Los Angeles Rams 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

No team has been more aggressive in pursuit of a Lombardi Trophy over the past few years than the Rams, dating back to their selection of quarterback Jared Goff with the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Having not made the post-season in over a decade and with four straight seasons with either six or seven wins, the Rams made a big move up the draft board from #15  to #1, giving up their 2017 first round pick, a pair of 2016 second round picks, and a 2017 3rd round pick to get the deal done. Goff did not live up to expectations in year one, sitting on the bench for most of the first half of the season and then showing why when he eventually got a chance to play, leading to the Rams finishing at 4-12 and sending their #5 overall pick to the Titans to complete their trade up for Goff, which was quickly looking like a potential disaster.

Fortunately, despite their recent issues and their lack of a first round pick, the Rams were still able to land promising young head coach candidate Sean McVay, who instantly turned things around for this team, most especially Goff, en route to a 11-5 finish and an eventual first round playoff loss. The Rams didn’t really make aggressive personnel moves during McVay’s first off-season, aside from sending a 2018 second round pick to Buffalo for wide receiver Sammy Watkins and his expiring rookie contract, but Watkins was largely a bust and was not the reason for this team’s big turnaround, which was almost exclusively due to improved coaching bringing out the best in existing young players and targeted free agent moves that worked out well, most notably #1 wide receiver Robert Woods and left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

However, the Rams were not going to be satisfied with losing in the first round and, now with a young, cheap starting quarterback locked in, the Rams got even more aggressive in adding to the rest of this roster and trying to maximize their championship window. They were already without their second round pick from the Watkins trade, but Watkins didn’t stay and the Rams were again in need of a wide receiver, so they also sent away their 2018 1st round pick, acquiring Brandin Cooks from the New England Patriots, another player in the final year of his rookie deal.

Cooks was actually extended, but he didn’t come cheap, signing a 5-year, 81 million dollar deal. The Rams also extended cornerstone players on both sides of the ball, Todd Gurley and Aaron Donald, to contracts worth 57.5 million over 4 years and 135 million over 6 years respectively.

The Rams weren’t done trading draft picks either, despite not having a first or second round pick in 2018, trading away a 2019 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for cornerback Marcus Peters, who was also heading towards the end of his rookie year, another short-term, win now move, and then made a similar move mid-season for edge defender Dante Fowler of the Jaguars, sending a 2019 3rd round pick to the Jaguars as compensation. 

The moves paid off and added to a talented existing core from the season before, leading to the Rams making it all the way to the Super Bowl in their second post-season appearance under McVay, but there the Rams were defeated and somewhat embarrassed by a New England Patriots team that held their high powered offense out of the end zone completely and managed to win a game in which Tom Brady at least resembled a 41-year-old quarterback, with the final score being just 13-3.

The following off-season was relatively quiet, aside from a somewhat predictable 4-year, 134 million dollar extension that the Rams gave to Jared Goff as he was heading towards the end of his rookie deal and, while the Rams didn’t pick in the first round in the 2019 NFL Draft either, it was due to a trade down from their 31st overall pick, which is where they were originally picking after their Super Bowl defeat. However, when the next season got off to a disappointing start, the Rams decided to change some things up at the trade deadline, trading away Marcus Peters for a late round pick in what amounted to a salary dump for a player in the final year of his rookie deal, and using their new found cap space to acquire cornerback Jalen Ramsey for the Rams for the price of their 2020 and 2021 1st round picks. 

The Ramsey trade did not lead to the Rams turning their season around significantly, as they missed the post-season at 9-7, but the defense was not to blame, as suddenly Sean McVay’s Jared Goff led offense started to struggle. Losses on the offensive line, as a consequence of the Rams spending significant capital elsewhere, were somewhat to blame, but the problem was deeper than that. Goff had not played as well as he had in recent years and highly paid skill position players Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks were also not living up to expectations, so the Rams got aggressive in a different kind of way.

Rather than waiting for Gurley and Cooks to rebound, the Rams moved on from both of them. Gurley was released outright when the Rams could not find a trade partner, meaning the Rams moved on from him having already paid him 20 million on an extension on which he never actually played a snap, and, while Cooks was able to recoup the Rams a second round pick in a trade with the Texans, the Rams had already paid him 34 million on an extension on which he played just one season. In total, the Rams took 41.8 million in dead cap between the two, with 33.4 million of that hitting the cap during the 2020 season, which significantly hampered their ability to do anything else aggressive last off-season, but gave them more financial flexibility going forward.

The Rams didn’t seem to miss either one much as they were able to make it back to the post-season in 2020, despite not having a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and using their two second round picks on replacements for Cooks and Gurley. However, they once again were not able to make much noise in the post-season, falling short in the divisional round after a good, but not good enough 10-6 season and their defense once again compensated for a disappointing offensively performance. 

