Los Angeles Rams 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In two years since hiring Sean McVay as head coach, the Rams have gone from perennial cellar dwellers to NFC Champions. In McVay’s first ypear, he took this offense from the worst in the league (dead last in first down rate in both 2015 and 2016) to one of the best (9th in first down rate in 2017) and in the process helped turn Jared Goff from a shell-shocked rookie with a 63.6 QB rating to Pro Bowler who looks deserving of having been the #1 overall pick in 2016.

In 2018, Goff made the Pro Bowl again and the Rams were able to make a deeper playoff run after being eliminated in the first round in 2017, going all the way to the Super Bowl before falling short. In total, Goff has completed 63.6% of his passes for an average of 8.18 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in 31 starts over the past two seasons, while finishing 15th and 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’ll be backed up by free agent signing Blake Bortles, who was a bust as the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, completing just 59.3% of his passes for an average of 6.70 YPA, 103 touchdowns, and 75 interceptions in 73 starts (24-49), but still has the upside to be a capable backup, especially in McVay’s quarterback friendly system.

The one problem with Goff is his contract status. Now going into the 4th year of his rookie deal, this is the last year the Rams will have Goff at a significantly below market value price. His 5th year option for 2020 is worth 22.783 million and the Rams undoubtedly would have to pay even more than that annually to keep him long-term on an extension. The Rams have been aggressive adding talent in the short window they have Goff under contract inexpensively, even trading away premium draft picks in a few cases.

Last off-season, they sent a 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for cornerback Marcus Peters and a 1st round pick to the Patriots for wide receiver Brandin Cooks to replace free agent departure Sammy Watkins, who they gave up a 2nd round pick for the previous off-season. Peters hasn’t even been extended long-term yet and the Rams still already have 6 players under contract making 11 million or more annually.

It’s a smart strategy if pays off with a Super Bowl in the short window they can keep all this talent together, but in the long-term after Goff gets paid it causes a couple problems. Not only will they need to let some players go, the Rams also don’t have premium draft picks on cost controlled rookie deals coming in behind them. Between their trades for veterans and the aggressive move they had to make to get Goff #1 overall in the first place, the Rams have made just one other pick in the top-60 in their past 4 drafts. Trades down have allowed them to pick 33 times total in those drafts, but 24 of those picks have come in the 4th round or later, so they’re really banking on their scouting department’s ability to find diamonds in the rough and their coaching staff’s ability to coach them up. It might be a worthwhile strategy, but 2019 could be their last great shot at a Super Bowl for a few years.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Rams have already had to let some players leave for financial reasons, as they return just three of five starters on the offensive line. Center John Sullivan was released ahead of a 5.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and left guard Rodger Saffold signed a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal with the Titans that the Rams simply did not have the financial flexibility to match. Sullivan is still available as a free agent, but his age is a major concern and he struggled more than he’s used to in 2018, so the Rams seem ready to turn the position over to 2018 4th round pick Brian Allen, who played just 37 snaps as a rookie. Allen could have growing pains in his first season as the starter, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to have a comparable season to Sullivan, who finished 34th among 39 qualifying centers in 2018.

Saffold is going to be the bigger loss, as he’s been a top-8 guard on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons, excelling in pass protection, where he’s allowed just 4 sacks and 9 hits total in 31 starts. Like Sullivan, he’s expected to be replaced by a 2nd year player, 2018 3rd round pick Joe Noteboom (79 snaps as a rookie), but unlike Sullivan it’s hard to imagine Noteboom effectively replacing Saffold in his first season as a starter.

This is especially a concern because Jared Goff has seen his effectiveness drop significantly when pressured in his career. His completion percentage with a clean pocket ranked 9th in 2017 and 13th in 2018, but he fell to 35th out of 42 qualifying and 33rd out of 39 qualifying respectively when pressured. Goff has enjoyed good pass protection in each of the past two years, but he will probably be under fire more in 2019 and that could easily be noticeable in his completion percentage.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth returns, but this could be his final season with the Rams and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he saw his play drop off. Signed to a 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, Whitworth has been a big part of the reason for the Rams’ offensive turnaround, finishing as PFF’s 7th and 4th ranked offensive tackle in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but he’s going into an age 38 contract year. Given that he was considering retirement this off-season, this is very possibly his last season in the NFL. The Rams planned for the future this off-season by drafting tackles in the 3rd round (Oklahoma’s Bobby Evans) and 5th round (Wisconsin’s David Edwards), but Whitworth will still be missed when he’s gone and if his play drops off this season it would have a noticeable effect on this offense.

