Los Angeles Rams at Philadelphia Eagles: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (1-0) at Philadelphia Eagles (0-1)

The Eagles lost in embarrassing fashion on the road in Washington last week, blowing a 17-0 lead in a 27-17 defeat against one of the worst teams in the league. That shifted this line pretty significantly, moving from Philadelphia -3.5 to a -1 in the wake of the Eagles’ defeat. That loss is definitely reason for some concern in Philadelphia, but they will get a big boost this week with right tackle Lane Johnson returning from injury. 

Johnson hasn’t been the most durable player in his career, but he’s been one of the best offensive linemen in football when on the field and that shows up in a significant way in Carson Wentz’s career splits (his QB rating is about 20 points higher with Johnson on the field). Johnson’s return is especially important because the Eagles are already without right guard Brandon Brooks for the season and had to re-sign 38-year-old Jason Peters to start at left tackle because expected left tackle Andre Dillard is out for the season as well. 

I don’t think this huge line shift fully takes into account the impact that Johnson’s absence had against Washington and the impact that his return will have this week. The Eagles will also get running back Miles Sanders and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave back from injury. However, even with those players returning, I still only give the Eagles a slight edge in my roster rankings over the Rams, whose young offensive line was surprisingly impressive last week. Given that they only have a minimal edge in talent, there isn’t enough line value for the Eagles to be worth betting at home in front of an empty crowd as 1-point favorites, but they should be the pick for pick ‘em purposes, as the most likely result of this game is an Eagles win by a field goal.

Philadelphia Eagles 27 Los Angeles Rams 24

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia -1

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (0-0) at Los Angeles Rams (0-0)

The Cowboys finished last season just 8-8, but that was primarily due to terrible luck in close games, going 0-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They finished 6th in point differential at +113 and 4th in first down rate differential at +4.28%, which both predict future success in 2020. The Cowboys lose free agent cornerback Byron Jones and their free agent additions HaHa Clinton-Dix and Gerald McCoy got cut and suffered a season ending injury respectively, but they did add a big upgrade on the edge in Everson Griffen. Right tackle La’El Collins and cornerback Jourdan Lewis are out with injury, but the Cowboys still rank 10th in my roster rankings even without them.

The Rams, meanwhile, lost significant players this off-season like Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Dante Fowler, Clay Matthews, Cory Littleton, and Nickell Roby-Coleman and didn’t bring in players who can adequately replace them immediately. They should take a significant step back from last season’s 11th rank in first down rate differential. I have them 22nd in my roster rankings, 5.5 points behind the Cowboys, suggesting the Cowboys should be favored by about 4.5 points, in front of an empty stadium in Los Angeles. We’re getting good value with the Cowboys at -2.5, so they’re worth a bet, in a game in which they basically just need to win to cover.

Dallas Cowboys 24 Los Angeles Rams 19

Pick against the spread: Dallas -2.5

Confidence: Medium

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)

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (5-9-1) at Los Angeles Rams (8-7)

The Rams have had a very disappointing 2019 season. After going 13-3 and representing the NFC in the Super Bowl last year, the Rams sit at just 8-7 and have been eliminated from the playoff race entirely ahead of week 17 this year, with their season officially ending in a heartbreaking last second loss in San Francisco last week. There are still a lot of positive takeaways from this season though. 

Their offense hasn’t been as good as it’s been in past years, ranking just 15th on the season with a 36.37% first down rate, after finishing last season 3rd at 43.02%, due to a complete dropoff in offensive line play and quarterback Jared Goff’s inability to make good decisions and good throws under pressure, but they’ve been impressive defensively. They rank 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.87%, and they have been even better since acquiring cornerback Jalen Ramsey and putting breakout player Troy Hill into the starting lineup opposite him during week 7, ranking 5th in the NFL with a 32.44% first down rate allowed over that stretch. 

The Rams end their season with a home game against a last place Cardinals team. The Cardinals won in Seattle last week in a big upset, but that’s not as impressive as it sounds, as the Seahawks entered that game with the worst point differential ever for a 11-3 team and were missing their two best defensive backs, their best offensive lineman, and their best defensive lineman. Just a few weeks earlier, the Cardinals were demolished at home by the Rams in a 34-7 game, one of four games they’ve lost by at least 17 points this season. On the year, the Cardinals rank 28th in first down rate differential at -4.44% and have a -74 point differential that suggests their 5-9-1 record is an accurate representation of how they’ve played.

