Los Angeles Rams at San Francisco 49ers: 2017 Week 3 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (1-1) at San Francisco 49ers (0-2)

This is one of the least enticing games of the week from both a watching and a betting standpoint. I typically don’t like betting on Thursday night games. They are more unpredictable than regular games because neither team is able to be at it’s best on a short week. When I do make a Thursday night bet, I typically bet on a superior home team against an inferior non-divisional opponent. That’s because it’s very tough for an inferior team to go on the road on a short week and play a superior team with which they are unfamiliar.

None of that applies here. These divisional rivals are very familiar with each other and the road team is the superior team. There aren’t that many teams that the Rams are better than, but the 49ers are one of them, as they have arguably the worst roster in football (I have them only ahead of the Jets). The Rams have to travel and start a young inexperienced quarterback on a short week though, so they’re not an enticing bet as 3 point favorites. This game is probably more of a toss up than this line suggests, so I’m taking the 49ers, but neither side is worth any sort of bet this week.

Los Angeles Rams 19 San Francisco 49ers 17

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +3

Confidence: None

Also, by request, I’m going to be posting lines I lock in early in the week during my Thursday Night writeups this season, so readers can lock them in before they move. These are not all my picks for the week, just picks where I think the line may move in an unfavorable direction (usually underdogs). The rest of the writeups will continue to be posted over the weekend as normal.

JAX +4 vs. BAL (I would take 3 or 3.5)

 

Washington Redskins at Los Angeles Rams: 2017 Week 2 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (0-1) at Los Angeles Rams (1-0)

The Rams had an impressive week 1 performance, dismantling the Indianapolis Colts in a 46-9 victory. They had a first down rate differential of +13.97%, 2nd best in the NFL last week, and scored 16 points just with their defense (two pick sixes and a safety). Now they get defensive tackle Aaron Donald back from his holdout, which should be a big boost to this defense, even if he’s rusty and on a pitch count in his first game back. As a result, some people are talking about the Rams as a surprise team this season and this line has moved to compensate, going from a pick ‘em on the early line last week to now -3 in favor of the Rams, the 2nd biggest line movement of the week.

I typically like to fade big line movements because they tend to be overreactions to a single game and this is no exception. As good as the Rams looked last week, they were facing an Indianapolis team that is arguably the worst in the NFL without all of the players they are missing, including quarterback Andrew Luck. On paper, they Rams still have one of the least talented teams in the league. That could change if Jared Goff continues to develop, Sammy Watkins continues to stay healthy, and this defense continues to significantly outperform their talented level under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. That’s certainly a possibility, but I am not sold on this team yet.

Even if I didn’t think the line movement was an overreaction, I would still disagree with this line, which suggests that these two teams are more or less even. When I looked at week 2’s early lines last week, Washington PK in Los Angeles was one that stood out to me even then. Now we’re getting a full field goal with the visitors. That doesn’t just give us line value with the Redskins, but it also puts the Rams in a tough spot, as favorites are 58-86 ATS since 2008 before Thursday Night Football. Coming off of a huge win, with another game in 4 games, the Rams could get caught by surprise a little here, which would really hurt them against a superior opponent.

Not only are the Rams a little overrated right now, but I think the Redskins are underrated too. The common assessment of the Redskins seems to be that they’re not as good as last season because they lost a pair of 1000+ yard receivers in free agency (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon), but they also added a 1000+ yard receiver (Terrelle Pryor), they have Jordan Reed and Josh Doctson healthy for now, and they could get a breakout year from slot receiver Jamison Crowder, so I don’t think this receiving corps is much worse than it was last season.

On the defensive side of the ball, they’re arguably better, with DJ Swearinger, Zach Brown, and Jonathan Allen added this off-season. They might not make the playoffs, but I don’t think they’re much worse than last season and they should be right in the mix for a playoff spot again. They lost week 1 by double digits at home, but they were playing an underrated Philadelphia team that could end up being one of the better teams in the league, so I don’t hold that against them as much as the general public might. The Redskins are a smart bet both against the spread and on the money line.

Washington Redskins 23 Los Angeles Rams 20 Upset Pick +120

Pick against the spread: Washington +3

Confidence: High

Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Rams: 2017 Week 1 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (0-0) at Los Angeles Rams (0-0)

I thought about taking the Rams as 3.5 point home underdogs in this game in early August because I was concerned about Andrew Luck’s early season availability and I am kicking myself that I didn’t, now that Luck has been ruled out for at least the first week of the season, as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery. Luck’s injury shifted this line in a big way, as the Rams are now favored by 4.5 points at home. That’s more points than they’re projected to be favored by all season, suggesting the oddsmakers see the Colts without Andrew Luck as being even worse than the 49ers, who are projected as 3.5 point underdogs in their week 17 trip to Los Angeles.

