Los Angeles Rams 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s common for teams with quarterbacks on a rookie deal to be aggressive in adding talent around the quarterback to maximize their Super Bowl chances while the quarterback is still cheap. The Rams took that to the extreme, trading a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 second round pick, and a 2021 fourth round pick to get cornerback Jalen Ramsey, a 2018 first round pick and a 2018 6th round pick for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, a 2018 2nd round pick for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, a 2019 2nd round pick for cornerback Marcus Peters, a 2019 3rd round pick and a 2019 5th round pick for edge defender Dante Fowler, and a 2018 5th round pick for cornerback Aqib Talib. 

They also signed safety Eric Weddle, interior defender Ndamukong Suh, wide receiver Robert Woods, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency and re-signed wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Todd Gurley, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, tight end Tyler Higbee, and right tackle Rob Havenstein to deals that paid them among the highest at their position, while structuring deals in ways that hurt their long-term financial flexibility, while allowing them to maximize their talent under the cap in the short term.

The results were pretty good for a couple years. After the Rams finished 4-12 in 2016, the following season they shot forward to a 11-5 record and finished 8th in first down rate differential, in a season that ultimately ended with a playoff loss to the Falcons. The Rams then backed that up the following season by going 13-3, finishing 3rd in first down rate differential, and making the Super Bowl, where they lost to the New England Patriots.

That’s where things started getting tricky. Quarterback Jared Goff became eligible for an extension after the Super Bowl appearance because he was heading into his 4th season in the league and the Rams decided to tack on 4 years and 134 million with 73 million of guaranteed new money on to a deal that already had Goff under team contract for 27.042 million in 2019 and 2020 combined. 

The Rams could have waited, but they felt Goff’s price would increase if they did so and signed him to an extension that hampered their ability to fill out the rest of this roster and the Rams didn’t have as good of a supporting cast in 2019 as a result. That led to a 9-7 season in which they finished 11th in first down rate differential and finished just on the outside of a 3rd straight playoff berth. Their offense saw the biggest dropoff, falling from 3rd in first down rate at 43.02% in 2018 to 14th at 36.40% last season.

This off-season is when the Rams really had to pay the price for being so aggressive over the past few years. Faced with a tough cap situation, the Rams suffered significant personnel losses this off-season. They didn’t have to lose as many players as they did and they could have kicked the can on their cap issues a little bit longer, but paying off the bill in one year will lead to the Rams being more financially flexible long-term. The Rams have just 5 million of cap space remaining for 2020 even after all of their off-season losses, but that jumps to 43 million projected for next off-season. The Rams could be back in contention in a couple seasons.

The problem is this strategy leaves them with an underwhelming roster around the quarterback in the short-term, which is a problem, as quarterback Jared Goff has proven to be no better than his supporting casts, completing 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions on a terrible offense as a rookie, then completing 63.6% of his passes for an average of 8.18 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in a very talented offense in 2017 and 2018, before falling to 62.9% completion, 7.41 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions on a middling offense in 2019.

Goff isn’t the same quarterback he was as a rookie, but in some ways as is, particularly under pressure, which has remained a consistent problem for him throughout his career. In 4 years in the league, Goff has finished in the bottom-10 among qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage under pressure in all 4 seasons, completing between 41.3% and 43.3% of his pressured passes in a given season over that stretch. Goff has also consistently struggled when he’s had to look past his first option, with the biggest gap in Pro Football Focus grade between throws to his first read and throws to his second read or beyond of any quarterback in the league over the past 4 seasons.

Goff’s non-pressured stats improved significantly after his rookie year and he’s earned solid grades overall from PFF over the past 3 seasons, finishing 15th, 8th, and 20th respectively among quarterbacks. However, he needs a lot of help if he’s ever going to bring the Rams a Super Bowl and, currently owed 135 million over the next 5 seasons without a realistic out on his contract until 2023, Goff’s salary is likely to hamper the Rams’ ability to build around him. With an even weaker supporting cast than last season, expect both Goff and the Rams to struggle this season.