Under ordinary circumstances, we’d be getting significant line value with the Rams as just 6-point home favorites over the Cardinals, but the Rams are probably not going to give their best effort this week after having their disappointing season ended in heartbreaking fashion last week. In fact, we might not see anything close to the Rams’ full strength lineup this week, as Rams head coach Sean McVay has been the most cautious coach in the league when it comes to not risking his key players’ health in meaningless games. 

In 3 years with the Rams, he’s rested key players in meaningless games every chance he’s gotten, whether it’s pre-season games or week 17 games when the Rams’ seeding has been locked in. This is the first time the Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention in the McVay era, but it stands to reason he might have a similar approach this week, at the very least with players that are less than 100% with injury. The aforementioned cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and Troy Hill, which has been a huge part of their defensive success, has already been ruled out and there’s speculation that running back Todd Gurley among others could also be held out, which adds a lot of uncertainty to this game. 

Also adding uncertainty is the injury to Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray got in limited practices this week through a hamstring injury and would probably play if this game mattered, but the Cardinals could be cautious with nothing to play for and hold him out, which would force overmatched backup Brett Hundley into action, a significant dropoff. Even if Murray does play, he might not be as effective because mobility is a big part of his game. With all this uncertainty, I have no idea how to make a pick on this game, but I’m taking the Rams for pick ‘em purposes for now. There’s a good chance I update this write-up before gametime.

Update: Murray is playing for the Rams, but there’s no indication of how long the Rams will play starters for. I’m leaving this as is.

Los Angeles Rams 24 Arizona Cardinals 17

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -6

Confidence: None

Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (8-6) at San Francisco 49ers (11-3)

The 49ers lost their 3rd game of the season last week, at home to the Falcons. Like their first two losses, this loss was decided on the last meaningful play of the game, but, even though the Falcons have played better than their 5-9 suggests, the Falcons are clearly different than the first two teams against whom the 49ers lost, the Ravens and Seahawks, who are a combined 23-5 on the season.

While I didn’t expect the 49ers to lose outright last week, it’s not all that surprising that the 49ers had trouble against the Falcons. Not only were the Falcons an underrated team that is better than their record, but the 49ers were in a tough spot after an emotional win over the Saints and missing several key players, like cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams and defensive end Dee Ford. 

Ford remains out, but Sherman and Williams are not listed on the injury report, which is a big boost for them ahead of their matchup with the Rams this week. The Rams lost badly last week in Dallas by score of 44-21, but the Cowboys are an underrated team, so I don’t hold that loss against them that much. Even with that bad loss included, the Rams rank 10th in first down rate differential at +2.55% and have been even better since acquiring cornerback Jalen Ramsey before week 7, ranking 9th in first down rate differential over that stretch at +3.30%, led by a defense that ranks 4th in first down rate allowed over that stretch at 31.73%. The Rams won’t be an easy matchup for the 49ers.

The Rams are also in a slightly better spot. I don’t expect the 49ers to be flat, coming off of a loss and needing a win to keep pace with the Seahawks in the division before next week’s rematch in Seattle, but the 49ers already beat the Rams once this season in Los Angeles, while the Rams are fighting for their playoff lives and are playing their final difficult game of the season, with a home game against the Cardinals to finish out the regular season on deck. Road underdogs are 79-54 ATS since 2002 in a regular season rematch against an opponent that they previously lost to as home favorites. On top of that, underdogs of 6+ are 82-69 ATS since 2002 before being favorites of 6+ and the early line has the Rams favored by 7 next week against the Cardinals. There’s not quite enough here for the Rams to be worth betting, but they should be the right side.

San Francisco 49ers 24 Los Angeles Rams 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +6.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 15 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (8-5) at Dallas Cowboys (6-7)

I normally like to fade significant week-to-week line movements, as they tend to be an overreaction to a single week of play. On the early line last week, the Cowboys were 3.5 point home favorites in this matchup against the Rams, but now a week later they are 1.5 point home underdogs. That’s a huge swing, but I actually think it can be justified somewhat. The Cowboys had an awful performance last week in Chicago, losing the first down rate battle by 7.54% to a middling at best Bears team, while the Rams were dominant in a home victory against a tough Seahawks team, winning the first down rate battle by a whopping 18.97%, with the game being a blowout aside from a long Seattle interception return. 

Even with last week’s poor performance included, the Cowboys still rank 6th in the NFL in first down rate differential at +4.48% and in point differential at +67, as their 6 wins have come by a combined 107 points and their 7 losses have come by a combined 40 points. However, they’ve faced a much easier schedule than the Rams (47% opponents winning percentage vs. 57%) and their play has slipped in recent weeks, as they’ve ranked just 9th in first down rate differential since week 7 at +2.83%. The Cowboys are a poorly coached team and Jason Garrett’s lameduck status as head coach seems to be hanging over them in recent weeks.