The Colts are certainly up there (or down there) with the worst teams in the league without Luck, not just because they have a weak supporting cast, but because the dropoff from Luck to journeyman backup Scott Tolzien is one of the biggest starter to backup quarterback dropoffs in the league. The Colts also aren’t just missing Luck, as they also start the season without center Ryan Kelly, top cornerback Vontae Davis, and safety/linebacker Clayton Geathers. However, the Rams have a huge absence that doesn’t seem to be getting enough attention, as defensive tackle Aaron Donald, arguably the best defensive player in the league, is still holding out for a better contract and will not play this week, significantly hurting this defense.

Even with a new offensive coaching staff, a new #1 wide receiver (Sammy Watkins), and a new left tackle (Andrew Whitworth), the Rams’ offense should still struggle this season, unless Jared Goff can take a huge leap forward from last season, so the Rams need Donald on that defensive line if they are going to be competitive this season. Maybe outside of the Jets, it’s hard to justify the Rams without Donald being favored by 4.5 points over anyone, especially considering about 30% of games are decided by 4 points or fewer. I wouldn’t be confident in Indianapolis at all, but they’re the better choice here in against the spread pick ‘em leagues.

Los Angeles Rams 17 Indianapolis Colts 13

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +4.5

Confidence: None

Bills Trades

Buffalo Bills trade WR Sammy Watkins and a 2018 6th round pick to the Los Angeles Rams for a 2018 2nd round pick and CB EJ Gaines

Buffalo Bills trade CB Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for WR Jordan Matthews and a 2018 3rd round pick

The Bills made a pair of big trades that don’t just impact their roster in a big way, but also the rosters of the Eagles and the Rams, who they traded with. The Eagles sent Sammy Watkins to the Rams and replaced him with Jordan Matthews, who they acquired from the Eagles in a trade that sent top cornerback Ronald Darby to Philadelphia. Darby will be replaced in Buffalo by EJ Gaines, who was somewhat of a throw-in in the Sammy Watkins deal.

The Bills downgraded both wide receiver and cornerback, but get an extra 2nd round pick and an extra 3rd round pick in next year’s draft, which combined is the equivalent of a mid-to-late first round pick on the trade value chart, depending on where the picks end up. It’s not a bad strategy for a team that was not expected to be a contender this season. In my season preview, I had the Bills winning 6 games. I may adjust that to 5 in the wake of these trades, but the picks they received probably make this worth it.

Their trade with the Rams was a smarter move than their trade with the Eagles. The 4th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Watkins is a big name receiver who still has a monstrous upside, ahead of only his age 24 season, but he’s coming off an injury plagued season and was heading into the final year of his rookie deal. If Watkins had a big season this year, the Bills still likely would not have been contenders and they would have had to either pay him a boatload to keep him next off-season or lose him for a 3rd round compensation pick in 2019. If he had a down year or got hurt again and had to settle for a one-year prove-it deal, the Bills would have been lucky to get a 4th round compensation pick for him in 2019, given that compensation picks are largely based on the size of the contract that the player signs with his new team.

Instead, the Bills swap a 6th round pick for a 2nd round pick and acquire cornerback EJ Gaines, who could be a starter in Buffalo now with Darby gone. Gaines was one of the worst starting cornerbacks in the league last year and missed all of 2015 with a foot injury, but was a pleasant surprise as a 6th round rookie in 2014 and has some bounce back potential now another year removed from that injury. He too is a free agent after the season, but, even if he has a strong bounce back season, he’ll cost significantly less to keep than Watkins would have if Watkins were to have a strong bounce back season.

From the Rams’ perspective, I do not like this trade at all. They needed a receiver like Watkins in a bad way, but a 2nd round pick is a lot to risk for an injury prone player going into the final year of his rookie contract and they are now thin at cornerback without Gaines. If Watkins gets hurt again or signs elsewhere next off-season, the Rams will have blown a valuable pick which could easily be in the top-40 if the Rams are as bad as expected. Prior to this trade, I had the Rams at 3-13 with one of the three worst records in football. Watkins may add a win or two, but he is unlikely to turn this into a playoff contender immediately, especially since he’ll have limited time to learn the playbook and get comfortable with his new teammates.

Best case scenario, Watkins plays well and the Rams keep him next off-season as a long-term building block, but he won’t come cheap. Next off-season is a strong off-season for free agent wide receivers anyway, so the Rams could have had their pick of guys like Alshon Jeffery, DeAndre Hopkins, Allen Robinson, Terrelle Pryor, and Jarvis Landry even without giving up a 2nd round pick. It’s not a terrible trade for the Rams just because of Watkins’ upside and their need for someone like him, but they are giving up a lot and this trade could easily prove to be a mistake.

Darby, meanwhile, is not as big of a name as Watkins, but losing him could hurt the Bills even more because he still has two years left on his rookie deal. A 2015 2nd round pick, Darby burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 6th in the NFL in pass deflections with 21 and finishing 4th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t nearly as good in his 2nd season in the league, but still finished around average on Pro Football Focus and has the upside to develop into a long-term #1 cornerback, still only going into his age 23 season. Gaines is an obvious downgrade. Matthews is also an obvious downgrade from Watkins, though he could be Buffalo’s best receiver this year, ahead of 2nd round rookie Zay Jones and veteran Anquan Boldin.