Even with Cooks and Gurley mostly off the books this off-season, the Rams still lacked financial flexibility in a cap shrunken year and, without a first round pick, it seemed unlikely that the Rams would be able to make any aggressive moves to improve their offense this off-season. However, the Rams got creative and they actually combined a couple of their aggressive strategies together in one move to make a significant offensive upgrade. 

The Rams moved on from Jared Goff, eating 24.7 million in dead cap for the 2021 season in the process and once again moving on from a player who was paid significant money (30 million) on any extension and never ended up playing for the team on it, but they didn’t just trade him away for a draft pick, sending him to the Lions with the Rams’ 2022 and 2023 first round picks to acquire veteran quarterback Matt Stafford, who wanted out of Detroit after many years with a losing organization and who is clearly viewed as a significant upgrade on Goff by Sean McVay and the Rams. Most of Stafford’s contract has already been paid out by the Lions and the 43 million over 2 seasons he’s owed is below market value, but the Rams will likely have to give him a top of the market extension in the next year or so to keep him around long-term, so he won’t be cheap from a salary standpoint either. 

Overall, the Rams obviously have a ton invested in Stafford. Not only will they not have seven straight first round picks from 2017-2023, barring something changing, but the Rams aren’t in good financial shape for the next few off-seasons either. They couldn’t do anything this off-season after taking Goff’s cap hit and adding Stafford, aside from re-signing edge defender Leonard Floyd on a 4-year, 64 million dollar deal that borrows a ton of future cap space to make it work. Beyond that, they are one of three teams that is already over next year’s cap, even as the cap is set to rise back up significantly, and they rank in the bottom-5 in projected cap space in each of the next three off-seasons.

So far, this aggressive strategy has mostly worked out for the Rams, who have managed to avoid the bottom falling out. How they’ve done it is by drafting well. Despite their recent lack of first round picks, half of the 26 players who played at least 450 snaps on either side of the ball last season are home grown, from the 2015-2019 drafts, outside of the first round. That doesn’t include the 2020 draft, which saw 6th round pick Jordan Fuller make 12 starts as a rookie and 2nd round pick Cam Akers emerge as a feature back down the stretch.

History suggests the draft is more of a crap shoot than anything. The Pete Carroll/John Schneider Seahawks were known for finding late round gems in the early 2010s, but a look at their recent drafts clearly shows their hit rate has regressed to the mean and then some. Bill Belichick’s Patriots found arguably the greatest quarterback and tight end of all-time, both outside of the first round, along with a #1 receiver and Super Bowl MVP in the 7th round and several other draft steals, but even his record has some clear misses on it, especially in recent years.

To the Rams’ credit, they seem to understand the value of trading back on draft day as much as any team, including New England, treating the draft as the largely unpredictable event that it is and going with a quantity over quality approach in terms of draft picks, maximizing their chances of finding a steal. The Rams might not have selected in the first round since 2016, but they still selected 36 times overall from 2017-2020 and they’ve benefitted from that. They might not continue quite having the draft success they’ve had, but they’ve proven they are as good at identifying and developing young talent as any team in the league.

Whether this team can not only continue avoiding the bottom falling out, but also finally capture a Super Bowl victory, rests very much on the arm of Matt Stafford. Stafford has been an above average starting quarterback throughout his 12-year career with the Lions, who selected him #1 overall in 2009, but I’m not sure if he’s shown himself to be good enough to justify the Rams’ investment in him. Overall, he’s completed 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.25 YPA, 282 touchdowns, and 144 interceptions, which is impressive when you consider that he usually had underwhelming supporting casts.

However, he’s never finished higher than 7th among quarterbacks on PFF in a season in his career and he’s only finished in the top-10 three times, so, while he’s also never dropped lower than 22nd in 10 straight seasons and gives the Rams a low floor at the position, he might not have the elite quarterback upside that the Rams are essentially committing to him as if he has. He’s finished higher than Goff in four of the past five seasons and should overall be an upgrade, but Sean McVay and company are really betting on being able to coach Stafford up into a better quarterback than he’s shown himself to be for over a decade. 

It may beat the alternative of being locked into Goff’s massive deal for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean it is going to result in the Rams finally getting a Super Bowl victory. It’s just another way for the perpetually aggressive Rams to continue trying to extend their Super Bowl window and borrowing against the future to do so. This offense should be better than their 21st ranked finish in first down rate over expected (-0.86%) from a year ago, but they will need to be noticeably better just to remain in playoff contention, as their defense is likely to take a big step backwards after leading the league in first down rate allowed over expected (-4.90%). 

I’ll get into this more later, but not only is defense the tougher side of the ball on which to be consistent dominant, the Rams also, despite keeping top edge defender Leonard Floyd, lost a lot of talent on defense this off-season, with three of their top-8 in snaps played from a year ago no longer with the team and brilliant young coordinator Brandon Staley also no longer around, becoming the head coach of the crosstown Chargers this off-season. This offense is going to need to take a big step forward just to compensate for a likely big step back on the other side of the ball.