Backup quarterback is also a big concern. Last season, the Rams had former Jaguars starter Blake Bortles who, while he was a failed starter, was still among the top half of backup quarterbacks in the league, but he wasn’t retained this off-season and, if the season were to begin today, it looks like 2018 undrafted free agent John Wolford, who has never thrown a pass in a regular season game, would be the primary backup. That would obviously be a problem if Goff was to get hurt, although it’s worth noting Goff hasn’t missed any of his 54 career starts due to injury and that the Rams could still bring back Bortles later in the off-season. Either way, they’d be in trouble if they lost Goff, but Bortles’ experience would give him a better shot of replacing Goff for a few games if needed.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The most notable players that Goff lost around him on offense this off-season were running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. At one point, Gurley and Cooks looked like the future for the Rams, as the former first round pick Todd Gurley received a 4-year, 57.5 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago, despite there being two years left on his rookie deal, while Brandin Cooks, acquired two off-seasons ago for a first round pick, was given a 5-year, 81 million dollar extension. However, the Rams got rid of them both this off-season, Cooks just one year and 30 million in new money into his extension and Gurley having received 20 million in new money on an extension that technically never started, as 2019 would have been the final year of his original rookie deal.

Not only did the Rams move on from both players, but they also did it in a way that barely freed up any immediate cap space, with Gurley and Cooks accounting for 31.05 million in dead cap in 2020. Doing so ensures that both Gurley and Cooks will be totally off their cap in 2021, so it helps their long-term cap situation significantly, and the Rams were also able to add a much needed extra second round pick in the Cooks trade, but in the short-term both players will be missed, even if they were coming off of injury plagued seasons in which they weren’t as good as they had been in the past, and the dead cap hurt their overall ability to fill out this roster.

The Rams also had adequate depth at both wide receiver and running back, which is another reason why it made some sense to move on from Cooks and Gurley, and it looked likely that, without a first round pick, they’d use their two second round picks on much needed additions to the defense and offensive line. Instead, they not only used the 2nd round pick they acquired from the Texans for Cooks on a replacement for Cooks in Van Jefferson, but they also used their original 2nd round pick on a replacement for Todd Gurley in Cam Akers. Making those selections helps ensure they’ll continue having talented skill positions long-term, but they might not necessarily help them much in the short-term and they come at the expense of addressing much more pressing needs.

The Rams bring back their top-2 wide receivers from last year in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, so Jefferson will compete for the #3 wide receiver job with last year’s #4 wide receiver Josh Reynolds, a 2017 4th round pick who has been capable on 1,092 snaps over the past 2 seasons and has experience as the #3 receiver job as an injury replacement. Reynolds would have been fine as the #3 receiver and could still end up in that role to begin the season because Jefferson is pretty raw, but it’s clear the Rams envision Jefferson as the long-term future.

Woods and Kupp, meanwhile, were one of three wide receiver duos to both surpass 1,100 yards receiving in 2019 and they should remain one of the best wide receiver duos in the league. Both players joined the Rams three off-seasons ago, Kupp as a 3rd round pick and Woods as a somewhat unheralded free agency signing. That’s coincides with the Rams’ turnaround as a team and that’s no coincidence, as Woods and Kupp have averaged a 86/1166/5 and a 80/1065/9 slash line respectively per 16 games over those three seasons and both have finished in the top-31 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. Even on a diminished offense overall, both players topping 1000 yards in 2020 is certainly a strong possibility if both can stay healthy.

Another reason it’s surprising the Rams used a premium pick to replace Cooks is that it seemed like the Rams were going to be using more two tight end sets in 2020. Over the past 3 years, they’ve routinely run 3 wide receiver sets as their base package, making their #3 receiver essentially an every down player, and usually only playing one tight end on the field at a time, either Tyler Higbee or Gerald Everett. 

However, Higbee took over as an every down player in place of an injured Everett down the stretch last season and broke out in that role, suggesting he should be a true every down tight end, with Everett being a true backup #2 tight end, but Everett is a useful talent as well, so it makes sense to run two tight end sets more often to get both on the field together, something they’ve rarely done in the past. Even with the addition of Jefferson, this seems like a strong possibility because of how well Higbee played at the end of last season.