The right side of the offensive line should be more stable, with both right guard Austin Blythe and right tackle Rob Havenstein returning after making all 16 starts in 2018. Blythe originally got an opportunity because Jamon Brown, their regular starter, was suspended for the first two games of the season, but Blythe played so well that he kept the job permanently, while Brown was eventually waived and ended up with the Giants. Blythe finished the season as PFF’s 12th ranked guard, so he was quietly one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league. The 2016 7th round pick is a one-year wonder, making just 2 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he could easily have another strong season in 2019. If that’s the case, he may be too expensive for the Rams to keep next off-season as an unrestricted free agent.

Havenstein is already locked up long-term, as the Rams gave him a very fair 4-year, 32.5 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, and unlike Blythe he’s proven himself more than once. He’s made 59 of 64 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has earned an above average grade on PFF in all 4 seasons, including a career best #3 finish in 2018. Only going into his age 27 season. He’s the most dependable offensive lineman on a line that lost a pair of starters, has a one-year wonder at right guard, and a left tackle in his late 30s. This offensive line is also unlikely to not lose a single start due to injury, something they benefited from in 2019. If this offense isn’t quite as effective in 2019, it will likely be because their offensive line play declined.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Another concern on this offense is the long-term durability of running back Todd Gurley’s knees. Gurley has been arguably the best all-purpose running back in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, totaling 2,556 rushing yards on 535 carries (4.78 yards per carry), 1,368 receiving yards on 123 catches (11.12 yards per catch), and 40 total touchdowns in 29 games. However, he has a history of knee issues dating back to college and had his usage cut drastically in the post-season, after missing a couple games with knee problems late in the season.

The Rams publicly don’t express concern about the long-term condition of Gurley’s knee, which is reportedly arthritic, but their off-season moves suggest they at least want good insurance in case he goes down again. They matched restricted free agent Malcolm Brown’s 2-year, 3.3 million dollar offer sheet from the Detroit Lions and then used a 3rd round pick on Memphis running back Darrell Henderson. Those two players could lessen Gurley’s workload, in an effort to keep him healthy later in the season.

An undrafted free agent in 2015, Brown has seen limited action in his career, averaging 4.02 yards per carry on just 128 carries in 4 seasons in the league and missing a golden opportunity to establish himself in Gurley’s absence last season because he was dealing with an injury of his own, but the Rams like him enough to keep him at an above minimum salary. He may ultimately end up being their 3rd running back this season, as Darrell Henderson is a great fit for this offense and can immediately serve in a change of pace role. The 5-8 208 pounder is faster even than his 4.49 40 time and was a dominant runner on outside zone runs (10.73 YPC the past 2 seasons), which the Rams run more than anyone. He and Brown would likely split carries if Gurley went down, but I expect Henderson to open the season the primary backup. This is a deep backfield, but Gurley’s injury concerns can’t be ignored.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The unit with the least concern on this offense is this receiving corps, which could actually be better this season, with Cooper Kupp returning from a torn ACL. After a promising rookie year in which the 2017 3rd round pick put up a 62/869/5 slash line, Kupp looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season in the league with 30 catches for 438 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first 5 games (96/1402/16 over 16 games), before suffering his first knee injury against the Broncos. He returned a few weeks later, but was not the same and ultimately ended up suffering a season ender in week 10.

His absence was felt, as the Rams had a 48.58% first down rate in those first 5 games, as opposed to 39.07% the rest of the way. That’s still a good number, but they went from being most equivalent to the #1 ranked Kansas City Chiefs with him healthy to being most equivalent to the #9 ranked Atlanta Falcons when he got hurt. Kupp has also been Jared Goff’s most dependable target over the past 2 seasons, as he’s completed 68.0% of his 150 targets to Kupp for 1,435 yards, 11 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a 117.5 QB rating (98.0 QB rating to other targets).

Kupp is technically the Rams’ #3 receiver, but when he’s healthy the Rams use 3 receivers on almost every play, which is clearly their most effective package. The Rams’ receiving corps could be even better in 2019 if all three of their receivers are healthy, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Injuries are part of the game and the Rams did not have an extraordinary amount of injuries last season by any measure, finishing with the 4th fewest adjusted games lost to injury overall.

Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods are nominally their #1 and #2 receivers and both topped 1000 yards in 2018, putting up slash lines of 80/1204/5 and 86/1219/6 respectively. They were also both involved on end arounds, totaling 68 yards on 10 carries and 157 yards on 19 carries respectively. Cooks has now put up 1000+ receiving yards in each of the past 4 seasons and, while 2018 was Woods’ first 1000+ yard year, he’s shown signs of being this kind of player in the past, as he was on a 1000+ yard pace in 2017 before missing the final 4 games with injury and he had a 51/613/1 slash line in 13 games in 2016 on a very run heavy Bills offense.

