Los Angeles Rams 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2016, the Rams had the fewest points in the league with 224. In 2017, they scored 478 points, most in the league, the first time in NFL history a team had gone from worst to first in points. You can’t give the offense all of the credit, as they had 5 defensive return touchdowns, got another one from their special teams, and had fantastic special teams all season (2nd in special teams DVOA), but their offense was statistically one of the best in the league. They finished 9th in first down rate at 35.60% (after finishing dead last in 2016 at 27.92% and in 2015 at 29.13%) and had the 4th most offensive touchdowns in the league with 45 (only behind the Patriots, Eagles, and Saints), even though most of their starters took week 17 off.

The obvious difference from 2016 to 2017 was the coaching staff. In 2016, they were coached by old school, defensive minded Jeff Fisher who consistently employed uninventive offensive coaches. Fisher was fired with 3 games left in the 2016 season and the Rams replaced him in the off-season with bright young offensive mind Sean McVay, who was the youngest coach in modern NFL history when he was hired (30 years old) and went on to win Coach of the Year in his first season with the Rams.

Perhaps the most important impact McVay had on this team was on young quarterback Jared Goff. The 1st overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, who the Rams traded a pair of first rounders (#15 in 2016 and #5 in 2017), a pair of second rounders, and a pair of third rounders to move up acquire, Goff had a miserable rookie year. He spent the first 9 games of the season on the bench behind veteran Case Keenum, who was not exactly setting the world on fire with his play, and it became apparent why he wasn’t playing once he finally got on the field. Goff started the final 7 games of the season and looked totally unprepared for the NFL. He completed 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and the Rams moved the chains at a pathetic 24.62% rate in those 7 games.

In 2017, like the rest of this offense, Goff’s play was night and day. He completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. He wasn’t quite as good as his numbers suggested, as a lot of his production came from throwing to open receivers, but he still finished a solid 15th on Pro Football Focus, up from 30th as a rookie. He also didn’t call any of the audibles at the line of scrimmage, as McVay handled all of that to make Goff’s life easier, but it clearly worked for this offense. Goff is still only going into his age 24 season, so he could easily continue getting better under McVay’s tutelage.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Not only is Goff a capable starter with upside, but he also comes at a very reasonable price, as he’s in just the 3rd year of a 4-year rookie deal worth a total of 28 million. In a league where 20 quarterbacks make more than 18 million annually, Goff is an absolute bargain. That allows the Rams to spend comparatively more on the rest of their roster than the majority of the league, which is a huge benefit. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles, who won the Super Bowl with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles making a combined 12.2 million annually on their current contracts.

That window closes fast though. Goff’s 5th year option for 2020 will cost the Rams upwards of 20 million and his long-term extension could be worth upwards of 30 million annually in 2021 and beyond if he continues to develop. Even with a growing cap, that’s a big number and will limit their options for filling out the rest of the roster. As a result, the Rams are aggressively going all in on these next couple seasons.

This strategy was never clearer than when the Rams sent the 23th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft along with a 6th round pick to the Patriots this off-season for wide receiver Brandin Cooks and a 4th round pick. Cooks was sent to the Patriots from the Saints last off-season with a 4th round pick in exchange for picks 32 and 96, so the Rams are only paying about a 6th round pick less than the Patriots did for Cooks per the draft trade value chart, even though Cooks made just 1.563 million in 2017 and is set to make 8.459 million in the final year of his rookie contract in 2018. After that, the Rams will have to make him one of the highest paid wide receivers in the league (upwards of 15 million annually) in order to keep him long-term.

Cooks put up over 1000 yards last season in New England (65/1082/7), his 3rd straight 1000+ yard season, but he finished middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus. He’s been very productive in his career, but he’s played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Drew Brees and Tom Brady and has never finished higher than 30th at his position on PFF. He’s a former first round pick who is only going into his age 25 season, so he could easily continue getting better, but, between the first round pick they gave up for him and the long-term extension they’ll have to give him to keep him, the Rams overpaid.

Cooks replaces Sammy Watkins, who signed with the Chiefs this off-season. Watkins had a disappointing 39/593/8 slash line in 15 games for the Rams last season, after being acquired for a 2018 2nd round pick a month before the season started. Between that trade, the trade for Cooks, and trades for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, the Rams were without their own 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th round pick in this year’s draft and will be without their 2nd round pick in next year’s draft. Through other trades, they ended up with 11 picks this year, but only one (#89) came in the top-100. On top of that, the Rams were without a 1st and 3rd round pick in 2017 due to the Jared Goff trade and Goff was their only pick in the top-100 in 2016. That could leave the Rams without much needed cheap young talent in a few years.