The Rams also would be in worse shape than most teams if they lost their starting quarterback to injury, which has been a growing concern for Stafford, who has either missed time with and/or played through serious injuries in each of the past three seasons and now heads into his age 33 season. John Wolford is likely to remain the backup, but the 2018 undrafted free agent didn’t show much in his first career 44 pass attempts last season in place of an injured Jared Goff last season, while off-season addition Devlin Hodges was one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league in his only extended action in 2019 with the Steelers, when he finished dead last among eligible quarterbacks on PFF in 6 starts in place of an injured Ben Roethlisberger. Either option would likely struggle if Stafford missed significant action.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Without their first round pick this year (and for the next two years), the Rams had a big decision to make with their second round pick this year and surprisingly decided on Louisville wide receiver Tutu Atwell. Not only was the very undersized Atwell (5-9 165) expected by many to go in the 4th round or later, but wide receiver seemed like one position where the Rams did not have a need and, to the extent they did, they have already proven they develop wide receivers well and don’t need to spend premium resources on adding depth at the position.

Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are already signed long-term on big extensions worth 65 million over 4 years and 47.25 million over 3 years respectively. The Rams also used a 2nd round pick last year on wide receiver Van Jefferson and, while they lost Josh Reynolds in free agency this off-season, they were expected to give Jefferson a bigger role and even signed veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson on an overpaid 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal to presumably be the #4 wide receiver in the short-term, so it’s unclear where Atwell fits, either short-term or long-term.

Woods and Kupp should remain the 1a and 1b receivers in some order in 2021 and beyond and they are the best example of this team developing wide receivers well. Woods was a second round pick in 2013, but had never topped 700 yards in a season in four seasons with the Bills, with whom he averaged just 1.32 yards per route run, prior to joining the Rams in the 2016 off-season. However, Woods proved to be well worth the 5-year, 34 million deal that the Rams signed him to, having averaged 1.90 yards per route run and a 87/1104/8 slash line per 16 games across 59 games in 4 seasons with the Rams. 

Woods’ worst season was actually in 2020, when he still finished with a 90/936/6 slash line in 16 games and earned an above average grade from PFF, and, still in his prime in his age 29 season, there is no reason to expect this to be any sort of permanent decline. The Rams had to sweeten his deal to keep him happy, but even at an increased salary, he’s a valuable member of this team and should be a good bet to see his production improve in 2021 with better quarterback play.

Kupp, meanwhile, joined this team as just a 3rd round pick in 2017 and has been about as productive as Woods, averaging 2.05 yards per route run and a 85/1058/7 slash line per 16 games, while also finishing in the top-31 among wide receivers on PFF in all four seasons with the Rams, including a 21st ranked finish in 2020. Kupp was an old rookie and is already in his age 28 season, but he should remain an above average starting wide receiver for at least another couple years and he’s also well worth his new increased salary.

Jefferson will have to compete for the #3 wide receiver role, but he showed enough promise in limited action as a rookie (1.43 yards per route run) that he should be considered the heavy favorite to hold off his competition and the #3 wide receiver role is near an every down player in this offense, so Jefferson will have the opportunity to play a significant role. Jackson, meanwhile, is no more than a flyer, despite what the Rams paid him this off-season. 

In his prime, Jackson was one of the best deep threats in the game, but he’s going into his age 35 season and has played a total of just eight games over the past two seasons due to a variety of injuries. His 2.34 yards per route run average over those eight games suggests he might have something left if he can stay on the field, but he’s tough to project to a significant role given his age and recent injury history. He figures to slot in as a depth receiver and situational deep threat. The same should be true of Atwell, a similar player, but obviously younger. 

The Rams also used a 4th round pick on tight end Jacob Harris, although that is more understandable than their selection of a wide receiver in the 2nd, given that the Rams lost backup tight end Gerald Everett this off-season to the Seahawks in free agency this off-season. There is no guarantee that Harris will be able to replace Everett though, as Everett produced more than most backup tight ends, averaging 1.42 yards per route run with a 33/364/2 slash line per 16 games. Harris will also likely face competition for playing time from holdovers Johnny Mundt, who has played just 381 snaps in 4 seasons with the Rams as a deep reserve, and Brycen Hopkins, a 2020 4th round pick who saw just 2 offensive snaps as a rookie.

