in a season and has only once graded out above average, but there’s still there’s a little bit of upside here and he’s the best option they have if he can stay healthy. Wide receiver is a major position of weakness overall though.

Things aren’t any better at tight end though. Jared Cook, who made 12 starts in 16 games last season, was cut this off-season. He didn’t have a good year, but the Rams didn’t replace him, leaving the mediocre Lance Kendricks as the starter. He’s plenty experienced with 63 starts in 5 seasons in the league and was a big part of their offense as the #2 tight end in recent years, but he’s only once graded out above average. He could be pushed for snaps by 4th round rookie Tyler Higbee, but Higbee is highly unlikely to be good as a rookie. The receiving corps are a serious problem for the Rams and rookie quarterback Jared Goff.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

The Rams’ offensive line was just as bad, if not worse, than their receiving corps was last season and, like the receiving corps, they aren’t getting any reinforcements through free agency or the draft. The one thing the offensive line does have going for it is that it’s young and could be improved in 2016 as they become more experienced. Left tackle Greg Robinson was the 2nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and has made 28 starts in 2 seasons in the league, but has been horrendous in both seasons, finishing 83rd out of 84 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie and 73rd out of 77 eligible offensive tackles in 2015. Robinson was regarded as raw coming out of Auburn University, but you obviously want more from your #2 overall pick than what he’s given them so far. He still has upside going into just his age 24 season, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd year in the league any way you look at it. The Rams will have to make a decision on a very expensive 5th year option next off-season.

Left guard Rodger Saffold spent the early part of his career at left tackle, but was moved inside when the Rams drafted Robinson. Even if Robinson continues to struggle, Saffold is unlikely to move back to left tackle unless an injury occurs. Saffold is no lock to stay healthy himself, missing 28 games with injury in 6 years in the league, including 11 games last season. Saffold is only going into his age 28 season so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s graded out below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the league and was horrible on 234 snaps in 2015. He may even be a downgrade from Garrett Reynolds, who was solid in Saffold’s absence last year, grading out above average. Reynolds is no guarantee to play well if Saffold gets hurt again though, as he’s graded out above average just twice in 7 years in the league and has largely been a backup throughout his career, making just 37 career starts.

Reynolds could also push to start at right guard, but incumbent 2nd year player Jamon Brown is expected to get the first shot at the starting job. He struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 70th out of 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus in 9 starts before going down for the season with a broken leg. He could also face competition from Cody Wichmann, a 2015 6th round pick who actually outplayed Brown by a little bit as a rookie. He’s not a good option either though, grading out below average on 424 snaps. He’ll likely open the season as the primary backup, but could end up making starts at some point if Brown continues to struggle. It’s a position of weakness.

Center also figures to be a position of weakness, after Tim Barnes finished 29th out of 39 eligible centers in 16 starts in 2015, in the first significant action of his career. The 2011 undrafted free agent played just 282 career snaps prior to last season and is a backup caliber player, but the Rams don’t have another option, so he’ll get another chance in 2016, after being re-signed for 4.6 million over 2 years this off-season. His primary backup is 2014 7th round pick Demetrius Rhaney, an inexperienced player who struggled on 125 snaps in 2015. Rhaney could see playing time down the stretch if Barnes continues to struggle, but would likely not be an improvement.

The one bright spot on this offensive line is right tackle Rob Havenstein. Not only did the Rams get a great player in the 1st round of the 2015 NFL Draft with Gurley, they also got Havenstein in the 2nd round and he played well as a rookie, finishing 26th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts. The big 6-7 332 pounder is not really a candidate to move to the blindside because he’s not a great athlete, but he looks like he could be a solid starter on the right side for many years to come. He’s one of the very few capable players on this offense.

Grade: D

Defensive Line

With the offense struggling mightily, the Rams’ defense was the only reason they won any games, finishing 8th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Even still, they finished 30th in rate of moving the chains differential, suggesting they weren’t even as good as their 7-9 record. In fact, 5 of their 7 wins came by 8 points or fewer, while just 3 of those losses did. Their only wins by more than 8 points came at home against the Browns and 49ers, arguably the two least talented teams in the league last season. Their offense should be better with Goff coming in, but the Rams lost a lot of talent on defense this off-season, especially in the secondary, and didn’t do much to replace the departed players.