During Higbee’s final 5 games, he played 91.2% of the Rams’ offensive snaps, put up a 43/522/2 slash line (a ridiculous 128/1670/6 over 16 games), and was PFF’s 3rd ranked tight end overall over that stretch, playing well as a run blocker in addition to a pass catcher. Even if Higbee does remain an every down tight end, I wouldn’t expect him to have quite the same snap share with Everett back and he’s far from a guarantee to be anywhere near as efficient as he was in those final 5 games last season. 

A 4th round pick in 2016, Higbee averaged just 0.99 yards per route run in his first 3 seasons in the league combined before last season, though it’s worth mentioning that he averaged 1.81 yards per route run in his first 10 games in 2019 before breaking out with 3.16 yards per route run in the final 5 games, so it’s not as if he just has one good 5-game stretch under his belt. Also a consistently strong blocker throughout his career, Higbee should put up at least decent receiving numbers if he’s given close to an every down role and he has the upside for a lot more if they make him a bigger part of this offense with Cooks and Gurley gone.

Everett should also be involved in this offense as the #2 tight end, as the 2017 2nd round pick has flashed with 1.41 yards per route run in his career and still has upside in his age 26 season. He’s never played more than 440 snaps in a season though, as he’s only been a rotational tight end behind Higbee, and it’s unlikely he exceeds that total in 2020, given how Higbee played as the every down tight end in his absence down the stretch. The Rams will likely miss Brandin Cooks at least somewhat, but they still have a pretty deep receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

At running back, #52nd overall pick Cam Akers is added to a group that wasn’t bad even after getting rid of Todd Gurley, with talented long-time backup Malcolm Brown and 2019 3rd round pick Darrell Henderson in the mix. Along with Akers, there will be a three way competition for playing time in this backfield in 2020, though it’s hard to imagine the Rams don’t envision Akers as the long-term lead back given where they drafted him. Henderson was a relatively high pick too, going 70th overall in 2019, and he still has upside, but he showed very little as a rookie (3.78 carries for 39 yards) as the 3rd running back and is likely going to be behind Akers in the pecking order, especially since Akers projects as a better passing down back.

Brown, meanwhile, has never topped 69 carries in a season in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s shown well as a backup, playing ahead of Henderson last season despite where Henderson was drafted, and he deserves a shot at a larger role with Gurley gone. Brown hasn’t shown much burst in his career, with no carries longer than 20 yards on 197 career carries, but his 3.90 YPC average is pretty impressive for someone who hasn’t broken any big runs, showing that Brown has been able to consistently keep this offense on track when he’s subbed in for Gurley over the years. Brown likely won’t have a huge role in 2020 and he’s limited as a receiver (20 catches in 54 career games seasons in the league), but he should carve out at least a rotational role on early downs. The Rams have some intriguing pieces at a position where roles figure to become clearer closer to the season.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The biggest reason for the Rams’ offensive decline from 2018 to 2019 was the decline of this offensive line. Not only did they contribute to Jared Goff’s statistical decline, but they also were a big part of the reason why the Rams finished just 27th in yards per carry last season at 3.74.  In 2017 and 2018, the Rams didn’t have a single offensive lineman miss a game due to injury and the only change that ever occurred upfront was when the Rams lost 2017 starting right guard Jamon Brown to a suspension for the start of the 2018 season and had to start backup Austin Blythe, who proved to be an upgrade.

That all changed last season. The Rams knew things would be different going into 2019, losing left guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan for financial reasons last off-season, but they felt they could replace them adequately with 2018 3rd round pick Joe Noteboom and 2018 4th round pick Brian Allen respectively. Instead, both Noteboom and Allen struggled before suffering season ending injuries and returning starters left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right guard Austin Blythe, and right tackle Rob Havenstein, all had significantly down years compared to 2018.