With Everett gone and no proven option to replace him, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Rams give more playing time and targets to starting tight end Tyler Higbee. A 4th round pick in 2016, Higbee has been a solid starter for the Rams over the past four seasons, earning average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons, impressing as a run blocker, while also averaging 1.69 yards per route run and a 42/501/3 slash line per 16 games. I wouldn’t expect him to see too many targets though, even with Everett gone, as the wide receivers are obviously the focus of this offense, given how many of their resources they have concentrated at the position.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Rams have also spent multiple relatively high draft picks on running backs in recent drafts, trying to find a replacement for what Todd Gurley used to be for this offense. They first selected Darrell Henderson in the 3rd round in 2019 when they still had Gurley, hoping he could take the load off Gurley, but Henderson managed just 39 rookie year carries and the Rams went back to the draft for another running back the following year after releasing Gurley, using a 2nd round pick on Cam Akers. 

Akers and Henderson split carries about evenly last season, totaling 145 and 138 respectively, but the Rams seemed to commit to Akers over Henderson down the stretch, giving 132 carries to Akers over his final 6 games, including the post-season. Henderson was out for three of those games, but Akers still out-carried him 65 to 6 in the final three games before Henderson got hurt, so Henderson’s injury was not the catalyst for Akers taking over the feature back role.

Henderson was actually a little bit more effective on the season, averaging 4.52 YPC and a 55% carry success rate, while Akers averaged 4.31 YPC and a 48% carry success rate, but the Rams may view him as more of a change of pace back going forward at 5-8 208, with Akers as the feature back at 5-10 217. That could change depending on who has the hot hand, however, but all in all, they’re a decent running back duo and both players have the upside to be better than they’ve been.

The one area the Rams might like to see Akers and Henderson take a step forward the most might be as pass catchers, as neither have shown much in that aspect in their careers (1.15 yards per route run and 1.06 yards per route run respectively). All in all, the Rams threw just 73 times to running backs last season, with 33 of those going to Malcolm Brown, who also led Rams running backs in routes run, but who is no longer with the team. 

The Rams probably won’t throw many times more to running backs in 2021, given their talent in the receiving corps, but they would probably like to see Akers and Henderson be more effective on their opportunities, especially since that was an aspect in which Gurley excelled when he and their offense were at their best. They should get solid production on the ground from their running back duo, but the passing game is more questionable.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

With the Rams concentrating a lot of their resources into offensive skill position players, one group that has been somewhat neglected has been their offensive line. Fortunately, they have gotten the most out of a lot of their additions. Their biggest addition was signing ex-Bengal Andrew Whitworth during the 2017 off-season, which somewhat not so coincidentally lined up with when this offense and this franchise turned around significantly. 

Whitworth was getting up in age, so he was a risky signing on a 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal, but he had finished in the top-12 among offensive tackles on PFF in 7 of his previous 8 seasons prior to the Rams signing him and he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down, finishing 7th, 6th, 26th, and 4th respectively in four seasons with the team. There seemingly is speculation every off-season that he is going to hang them up, but he’s re-signed with the Rams on another three year deal, worth 30 million, which takes him through the next two seasons. 

Whitworth could continue playing at a high level, but he’s in his age 40 season now, making him the oldest player in the league aside from quarterbacks and kickers, so his projection is going to be shaky every year from here on out. I wouldn’t put it past him to continue playing at a high level, but he also could drop off significantly, which would have a noticeable negative impact on this offense. The Rams’ insurance policy for him and possible long-term replacement is 2018 3rd round pick Joe Noteboom, who held his own in Whitworth’s absence last season, but also performed much worse in 376 snaps in 2019 and has yet to show himself as anything more than a decent spot starter.

Along with Whitworth’s age, another concern upfront for this group is the loss of center Austin Blythe, who was PFF’s 13th ranked center in 16 starts last season, but signed with the Chiefs this off-season. He will either be replaced by Brian Allen or Bobby Evans, a pair of inexperienced young offensive linemen. Allen is a natural center and the 2018 4th round pick made 9 starts at center in 2019, but he struggled, finishing 27th out of 37 eligible centers, and then went down for the year with a devastating knee injury that ultimately ended up keeping him on the bench for all of 2020, as the Rams did not trust him enough to put him back into the lineup. Another year removed from that injury, that may have changed, especially with the Rams now having a big need at the center position, but it’s worth noting he wasn’t playing at a high level even before the injury.

Evans, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2019 and was originally drafted as a right tackle, but he struggled there in 472 rookie year snaps and was converted to guard in 2020. Evans only played 1 snap last season, but he’ll have an opportunity to earn a starting role in 2021, in which case the Rams would shift right guard Austin Corbett inside to center. Corbett is another one of the good values the Rams have found in recent years, acquiring a player who the Browns selected 33rd overall in 2018 for just a late round pick in the middle of the 2019 season and watching him break out as PFF’s 13th ranked guard in 16 starts in 2020. 

Corbett is a complete one-year wonder who played just 556 mediocre snaps prior to last season and, while he theoretically has the versatility to move to center, that isn’t a guarantee that he will be as good there as he was at guard last season, but he was highly drafted and he wouldn’t be the first talented young player to shake off a couple rough years and develop into a consistently above average starter. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good in 2021 as he was last season, especially if he has to move inside to center, but he should remain at least a capable starter.