With Cooks and Woods going into their age 26 and age 27 seasons respectively, both should continue playing at a high level. They might see their receiving stats dip a little bit, with Kupp coming back into the mix and shakier play on the offensive line forcing more incompletions, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three of the Rams’ wide receivers top 1000 yards if they can stay healthy enough. When everyone is healthy, the Rams like to run 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) on basically every snap, rather than changing things up by scenario, so all three receivers are every down players.

When one of their receivers is hurt, like Kupp was last year, they run more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). The Rams’ #4 receiver Josh Reynolds was not an every down player as Kupp’s replacement, while #2 tight end Gerald Everett saw his snap count increase from 15.9 per game to 31.6 per game in the 8 games Kupp missed completely. That makes sense, as the 6-3 240 pound Everett is their primary pass catching tight end (262 routes run on 380 snaps), while the 6-6 255 Tyler Higbee is primarily a blocker (544 blocking snaps on 789 snaps) whose role didn’t change much with Kupp out.

Everett didn’t do much with the extra playing time though, managing just 20 catches for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns in those 8 games, as opposed to 13 catches for 144 yards and 1 touchdown in their other 8 games. On the season, he barely outproduced Higbee, who had a 24/292/2 slash line. Everett was the 44th overall pick in 2017, their only other top-60 pick besides Goff from their past 4 drafts, so the Rams are obviously hoping for a 3rd year leap from him. Even if he does make a leap, he’s still unlikely to be that productive because of his role.

With Kupp returning from injury, Everett will go back to a smaller role, as the lone tight end in obvious passing situations, while Higbee will be the lone tight end the rest of the time. Higbee is relatively young too, going in the 4th round in 2016, but he doesn’t have the same receiving upside as Everett because of his limited athleticism and will probably max out as a strong blocker, which is all the Rams really need him to be. Reynolds, meanwhile, is nothing more than a reserve when all three receivers are healthy, which is for the best as he’s an obvious drop off from their other three receivers. This is arguably the most talented receiving corps in the NFL.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

In addition to the Rams’ losses on defense, they also lost a couple key players on defense, including defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. Suh isn’t the player he was in his prime, but he still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked interior defender and played 887 snaps, so he won’t be easy to replace. Suh is still available as of this writing, but the Rams have just about 6 million left in cap space and Suh is holding out for good money, so it’s unlikely they’ll be able to work out something to bring him back.

Assuming Suh does not return, the Rams will likely be replacing him with several players, as they didn’t add a replacement this off-season and don’t have an obvious one-to-one replacement on the roster. In base packages, he will likely be replaced by one of Tanzel Smart, Sebastian Joseph-Day, or Greg Gaines, who will compete for the nose tackle job in the Rams’ 3-4 defense. All three players have good size (6-1 300, 6-4 310, and 6-1 312 respectively), but they barely have any experience. Smart, a 6th round pick in 2017, is the only one with NFL experience and he’s played just 312 mediocre snaps. Joseph-Day was also a 6th round pick, but he didn’t play a snap as a rookie in 2018. Gaines, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie. All three are complete projections to a larger role.

In sub packages, the Rams could give more playing time to Ethan Westbrooks (180 snaps in 2018) and could also use edge rusher John Franklin-Myers as an interior rusher more frequently. Westbrooks has been a rotational lineman for the Rams for 5 years, averaging 287 snaps per season, while John Franklin-Myers is a 2018 4th round pick who played 301 snaps as a rookie, primarily as an edge rusher, but has the size (6-4 288) to move inside. Neither player is particularly good, but Franklin-Myers at least has some upside.

Michael Brockers could also have a bigger role, but he already played 679 snaps last season and isn’t much of a pass rusher, so that’s not a great option. Brockers is a strong run stuffer, dominant at times, but he has a career 5.2% pressure rate in 7 seasons in the league and had just 1 sack, 2 hits, and 16 hurries on 370 pass rush snaps in 2018 (5.1%). For lack of a better option, the Rams will have to continue giving him significant pass rush snaps in 2019.

Fortunately, the Rams also have a back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year on the interior of their defensive front, which obviously elevates this whole group significantly. Aaron Donald has had some dominant years in the past, but he took that to a new level in 2018, totaling 20.5 sacks, 20 hits, and 65 hurries on 584 pass rush snaps, a ridiculous 18.2% pressure rate that not only led all interior defenders, but led all defenders across the board. He’s been PFF’s top ranked interior defender in each of the past 4 seasons, putting up a 16.3% pressure rate across those 4 seasons and also playing the run well. He took the title of the league’s best defensive player from JJ Watt a few years back and, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, having never missed a game with injury, he could keep that title for another couple seasons at least. He’ll make everyone around him better by commanding frequent double teams, but this defensive line will still feel the absence of Ndamukong Suh.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

One free agent the Rams did bring back this off-season was Dante Fowler. With the Rams desperate for edge rush help, they sent a 2019 3rd round pick and a 2020 5th round pick to the Jaguars to acquire Fowler, a former high draft pick who had gotten buried on the depth chart in Jacksonville. Drafted 3rd overall in 2015, Fowler missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL and made just one start in two and a half seasons before the Jaguars sent him to the Rams. He also served a one-game suspension at the start of the 2018 season for an off-the-field incident.