The Rams didn’t make any additions upfront this off-season, so they’ll have to hope they can find a combination of their existing players who can be a consistent starting five, after cycling through 9 different starters across this line in 2019, only one of whom (Whitworth) finished with an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus. The Rams cycled through several different starting units last season and the lack of continuity made things even worse. The Rams may benefit from more continuity this season, but it’s hard to see what combination upfront makes them a significantly improved unit without any additional options added this off-season.

The unit the Rams had for the final 6 games of last season had Whitworth at left tackle (where he started all 16 games), 3rd round rookie Bobby Evans at right tackle, 5th round rookie David Edwards at right guard, former right guard Austin Blythe at center, and mid-season acquisition Austin Corbett at left guard. The Rams could keep the same five, but it wasn’t a particularly good group and the Rams are getting some players back from injury, so I would expect every spot except left tackle to be up for grabs.

Even left tackle is a questionable position, given Andrew Whitworth’s age, now in his age 39 season. Whitworth was still PFF’s 25th ranked offensive tackle in 2019, but for a player who had finished in the top-11 at his position in 6 straight seasons prior to last season, it was a noticeable dropoff and potentially a sign of things to come. He could continue defying age and play at an above average level in 2020, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and it would not be a surprise if he continued declining in what could easily end up being his final season.

Whitworth and right tackle Rob Havenstein were one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league in 2018 and, while both declined in 2019, it was surprisingly Havenstein who declined the most, falling from 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018 to all the way down to 81st out of 89 qualifiers in 2019, even though he was seemingly in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. It’s hard to tell why Havenstein declined so significantly, as he had been a top-38 offensive tackle in each of his first 4 seasons in the league before last year’s down year.

Havenstein missed some time with a knee injury, but it’s not clear if he was slowed by that injury prior to missing time and even upon his return he was benched for 3rd round rookie Bobby Evans, even though Evans struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 84th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. Havenstein was kept at a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, suggesting the Rams still view him as a starter and he has obvious bounce back potential if he can win his job back from Evans. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be as good as he was in 2018 again, but it’s definitely possible he and Whitworth could both be above average starters again in 2020, which would definitely be a boost for an otherwise very questionable unit.

Brian Allen may reclaim his old starting job at center as well, back from a knee injury that cost him the final 7 games of last season, but Allen was PFF’s 26th ranked center out of 36 qualifiers before going down, and the Rams shifted Austin Blythe inside to center in his absence, so Allen isn’t a guarantee to get his job back. Even if he does, the 2018 4th round pick is far from a guarantee to ever develop into a capable starter and so far he’s shown little signs of doing so.

One reason the Rams may leave Blythe at center is simply that he was better there last season than he was at right guard. Blythe was surprisingly PFF’s 12th ranked guard in 2018 in the first real action of the 2016 7th round pick’s career, but he started the 2019 season as PFF’s 72nd ranked guard out of 76 qualifiers in the first 8 games of the season, before moving to center and ranking 25th out of 35 qualifying centers across the final 8 games of the season. 

Blythe’s best season came as a full-time right guard, but that season is a clear outlier when you look at his career, so it’s possible center will be his best position going forward. Re-signed on a 1-year, 3.9 million dollar deal this off-season, Blythe figures to start somewhere this off-season, whether it be center or right guard. If Blythe moves back to right guard, he would likely be sending 2019 5th round pick David Edwards back to the bench, although that wouldn’t be the worst thing, as he was PFF’s 46th ranked guard out of 88 qualifiers on 10 rookie year starts and doesn’t necessarily project as a long-term starter, given where he was drafted.

Edwards could also move back to left guard, where he made two of his 10 rookie year starts. At left guard, he would be in competition with Joe Noteboom, a 2018 3rd round pick who was PFF’s 87th ranked guard out of 88 qualifiers in the first significant action of his career last season, before suffering a season ending torn ACL, and Austin Corbett, a 2018 2nd round pick of the Browns who couldn’t get on the field in Cleveland (15 snaps in a season in a half), was sent to the Rams for just a 2021 5th round pick midway through last season, and then finished 69th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF on 541 snaps with the Rams. The Rams have enough young players upfront that one or two of them could break out as a capable starter and they should get a better season from right tackle Rob Havenstein, but with Andrew Whitworth’s age, there isn’t a position on this unit the Rams can be fully confident in.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Rams didn’t just suffer losses on offense, as they arguably lost more on defense, including some of their best defensive players. One of those players was edge defender Dante Fowler, who led the team with 11.5 sacks, finished 33rd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, and signed with the Falcons this off-season on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal that the Rams simply didn’t have the financial flexibility to match. In a less important departure on the edge, the Rams also released edge defender Clay Matthews ahead of 5.75 million non-guaranteed, after he played capably across 614 snaps last season.