Philadelphia had to surrender a capable receiver and a relatively high pick (3rd round) to get Darby, but I think they’re the overall winner here. Matthews is going into the final year of his rookie deal and likely would not have been re-signed next off-season anyway, so the Eagles are really only trading away a 2018 3rd round pick and the 2019 compensation pick they would have gotten for Matthews (either 3rd or 4th round pick depending on his contract). Unlike the Rams and Bills, the Eagles figure to be in contention for at least the division this season, so it makes sense for them to trade away picks. I have them winning 11 games and this trade makes them even better.

Matthews was also not really needed at wide receiver with Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith coming in and 2015 1st round pick Nelson Agholor finally resembling an NFL receiver this off-season, while cornerback was a huge hole for an Eagles team that otherwise has one of the best rosters in the NFL. Darby becomes instantly their best cornerback by far and he has the upside to be one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL long-term. Unlike the other players on the move in these deals, he’s under team contract inexpensively for the next two seasons. If he develops, he’ll be expensive to keep, but the Eagles have two seasons until then.

Grade for Bills: B

Grade for Rams: C-

Grade for Eagles: A

Los Angeles Rams 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Rams finished the 2015 season at 7-9, but were worse than their record suggested. Five of their 7 wins came by 8 points or fewer, while just 3 of those losses did. Their only wins by more than 8 points came at home against the Browns and 49ers, arguably the two least talented teams in the league in 2015. The Rams finished the season 28th in first down rate differential, ahead of only the Dolphins, Saints, Browns, and 49ers. Their defense played well, finishing 5th in first down rate allowed, but their offense only picked up first downs at a 29.13% rate, dead last in the NFL.

It was clear they needed to upgrade their offense, especially the quarterback position, but because they won so many close games, they had just the 15th pick in the draft, not an ideal spot to find a franchise quarterback. To fix this problem, the Rams made an aggressive move up the draft board to the #1 overall pick, sending #15, #43, #45, #76, and a first and third rounder in 2017 for #1, #113, and #177 from the Titans, who did not need a quarterback and could afford to move down and stockpile picks.

It was a surprising move, as neither of the draft class’ top-2 quarterbacks, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, were the type of can’t miss quarterback prospects that teams are willing give up a king’s ransom to get, but the Rams apparently fell in love with Goff and decided they had to have him. Despite all they gave up to get him, Goff spent the entire off-season behind veteran Case Keenum and did not make his first start until the Rams’ 10th game of the season in week 11.

That’s despite the fact that Keenum hardly impressed in his 9 starts. The veteran journeyman completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. The Rams picked up first downs at a mere 30.25% rate in those 9 games, 2nd worst only to the Texans at that point in the season. Keenum finished the season 29th out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

It was confusing to many why they took so long to let Goff play, but the reason quickly became clear as soon as Goff took over as the starter. Goff didn’t look remotely ready for game action. As bad as their offense was with Keenum, they took a huge step backwards in Goff’s 7 starts, as they moved the chains at a ridiculously low 24.62% rate. Goff led the offense to just 88 first downs and 10 offensive touchdowns in 7 games and they finished the season dead last in first down rate for the 2nd straight season at 27.92%, significantly worse than their league worst rank from a season before. The gap between them and 31st ranked Houston (30.62%) was bigger than the gap between Houston and 24th ranked Minnesota.

Their offensive issues are not all Goff’s fault, as they really lack talent around the quarterback on offense, but there’s no denying that this offense got significantly worse when they switched from Keenum, a backup caliber talent, to Goff. Goff completed just 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and took 26 sacks in 7 games. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked quarterback behind only Blaine Gabbert. The Rams fired defensive minded head coach Jeff Fisher with 3 games left to go last season and then hired ex-Redskin offensive coordinator Sean McVay this off-season to replace him and hopefully inject some life into Goff’s career.

McVay worked alongside Jay Gruden on one of the best offenses in the league over the past couple of seasons and was instrumental in the development of Kirk Cousins. Goff is still only going into his age 23 season and you can’t call him a bust after just 1 season, but his career couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start and there are major concerns for his future. Given all they gave up for him, the Rams desperately need Goff to pan out. Their only other option at the quarterback position is Sean Mannion, a 2015 3rd round pick who has never made a start. If Goff continues to struggle, it’s conceivable that Mannion could see starts down the stretch, but Goff will be given every chance in 2017.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

After bringing in an offensive minded head coach, their first order of business this off-season was to upgrade Goff’s supporting cast. Without a first round pick due to the Goff trade, the Rams’ best option to immediately improve their offensive supporting cast this off-season was free agency. Fortunately, they had a good amount of cap space to use. Their biggest signing was Andrew Whitworth, who comes over from Cincinnati on a 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal and will immediately slot in at left tackle.

Whitworth is going into his age 36 season in 2017 and ordinarily it isn’t a good idea to give a player who is that old that much money, but Whitworth hasn’t shown any signs of age, finishing last season 2nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s also been a top-15 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 8 seasons and has made 126 of 128 starts over that time period. It’s possible his abilities will fall off a cliff soon, but the Rams can get out of his deal after 1 year and 12.5 million if they want.