He showed enough as a pass rusher in limited action in Jacksonville (14 sacks, 11 hits, and 67 hurries on 868 pass rush snaps, a 10.6% pressure rate) that the Rams decided to take a chance on him, but he didn’t make much of an impact once he arrived, with 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and 20 hurries on 363 pass rush snaps (8.2% pressure rate), including playoffs. One of those hits was a key play in the NFC Championship, but for evaluative purposes one snap doesn’t trump all other snaps. Despite his overall underwhelming play, the Rams decided to keep him this off-season, but they overpaid on a one-year deal, giving him 12 million.

Even if we assume Fowler, who is only going into his age 25 season, still has a lot of untapped potential, there isn’t much upside to this deal, as it’s only a one-year deal and, if he breaks out, they’d undoubtedly need to give him a higher average annual value on his next contract if they are going to keep him beyond 2019. There’s also plenty of downside with this deal, as Fowler is not worth a 12 million dollar salary if he continues playing like he’s played thus far in his career. It would be one thing if they gave him a 3-year deal that guaranteed him 12 million in the first year and gave the Rams a couple team options for 2020 and 2021 at a similar salary if he breaks out, but this is a bit of a head scratching deal.

Samson Ebukam remains as the other starter opposite Dante Fowler. A 4th round pick in 2017, Ebukam played 351 nondescript snaps as a rookie, before moving into a starting role in 2018 and playing 692 snaps. He wasn’t much better than his rookie year though, with just 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 26 hurries on 304 pass rush snaps. The Rams are hoping he can keep developing, but he doesn’t have a huge upside and will likely max out as a solid starter at best.

The Rams also added veteran Clay Matthews to the mix in free agency, signing the ex-Packer to a 2-year deal worth up to 9.25 million. Matthews was once one of the better edge defenders in the league, but his age (33 in May) and a variety of injuries have sapped his abilities. He played all 16 games in 2018, but was more or less a replacement level player and had just 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 19 hurries on 376 pass rush snaps (8.0% pressure rate)

It’s not a surprise that the Packers, his team for 10 seasons, weren’t that interested in bringing him back this off-season, opting instead to get younger at the position. He’ll play a rotational role with the Rams and is unlikely to match the 756 snaps he played last season. His addition pushes John Franklin-Myers to the 4th edge defender spot and could free him up to play more snaps inside as an interior rusher in sub packages. The Rams have a decent trio of edge defenders, but lack an obvious difference maker.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Rams also lost starting middle linebacker Mark Barron this off-season, but he was only worth a fraction of his 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and struggled mightily last season, finishing 85th out of 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. The Rams don’t have an obvious replacement for him though. 2018 5th round pick Micah Kiser is penciled in as the starter, but he played just one defensive snap as a rookie, so he’s a projection to a larger role.

Their only other real option is Bryce Hager, but the 2015 7th round pick has primarily been a special teams player to this point in his career, starting just 1 of 64 games on defense in 4 seasons in the league. This is an obvious position of weakness. Fortunately, the Rams like to use 3 safeties in sub packages, playing one closer to the line of scrimmage essentially as a linebacker. That’s something they could do even more of in 2019 with Barron gone.

Cory Littleton remains as an every down player at the other middle linebacker spot, following a mini-breakout year in 2018. Originally undrafted in 2016, Littleton made all 16 starts in 2018 after playing sparingly in his first 2 seasons in the league and earned an above average grade from PFF. He’s better in coverage than against the run, which he still has issues with, but, unless he proves to be a one-year wonder, he should be a useful part of this defense. He’s another player that the Rams will have to give a pay raise to keep beyond 2019, as he’s scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next off-season. For now, he’s the best player in a thin linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

Even though the Rams went 13-3 last season, their defense struggled for most of the regular season and actually finished the regular season 26th in first down rate allowed. They were better when they had starting cornerback Aqib Talib healthy though, including in the post-season. In the 8 games he missed with an ankle injury, the Rams allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 43.29% rate, most equivalent to the worst ranked Kansas City Chiefs, as opposed to 33.18% in his 11 healthy games, most equivalent to the 5th ranked Jacksonville Jaguars, a really significant swing. Talib earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus for the 5th straight season, finishing 21st overall at his position, but his age is getting to be a concern, going into his age 33 season. Lacking a better option, the Rams will have to hope his abilities don’t have a sudden drop off, which is a possibility at his age.