The Rams signed ex-Bear Leonard Floyd in free agency, but he’s a significant downgrade from what Fowler was last season. Floyd was a first round pick by the Bears in 2016 and has developed into an above average run stuffer, but he has not developed as a pass rusher. In fact, he’s seen his pressure rate drop from 13.4% in his first two seasons in the league to 8.5% over the past two seasons, including 3 sacks, 9 hits, and a 8.8% pressure rate in 2019. 

Floyd’s run play still led to him finishing above average overall on PFF at 44th, but that was a career best finish for him. He’s more of a replacement for Matthews than Fowler, but the Rams are paying him well on a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money for Floyd and it’s hard to see the upside of that deal for the Rams, as Floyd is already going into his age 28 season and, if he does happen to break out as a pass rusher, the Rams would have to pay even more to keep him long-term because he’s scheduled to hit free agency again next off-season.

Top holdover Samson Ebukam (565 snaps) figures to start opposite Floyd. The 2017 4th round pick was about average across those snaps, as he was on 692 snaps in 2018 and 351 snaps as a rookie in 2017. He’s a little better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher, but his career 9.9% pressure rate isn’t bad. Ebukam may max out as a capable starter, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but he’s also still only going into his age 25 season, so it’s possible he could keep getting better in 2020 and beyond.

Floyd and Ebukam aren’t bad starters, but depth is a big problem behind them. The Rams used a third round pick on Alabama’s Terrell Lewis and he could see their primary reserve, even as a rookie. Other options include 2018 5th round pick Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who played 115 nondescript snaps last season after missing his rookie year with injury, and 2018 7th round pick Justin Lawler, who played 33 snaps as a rookie and missed all of last year with injury. Lacking a top end starter and any proven depth, this is a very underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

The Rams’ interior defender group is their only defensive position group that is likely to be improved this season. That’s because they return their top-5 interior defenders in terms of snaps played last season and also added A’Shawn Robinson as a free agent to be an upgrade at nose tackle. A 2016 2nd round pick, Robinson isn’t much of a pass rusher, with a 5.7% career pressure rate, but he’s consistently been an above average run stuffer, maxing out at 6th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in run grade back in 2018. That year stands out as an outlier in his career, but the 6-4 322 pounder is a natural fit on the nose. He should move Sebastian Joseph-Day, who was marginal on 481 snaps last season in the first action of the 2018 6th round pick’s career, to a rotational reserve role, where he’s a better fit.

Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers remain locked in as every down players. Donald not only is a saving grace on an otherwise underwhelming roster, but he’s easily the best player in the league in terms of being better than anyone else at his position. The 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 2nd among interior defenders on PFF only behind Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt, and then he went on to finish 1st among interior defenders in each of the 5 seasons since his rookie year, totalling 63 sacks, 96 hits, and a 15.8% pressure rate from the interior, despite figure double teams, while also playing at a high level against the run. 

Donald “only” has two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2017 and 2018), but he could easily have won more and, still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, having never missed a game to injury, Donald should continue dominating for at least another couple seasons and could easily win another Defensive Player of the Year award or two at some point. He should arguably be considered the favorite for that award going into 2020, as he has been in recent years.

Brockers isn’t nearly as good, but he’s still a strong run stuffer who has finished above average as a run stuffer on PFF in 6 straight seasons, including top-13 finishes in three of the past four seasons. He’s not nearly as good as a pass rusher, earning middling grades throughout his career in that aspect and managing just a 5.7% pressure rate throughout his 8-year career. Now in his age 30 season, he is who he is at this point and could even begin declining, though his 25th ranked finish among interior defenders in 2019 was the second highest finish of his career. Even if he does decline a little bit, he should remain at least a capable starter who excels against the run.