Left guard David Edwards has also been a good value for the Rams, who selected him in the 5th round in 2019. Edwards was solid in 10 rookie year starts and took a step forward in his second season, making 14 starts and finishing as PFF’s 15th ranked guard on the season. He might not be quite that good again, but he could also keep developing into a consistently above average starter. He should be locked into his starting role. 

Right tackle Rob Havenstein rounds out this offensive line and is the longest tenured member of this group, being selected in the 2nd round in 2015, back when the Rams were not a competitive team. Havenstein has been a starter since his rookie season, making 84 starts in six seasons in the league and finishing above average on PFF in five of those seasons. The exception was 2019, when Havenstein finished 79th among 86 eligible offensive tackles, but that stands out as an obvious outlier in his career, especially when you consider that season is surrounded by a 3rd ranked finish in 2018 and a 16th ranked finish in 2020. 

Havenstein has been somewhat inconsistent in his career and isn’t guaranteed to play as well as he did in 2018 in 2020, but he’s still in his prime in his age 29 season and should be at least a solid starter once again. This group looks shakier than last year with Blythe gone, Whitworth another year older, and players like Edwards, Havenstein, and Corbett who might not match last year’s performance, but it could once again be a solid group.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, the Rams led the league last season with a first down rate allowed over expected of -4.90%, but I wouldn’t expect them to be that good again in 2020 and they could drop off significantly. High level defensive play tends to be much tougher to sustain year-to-year than high level offensive play because so much of offensive play is determined by quarterback play, while a defense needs 7-9 starters playing at a high level to play at a high level as a unit, which gets tough to keep together long-term, due to injuries and increased financial expectations. 

The Rams felt the squeeze of the cap on their defense this off-season, losing cornerback Troy Hill, safety John Johnson, and interior defender Michael Brockers, who were three of their most important players a year ago and none of whom did the Rams properly replace this off-season. They also won’t have the benefit of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who was so good in his one year on the job that he became the Chargers head coach this off-season.

Brockers was probably the least important of the trio of departed players, but he still earned an above average grade from PFF across 625 snaps, providing solid play against the run and adding 5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 7.4% pressure rate. The Rams also lost Morgan Fox, an effective pass rush specialist with 6 sacks, 3 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate in a part-time role (403 snaps on the season), who signed with the Panthers this off-season. Their only addition to the interior defender position this off-season was 4th round pick Bobby Brown, who could see a significant role as a rookie. Aside from him, the Rams will also be hoping their existing players can take a step forward.

The best candidate to do that would be A’Shawn Robinson, who was signed to a 2-year, 17 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season, but was a disappointment in year one, struggling across 111 snaps in 8 games. Robinson probably would have been let go this off-season if he didn’t have guaranteed money on his contract for 2021, but he has a similar profile to Brockers if he can get past last year’s down season, which may have been caused by a mysterious early season injury. At his best, he’s primarily a run stuffer, but also adds some pass rush as well, with a 6.2% pressure rate from 2017-2019. He’s also a former 2nd round pick who is only in his age 26 season, so he has plenty of bounce back potential.

Sebastian Joseph-Day and Greg Gaines are younger options who could take on larger roles, but they are both projections to that role. Joseph-Day has been solid across 481 snaps and 412 snaps over the past two seasons respectively, but he might not have more upside than that, as only a 6th round pick in 2018. Gaines, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in 2019 and has shown promise in two seasons in the league, but that’s across a total of just 384 snaps. 

The Rams, of course, still have Aaron Donald, who is not only the best defensive player in the league, but one of the best of all-time, if you look at the consistent dominance across his whole career. Unfortunately, Donald alone doesn’t guarantee the Rams will be a dominant defense, as evidenced by the fact that the Rams ranked 4th, 8th, 9th, 12th, 21st, and 11th in first down rate allowed in 6 seasons with Donald prior to last year’s league best finish. 

Still, it’s hard to ignore the dominance of a player who has finished in the top-2 among interior defenders on PFF in all 7 seasons in the league since being selected 13th overall in 2014, including 6 straight #1 finishes at his position. Not only a dominant pass rusher, with 85.5 sacks, 114 hits, and a 15.3% pressure rate in 110 games, despite frequently being double teamed on the interior, but he’s also one of the best run stopping defensive linemen in the league as well. He’s in his late prime in his age 30 season, but I wouldn’t expect him to drop off significantly. As he should be every season, Donald should be considered the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year this season, which would give him a record 4 DPOY awards if he does in fact win it. He significantly elevates a group that takes a hit with the loss of Michael Brockers this off-season.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Rams did retain top edge defender Leonard Floyd in free agency, but, at the price of 64 million over 4 years, the Rams might have been better off letting him walk and using that money elsewhere. Even with most of his cap hits pushed out beyond 2021, the Rams still had to move Brockers to keep Floyd and his cap hits are set to count for a combined 58.5 million from 2022-2024. Floyd’s sack total of 10.5 last season was impressive, but he had never done anything like that in the first four seasons of his career with the Bears (18.5 sacks total in 54 games) and he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested last season. 