Talib’s injury also coincided with an injury to fellow starting cornerback Marcus Peters, which is part of why they struggled so much in the games Talib didn’t play. Peters didn’t miss a game with injury, but played through a leg injury that was supposed to cost him 4-6 weeks and struggled mightily for about two months after sustaining the injury. Peters claims the injury is not to blame for his struggles, but it’s hard to believe that’s actually the case.

Peters was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback in 2016 and their 14th ranked cornerback in 2017, but fell all the way to 100th out of 131 qualifying in 2018. He’s an obvious bounce back candidate and has all the motivation in the world to have a strong season, going into the final year of his rookie deal. If he can prove 2018 was a fluke, Peters will likely get paid among the top cornerbacks in the league by someone next off-season. The Rams are reportedly interested in locking him up long-term, but may need him to take a little bit of discount to keep him long-term, given their other financial commitments. Even after a down year, he may not give them a discount.

Nickell Robey-Coleman remains as the slot cornerback. The diminutive 5-8 180 pounder has struggled whenever he’s been counted on to play outside, but he’s one of the best pure slot cornerbacks in the NFL, earning above average grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons, including a 2018 season in which he was PFF’s 9th ranked cornerback on 556 snaps. He also had the 3rd fewest yards per coverage snap allowed on the slot among qualifying cornerbacks in 2018, allowing 0.71 yards per route run on 358 slot coverage snaps. He should continue excelling on the slot in 2019.

Reserve cornerbacks Sam Shields and Troy Hill both struggled mightily in Talib’s absence in 2018, but, while Hill is still on the roster, the Rams did use a 3rd round pick on Michigan cornerback David Long and he could easily be the 4th cornerback if he has a strong post-season. Considered a borderline first round pick by PFF, Long was a dominant cover cornerback in college and could prove to be a steal. With both Talib and Peters hitting free agency next off-season, he could easily become a starter in 2020 and, in the short-term, he gives them better insurance in case Talib or Peters miss time again.

At safety, the Rams lost LaMarcus Joyner, PFF’s 27th ranked safety in 2018, when he signed a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal with the Oakland Raiders, but the Rams did a good job of replacing him with Eric Weddle on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal. Not only is that a much less expensive deal, but it doesn’t mess up the Rams’ compensatory pick formula because Weddle was released by his previous team. Weddle’s age is a concern (he turned 34 in January) and he reportedly considered retirement this off-season, but he actually played slightly better than Joyner last season, finishing as PFF’s 20th ranked safety with the Ravens.

Weddle’s best days are behind him and he could continue declining in 2019, but in his prime he was one of the best safeties in the NFL. A 12-year veteran, Weddle has earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season he’s been in the league, including 7 seasons in the top-5 at his position. He’s not the biggest name, but purely from a performance standpoint he deserves Hall of Fame consideration when all is said and done. The Rams are hoping he can continue to beat Father Time for another season.

Third year safety John Johnson remains the starter at the other safety spot and he looks like a budding star. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Johnson didn’t play much for the first few weeks of his career, but he’s made 27 straight starts and has finished 11th and 8th among safeties in the past 2 seasons respectively. Not even 24 until December, it’s possible his best football is still ahead of him and he could take another leap forward in 2019.

The Rams liked running three safety looks in obvious passing situations last season, to cover up for their lack of depth at linebacker, and that should remain the case again in 2019. Marqui Christian was their 3rd safety last year, but the Rams used a 2nd round pick on Washington safety Taylor Rapp and he figures to serve in that role this season. Rapp was a borderline first round talent, but concerns about his hip injury dropped him to the Rams at 61.

Assuming he’s healthy, he’ll fit perfectly as a 3rd safety behind Johnson and Weddle immediately and he’s likely viewed as Weddle’s eventual successor in the starting lineup. All three of the Rams’ safeties are versatile and can play in different spots (slot cornerback, linebacker), so we could see this trio on the field frequently in 2019. This secondary has the potential to be strong if their cornerbacks stay healthy, aging veterans like Aqib Talib and Eric Weddle continue playing well, and rookie Taylor Rapp’s hip injury turns out to be a non-issue. There’s some downside here, but this could be a much improved unit.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Rams should be Super Bowl contenders once again, but they are starting to leak talent, as they couldn’t afford to keep some key performers this off-season. They’ll have some big decisions to make next off-season, but for now they have enough talent to compete, even if they aren’t quite as good as 2018 on paper. They have a great coaching staff led by Sean McVay and legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and if they continue to draft and develop like they have in recent years and some unproven players surprise, they could be better than they look on paper. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Team Score: 76.33*

Offensive Score: 78.12

Defensive Score: 74.53

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl LIII Pick

New England Patriots (13-5) vs. Los Angeles Rams (15-3) in Super Bowl LIII

By their standards, the Patriots had a down season. They finished with fewer than 12 wins for the first time since 2009 and were legitimately blown out in a few games. They lost as many games by double digits (3) as they had in the previous 3 seasons combined and their 34-10 loss to the Titans was their biggest loss since 2014. They also didn’t go on one of their typical late season runs, actually winning more games in their first 8 games (6) than their final 8 games (5). From week 9 to 15, they went just 2-3, starting with that loss to the Titans in week 10, which was their latest loss by that many points since back in 2000 before Brady became a starter.