He will replace Greg Robinson, who has been arguably the worst left tackle in the league over the past 3 seasons. The 2nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Robinson came into the league with a ton of upside, but finished 2nd worst, 5th worst, and 8th worst among offensive tackles in 3 seasons in the league (42 starts). The Rams moved him to right tackle this off-season, but ended up trading him to the Lions for a 2018 6th round pick in June when he struggled there and got benched for Jamon Brown. Robinson was one of the biggest busts in recent draft history.

Brown is currently penciled in as the starting right tackle with Robinson out of the picture, but Rob Havenstein has made 28 starts at right tackle over the past 2 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2015 and has played well, finishing 26th and 33rd respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The current plan seems to be to move Havenstein to right guard and play Brown at right tackle, but Brown spent the last 2 seasons at right guard, so they could easily flip them back at some point.

Brown, a 3rd round pick in 2015, has been significantly worse than Havenstein through 2 years in the league, finishing 70th out of 81 eligible guards as a rookie in 2015 and then 55th out of 72 eligible guards last season. He also only made 14 starts over those 2 seasons. Cody Wichmann, a 6th round pick from 2015, actually played the most snaps at right guard last season, finishing 51st out of 72 eligible guards on 594 snaps (11 starts). He also struggled on 424 snaps as a rookie. Regardless of who plays where, the Rams should have at least one hole on the right side of the offensive line.

The Rams will start a pair of veterans at left guard and center in Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan. Saffold was a rare bright spot on this offensive line last season, finishing 26th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts. He’s no guarantee to do that again though, as he’s finished below average on Pro Football Focus 4 times in 7 seasons in the league and has missed 29 games with injury over that time period. They will need him to stay healthy and play well again because they don’t have an insurance plan behind him on the depth chart.

Sullivan, meanwhile, comes over from Washington, where he played just 98 snaps as the backup center for Sean McVay’s Redskins in 2016. Sullivan was once one of the better centers in the league. From 2011-2014, he made 63 of 64 starts with the Vikings and finished in the top-12 among centers in all 4 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-3. However, he missed all of 2015 with a back injury and didn’t sign with the Redskins until week 3 last season, after being let go at final cuts by the Vikings. Going into his age 32 season, his best days are probably behind him, but he could prove to be a solid cheap signing by the Rams. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better than Tim Barnes, who finished 31st out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts in 2016. This offensive line as a whole is improved, but they still have some problems.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Rams’ other big off-season signing was wide receiver Robert Woods, who comes over the from Bills on a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal. He’s really just a replacement for Kenny Britt though, as Britt signed with the Browns on a 4-year, 32.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. He’s also a downgrade from Britt, as he finished 59th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus last season, while Britt finished 39th.

Woods was better than his 51/613/1 slash line suggests as he played on a run heavy offense and averaged a respectable 1.61 yards per route run, but he still was only a league average wide receiver. Last season was also the highest rated season of his career. Still only going into his age 25 season, he’s younger than Britt and could continue getting better, but he’s a solid #2 receiver at best and not the #1 receiver this offense needs.

The Rams also lost their 2nd leading receiver from 2016 in free agency, as Brian Quick (41/564/3) signed with the Redskins this off-season. The Rams replaced him by using a 3rd round pick on Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp, who figures to have an immediate role. Kupp was one of the pro readiest receivers in this draft, even if it could take him a little bit to transition from the FCS level, where set pretty much every receiving record.

However, he’ll be a 24-year-old rookie and doesn’t have a huge upside. He’s only 14 months younger than Woods, who is already entering his 5th season in the league. This was also a weak wide receiver class overall, so calling him one of the pro readiest receivers in the draft doesn’t say a ton. Having to rely on a 3rd round rookie as your #2 receiver is not a good situation.

Kupp will compete for playing time with Tavon Austin. Austin was the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but the 5-8 174 pounder hasn’t developed into anything more than a gadget player and return man in his career. He has finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league and the 509 receiving yards he had last season were the most he’s had in a single season in his career. He’s one of the fastest players in the league, but that hasn’t translated into him being a good wide receiver.

The Rams’ new coaching staff has talked him up as a deep threat this off-season, but that would be a huge shift in how he’s been used thus far in his career. His average catch has occurred just 3.62 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, as he hasn’t shown the ability to do much other than catch short screens and try to make guys miss in the open field. He’s not going to be Sean McVay’s new DeSean Jackson.

Austin has added 968 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground on 125 career carries and dominates as a return man, but isn’t the traditional receiver they need. Ideally, he’d be only their #3 receiver and a slot specialist because he doesn’t have the size to make catches on the outside. The 4-year, 42 million dollar extension they gave him last season looks like one of the biggest mistakes a team has made in recent years. That contract guaranteed him 28.5 million in new money and doesn’t have an out until after next season.