Floyd finished the season ranked just 40th among edge defenders on PFF and managed just a 9.1% pressure rate overall, with many of his sacks coming as a result of being in the right place after Aaron Donald disrupted the play on the interior. Floyd is a former first round pick, selected 9th overall by the Bears in 2016, but his pressure rate last season was in line with his career 10.0% pressure rate and I don’t see that suddenly improving going forward, so it’s hard to justify giving Floyd the kind of money they did in an off-season where most players had to settle for below market deals. 

Floyd could post an impressive sack total again as a result of Donald’s continued presence on the interior, but the Rams could have found a much cheaper option who could have done essentially the same thing, which is what they did last off-season when they added Floyd in the first place to replace Dante Fowler, who signed a big contract with the Falcons and quickly proved to be a bust with Donald no longer around. They seemed to understand they didn’t need to pay top edge rusher money to get sack production off the edge last off-season, but for some reason changed their mind on that this off-season, even with plenty of cheaper plug and play options available.

One other position the Rams could have addressed with the savings from not re-signing Floyd was simply the other edge defender spot which, despite Donald’s presence, did not have a player surpass 4.5 sacks all season and then saw that player with 4.5 sacks, Samson Ebukam, sign elsewhere this off-season. With only a 4th round pick, Earnest Brown, and a 7th round pick, Chris Garrett, being added to the mix this off-season, the Rams will be hoping for more out of holdovers Justin Hollins (349 snaps), Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (158 snaps), and Terrell Lewis (124 snaps). 

Lewis should have the most upside of the bunch, as he was a relatively high pick, selected in the 3rd round in 2020, and he showed some promise as a rookie in an overall injury plagued rookie season. It’s not a guarantee he ever develops into a starter, but he definitely has a good chance to take a step forward in year two. Okoronkwo was a 5th round pick in 2018, but has played just 273 nondescript snaps in his career and would almost definitely struggle in a bigger role. Hollins has the most experience of the bunch by default, but the 2019 5th round pick has played just 615 snaps in two seasons in the league and was so underwhelming in 266 rookie year snaps that his original draft team, the Denver Broncos, let him go as part of final cuts in 2020, after just one season. 

The Broncos might have given up on Hollins too soon, as he was better in 2020 after being claimed off waivers by the Rams, but his value comes more from his versatility as a run stopper and coverage linebacker, rather than his pass rush ability, as his mediocre 7.3% pressure rate in 2020 actually matched his rookie year mark. He’ll play a role in a thin position group, but he’s not someone to expect a big sack total from, even with Aaron Donald’s presence on the interior. Led by an overrated player in Leonard Floyd, this is a concerning position group.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Rams’ off ball linebackers were their worst defensive position group last season and, without a significant upgrade made to this group this off-season, this will likely remain a position of weakness. A trio of players, Micah Kiser, Kenny Young, Troy Reeder, played significant snaps in this group last season, playing 559 snaps, 472 snaps, and 423 snaps respectively and all three remain on this roster, but it’s unclear if the Rams will get better play for them this season. 

Kiser and Young were the worst of the bunch, finishing 92nd and 89th respectively among 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF and, while Reeder was solid, that was a big surprise as the 2019 undrafted free agent struggled mightily across 298 rookie year snaps and might not be able to repeat his solid 2020 campaign in 2021. Kiser and Young don’t have much of a track record either, with Kiser, a 2018 5th round pick, playing just 1 snap in his career prior to last season, and Young, a 2018 4th round pick, playing just 470 nondescript snaps.

The Rams’ only addition to this group this off-season was 3rd round rookie Ernest Jones from the University of South Carolina, who could play a significant role in this group even as a rookie. He’ll compete with the aforementioned trio of holdovers in a very thin position group and, though he could easily struggle in a big way as a rookie, he probably has the most upside of the group by default and could develop into an every down player long-term. His addition marginally improves this group.

Grade: C

Secondary

This defensive front led by Aaron Donald was one of the reasons for the Rams’ defensive success last season, but arguably a bigger reason was their secondary, which was possibly the best in the entire league overall last season. However, they lost two key players this off-season, safety John Johnson, who ranked 3rd among safeties on PFF in 2020, and cornerback Troy Hill, who ranked 18th among cornerbacks. Not only that, but they didn’t do much to replace either one and will be relying on getting more from players already on this roster. Even if those existing players do give them more, however, it’s hard to expect anyone to play at the level of the players the Rams lost this off-season.