Making matters worse, the talent the Rams already have on this team is going to get very expensive to keep in the few off-seasons. Between Cooks, Peters, running back Todd Gurley, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Rams have four players who went in the first round in either 2014 or 2015 who will need to be paid near the top of their position to be kept long-term and that’s even before getting to Goff’s extension. The Rams have another 5 starters (Ndamukong Suh, LaMarcus Joyner, Jamon Brown, Rodger Saffold, and Rob Havenstein) set to hit free agency in 2019, so they’ll have some tough choices to make in the next year. Teams built around 5 or 6 highly paid players rarely make deep playoff runs, especially if they don’t have a lot of young talent on cheap rookie deals, so the Rams’ Super Bowl window could be pretty narrow.

Outside of Goff, the Rams have gotten very little out of their 2016 draft class, but, fortunately, they managed to have a strong draft in 2017, despite sending picks #5 and #100 (compensation pick for losing Janoris Jenkins) to the Titans in the Goff trade. The Rams still had their own third rounder and a third rounder they received for trading down with the Bills, the former of which they used on wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Kupp played a big role as a rookie, catching 62 passes for a team leading 869 yards and 5 touchdowns. He primarily played on the slot (249 of 424 pass routes), but averaged 2.06 yards per route run as an outside receiver and 2.04 yards per route run as a slot receiver, showing impressive versatility. He was an old rookie and is already going into his age 25 season (he’s older than Cooks, who was drafted 3 years earlier), so he may have a low ceiling, but he should continue being a dependable receiver.

The Rams also have Robert Woods at wideout, in the 2nd year of a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal they signed him to as a free agent last off-season. Despite being limited to 12 games, the ex-Bill caught 56 passes for a career high 781 yards and 5 touchdowns, averaging 2.17 yards per route run on 360 routes. Even though he never put up big numbers in Buffalo, it’s not a huge surprise he broke out last season with the Rams. He was a former 2nd round pick who averaged 1.73 yards per route run on 355 routes in 13 games on a run heavy offense in Buffalo and he was only in his age 25 season in 2017.

Woods has had lingering injury issues and has only played in all 16 games once in 5 seasons in the league, but as long as he’s healthy he should continue being a dependable weapon for this passing game. With Woods and Kupp already on the roster, the trade for Cooks did not seem necessary. 2017 4th round pick Josh Reynolds also looked ready to take on a bigger role in his second season in the league, after flashing on 280 snaps as a rookie, but he’ll remain the 4th receiver at best in 2018.

The Rams also used a 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on a tight end, taking Gerald Everett 44th overall after trading down with the Bills. Everett did not nearly have as good of a rookie year as Kupp, but the South Alabama product was considered a project when he was drafted. He’s a freak athlete and showed big play ability as a rookie with catches of 39, 44, and 69, but he only had 13 catches for 92 yards combined the rest of the season and needs to get stronger as a blocker. He’s a candidate for a 2nd year leap, but that’s far from a guarantee.

With Everett still developing, he played just 296 snaps as a rookie, while second year tight end Tyler Higbee played 731 snaps as the starter. He was pretty ineffective though. The 2016 4th round pick has developed into a capable blocker, but he caught just 25 of 45 targets for 295 yards and 1 touchdown on 253 routes run (1.17 yards per route run). Higbee is only going into his 3rd year in the league, but projects a capable #2 tight end at best long-term. He and Everett could see closer to equal snaps in 2018. The wide receivers should remain the focal point of this offense regardless.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Running back Todd Gurley actually finished 2nd on this team in receiving last year, turning 64 catches into 788 yards and 6 touchdowns. With Cooks coming in, Kupp and Everett going into their 2nd season, and Robert Woods likely playing more games, Gurley will probably see fewer than the 87 targets he saw last season, but he’ll remain a huge part of the offense regardless. The 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Gurley has played 44 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league and has averaged 17.9 carries per game in those 3 seasons (286 carries over a 16 game season).