They also showed stretches of dominance though, especially at home, where they went a perfect 8-0, with 6 of 8 wins by double digits. Their only home wins that were within double digits came against division winners in the Chiefs and Texans and they would have had the ball with a 14 point lead late in the 4th quarter against the Texans if not for a muffed punt that led to a late Houston touchdown.

They weren’t nearly as good on the road, but picked up another two double digit wins on the road against the Jets and Bills, giving them 8 double digit wins in the regular season, tied with the Saints for most in the NFL. They won in Chicago, where the Bears otherwise won all of their regular season home games en route to a 12-4 record. All in all, the Patriots went 4-0 against playoff qualifiers, the only playoff qualifier to have a perfect record against fellow playoff qualifiers.

The Patriots played down to their level of competition some this season, particularly away from home, but they’ve always brought their best for big games in the Brady/Belichick era, going a ridiculous 39-13 against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including an unfathomable 15-1 since 2010. That’s not even skewed by early season matchups where records don’t mean as much, as they are 17-5 against teams with a better record than them in week 11 or later, including 8-2 in the post-season. For comparison, the league average winning percentage against a team with a better record is 38.3%.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that they were able to beat the Chargers and Chiefs, who both finished 12-4, to advance to the Super Bowl, where they now face the 3-loss Rams. Granted, their win over the Chiefs was close to a 50/50 game that could have gone either way, but their game against the Chargers was over by halftime. They showed their top level for much of the season and securing a first round bye allowed key veterans like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to get healthy for another playoff run. Now with another week off, I wouldn’t want to bet against them right now, especially only getting 2.5 points. The Patriots have been close to an auto-bet with Brady under center as underdogs or favorites of less than 3, going 52-24 ATS and 47-29 straight up.

The Rams will present a tough test though. Their offense hasn’t been the same since Cooper Kupp went down with a torn ACL, as they had a first down rate of 46.09% in the 8 games he played, as opposed to 39.60% in the 10 games he missed, but that’s still an impressive rate and they should have a healthier Todd Gurley after a week off, giving them a one-two punch at running back of Gurley and talented replacement CJ Anderson. They’ve also been much better defensively with cornerback Aqib Talib on the field, allowing a 33.10% first down rate in the 10 games he played, as opposed to 43.29% in the 8 games he missed.

Both teams have plenty of standout players, with Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Andrew Whitworth among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Rams and Julian Edelman, Trey Flowers, and Stephon Gilmore among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Patriots. You could argue these are the two best coached teams in the league, with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels on one sideline, facing off with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips on the other. Ultimately, it’s just going to come down to execution, which I know isn’t much of an analysis, but the talent gap between these two teams isn’t much. I’m going with the Patriots because I trust their experience over the experience of the Rams, who are in just their 4th playoff game with Jared Goff and McVay. I probably wouldn’t bet this on a normal week, but it’s the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots 31 Los Angeles Rams 24

Pick against the spread: New England -2.5

Confidence: Medium

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints: 2018 NFC Championship Pick

Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

These two met back in week 9 in New Orleans, but a lot has changed since then. At the time, the Rams were favored by a couple points, despite being the road team, because they were an undefeated 8-0 and seen as the early Super Bowl favorite. That changed when the Saints pulled the upset and subsequently went on to win 7 of their next 8 meaningful games, while the Rams went “just” 5-3 over the second half of the season. As a result, the Saints were able to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC before week 17, despite being a game and a half back of the Rams going into their week 9 matchup.

The Saints’ strong play is a big part of the reason why they overtook the Rams in the NFC, but the Rams also regressed a little bit down the stretch, particularly on offense after they lost slot receiver Cooper Kupp. The Rams still have a talented duo of receivers in Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but Kupp had been Jared Goff’s most effective receiver over the past 2 years. Goff completed 72.4% of his 152 targets to Kupp for 1,504 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a ridiculous 124.5 QB rating. Kupp has missed 9 games in total including playoffs, but was also knocked out of 3 games with injury this season. In the 5 games he started and finished, the Rams had a 46.96% first down rate. In the 3 games he was knocked out, the Rams had a 44.72% first down rate. And in the 9 games he missed entirely, the Rams had a first down rate of 40.54%.