The Rams, meanwhile, are very well coached, on both sides of the ball with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips. They were blown out a few weeks ago at home on Monday Night Football against the Ravens, but have bounced back very well with dominant performances against the Cardinals and Seahawks to keep themselves alive in the playoff race in the NFC. Their offense hasn’t been the same this season because of their offensive line, but their defense has quietly been one of the best in the league. Even including that blowout loss against a Ravens team that no one has really stopped this season, the Rams rank 4th in first down rate allowed on the season at 32.72% and first at 29.94% since acquiring Jalen Ramsey during week 7. 

I have this line calculated at Dallas -1, so, while I don’t think the line movement all the way to Rams -1.5 is quite justified, we’re not getting nearly enough line value to bet the Cowboys confidently. The Cowboys probably have a slightly better than 50/50 shot to win this game at home, so the money line at +105 could be worth a small bet, but we’re not getting enough line value to bet the Cowboys against the spread unless this line somehow moves all the way up to Rams -3. 

Dallas Cowboys 24 Los Angeles Rams 23 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: Dallas +1.5

Confidence: Low

Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 14 NFL Pick

Seattle Seahawks (10-2) at Los Angeles Rams (7-5)

When these two teams met in Seattle week 5, the Seahawks were victorious, but the game easily could have gone either way, as it came down to a 44-yard missed field goal by Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein at the end of regulation. That’s far from the only close game the Seahawks have played this season. Their win over the 49ers also came down to a missed field goal, as 49ers kicker Chase McLaughlin missed a 47-yard game winner in overtime, and overall 9 of their 10 wins have come by a touchdown or less. 

A win is a win for standings purposes, but blowout wins tend to be more predictive of future success than close wins and the Seahawks’ +36 point differential is the worst ever for a 10-2 team. They barely hold the edge in point differential over the 7-5 Rams (+33) and if a few things had gone a little differently the Seahawks could be 7-5 right alongside the Rams. In first down rate differential, the Rams actually hold the edge, ranking 12th at +1.90%, while the Seahawks rank 14th at +0.96%. 

With these two teams about even statistically, ordinarily I would calculate this line at -3 favoring the home team, but the Rams don’t have a typical homefield advantage in Los Angeles, as they tend to draw a lot of visiting fans, especially in big matchups like this. Since moving in 2016, they are 10-16-3 ATS at home and 17-13-1 ATS on the road. I have this line calculated at Rams -2, so while we’re getting some line value with this line being even, it’s not enough to bet on them.

Los Angeles Rams 33 Seattle Seahawks 31

Pick against the spread: Los Angeles PK

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals: 2019 Week 13 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (6-5) at Arizona Cardinals (3-7-1)

This is one of the tougher games of the week to predict against the spread. On one hand, the Rams were embarrassed last week against the Ravens in a 45-6 loss and teams typically bounce back from bad losses. Since 2002, teams are 60-38 ATS after a loss by 35 points or more and favorites, like the Rams are this week, have won 20 of 24 games straight up after a loss by 35 or more over that time period. On the other hand, this could be a look ahead spot for the Rams with a much harder divisional game on deck against the Seahawks. The Rams will almost definitely be home underdogs in that game and road favorites are just 26-55 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs. 

We’re also not getting any line value in either direction. The Cardinals’ only 3 wins have come by a combined 10 points against teams that are a combined 5-29, while 4 of their 7 losses have come by double digits, with an average margin of defeat of 11.3 points per game. Their point differential of -69 ranks just 28th in the NFL and they rank 29th in first down rate differential at -5.73%. However, the Rams have been a pretty middle of the pack team this season, so they shouldn’t be favored by more than a field goal in this game. I have this line calculated at Rams -3, which is exactly where the line is.

Ultimately, what I think this game will come down to is the Rams’ mindset about their playoff chances. Last week’s loss wasn’t a death sentence for their playoff chances, but they’re 2 games behind the 8-3 Vikings for the last NFC wild card spot right now with 5 games to go and probably need to win out and finish 11-5 to give themselves a shot. If the Rams believe their season is over, they probably won’t give their best effort against the Cardinals, especially with a much bigger game on deck. If they believe they still have a shot to make the post-season, we could see a very different level of focus and motivation from them this week after being humbled last week. I think the latter is more likely than the former, but I definitely wouldn’t bet on it. A push might be the most likely result.