Gurley’s YPC average has fluctuated from 4.83 in 2015 to 3.18 in 2016 to 4.68 in 2017, but he’s run well in all 3 seasons. From 2015 to 2016, the difference in his average was just a few carries. In 2015, he broke 11 runs of 20+ yards for 428 yards total (38.7% of his season total) and in 2016 he broke just 2 runs of 20+ yards of 46 yards total (just 5.2% of his season total). His carry success rate was 43% in 2015 and 41% in 2016, so, outside of a small percentage of his carries, he was more or less the same back. In 2017, with a better offense around him and a better coaching staff, Gurley saw that carry success rate jump up to 53% (5th in the NFL) and he finished the season as statistically the top running back in the NFL. He led the NFL with 19 touchdowns and 2,093 yards from scrimmage, in just 15 games.

His biggest season-to-season change has been his development in the passing game, as he’s gone from 21 to 43 to 64 catches in 3 seasons in the league. He averaged a ridiculous 12.31 yards per catch in 2017 and finished as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back on the season in overall grade. As long as he stays healthy, Gurley should push for 350+ touches again in 2018. Still in the prime of his career in his age 24 season, Gurley should continue to do big things in this offense, though it’s fair to wonder how much the Rams are going to be willing to pay him long-term, given all of the other players they need to pay and the devaluation of the running back position in general. For now, he’s a Pro-Bowl talent signed for 11.95 million over the next 2 seasons.

The Rams would be in trouble if he were to get hurt because they lack depth behind him. Malcolm Brown has been their #2 back over the past 2 seasons, but the 2015 undrafted free agent has averaged just 3.55 YPC on 85 career carries. He’ll be pushed for his job by 6th round rookie John Kelly. Gurley played 788 snaps last season, 2nd at his position, and I would expect that to continue to be the case in 2018.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

There are many reasons why this offense was so much better in 2017, the coaching change, the remade receiving corps, a drastically improved Jared Goff, and an All-Pro Todd Gurley, but it’s possible the biggest reason was the Rams’ improved offensive line. Unlike with their receiving corps, the Rams did not have to completely overhaul their offensive line in order for it to improve, as they only had two new starters, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan. Guards Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown had career years, while right tackle Rob Havenstein continued to play well. After years of having one of the worst offensive lines in the league, the Rams had one of the best in 2017.

They might not be as good in 2018 though, even though they return all 5 starters, for a few reasons. The first reason is simply that none of their starters missed a game with injury in 2017, which is incredibly rare. That’s unlikely to happen again in 2018 and their depth is very untested. They used a 3rd round pick on offensive tackle Joseph Noteboom and a 4th round pick on Michigan State center Brian Allen, but it’s unlikely either will be ready to start as rookies.

The reason the Rams drafted Noteboom and Allen is also another reason why the Rams might not be as good upfront in 2018; Whitworth and Sullivan are both getting up there in age. Whitworth is the bigger concern, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked offensive tackle in 2017, a huge part of the reason why this offense was so good, but he’s also going into his age 37 season and it’s unclear if he can perform at that high of a level again in 2018. He hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down so far, finishing in the top-5 among offensive tackles in 4 straight seasons, but players can lose it quickly at his age.

Sullivan is not as old, going into his age 33 season, but he’s also not nearly as good of a player. In his prime, he was one of the best centers in the league, finishing as a top-9 center on PFF in 4 straight seasons from 2011-2014 with the Vikings, with 3 seasons in the top-3. He missed all of 2015 with a back injury and played just 98 snaps as a reserve with the Redskins in 2016, but the Rams gave him another shot to be a starter in 2017 and it paid off, as he finished 12th at his position. He’s not the player he once was, but he could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank.

Another reason why the Rams have might not have as good of play on the offensive line is that both guards Rodger Saffold and Jamon Brown are coming off of career years and are unlikely to both be as good in 2018. Saffold finished a career high 7th among guards on PFF in his 8th season in the league last season. He’s earned positive grades in 5 of 8 seasons, but he’s never been as good as he was last season. He’s also had injury problems throughout his career, missing 29 games in his first 7 seasons in the league, before staying healthy throughout 2017, just his 3rd time doing so in 8 seasons. Now going into his age 30 season, Saffold might not be as good or as durable.