Cornerback was their bigger position of strength last season and, even without Hill, they could still have a pair of talented cornerbacks, but after having three cornerbacks finish in the top-18 among cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, the Rams’ projection going into 2021 is much shakier. Not only is Hill gone and set to be replaced either 2019 3rd round David Long, who has played just 225 career snaps, or 4th round rookie Robert Rochell, who could easily be overmatched in year one, but the Rams also got an improbable year from Darious Williams last season, which might not happen again, especially if the Rams defensive coaching isn’t as good as it was last season with Brandon Staley.

Williams was PFF’s 6th ranked cornerback across 824 snaps last season, but the 2018 undrafted free agent has played just 225 snaps aside from that in his career and is in his age 27 season already. He probably won’t fall off completely and should remain an above average starter, but I would bet against him matching last year’s dominant performance, which will be a noticeable impact on this defense, especially with Troy Hill also gone. Fortunately, the Rams should be able to count on at least one of their cornerbacks playing at a high level, as Jalen Ramsey has largely been worth the steep price tag the Rams paid to acquire him during the 2019 season, not just the two first round picks, but also the 5-year, 100 million dollar extension they ultimately gave him. 

Ramsey had some inconsistent play earlier in his career in Jacksonville, but he was PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback in 2019 once acquired by the Rams and then finished last season ranked 7th. Even in his inconsistent play in Jacksonville, he still managed a dominant second season in the league in 2017, finishing 2nd among cornerbacks, and he never ranked lower than 31st at his position overall. A former 5th overall pick, still only in his age 27 season, he’s one of the surest bets at the cornerback position in the league.

While the Rams’ cornerbacks should still be good, even if not as good as last season, safety is a little bit more concerning as the Rams will be going with a full youth movement to try to replace one of the best safeties in the league in John Johnson. Taylor Rapp was originally drafted in the 2nd round in 2019 to start next to Johnson long-term, but he ended up seeing his most significant action (823 snaps) as a rookie when he started in place of an injured Johnson and, while Rapp started next to Johnson for a time in 2020, Rapp’s season was ended early by injury after just 365 snaps.

Now with Johnson gone and Rapp going into his 3rd season in the league, he is likely to be an every down starter and, having held his own in his playing time thus far, it’s likely he’ll be a solid starter, with the upside for more. When Rapp was out last season, Jordan Fuller picked up the slack and ended up playing decently across 708 snaps, despite being just a 6th round rookie. Fuller was overlooked by the entire league, including the Rams, and had his issues in coverage, with his best play coming against the run, so he might not necessarily develop into a consistently solid starter going forward, but he at the very least looks like a great value pick. 

Terrell Burgess was selected much earlier in 2020, in the 3rd round, but injury and ineffectiveness led to him seeing just 49 rookie year snaps. Still, he can’t be written off completely after one season and, even if he can’t beat out Fuller or Rapp for a starting job, he could still earn a sub package role as a slot cornerback or a coverage linebacker. There is still talent in this secondary overall, but they will obviously miss Hill and Johnson and they can’t count on Darious Williams’ repeating last season’s improbable breakout season.

Grade: B+

Kicker/Punter

The Rams struggled in a big way on special teams last season, finishing 30th in special teams DVOA and finishing below average in DVOA in all aspects of special teams, one of just four teams to do so. Their place kicking stood out as an issue, as they finished the season having made just 90.5% of their extra points and 80.0% of their field goals, while making just one field goal longer than 50 yards (51). 

Fortunately, the Rams did bring back Matt Gay, who was the best of the three kickers who played for them in 2020, making 16/16 extra points and 14/16 field goals. There is a reason Gay was available mid-season though, as he struggled mightily with the Buccaneers in his first season as a starter in 2019, finishing 32nd among 38 eligible kickers on PFF, while making just 89.6% of his extra points and 77.1% of his field goals.

The only competition the Rams added for Gay this off-season was Austin MacGinnis, a 2020 undrafted free agent who didn’t attempt a kick as a rookie, while hitting just 79.1% of his field goal attempts in college, so the Rams are hoping that Gay can continue at least being the servicable option he was for seven games last season. They could easily end up being disappointed and have to cycle through multiple kickers again.

Gay is at least a good kickoff specialist, as were all three of their kickers last season, but the poor performance of their supporting special teamers led to them struggling on kickoffs overall. The same is true of punts, although punter Johnny Hekker has concerningly seen his hang time and overall performance slip in the past two seasons. Hekker was once one of the better punters in the league, finishing in the top-6 among punters on PFF in 6 straight seasons from 2013-2018, including three top-2 finishes, but he’s earned only middling grades over the past two seasons, including a 21st ranked finish in 2020. Hekker isn’t over the hill in his age 31 season, but he’s not a guarantee to bounce back. He’s the better of their kicking specialists, but this is an underwhelming group overall.