The Rams also got rid of tight end Lance Kendricks this off-season, as part of a complete overhaul of their receiving corps. Kendricks had a decent 50/499/2 slash line in 2016, but finished 54th out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 830 snaps, so he won’t be a big loss. Like Brian Quick, the Rams also replaced him with a rookie, using their 2nd round pick on South Alabama’s Gerald Everett.

Everett is an athletic freak with a huge upside and has been compared to Jordan Reed, who McVay had in Washington, but he could struggle as a rookie because he comes from a small school and is very raw as a route runner and a run blocker. He’ll compete for playing time with Tyler Higbee, a 2016 4th round pick who finished 58th out of 63 eligible tight ends on 402 snaps last season. Both should have roles in what is still a thin receiving corps. They need young players to step up in a hurry.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

Perhaps the most disappointing player in the league last season from a statistical standpoint was Todd Gurley. The 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Gurley burst onto the scene as a rookie by rushing for 1106 yards and 10 touchdowns on 229 carries (4.83 YPC), but managed just 885 yards and 6 touchdowns on 278 carries in 2016 (3.18 YPC), ruining many fantasy seasons. Gurley was definitely worse from 2015 to 2016, but he wasn’t as good as his numbers looked in 2015 or as bad as his numbers looked in 2016. He fell from 15th among running backs in 2015 on Pro Football Focus to 33rd, which is still about middle of the pack.

The big difference was in 2015 he busted 11 runs of 20+ yards on 229 carries (4.8%), but in 2016 he had just 2 on 278 carries (0.7%). In 2015, he had 38.7% of his yardage on those 11 carries, but managed just 46 total yards on his two 20-yard carries in 2016. In 2015, he only picked up 45 first downs on those 229 carries, a 19.7% rate. That rate isn’t much better than the 17.3% rate he picked them up at in 2017. He should have more long runs in 2017 and he still has obvious upside going into his age 23 season, but he’s unlikely to match his YPC from 2015, especially given how little talent there is on this offense.

The one area where Gurley actually did improve from 2015 to 2016 was in the passing game. After catching just 21 passes for 188 yards in 2015, he caught 43 passes for 327 yards in 2016. In 2015, he was replaced by Benny Cunningham in most obvious passing situations and played just 456 snaps in 13 games. In 2016, he played 748 snaps in 16 games, including 428 pass snaps. It’s unclear how much of a role in the passing game he will have in 2017.

In Washington, Sean McVay’s offense always used Chris Thompson in a pure passing down role and the Rams have talked up free agent acquisition Lance Dunbar as that type of player, but McVay also was dealing with lead backs like Alfred Morris and Rob Kelley, who are not useful in passing situations. Gurley is a much more well-rounded back and capable of playing every down, so they might not want to take him off the field for Dunbar regularly, especially since doing so would signal to the defense when they are going to pass and when they are going to run.

Dunbar has just 68 career catches in 54 games, but that’s because he spent most of his career as a 3rd or 4th running back. In 2015 with the Cowboys, he was their primary passing down back and caught 21 passes in 4 games before tearing his ACL. In 2016, he was phased out of the offense and had just 25 touches on 143 snaps. The Rams guaranteed him 1.375 million on a 1.5 million dollar deal this off-season, so it seems like they have a role in mind for him, but it’s unclear how much he’ll actually play. He has a career 4.49 YPC average, but is undersized at 5-8 195 and has just 94 career carries, so he isn’t much of a threat for carries, even if Gurley were to get hurt. Gurley’s primary backup for carries could be Malcolm Brown, a 2015 undrafted free agent with 56 yards on 22 career carries. They would be in serious trouble if Gurley were to get hurt because he’s their only offensive play maker.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Rams had one of the best defenses in the league in 2015, but fell to 16th in first down rate allowed in 2016. As a result of that and their horrendous offense, they finished dead last in first down rate differential at -7.63%%, a full point lower than Cleveland (-6.22%), and over 2 points lower than San Francisco (-5.08%). On the season, they allowed 80 more first downs and 21 more offensive touchdowns than they scored.

They won 4 games, but by a combined 18 points, while their 12 losses came by a combined 188 points, an average margin of defeat of 15.67. Their -170 point differential was just ahead of San Francisco (-171) and Cleveland (-188). The Browns and 49ers won a combined 3 games last season, but you could argue the Rams were worse than both of those teams, especially after Jared Goff took over as quarterback. They lost all 7 of his starts by an average of 19.4 points per game.

Given their issues on offense, their defense will have to bounce back in 2017 for this team to even be respectable. The problem is their decline from 2015 to 2016 was largely as a result of the loss of several starters last off-season, including talented defensive backs Rodney McLeod and Janoris Jenkins, who signed big contracts in free agency with the Eagles and Giants respectively. They still haven’t done anything to replace those guys and in fact they lost even more talent this off-season. Their talent level is nowhere near their 2015 level. The good news is they hired legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips this off-season, after the Broncos’ new coaching staff let him go. Phillips has always had a way of getting the most out of his talent. If this defense is improved in 2017, his leadership and scheme will likely be a big reason why. Phillips will convert this defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

Phillips will get to work with one incredibly talented defensive player in Aaron Donald, who will transition from defensive tackle to defensive end in this new defense. The 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald has quickly become one of the best players in the league and, for my money, the best player in the league. He’s finished #1 among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league and was their highest rated defensive player regardless of position last season.