Jamon Brown is younger, going into his 4th season in the league, but the former 3rd round pick was horrendous in his first 2 seasons in the league. He struggled mightily in 9 starts as a rookie before breaking his leg and then was benched after 5 starts in 2016, before playing about league average in 2017. He could continue developing into a capable starter, but he could also revert back to his old ways. He’s been a terrible pass protector throughout his career and allowed a team high 7 hits on Goff last season.

Right tackle Rob Havenstein is the only starter who is unlikely to decline in 2018. The 2015 2nd round pick has been a consistently solid starting right tackle throughout his career, earning positive grades from PFF in all 3 seasons (43 starts). He’s a mauler in the run game at 6-8 330 and isn’t bad in pass protection either. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, only his age 26 season, Havenstein could have his eyes set on being one of the highest paid right tackles in the league and could leave as a free agent next off-season. For now, this remains a solid offensive line, with all 5 starters returning, but they’re unlikely to be as good or as healthy as they were in 2017.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Rams’ defense was also improved from 2016 to 2017, as they went from 16th in first down rate allowed to 12th. Like on offense, coaching was a big factor, as Sean McVay brought legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to the Rams with him. Phillips converted this defense to his traditional 3-4, even though some players did not fit the scheme well, and was able to get a good performance out of them. This off-season, the Rams made significant changes on defense in order to get players who fit Phillips’ scheme better.

One big change was the addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who the Rams signed to a 1-year, 14 million dollar deal. Suh has been a top-7 defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus for 6 straight seasons and signed a then record 6-year, 114 million dollar deal with the Miami Dolphins 3 off-seasons ago, but he’s going into his age 31 season, so the cap strapped Dolphins decided to cut him rather than pay him the 17 million non-guaranteed he was owed in 2018. His age is a slight concern, but he should still have a strong season.

Defensive line was not a weakness for the Rams in 2017, led by Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, but they did have some depth problems, so the addition of Suh will definitely help. Suh has never played in a 3-4 and is expected to play nose tackle in base packages, but the Rams will be in sub packages more than half of the time, so he should still get opportunities to rush the passer in passing situations. He might not post quite the numbers we’ve seen from him in the past (51.5 sacks and 86 quarterback hits in 8 seasons in the league), but Wade Phillips has gotten good play out of undersized nose tackles like Suh (6-4 305) in the past.

Donald and Brockers will continue lining up at defensive end in base packages. Donald is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, so Brockers will almost definitely see the bigger snap hit with Suh coming in. Brockers played 727 snaps last season and finished 16th among 3-4 defensive ends on PFF, but he was an underwhelming pass rusher, so Suh should get pass rush opportunities inside next to Donald over him. The 6-5 305 pound Brockers has gotten a positive run stopping grade in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and finished last season 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in run stopping grade in arguably the best season of his career, but he’s also had just 19 sacks and 26 quarterback hits in 6 seasons in the league.

Donald should still play around the 788 snaps he played last season, likely more if he exceeds the 14 games he played last season, as he’s too good to take off the field except for breathers. The 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald has been arguably the best defensive lineman in the league since being drafted and has proven it both in a 3-4 and a 4-3 base defense. He’s totaled 39 sacks and 67 quarterback hits in 62 games as an interior pass rusher and has also played well against the run. He’s never missed a game in his career with injury and is in the prime of his career, going into his age 27 season.

Donald did miss two games last year, week 17 for rest and week 1 while he was holding out for a new contract. Donald still has yet to receive that new contract, but the Rams are fully expected to extend him before the start of the season. Owed just 6.892 million in the final year of his rookie deal, Donald is owed a big raise and might not report to the team until he gets it. The Rams have other players to re-sign, but it would be a surprise if they give him the extension he wants. Worst case scenario, the Rams have the franchise tag available to use on him next off-season, but they probably want to extend him before the season to keep him happy and avoid the risk of another holdout into the season. When he gets paid, he’s expected to be the highest paid defensive player in the league, surpassing the 6-year, 114.1 million dollar deal that Von Miller received two off-seasons ago.