The Rams don’t have a good situational interior pass rusher to take Brockers off the field in obvious passing situations, so Brockers will have to continue to play an every down role, but the Rams do have solid depth on the interior. In addition to Sebastian Joseph-Day, who has shown some potential as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher (6.4% pressure rate) and could thrive in a reserve role, the Rams also have 2019 4th round pick Greg Gaines, who flashed as situational run stuffer in limited action (183 total snaps) as a rookie. Aaron Donald elevates this group significantly by himself, but this is a strong group throughout.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Arguably the Rams’ biggest loss on defense this off-season was off ball linebacker Cory Littleton, a former undrafted free agent and special teamer who had developed into one of the top overall off ball linebackers in the league, finishing 7th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2019. As a result, he was priced out of the Rams’ market this off-season, signing with the Raiders on a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal. Not only is Littleton a big loss, but the Rams also didn’t do anything to really replace him and they already had a thin group of off ball linebackers to begin with. Aside from Littelton, no other Rams true off ball linebacker played more than 298 snaps, with the Rams relying heavily on playing 3 safeties in sub packages to mask their lack of depth.

The Rams will continue using safeties as linebackers this season, but even still this is set to be a really thin group and they can’t rely on safeties to stop the run in base packages. The Rams have a good track record of developing linebackers in recent years, most notably Littleton, but that was with legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is no longer with the team. Troy Reeder was 2nd among Rams off ball linebackers with 298 snaps last season, but the 2019 undrafted free agent embarrassed himself, finishing as PFF’s second worst ranked off ball linebacker and missing a ridiculous 12 tackles in limited action. He would be very overmatched in any sort of significant role. 

Other off ball linebacker options include 2018 7th round pick Travin Howard, who played 102 nondescript snaps in his first career action in 2019, 2018 4th round pick Kenny Young, who played 470 mediocre snaps in 21 games with the Ravens before playing special teams only after being acquired by the Rams mid-season last season, and 2018 5th round pick Micah Kiser, who played just 1 snap as a rookie and then missed his entire second season in 2019 with injury. Barring significant additions before the start of the season, this is probably the thinnest linebacking corps in the league.

Grade: D

Secondary

In the secondary, the Rams lost starting safety Eric Weddle, who was slightly above average on Pro Football Focus last season and, less importantly, they lost Marqui Christian, who played 371 nondescript snaps last season as primarily a situational cover linebacker. However, this is still a good safety group, as they get John Johnson back from an injury that limited him to 395 snaps in 6 games last season and they used a 3rd round pick on Terrell Burgess, who figures to see action as a 3rd safety in sub packages with Johnson and second year player Taylor Rapp. 

A second round pick, Rapp could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2020 and he’s a versatile player capable of player safety, slot cornerback, and linebacker. The same is true of Burgess, so both Rapp and Burgess figure to see significant action near the line of scrimmage in sub packages. Rapp is more experienced and has a higher upside, so he figures to be the better of the two, but Burgess might not necessarily be bad in that role.

That leaves John Johnson as their primary deep safety and he figures to play every down, assuming he’s over last year’s injuries. Prior to his injury ruined season, Johnson finished 11th and 8th among safeties on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively, even though those were just the first two seasons of the 2017 3rd round pick’s career, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in his age 25 season in 2020.

The Rams also lost slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, which is a bigger deal than you’d think, as he’s been one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league over the past few seasons, earning 4 straight above average grades from PFF, including 3 straight seasons in the top-20, and allowing among the fewest yards per route run in the league over those four seasons at 0.77. The Rams will replace him internally, likely with 2019 3rd round pick David Long, who flashed on 109 snaps as a rookie, but even though Long profiles as a starter long-term, it’s hard to imagine he’s going to be as good as Robey-Coleman was immediately, especially since he’s not a natural pure slot cornerback. Long is the heavy favorite for the #3 job though, as his only competition is 2018 undrafted free agent Darious Williams, who flashed on the first 221 snaps of his career last season, but is ultimately probably best as a 4th cornerback.