JJ Watt has had better sack numbers, but Watt is going into his 7th season in the league and coming off of a back injury, while Donald is just entering his 4th season (his age 25 season) and hasn’t missed a single game with injury yet. Donald is also a better run stopper and plays a position where it is tougher to get sacks from, especially on a team that is consistently trailing and rarely plays with a lead.

Watt actually played the position that Donald will play this season when Phillips was the defensive coordinator in Houston. Donald could easily exceed his career high of 11 sacks this season at a new position, while still playing at a high level against the run. The Rams’ offense will limit sack opportunities for him, but he’s my early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. The combination of his talent and Phillips’ coaching and scheme could be deadly for the rest of the league.

In their 4-3 defense last year, Michael Brockers and Dominique Easley split snaps at defensive tackle next to Donald, with Brockers playing in base packages and Easley playing in sub packages. In their new 3-4, Brockers will stay as a base package nose tackle, while Easley will start at the other defensive end spot opposite Donald. Undersized at 6-2 285, Easley struggled against the run in a 4-3 and was only a part-time player as a result, but he could be an every down player in this new 3-4.

A 2014 1st round pick like Donald, Easley was selected 29th overall by the Patriots, but injuries limited him to just 545 snaps in 22 games in 2 seasons in New England and, even though he played well when healthy, the Patriots surprisingly cut him last off-season. The Patriots’ loss was the Rams’ gain, as he finished 15th among defensive tackles on 470 snaps in 2016 and played all 16 games. Now going into his age 25 season, he has breakout potential in this new 3-4 defense. He profiles similar to Malik Jackson, who had a lot of success as a defensive end in Phillips’ defense in Denver. The one big concern with Easley is he has major injury issues dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Florida, where he tore both of his ACLs.

Brockers is also a former first round pick, going 14th overall in 2012. The big 6-5 326 pounder has finished above average as a run stopper on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons in the league, including 3 straight seasons, but has never once finished above average as a pass rusher and has just 14.5 sacks in 5 seasons in the league. He finished last season 13th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but only played 419 snaps as a part-time player.

The Rams gave him a 3-year, 33.25 million extension last off-season ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal, but they’re probably regretting that now, given how one dimensional he is and given that he’s locked into a pure base package role in their new 3-4 defense. That deal guaranteed him 25.25 million in new money between his signing bonus and his 2017 and 2018 salaries. He’s the highest paid nose tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary. He’ll be a strong run stuffer for them, but isn’t worth what they’re paying him.

Tyrunn Walker will be their primary reserve on the line, after the Rams signed him as a free agent from the Lions this off-season. A 2012 undrafted free agent, Walker showed promise in the first action of his career in 2013 and 2014, finishing above average on 119 and 308 snaps respectively, but he hasn’t been able to translate that to a larger role. He struggled in 4 starts in 2015 before breaking his leg and missing the rest of the season and then struggled upon his return in 2016, flashing below average on 377 snaps in 15 games (8 starts). He isn’t bad depth though and this is overall a very strong defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Along with Phillips coming in, one thing that could be a big boost for this defense is if Robert Quinn stayed healthy, after he missed 7 games with injury last season. However, Quinn also missed 8 games the year before, so that’s far from a guarantee, and they finished last season with the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, so they can’t really count on being healthier overall. Injuries are a part of the game and the Rams struggled without really dealing with them (outside of Quinn) last season.

Quinn was a top-11 3-4 defensive end in 2013, and 2014, and 2015 before getting injured, so he has bounce back potential, still only going into his age 27 season, but he did not look like himself last season when on the field and has played in just 17 of his last 32 games. He’ll move from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker with Phillips coming in and play the old DeMarcus Ware role. He’d likely struggle if ever asked to cover, but Phillips will put him in spots where he can succeed and likely won’t see his passing down role changed much from what he’s used to.

He will start opposite Connor Barwin, who was signed to 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, replacing William Hayes, who finished last season 10th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but wasn’t a good fit for a 3-4 defense. Barwin was cut by the Eagles this off-season, but that was because he was owed 7.75 million and wasn’t a good fit for their 4-3 defense. He finished last season 6th worst among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but finished above average in 3 of the previous 5 seasons in a 3-4 defense and has experience with Wade Phillips from his early years in Houston.

The biggest concern with Barwin is he’s going into his age 31 season and seems to have lost a step over the past couple seasons, regardless of scheme. He’s an underwhelming starter, but their only other option is Ethan Westbrooks, a 2014 undrafted free agent who has finished below average in all 3 seasons in the league. Westbrooks played 533 snaps at 4-3 defensive end  in a rotational role last season with Quinn hurt and figures to be their primary reserve 3-4 outside linebacker in 2017.

Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree remain as every down linebackers. Ogletree will remain inside with the scheme switch, while Barron will move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. Barron, the 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, was a bust at safety for the first 3 years of his career in Tampa Bay, but was traded to the Rams for a late round pick during the 2014 season and made the transition to linebacker the following off-season. That move has paid off in a big way, as he’s finished 20th and 32nd among off-ball linebackers over the past 2 seasons, while making 28 straight starts. Still in his prime, only going into his age 28 season, Barron should continue playing at a high level in 2017.

Ogletree started his career at outside linebacker, but broke his leg 4 games into the 2015 season, which allowed Barron to take over, and then, after Barron broke out, Ogletree moved inside for the 2016 season. Ogletree returned to play all 16 games in 2016 and the 2013 1st round pick played all 32 games in his first 2 seasons in the league before the injury. The problem is he’s finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league.

Ogletree isn’t a bad player, but he hasn’t lived up to his first round draft slot or his immense athletic upside. Owed 8.369 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, the Rams have a big decision to make on him in the next year. He’s still only going into his age 26 season and has a high ceiling, but hasn’t shown it on the field. The Rams have good upside in the linebacking corps, but also considerable downside.

Grade: B-

Secondary

As mentioned, the Rams lost safety Rodney McLeod and cornerback Janoris Jenkins last off-season. This off-season, they lost their other safety TJ McDonald, who was about a league average starter last season. To replace him, LaMarcus Joyner will move from slot cornerback to safety. A 2014 2nd round pick, Joyner is coming off the best season of his career, finishing 30th among cornerbacks on 699  snaps, after barely playing as a rookie and struggling on 730 snaps in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. Joyner has played cornerback, safety, and even some linebacker thus far in his career, but figures to be an every down safety in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. A solid season could earn him a decent sized contract on the open market next off-season.

Joyner will start opposite Mo Alexander, who was a pleasant surprise in his first full season as a starter in 2016. After struggling mightily in the first 5 starts of his career in 2015, finishing 2nd worst among safeties on Pro Football Focus, the 2014 4th round pick shot up to 17th in 2016 in 14 starts. He’s a complete one-year wonder and could easily regress this season, but another strong season would also get him a good sized contract on the open market next off-season. The Rams will have decisions to make in the next year to avoid losing more talent at the safety position.

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson will also be a free agent next off-season, although that’s been the case for each of the previous two seasons as well, as he’s been franchise tagged in back-to-back off-seasons. A 2012 3rd round pick, Johnson had a breakout year in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and was franchise tagged instead of fellow cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Rams understandably didn’t want to commit to a long-term deal with him until he proved himself again, which he did in 2016, when he finished 25th among cornerbacks, but now they don’t want to give him a long-term deal until he’s proven himself in Wade Phillips’ defense.

The Rams will pay him 30.7 million fully guaranteed between 2016 and 2017 on the two franchise tags, which is probably more than he’s worth, and franchise tagging him for a 3rd time next off-season would cost them at least 24.11 million, making that not a realistic option. If he has another strong season, the Rams would likely be forced to either let him walk or pay him at least what Desmond Trufant got on his extension this off-season (68.75 million over 5 years). Johnson is a good player, but he’s not a top level corner and might not be worth that kind of dough.

With Joyner moving to safety, incumbent #2 cornerback EJ Gaines will compete for playing time with a pair of free agent acquisitions, Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman. Gaines burst onto the scene as a mere 6th round rookie in 2014, finishing 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts, but his career has since been derailed by injuries. He missed all of 2015 with a foot injury and then was limited to 10 starts by more leg injuries in 2016. He also did not remotely resemble his old self in 2016, finishing 106th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. He’s entering a make or break final year of his rookie deal and could easily lose his starting job this off-season.

Webster only has 2 career starts in 4 seasons in the league, but got 7.75 million on a 2-year deal and is familiar with Wade Phillips’ scheme from Denver, so he’s much more likely to earn a role than Robey-Coleman, a slot specialist who signed for near the minimum this off-season. Webster never played much in Denver and didn’t show much when he did play, but he was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and Phillips seems to like him. Robey-Coleman, meanwhile, is a capable slot cornerback, but isn’t a realistic option outside because of his lack of size at 5-8 165. This should be an underwhelming secondary once again.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Rams do have a few things going for them. They have one of the youngest rosters in football and could easily be better this season if some of that young talent develops. They also should be much better coached with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips coming in. And they adding a much needed blindside protector in free agency when they signed Andrew Whitworth from the Bengals.

However, they were one of the worst teams in the league last season, arguably the worst once Goff took over, despite barely having any injuries. They also lost more talent on defense this off-season, with talented starters like TJ McDonald and William Hayes going elsewhere. On paper, this is one of the least talented rosters in the league and, while they could exceed their talent level because of good coaching, especially on defense with Phillips, it’s hard to see them winning more than 5 or so games. 