Donald, Suh, and Brockers will play the majority of the snaps on this defensive line, but the Rams also get Dominique Easley back from a torn ACL. Easley also had two ACL tears in college and missed 10 games with injury in his first 3 seasons in the league from 2014-2016, but he’s also a former first round pick who earned positive grades in both 2015 and 2016. There’s no guarantee he’s going to be the same player or stay healthy, but he should have a rotational role in 2018. The Rams also have Ethan Westbrooks, their top reserve in 2017, returning. He was about league average on 333 snaps last season and is a capable rotational player. This is a loaded defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The same is not true of the Rams’ linebackers though. Alec Ogletree, Connor Barwin, and Robert Quinn were three of the Rams’ top-4 linebackers in terms of snaps in 2017 with 921, 657, and 629 respectively and all 3 are no longer with the team. Ogletree was sent to the Giants with a 2019 7th round pick for a 4th and 6th round pick in 2018. Quinn was sent to the Dolphins for a 4th round pick and a swap of 6th round picks. Barwin remains unsigned as a free agent, ahead of his age 32 season. All 3 players struggled and weren’t great fits in Phillips’ scheme, earning negative grades from PFF, but the Rams didn’t do anything to replace them and will instead rely on coaching up unproven players. If anyone can coach this unit up, it’s Wade Phillips, but linebackers are their clear achilles heel.

Middle linebacker Mark Barron is the only starting linebacker they kept, but they easily could have let him go, as he too struggled in his first season in Phillips’ system. The 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Barron was a bust as a safety in Tampa Bay, but the Rams traded for him and converted him into a linebacker, where he became a capable starter outside in a 4-3 in 2015 and 2016, before struggling inside in a 3-4 in 2017. The fact that they haven’t gotten rid of him yet shows they have hope he can bounce back with another year in the system, but, if he doesn’t, I would not expect him to be on the roster with a non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary in 2019, given all of the Rams’ other upcoming financial obligations.

At the other middle linebacker spot, it is a wide open competition to replace Ogletree. Cory Littleton was their top reserve middle linebacker in 2017 (277 snaps) and is considered the favorite, but he’s a 2016 undrafted free agent who has been unimpressive on 399 snaps thus far in his career. Bryce Hager was also a reserve with the Rams last season, but the 2015 7th round pick has also been unimpressive on 164 career snaps. The Rams also added ex-Chief reserve Ramik Wilson. He has the most experience of any of the candidates, making 17 starts in 3 seasons with the Chiefs after going in the 4th round in 2015, but he played just 125 snaps in 2017 and was non-tendered by the Chiefs as a restricted free agent this off-season. The Rams also added Virginia’s Micah Kizer in the 6th round of the draft and Indiana’s Tegray Scales as a priority free agent. The Rams have options, but this should be a position of weakness in 2018.

Outside linebacker should also be a position of weakness, as the Rams have wide open competitions for both starting roles. Matt Longacre and Samson Ebukam were their top reserves last season with 377 snaps and 351 snaps respectively and are currently penciled into the starting jobs. A 2015 undrafted free agent, Longacre has been a capable reserve in 3 seasons in the league and totaled 5.5 sacks and 7 quarterback hits in 2017, but the 377 snaps he played in 2017 were a career high, so he’s a projection to a larger role.

Ebukam was a 4th rounder in 2017 and flashed as a run stuffer as a rookie, but showed little as a pass rusher with 2 sacks, 2 hits, and 9 hurries on 138 pass rush snaps. Also in the mix are Ejuan Price, a 2017 7th round pick who played just 21 snaps as a rookie, and rookies Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Trevon Young, who went in the 5th and 6th round respectively. Okoronkwo will be out until training camp with a foot injury, which hurts his chances of earning a big role. The Rams will likely use 4 or 5 different outside linebackers in 2018 in an effort to find some edge rush. This is a highly unproven linebacking corps that Wade Phillips hopes to coach up.

Grade: D

Secondary

The Rams also revamped their cornerbacks this off-season. They let top cornerback Trumaine Johnson sign a 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal with the Jets. They released Kayvon Webster, who finished 3rd on the team in cornerback snaps with 550, rather than pay him 3.5 million. To replace them, the Rams acquired Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib from the Chiefs and Broncos respectively. They will be their starting cornerbacks in 2018.

Peters getting traded was a surprise, especially since the Rams did not have to surrender a 1st round pick to acquire him. The Rams received him and a 6th round pick for a 4th round pick and a 2nd rounder next year. Peters was the 18th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, has two cost controlled years left on his contract, is going into his age 25 season, and leads the NFL in interceptions since he entered the league with 19 in 3 seasons, so the upside is obvious, but he does come with some downside. His aggressive playing style leads to interceptions, but it also leads to him getting beat deep and getting penalized too often. He’s finished 17th and 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in the last 2 seasons respectively, which is good, but not quite as good as his interception total suggests.