Grade: B-

Return Specialists

Nsimba Webster was the Rams’ primary kickoff and punt returner in 2020, returning 16 kickoffs and 25 punts, but he wasn’t that productive, averaging just 21.7 yards per kickoff and 7.4 yards per punt return. Part of that was lack of talent around him, but he struggled in his own right, finishing 39th among 52 eligible returners on PFF, and was not brought back this off-season. The Rams didn’t add a clear replacement this off-season, so both jobs are up for grabs.

Running back Raymond Calais returned 7 kickoffs as a 7th round rookie in 2020 and, while he averaged just 21.7 yards per return, that wasn’t all his fault and he returned 99 kickoffs for 25.2 yards per return and two touchdowns as a 4-year kickoff returner at the University of Louisiana, so he seems like a natural fit for the role. He’s never returned a punt in college or in the pros though, so he’s not likely to be a candidate for that role.

Cooper Kupp returned 9 punts last season, but his 5.4 career average across 10 punts leaves something to be desired and the Rams might not want to expose a key part of their offense to extra injury risk. Fellow wide receiver Tutu Atwell won’t have as big of an offensive role as Kupp, has the athletic profile to be a good punt returner, and has been taking reps there in practice, but he didn’t return a punt once in college and only returned four kickoffs for an average of 20.0 yards per return, so he is new to the position.

Another wide receiver DeSean Jackson also won’t have a huge role on offense and was one of the most prolific punt returners in the league early in his career, returning 116 punts for an average of 10.6 yards per return and four touchdowns over his first 4 seasons in the league, but he hasn’t regularly returned punts since 2011 and has averaged just 3.7 yards per punt return across the nine seasons since. Now in his age 35 season, after numerous injuries, Jackson likely won’t have the explosiveness he showed on punt returns early in his career, if he does in fact win the job. There is some potential in this group, but it’s overall unsettled and they are highly unlikely to get the kind of return play needed to overcome the level of supporting cast play they got on special teams last season.

Grade: C+

Special Teamers

The Rams did shake up their special teams coaching situation, moving incumbent John Bonamego to another role and hiring Joe DeCamilis, a 12-year special teams coordinator, most recently with the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, aside from that, it’s hard to see how they are going to be better this season. They didn’t add a veteran special teamer at all and lost a trio of their top special teamers from a year ago Nsimba Webster (254 snaps), Natrez Patrick (235 snaps), and Samson Ebukam (219 snaps). Ebukam struggled, but Webster and Patrick were two of just four Rams to play more than 150 special teams snaps in 2020 and earn an above average grade from PFF, and they weren’t replaced.

Johnny Mundt (263 snaps) and Troy Reeder (202 snaps) are their best returning special teamers and they aren’t one-year wonders, finishing above average on PFF in 2019 as well, across 146 snaps and 296 snaps respectively. David Long (256 snaps), Nick Scott (328 snaps), JuJu Hughes (202 snaps), Xavier Jones (177 snaps), and Justin Hollins (187 snaps) all return after playing significant roles last season, but they all finished below average on PFF and, while Scott was much better in 2019 across 360 snaps, none of the rest have a history of success. The Rams will need great coaching and significant contributions from their rookie class to even get passable play out of this group, which will significantly hurt the rest of their special teams.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Rams’ offense should be better with the switch from Jared Goff to Matt Stafford under center, but their offensive line is a little bit more questionable than it was a year ago, while their defense looks likely to take a big step back from last year’s league best unit, losing a trio of key players and their very valuable defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. It’s likely their offense compensates enough for their defensive drop off that this team remains in the mix for a playoff spot, but anyone expecting the Rams to be a Super Bowl contender because they’re adding an upgrade at quarterback to an elite defense are missing that their defense is likely to take a step back. 

The Rams are all in for a Super Bowl victory in the short-term, but the most likely result is this team competing to make the post-season, which will be made even tougher by the fact that they play in the best division in football and won’t have the benefit of playing the worst division again, the NFC East, against whom the Rams went 4-0 last season, as opposed to 6-6 in their other 12 games. I will have a final prediction for the Rams at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21 Update: Further working against the Rams is their special teams, which is more predictive than previously thought. The Rams will obviously be better on offense this season, even with running back Cam Akers out for the season with a torn achilles, but I would expect their defense to drop off more than their offense improves and I would expect their special teams to be a problem again. In the toughest division in football, that is going to be a big problem for the Rams.

9/4/21 Update: I think the Rams are one of the most overrated teams going into the season, as they have been a trendy Super Bowl pick with Stafford coming to town. Their offense will obviously be better, but I would expect their defense to be significantly worse than a year ago, due to sheer regression, as well as all they lost in terms of personnel and coaching. Add in the toughest division in football and a tougher schedule in general and a team that went 10-6 a year ago could easily find themselves on the outside looking in for a playoff spot.

Prediction: 8-9 4th in NFC West

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