Final update: The Rams acquired Sammy Watkins in a trade with the Bills, but paid a steep price, sending a 2nd round pick and cornerback EJ Gaines. Watkins upgrades this receiving corps, but is a major injury risk and the loss of Gaines thins their depth at cornerback. The Rams also lost defensive end Dominique Easley, a projected starter, to a torn ACL. In addition, their other projected starting defensive end Aaron Donald is holding out for a new contract and may miss the beginning of the season. Donald is one of the best defensive players in the league, so any time he misses is a huge loss for this team. Even when he returns, he might not be in perfect shape and could be less than 100%. This looks like a long season for the Rams, who are likely giving up a top-40 pick in the Watkins trade.

Prediction: 3-13, 3rd in NFC West

Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams: 2016 Week 17 NFL Pick

Arizona Cardinals (6-8-1) at Los Angeles Rams (4-11)

The Cardinals pulled the upset victory in Seattle last week, a shock to many people, considering they were 8 point underdogs. However, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, given that the Cardinals have played significantly better than their record this season. They’ve had 5 close losses (or ties) that would have been wins if not for special teams screw ups. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points.

They’ve actually won the first down rate battle in 13 of 15 games and rank 3rd in first down rate differential on the season. On the flip side, the lowly Rams rank 31st in first down rate differential. They pulled the upset in Arizona against the Cardinals earlier this year, but that was because the Cardinals lost the turnover battle by 4, which tends to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. Even then, it took a late long punt return touchdown to set up the winning score for the Rams. The Cardinals actually won the first down battle by a wide margin, 26 to 12. Since then, the Rams have lost 10 of 11 games and have benched veteran starting quarterback Case Keenum for rookie Jared Goff, who has looked lost in limited action. Prior to last week’s close home loss to the lowly 49ers, the Rams had lost 4 straight games by 16 points or more. The Cardinals should be able to hand them another big loss this week. As long as this line is less than a touchdown, Arizona is worth a bet.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Los Angeles Rams 13

Pick against the spread: Arizona -6.5

Confidence: Medium

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams: 2016 Week 16 NFL Pick

San Francisco 49ers (1-13) at Los Angeles Rams (4-10)

These two teams met back in week 1 in what ended up being an absolute rout by the hometown San Francisco 49ers. Not only did the 49ers shutout the Rams, but they won the first down battle 28 to 10 and moved the chains at a 41.56% rate, as opposed to 16.67% for the Rams, a differential of 24.89% that is still one of the biggest single game first down rate differentials of the season. Since then though, the 49ers have lost 13 straight by an average of 15.23 points. The Rams haven’t been much better, entering this game at 4-10, with their 4 victories coming by a combined 18 points and their 10 losses coming by a combined 149 points, giving them a -131 point differential on the season, which is only ahead of the Browns and 49ers.

The 49ers actually still rank higher than the Rams in first down rate, though they’ve been ravaged by injuries this season and are missing, among others, cornerback Jimmie Ward, defensive end Arik Armstead, middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman, and safety Eric Reid for the season. All 4 of those players played in the week 1 matchup and those were arguably their best defensive players before going down. Now they’re working with a skeleton crew on defense and things are not much better on offense, where left tackle Joe Staley, easily their best player on either side of the ball, will miss his 3rd straight game with a hamstring injury. The Rams have had some injuries this season, most notably to defensive end Robert Quinn, their top pass rusher who is out for the season, but they definitely have an advantage in terms of injury situations.

Despite that, we’re still getting line value with the 49ers as 5 point underdogs in Los Angeles. The Rams are probably a little bit better of a team, but this line should be much closer to 3 in favor of the host, as these two teams are more or less even. That being said, there’s not enough here for me to be confident in the 49ers, especially since both teams are in a pretty good spot. The Rams have lost back-to-back games by 21+ and teams are 44-29 ATS in that spot since 2002, as teams tend to be overlooked, embarrassed, and undervalued in that spot. However, they are not undervalued as 5 point home favorites. They probably won’t be overlooked by a team that has lost 13 straight. And, they probably aren’t entering this game any more embarrassed than the 49ers are. On the flip side, for the 49ers, road underdogs on a 7+ game losing streak are 56-32 ATS since 1989, as teams also tend to be overlooked, embarrassed, and undervalued in that spot.

It also helps the 49ers that they’re in their 2nd of two road games. Teams are 142-108 ATS as road underdogs off a road loss since 2008, including 113-74 ATS when it’s their 2nd of 2 road games. This is because teams tend to do better in their 2nd straight road game than their first one, but lines don’t really adjust for this. Teams are 239-254 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.94 points per game, as opposed to 341-476 straight up in their 1st of one road game since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 2.96 points per game. However, with a tough home game against the Seahawks on deck, the 49ers are in a tough spot, as teams tend to struggle before tough home games, going 18-40 ATS since 2012 before being 7+ point home underdogs, which the 49ers almost definitely will be next week. I’m taking the 49ers because I’m expecting a field goal game, but I couldn’t be confident betting any money on them.

Los Angeles Rams 16 San Francisco 49ers 13

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +5

Confidence: Low

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]

[switch_ad_hub]