He also seems to have worn out his welcome in Kansas City, where he clashed with the coaching staff, which is why they were willing to move on from him for a relatively small return. Peters has had issues with coaches dating back to his college days, when he was kicked off the team at the University of Washington. The talent is obvious and he could easily continue getting better, but he’ll have to stay out of trouble over the next couple years if he wants a big long-term extension. He’s an obvious upgrade on Trumaine Johnson, who was underwhelming in his first season in Phillips’ system.

Aqib Talib is also an obvious upgrade as the #2 cornerback, as the Rams had a revolving door at that position in 2017. Unlike Peters, Talib is on the downside of his career, going into his age 32 season, but he was still PFF’s 15th ranked cornerback in 2017 and he reunites with his former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who coached him in Denver in 2015 and 2016. Talib played some of the best football of his career under Phillips, with his best season coming when he finished 3rd among cornerbacks on PFF in 2016.

His age is becoming a concern, but he’s been a very consistent player in his career, earning a positive grade from PFF in all 10 seasons he’s been in the league, and he should at least have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Broncos traded him because they didn’t think he was worth his 11 million dollar salary, but Wade Phillips and the Rams disagreed, as they surrendered a 5th rounder for him. His 8 million dollar salary for 2018 is non-guaranteed, so he’ll have to continue playing well to stay on the roster, especially given the other financial commitments they have to attend to.

Slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman might have actually been their best cornerback in 2017, with Johnson underwhelming as the top outside cornerback. Robey-Coleman allowed just 5.77 yards per attempt on the slot and was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback in coverage grade overall on 654 snaps. The 5-8 180 pounder has always struggled when he’s had to play outside, but he played just 101 coverage snaps on the outside last season and that was largely for lack of a better option. He doesn’t play the run well either, but he’s earned a positive grade overall in 3 of 5 seasons in the league and when he’s struggled it’s largely been because of misuse. He’ll stay on the slot all season in 2018, with depth cornerback Troy Hill filling in if either Peters or Talib miss time.

At safety, things remain the same for the Rams in 2018, which is a good thing, because the Rams had one of the best safety duos in football down the stretch. LaMarcus Joyner returned from injury week 7 and 3rd round rookie John Johnson took over as the other starter week 5 and they finished the season as PFF’s 5th and 10th ranked safeties respectively. Along with Cooper Kupp, Johnson was a great pick in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft. They’ll need to continue doing that as this team becomes more expensive.

The Rams kept LaMarcus Joyner by franchise tagging him this off-season. He’ll make 11.287 million in 2018, but there haven’t been any rumors of negotiations between him and the Rams and it’s possible the Rams don’t plan to keep him long-term, given all of the other players they have to keep. Making him prove it on the franchise tag isn’t a bad idea either way, as he’s a one-year wonder. He’s a former 2nd round pick who was a capable starter on 19 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league, but last season was the first season he even resembled a Pro Bowl caliber safety and he didn’t even play a full season (12 games). Johnson (11 starts) is unproven as well, so it’s very possible this safety duo won’t be quite as good in 2018 as they were down the stretch last season, but their cornerbacks are much improved and this is overall one of the better secondaries in the NFL.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Rams were arguably the most improved team in the league from 2016 to 2017, going from 4-12 to 11-5. Usually when teams make a big jump in wins like that, they regress by about half the amount of wins the following season. The Rams had great injury luck in 2017, with the fewest adjusted games lost to injury, and some of the players who had career years in 2017 will likely not do so again in 2018. However, with all of the reinforcements the Rams added this off-season, the Rams should be able to remain one of the top teams in the NFL, even if some players get hurt or regress. The Rams will have a challenge keeping this team together long-term, but they’re clearly all in on 2018 and will compete for a Super Bowl.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5)

This would be a tough game to pick against the spread in the regular season. This line has the Rams favored by 6 points and I have this line calculated at 5.5, so we aren’t getting much line value with the Falcons at all. However, in the post-season, the Falcons make more sense for pick ‘em purposes because of how much more experienced they are than the Rams. The Rams not only have one of the youngest rosters in the post-season, but their quarterback Jared Goff has never started a post-season game, while head coach Sean McVay has coached in just 2 post-season games, first as a tight ends coach and then as an offensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins in 2012 and 2015.