Los Angeles Rams 23 Arizona Cardinals 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -3

Confidence: None

Baltimore Ravens at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 12 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (8-2) at Los Angeles Rams (6-4)

The Ravens are the hottest team in the NFL right now, having won four straight games by 14+ points, making them the 24th team to do so in the past 30 years. The common thinking is that makes them a great bet, but in reality it’s much more likely to be the opposite. Of the previous 23 teams to do so, just 7 of them covered in their next game and 11 of them lost straight up, including 8 upset losses. Favorites are just 3-14 ATS in this spot in the past 30 years. Ironically, the last team to win four straight games by 14+ were the Patriots, who lost in this spot to the Ravens a few weeks ago. 

The problem is when a team is as hot as the Ravens are right now, oddsmakers know they can boost their spread significantly and casual bettors will still want to bet on them.That’s definitely the case here, as the Ravens are 3.5 point favorites on the road against the Rams. A week ago on the early line, this line was even, a drastic shift considering about 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer, and 2-3 weeks ago the Rams likely would have been favored by a field goal here at home. 

With the Rams, a lot of attention has been given to their underwhelming offense, which has fallen from 3rd in first down rate at 43.02% in 2018 to 18th in 2019 at 35.09%, due primarily to major issues on the offensive line, but their defense has quietly been one of the better stop units in the league this season, allowing a first down rate of 32.34% that is 4th best in the NFL. They’re not as good overall as last season, but they still rank 7th in first down rate differential at +2.75%, just a few spots behind the Ravens, who rank 3rd at +6.23%. I have this line calculated at Baltimore -1.5 and, while two points of line value might not seem like much, about 20% of games are decided by 2 or 3 points, so that’s a pretty significant two points. 

The Rams are also in a couple good betting spots this week. For one, they’re a west coast team in a night game against an east coast team, a spot that covers about 66% of the time due to differences in internal clocks. On top of that, the Rams only have a trip to Arizona on deck, while the Ravens have another tough game on deck against the 49ers. The Ravens are expected to be favored in that game, but there could still be a little bit of split focus for them this week with the league’s best team by record on deck next week. Meanwhile, home underdogs like the Rams are 25-53 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites, which they almost definitely will be in Arizona. I like the Rams’ chances of not just covering this spread, but winning this game straight up, so they’re one of my top picks of the week at +3.5 (and still betable at +3).

Los Angeles Rams 26 Baltimore Ravens 24 Upset Pick +145

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +3.5

Confidence: High

Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams: 2019 Week 11 NFL Pick

Chicago Bears (4-5) at Los Angeles Rams (5-4)

A year ago, this was a marquee matchup in the NFC, with both teams going on to win 12+ games. This season, however, both teams are having disappointing seasons. The Bears actually led the NFL in first down rate differential in 2018 at +6.64%, but they faced one of the easiest schedules in the league and this season, against a much tougher schedule, they’re without several key contributors on defense, including free agent losses Bryce Callahan and Adrian Amos, departed defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and in season injuries Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan, the latter of whom just went down last week. As a result of that and some regression on offense in the second year of the Matt Nagy/Mitch Trubisky era, the Bears have fallen all the way down to 21st in first down rate differential at -2.42% and already have more losses at 4-5 than they did all last season when they went 12-4.

The Rams have also exceeded their loss total from last season, starting 5-4 after going 13-3 a year ago. By far the biggest reason why is their offensive line. After starting the same five offensive linemen in every game in 2018, the Rams lost a pair of starters this off-season (left guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan) and have since lost their replacements (Joe Noteboom and Brian Allen) to injury, as well as right tackle Rob Havenstein. Allen and Havenstein just went down last week, but both were struggling even before going down. Their only two remaining offensive linemen from 2018 are left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Austin Blythe, both of whom are having down years compared to a year ago. Their offensive line issues have hurt their offense as a whole, dropping them from 3rd in first down rate at 43.02% in 2018 to 18th at 35.63% in 2019. In terms of first down rate differential, they’ve fallen from 3rd at +5.00% to 9th to +2.30%, despite an improved defense.

The Rams are the better team and I have this line calculated at Rams -7, so we’re getting a little bit of line value with them as 6-point favorites, but that’s barely any line value and the Bears are also in a much better spot. While the Rams have a tough matchup against the Ravens on deck, the Bears get one of the easiest games of their season, hosting the Giants in Chicago. Underdogs of 6+ are 49-37 ATS since 2008 before being favorites of 6+ and the Bears are currently favored by 7 points on the early line next week. There’s not enough to take either side confidently, but the Bears should be the pick for pick ‘em purposes.

Los Angeles Rams 22 Chicago Bears 17

Pick against the spread: Chicago +6

Confidence: None