Fortunately, things are still good on the defensive line, led by 2014 1st round pick Aaron Donald, who has quickly broken out as one of the top defensive players in the NFL. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall ranked interior defender in 2015, ahead of Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt, and is on the short list of early candidates for that award going into 2016. He’s no one-year wonder either, finishing 1st among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a rookie, winning the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

When defensive end Robert Quinn is healthy, he and Donald make a dangerous combination for opposing offenses. The 2011 1st round pick missed 8 games with injury in 2015, but had missed just 1 game in 4 seasons in the league prior to 2015 and will be a very valuable re-addition in 2016 now that he’s healthy again. After struggling in his first 2 years in the league, Quinn has been a top-11 4-3 defensive end in each of the last 3 seasons, with his best year coming in 2013, when he finished #1 at the position. He’s still in the prime of his career, only going into his age 26 season.

Chris Long was the other starting defensive end for years, but his 8-year tenure with the Rams ended this off-season, as the Rams made him a cap casualty ahead of his age 31 season. It might be addition by subtraction though, as Long was a declining, aging player who graded out well below average on 491 snaps in 2015. His replacement, William Hayes, is no spring chicken either, also going into his age 31 season, but he finally gets his first shot at a regular starting job. He’s made just 32 career starts in 8 seasons in the league, but has proven he deserves more playing time.

Hayes started a career high 11 games because of Long’s injury in 2015 and finished 13th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, even higher than Quinn. Despite largely being a backup through his career, Hayes has graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-14 among 4-3 defensive ends in 4 straight seasons in limited action. He was a wise re-signing on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal this off-season and could have a breakout year in his first season as a starter in 2016, though his age is a bit of a concern.

Michael Brockers rounds out the base unit as the other starting defensive tackle inside next to Donald. Also a former 1st round pick (2012), Brockers is coming off of the best season of his career in 2015, finishing 29th among interior defenders. The 6-6 322 pounder is a great run defender and has graded out above average as a run stopper in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, but has never once graded out above average as a pass rusher. He’ll essentially platoon with free agent acquisition Dominique Easley, who will enter as an interior rusher in sub packages, directly replacing free agent departee Nick Fairley.

Easley actually comes from the same first round as Donald, but has not nearly had the same career and was surprisingly cut after just 2 seasons by the New England Patriots this off-season. He showed his first round potential last season, grading out above average, but on just 275 snaps in 11 games, after being limited to 270 snaps in 11 games as a rookie and tearing his ACL twice in college. Arguably a top-5 talent, Easley fell to the late 1st round because of his injury history and leg injuries appear to be threatening his career early. It was reportedly more than just injuries that led to Easley’s release by the Patriots and we’ll probably never get the whole story, but injuries are a definite concern long-term. If he can stay healthy, he could be a nice addition, but that’s a big if and the Rams have a depth problem at defensive tackle if he doesn’t.

The Rams also have a bit of a depth problem at defensive end with Long gone, as Eugene Sims is the 3rd defensive end and he’s struggled whenever he’s been counted on to play in recent years. The 2010 6th round pick has graded out well below average in all 6 seasons he’s been in the league and finished last season 107th out of 110 eligible edge defenders on 582 snaps. Even with a lack of good depth, it’s still one of the better defensive lines in the league.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Long isn’t the only long-time veteran the Rams parted ways with this off-season, cutting declining middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. He’ll be missed as a veteran presence on what’s now the league’s youngest roster, but the Rams won’t miss his play as it had really fallen off in recent years. He’ll be replaced inside by 2013 1st round pick Alec Ogletree, who has spent the first 3 seasons of his career at outside linebacker. Ogletree’s play outside has been shaky though, as he’s graded out below average in 3 straight seasons, and he’s coming off of a broken leg that ended his 2015 season after 4 games. He’s a great athlete, but it’s unclear if moving to middle linebacker will help him reach his potential.

Mark Barron will be the other every down linebacker for the Rams, playing every down outside, a role he took over from Ogletree full-time when he got hurt. A former safety who was a bust as a first round pick of the Buccaneers, Barron was acquired for next to nothing by the Rams during the 2014 season and moved to outside linebacker, despite being very undersized for the position at 6-2 213. The position switch worked out brilliantly though, as he finished the season 20th among linebackers on Pro Football Focus, despite his size. With Ogletree moving inside permanently, Barron is locked in outside and received a 5-year, 45 million contract as a free agent this off-season. He’s a one-year wonder who was probably overpaid, but he appears to have turned his career around and credit the Rams for figuring out how to use him.