That’s still a good number and would have ranked 6th in the NFL over the course of the season, but they’re not quite the dominant offense they were going into the previous matchup, one of the five games Kupp started and finished (45.76% first down rate in a 45-35 loss). Their passing game in particular has fallen back to earth. Goff completed 71.8% of his passes for an average of 10.33 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the 5 games Kupp started and finished, but just 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the 9 he’s missed completely. They’re still a strong offense, but they’re more reliant on the run than they were when Kupp was healthy.

Fortunately for them, the Saints also are missing a key player from the first matchup, with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins going down with a torn achilles early in last week’s win over the Eagles. Outside of Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore, Rankins was probably the Saints’ best defensive player this season, so that’s a big loss. Not only does losing him significantly hurt their chances of slowing down Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson on the ground, but he had a productive year as pass rusher as well, totaling 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 32 hurries on 450 pass rush snaps (10.2%).

On top of that, the Rams also have cornerback Aqib Talib healthy, which they didn’t have in the first matchup. In 6 games in which Talib has played more than half the snaps, the Rams have allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.45% rate, as opposed to 40.12% in the 11 games in which he was inactive or limited. The Rams faced a pretty easily schedule in those 6 games (Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Arizona, San Francisco, and Dallas), but it’s not hard to imagine how the return of the 6-1 209 Talib could have an impact in a rematch of a game in which the 6-3 212 Michael Thomas went for 12/211/1. I still have the Saints a little higher in my roster rankings, but I don’t think we’re getting enough line value here to bet on the Saints confidently.

New Orleans Saints 34 Los Angeles Rams 30

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Low

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Dallas Cowboys (11-6) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3)

The Cowboys are the weakest of the remaining 8 playoff teams. Their offense has been better since acquiring Amari Cooper during the bye, picking up first downs at a 35.98% rate in 10 games with him, as opposed to 33.81% in 7 games without him, but their defense has gone in the other direction. Before the bye, the Cowboys ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but they’ve allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.59% rate in 10 games since.

After overachieving on defense early in the season, they’ve largely fallen back down to earth in recent weeks, but they’re still considered an elite defense by many because they played their best game on primetime against the Saints. Even with that week 13 upset win over the Saints included, the Cowboys are allowing 22.3 points per game since the bye. They’ve been winning, going 8-2 in their last 10, but all of their wins have been by 8 points or fewer and they are somehow even in point differential over those 10 games. I don’t give them much of a shot to win this game in Los Angeles against the Rams, especially if slot receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Blake Jarwin are both unable to go after not practicing all week.

That being said, it’s hard to be confident in the Rams as 7-point favorites. They have 7 wins by more than a touchdown this year, but 6 of them came against the Raiders, Lions, Cardinals, and 49ers, among the worst teams in the league. The Chargers are the only non-cellar dweller they’ve beaten by more than a touchdown, with teams like the Broncos, Packers and Seahawks (twice), comparable caliber teams to the Cowboys, all keeping their games against the Rams close. I only have this line calculated at Rams -7.5, so I can’t be confident in the Rams at -7 and I may switch this pick to the Cowboys if both Beasley and Jarwin are able to go. A push also seems like a strong possibility.

Los Angeles Rams 26 Dallas Cowboys 17

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -7

Confidence: None

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (4-11) at Los Angeles Rams (12-3)

The 49ers are just 4-11, but they’ve been much better since turning to Nick Mullens under center. They have moved the chains at a 36.87% rate in Mullen’s 7 starts, as opposed to 35.17% in CJ Beathard’s 5 starts. More important, Mullens has committed just 7 turnovers in 7 games, while Beathard committed 10 in 5 games, and the 49ers are 3-4 in his 7 starts, as opposed to 0-5 in Beathard’s 5 starts.

Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis anyway and the 49ers have been killed by the turnover margin all season, ranking dead last in the NFL at -21. Beathard’s turnovers weren’t the only problem, as a capable defense that ranks 17th in first down rate allowed on the season somehow didn’t force a single takeaway for 6 games until forcing 2 last week against the Bears, who ironically rank 2nd in the NFL in turnover margin (yet another example of turnover margins being unpredictable).

Unfortunately, it seems like the public is catching on with the 49ers, as they are just 10.5 point underdogs in Los Angeles against the Rams. I know injuries have started to pile up for the Rams, with wide receiver Cooper Kupp, running back Todd Gurley, and safety LaMarcus Joyner all sidelined, but I still think this line would have been at least two touchdowns a couple weeks ago. I’m still taking the 49ers, but I wouldn’t recommend betting any money on them.

Not only are we not getting enough line value with the 49ers anymore, but they also haven’t played on the road in about a month and have been at home for 5 of Mullen’s 7 starts. In his only two road starts, the 49ers got blown out by the Seahawks and Buccaneers. Home/road disparities tend to be inconsistent in the long run, but I am concerned taking an inexperienced quarterback with no history of success on the road against a Rams team that still has a ton of talent.