The Falcons, meanwhile, have a quarterback with 8 post-season games under his belt in Matt Ryan and a head coach in Dan Quinn that has been on the sidelines for 14 post-season games, including 3 as the Falcons’ head coach in 2016 and 6 as the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks in 2013 and 2014. That alone isn’t enough to bet on the Falcons, but, between that and the minimal line value we are getting with them, they should be the right choice for in pick ‘em pools. This should be a close game.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Atlanta Falcons 20

Pick against the spread: Atlanta +6

Confidence: Low

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (5-10) at Los Angeles Rams (11-4)

The Rams are another team that will be resting key players this week, including quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley, offensive linemen John Sullivan and Andrew Whitworth, and wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. They haven’t confirmed any defensive players they will be resting, but it stands to reason that they will be sitting at least some key players on that side of the ball, including possibly Defensive Player of the Year candidate (favorite?) Aaron Donald. They won’t be able to rest everyone, as they’ll need 46 players active on game day, but the Rams are locked into either the 3rd or the 4th seed, so this isn’t a particularly meaningful game for them.

As a result, this line has shifted to San Francisco -4 in Los Angeles. That seems about right and I have no interest in betting this game either way because it’s tough to evaluate backups playing in a meaningless game. For pick ‘em purposes, I would take the 49ers, who have obviously been playing much better football in recent weeks, thanks to the emergence of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and rookies Reuben Foster and Ahkello Witherspoon on defense, but this is a no confidence pick.

San Francisco 49ers 24 Los Angeles Rams 19

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -4

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Rams at Tennessee Titans: 2017 Week 16 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (10-4) at Tennessee Titans (8-6)

Before the season, I had the Titans as a top-10 team and a candidate to get a first round bye in the AFC, after finishing last season just outside of the playoffs at 9-7 and adding talent at positions of need this off-season. The Titans have a solid 8-6 record, but they are definitely not in the running for a first round bye and they have not even been as good as that record suggests. They have just 3 wins by more than a touchdown all season (as opposed to 4 losses by more than a touchdown) and two of those wins were single score games until long, meaningless garbage time touchdowns by Derrick Henry late in the game. In terms of first down rate differential, they rank just 16th at -0.25%, despite having the easiest schedule in the NFL.

Their schedule gets tougher over the next two games, with the Rams and Jaguars coming to town and they probably need to win at least one of those games to have a shot at the post-season. The tougher schedule might not be terrible news for them though. They are relatively healthy for this point in the season and, on paper, this is still a top-10 team talentwise, but they are poorly coached under Mike Mularkey and his staff and have played down to the level of their competition. The good news is they’ve also played up to their level of competition, as they are 3-1 against playoff teams, with convincing wins over the Jaguars, Seahawks, and Ravens, and their one loss coming on the road in Pittsburgh on a short week.

The Titans might not win straight up here against the Rams, but the Rams’ blowout victory in Seattle last week shifted this line from Rams -3.5 to Rams -7, so we have a good cushion to work with. I still have this line calculated at -3, as the Rams’ strong performance last week was largely the result of Seattle being incredibly banged up at linebacker. The Rams probably would have still won if the Seahawks were healthy in the linebacking corps, but I think we’re getting too much line value with the Titans this week to pass on. I like this line less at 6.5, but this is a high confidence pick if you can get the full touchdown.

Los Angeles Rams 23 Tennessee Titans 20

Pick against the spread: Tennessee +7

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (9-4) at Seattle Seahawks (8-5)

The Seahawks have perennially had one of the top defenses in the league over the past several seasons, but they’ve had a season from hell injury wise on that side of the ball. They lost top edge rusher Cliff Avril for the season early in the year with a neck injury. Then both #1 cornerback Richard Sherman and Pro-Bowl safety Kam Chancellor had their season cut short by injuries to their achilles and neck respectively. And then last week, in a huge game on the road in Jacksonville, they lost two their stud linebackers, Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, with a hamstring injury and a concussion respectively.

Despite that, the Seahawks actually won the first down battle in a close road loss in Jacksonville, against a legitimately good Jaguars team. The Rams won in Jacksonville this year, but needed two return touchdowns in a game in which they lost the first down battle badly. The Seahawks also beat the Eagles at home in Seattle when Carson Wentz was healthy, something only one other team has done this season. The Rams, meanwhile, lost to the Eagles at home last week, despite Wentz going down for the season with a torn ACL late in the 3rd quarter.