The Rams need Ogletree to stay healthy and play well because they have basically no depth at the position. In fact, after making projected starting outside linebacker Akeem Ayers a final cut, the Rams are left with a pair of rookie undrafted free agents (Cory Littleton and Nic Grigsby) and 2015 7th round pick Bryce Hager, who only played special teams as a rookie, as their other remaining linebackers. One of those 3 players will have to start in Ayers’ old spot on the outside opposite Barron. It’s only a base package position, but it’s a major concern. Maybe they’ll bring in a veteran early this season, or at least someone who has ever played a defensive snap in the NFL. It’s an overall weak linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

As I mentioned, the Rams’ secondary suffered significant losses this off-season, losing a pair of key starters, including cornerback Janoris Jenkins, Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked cornerback in 2015. He was overpaid on a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal by the Giants, but he’ll still be a big loss. Fortunately, the Rams did keep fellow starting cornerback Trumaine Johnson on the franchise tag, deciding to tag Johnson over Jenkins at the last minute. Johnson did outplay Jenkins slightly in 2015, finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but he’s basically a one-year wonder. He has just 33 career starts in 4 years in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012 and last season was the first season he graded out above average since his rookie year, when he played just 366 snaps. Johnson will make 13.925 million in 2016 on the franchise tag, but did not get a long-term deal this off-season, so he’ll have to play well again to get a big contract.

Also good news for the Rams is the fact that EJ Gaines returns from a broken foot that cost him his entire 2015 season. Gaines had a breakout rookie year in 2014, finishing 29th among cornerbacks in 15 starts despite being a 6th round rookie. He’s still a one-year wonder who was not drafted high, so that rookie year could prove to be a fluke, and he’s coming off of a serious injury, but he’ll be a nice re-addition for a team that needs help at the position following the loss of Jenkins. He’s the early favorite for the starting job opposite Johnson.

Coty Sensabaugh was signed to a 3-year. 14 million dollar deal this off-season by the Rams, so he has at least a shot at the starting job, but he was most likely just signed to be insurance behind Gaines and to be the 3rd cornerback. Despite a significant salary, he’s not a very good player. He’s played at least 500 snaps in each of the last 3 seasons and has 27 career starts, but has graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons, including a 2015 season in which he finished 89th among 111 eligible cornerbacks in 15 starts for the Titans.

LaMarcus Joyner was previously the 3rd cornerback and could still some see playing time, but the addition of Sensabaugh hurts him the most. Joyner barely played as a 2nd round rookie in 2014 and graded out below average on 730 snaps last season. He could move back to his collegiate position of safety because the Rams have a major hole there following the loss of Rodney McLeod in free agency. McLeod was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety in 2015 and the Rams did nothing to replace him. With limited draft picks, they didn’t even add a developmental prospect through the draft at the position.

Instead, Cody Davis, Christian Bryant, and Maurice Alexander will compete for McLeod’s old job and Joyner could easily end up in the mix as well. Bryant is a 2014 7th round pick who has never played a defensive snap in his career. Davis is a 2013 7th round pick who has never started in his career and who played just 14 nondescript snaps last season. Alexander is the only one who saw any significant action last season, making 5 starts and playing 419 snaps, but the 2014 4th round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked safety in the first significant action of his career. He’s probably the favorite, but he’s not a good option. The Rams don’t really have a good option at the position though.

TJ McDonald is locked in as the other starter, as he has been since the first week of his rookie year. The 2013 3rd round pick has had an up and down career thus far, grading out below average both 2013 and 2015 and missing 11 games with injury in 3 years in the league. Still only going into his age 25 season, his best football may be yet to come, but he’s an inconsistent player at the very least. He’ll need a big year this year, going into the final year of his rookie contract, for a team that lost a lot of talent in the secondary this off-season.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Rams won 7 games last season, but they were lucky to win even that many, given that many of their wins were close and many of their losses were not. They addressed their biggest need by adding a quarterback #1 overall in the draft, but had to trade away their entire draft to do so, leaving them unable to fill other holes. Besides, Goff was not a surefire top pick and could struggle as a rookie, especially with minimal talent around. They also lost several key players in free agency, including Janoris Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, and did nothing significant to replace them or add talent elsewhere. From top to bottom, it’s one of the worst rosters in the league and I don’t expect them to win very many games.

Prediction: 4-12 4th in NFC West

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