Outside at cornerback, the Rams will start Jalen Ramsey and Troy Hill. Going into last season, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib were their starting cornerbacks, as they were in their Super Bowl appearance the year before, but Talib got hurt week 5, which led to the Rams trading away Marcus Peters for next to nothing to free up cap space to trade for Ramsey, then of the Jaguars. Ramsey then started the rest of the way with veteran Troy Hill, who had largely been a backup in the first 4 seasons of his career prior to 2019.

It kind of worked, as the Rams allowed a 29.94% first down rate in games that Ramsey and Hill both started and finished, compared to a 37.78% first down rate in their other games. That’s highly unlikely to continue in 2020, however, and not just because of personnel losses and the absence of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but also because Troy Hill is unlikely to match his career best 12th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF on a career high 538 snaps, after earning middling grades at best on an average of 264 snaps per game in the first 4 seasons of his career prior to last season.

It’s possible Hill has turned a corner and will remain a consistently solid starter, still only in his age 29 season, but his strong season last year was also only a 9-start stretch, so significant regression is also possible and it’s very possible that his 2019 season will end up being an outlier at the end of his career. He’s still locked in as a starter though, coming off of a strong season, without a better option.

Ramsey, meanwhile, should continue playing at a high level. The 5th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey has been a bit up and down in his career, but he’s never finished lower than 31st among cornerbacks on PFF in 4 seasons in the league and he showed his top level ability with a 2nd ranked finish among cornerbacks in only his 2nd season in the league in 2017. Ramsey got off to a bit of a slow start with the Jaguars last season before being traded, possibly due to injury, possibly due to intentionally not going 100% while demanding to be traded, but Ramsey was PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback from week 7 on after joining the Rams and, still only in his age 26 season, I’d expect him to be around there or better in 2020, though cornerback is a difficult position for anyone to play at a high level consistently.

The tricky part is figuring out how to keep Ramsey long-term. Many of the moves the Rams made this off-season to free up long-term cap space were likely made with Ramsey in mind, but any way you look at it Ramsey won’t be cheap, especially given that the Rams have already paid a pair of first round picks to acquire him. Darius Slay is the highest paid cornerback in the league at 16.683 million annually, but Ramsey is likely looking to be paid among the top defensive players in the league regardless of position in the range of 20 million annually. At the very least any long-term extension for Ramsey will likely start at at least 18 million annually and reset the cornerback market, given his age, experience, lack of injury history, and track record. 

The Rams have the ability to keep him on the franchise tag for 2021 at around 17 million, but other than that they have no real leverage with Ramsey, who knows the team can’t afford to lose him after paying multiple first round picks to acquire him, similar to how the Bears and Texans had to give Khalil Mack and Laremy Tunsil top of the market deals to keep them after giving up a pair of first rounders to acquire them. Ramsey has also shown he’s willing to hold out to get what he wants and he likely wouldn’t be happy about being forced to play on a franchise tag. 

It’s unlikely it gets to that point, however, as the Rams seem likely to cave and pay him what he wants eventually, but, even if they don’t, Ramsey is locked in as the #1 cornerback in a secondary that is good, especially with John Johnson returning from injury, but also that will miss safety Eric Weddle and slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and that likely will see cornerback Troy Hill likely regress in his first full season as a starter.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Rams suffered significant losses on both sides of the field this off-season, most notably losing wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Todd Gurley, off ball linebacker Cory Littleton, edge defender Dante Fowler, slot cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman, and safety Eric Weddle. Losing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can’t be overstated either. This all comes after the Rams were already diminished from 2018 to 2019, particularly on their offensive line, which they didn’t upgrade this off-season. All in all, this appears to be a below average team in terms of overall talent, a steep fall for a team that was one of the league’s best a couple years ago. Barring a surprising breakout year from quarterback Jared Goff, I don’t expect this team to return to the post-season in 2020. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Rams aren’t one of the worst teams in the league, but they should have a hard time making it back to the post-season.

Projection: 7-9 (3rd in NFC West)

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