The Seahawks’ offense has gotten better with Mike Davis at running back and Duane Brown at left tackle and their defense has continued to play well thanks to strong play from newcomers like Bradley McDougald, Shaq Griffin, and Byron Maxwell. I wish the Seahawks were getting KJ Wright back this week, but Bobby Wagner could return from his hamstring injury, as he’s been called a gametime decision. Even with their injury situation, I still feel like the Seahawks are a little bit better than the Rams and should be at least 3 point favorites here at home. There’s not enough here for me to bet Seattle -2 with confidence, given that Wright will be out and Wagner will be uncertain, but the Seahawks are the smarter choice for pick ‘em purposes.

Seattle Seahawks 24 Los Angeles Rams 20

Pick against the spread: Seattle -2

Confidence: Low

Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Rams: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (10-2) at Los Angeles Rams (9-3)

Last week, the Eagles were 5.5 point favorites in Seattle. It seemed like too many points to me, especially given Seattle’s track record in night games against teams from the Eastern Time Zone. I kept that pick as a low confidence pick though, because I was hesitant to bet against the Eagles, who had been covering the spread all season (9-2 ATS before last week). In hindsight that was definitely a mistake, as the Eagles were a little overvalued last week, while the Seahawks were definitely undervalued, as they continue to play well despite injuries.

The good news is the Eagles’ loss last week is giving us significant line value with them as they are now 1.5 point underdogs in Los Angeles against the Rams, after being 2.5 point favorites on the early line last week. Despite the Eagles’ loss in Seattle, I still have this line calculated at Philadelphia -3. The Eagles lost that game by 14, but that game was closer than the final score, as the Eagles finished with 25 first downs to 20 for the Seahawks. If they had played that game 100 times, I feel like it would have gone 50/50. This week, the Eagles don’t have to play at night, which is tough for teams from the Eastern Time Zone to do, and they get a slightly easier opponent.

The Rams are obviously a good team, but I don’t totally buy them as a top level team like the Seahawks yet and I definitely don’t buy them as a top level team like the Eagles, who rank #1 in both my roster rankings and in first down rate differential. The Rams rank 8th in first down rate differential and 9th in my roster rankings without top receiver Robert Woods. The Rams also lost at home to the Seahawks earlier this year (and the Redskins) and could easily lose at home here to the Eagles.

Speaking of the Rams’ home loss to the Seahawks, the Rams have that rematch next week, a game that could easily decide the division. The Eagles, meanwhile, go to New York to face the 2-10 Giants. I’m not saying the Rams are going to look past the Eagles, but the Eagles are a safer bet to be completely focused for this game. Underdogs are 67-41 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs. On top of that, teams are 42-24 ATS since 2012 before being 7+ point road favorites, which the Eagles will be in New York next week. The Eagles should win this by at least a field goal. They are my Pick of the Week.

Philadelphia Eagles 24 Los Angeles Rams 20 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +1.5

Confidence: Pick of the Week

Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals: 2017 Week 13 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (8-3) at Arizona Cardinals (5-6)

The Rams are coming off their biggest win of the season, as they snapped the Saints’ 8-game losing streak last week, but they are in a terrible spot this week in Arizona. This seems like an obvious trap game, given that the Rams have to host the NFC leading Eagles next week, a game in which they will definitely be home underdogs (+3 on the early line). Road favorites are just 36-57 ATS since 2008 before being home underdogs and the Rams could easily slip up with a tough game on deck.

That being said, I wouldn’t recommend a bet on the Cardinals at +7, as we just aren’t getting that much line value with them. I have this line calculated at Rams -6.5, as the Cardinals are missing a ton of expected starters with injury. The Cardinals pulled off the upset as 5 point home underdogs last week against the Jaguars, but that actually puts them in a bad spot this week, as teams only cover at a 45% rate after a win as home underdogs. It could be tough for the Cardinals to put up that kind of effort two weeks in a row, especially with Adrian Peterson being questionable with a neck injury. I’m taking the Cardinals for pick ‘em purposes, but would need at least 7.5 to consider making a bet on them.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Arizona Cardinals 20

Pick against the spread: Arizona +7

Confidence: Low