Los Angeles Rams 26 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +10.5

Confidence: Low

Los Angeles Rams at Arizona Cardinals: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (11-3) at Arizona Cardinals (3-11)

The Cardinals were blown out last week in Atlanta, losing by 26 points to a team that had previously lost 5 straight games. That was probably in part due to the Cardinals not being totally focused, with this much bigger game against the Rams on deck, but, even if they’re fully focused this week, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll cover this spread. This spread is huge, with the Cardinals being 14-point home underdogs, but it’s justifiable given the talent gap between these two teams.

The Cardinals rank dead last in first down rate differential at -7.22% and might be even worse than that suggests, given all of their injuries. They are missing their top-3 offensive linemen, DJ Humphries, Mike Iupati, and Justin Pugh, their top receiver Christian Kirk, starting defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, and every down linebacker Josh Bynes, among others. On the season, 6 of their 11 losses have come by at least two touchdowns. The Rams don’t have that many blowout wins (4 wins by 14 points or more), but that’s in part due to a tough schedule. Those blowout wins came against the Raiders, Cardinals, 49ers, and Lions, all among the worst teams in the league, so they’ve taken care of business whenever they’ve had an easy matchup like this.

The Rams should also be fully focused for this game, as their schedule gets way easier to close out the year, facing the 49ers next week after this game against the Cardinals. Favorites of 7+ are 58-36 ATS since 2014 before being favorites of 7+ again, as superior teams tend to take care of business without upcoming distractions. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have another tough game in Seattle next week and it’s proven to be very tough for inferior teams to hang with superior teams with another tough game on deck. Underdogs of 7+ are just 31-50 ATS since 2014 before being underdogs of 7+ again, including just 4-14 ATS if their opponent will next be favorites of 7+ again. I don’t want to make a bet on this game without confirmation that Todd Gurley will play for the Rams after missing practice all week, but I will revisit this if he ends up playing.

Final Update: Todd Gurley is expected to play and, while we won’t know for sure until later this afternoon, I want to lock this in now in case the line jumps from 14. The Rams have blown out every terrible team they’ve faced this season and that trend dates back to last season as well, when they went 3-0 against teams that finished 5-11 or worse, winning those 3 games by an average of 32.3 points per game. Without an upcoming distraction on the schedule for the Rams, I don’t expect this to be close.

Los Angeles Rams 34 Arizona Cardinals 13

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -14

Confidence: Medium

Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Rams: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (6-7) at Los Angeles Rams (11-2)

The Eagles have been the most disappointing team in the league this season, going 6-7 a year after winning the Super Bowl. After losing to the Cowboys for the second time in 5 weeks last week, the Eagles are effectively 3 games out of the division lead with 3 games to go. The wild card is still an option, but they’d need to win out and get help. The long-term outlook for this franchise looks good, as most of their losses have been close (6 of 7 by 7 points or fewer) and many of their problems have been injury related, but in the short-term they could easily get blown out this week.

The Eagles have mostly played close games this season, but the injuries have piled up for them at the worst time, ahead of one of the toughest games of their season, a game they need to win to stay alive in the playoff race. Already without their top-3 cornerbacks, starting safety Rodney McLeod, starting defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, every down linebacker Jordan Hicks, and rotational defensive end Derek Barnett on defense, the Eagles will be led on offense by Nick Foles this week, with Carson Wentz sidelined with a back injury. Wentz has disappointed this season playing through injury and this offense as a whole ranks just 15th in first down rate, but Foles could still be a noticeable downgrade.

On the other side, not only are the Rams are a strong opponent, but they are in a great spot, with no upcoming distractions. Up next on their schedule is a trip to Arizona, where they are 11.5-point road favorites on the early line, and teams are 50-33 ATS since 2012 before being road favorites of 7 or more. On top of that, favorites of 7+ are 84-51 ATS over that same time period before being favorites of 7+ again, as superior teams tend to take care of business against inferior teams when they don’t have any upcoming distractions on their schedule. They’ll also benefit from being a west coast team in a night game against an east coast team, a spot in which teams cover at a 65% rate historically, due to differing internal time cycles.

We aren’t getting any line value with the Rams as 13-point favorites and Nick Foles is a high variance quarterback that could play well in a do or die spot for the Eagles, so I wouldn’t recommend betting this game, but I like the Rams’ chances of winning by at least two touchdowns. They have just 5 wins by more than 10 points this season, but they’ve also played a very tough schedule, playing a projected playoff team in 7 of 13 games and getting double digit wins in 5 of the other 7 games against opponents with a losing record like the Eagles. I expect them to get another one, but 13 points is too high to bet confidently.

Los Angeles Rams 31 Philadelphia Eagles 16

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -13

Confidence: Low