Although we've got one more preseason game to go, it's season preview time.
Yesterday, we got the SB Nation NFL season preview with tons of info to parse through. Today, though, we talked with Vince Verhei from Football Outsiders who have their 2015 FO Almanac available for purchase. It's a quick read at just 554 pages...but seriously, it'll get you up to speed across the entire league with every team and every player.
So to get a sense of how they're evaluating the St. Louis Rams going into 2015, I ran a quick Q&A across Vince's desk.
The Rams jump from a 7.1-win projection to 8.8 this year. What’s the major factor there: jettisoning players who failed for one reason or another, adding new talents or the expected improvement from the young cast who was there in 2014?
All of the above? Nick Foles is still largely an unknown commodity, but he has a higher upside than Sam Bradford. They have plenty of good options at running back, though we're skeptical of their offensive line and receivers. Their defense should be among the league's best. It also helps that we're forecasting pretty big collapses for division rivals in Arizona and San Francisco, which would make the Rams' schedule much easier.
In Table 1 in the Rams’ section, you looked at the more inexperienced teams of the last 25 years. What separates the successful inexperiences lines from the unsuccessful ones? Is it simply having a rookie who has yet to start their career and takes off in year one? What would be a fair projection for the Rams’ 2015 using those historical precedents?
When you have an inexperienced offensive line, the difference between success and failure usually comes down to your quarterback. The table you're referring to lists the 29 teams since 1989 whose average starter on the offensive line entered training camp with fewer than 20 career starts in the NFL. Five of those teams finished in the top 10 of our offensive rankings; those five teams were quarterbacked by Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, and Russell Wilson. That gives you an idea of how good Nick Foles will have to be to overcome his line and lead the Rams to a great offense this season. Now, this isn't the end of the world. On average, those 29 teams finished 19th in our offensive rankings, so for the most part they weren't terrible, just below average. And the Rams should contend for the playoffs with a below-average offense, if their defense is as good as we think it's going to be.
Between losing Brian Quick in their seventh game and Stedman Bailey’s early suspension, the Rams didn’t get a ton of time to work with their full WR corps. How do you see that group turning out in 2015 assuming they stay healthy? Does the supposed allegiance to the run cannibalize some of the potential in the passing game?
From a fantasy standpoint, every time Todd Gurley carries the ball it takes away an opportunity for Quick, Bailey and company to catch passes, so yes, a commitment to the running game will limit their production. Now, you can still be a very effective passing team even if you don't pass the ball very often. The model for that would be the Seahawks, who have finished among the top ten passing offenses in our rankings each of the past three seasons, even though they have the fewest pass plays in the league every year. The Rams don't need to worry about total catches or total passing yards, but they do need to worry about making the defense pay for stuffing the box with the occasional big play down the field; they need to worry about converting the third-and-medium throws that should be plentiful with an effective running game; and they need to convert in the red zone, either on the ground or in the air. And it goes without saying that they need to avoid sacks and interceptions.
Is there any excuse for this defense to not be a top of the league unit? Does Janoris Jenkins’ dedication to jumping routes, which results in the occasional touchdown scored but the more frequent touchdown allowed, give an out to opposing teams?
Keeping in mind that defenses are less consistent and harder to predict than offenses, we're projecting Seattle to have the best defense this year, followed by the Jets, Broncos, and then the Rams fourth. Cornerback is the clear weakness for St. Louis, especially with the loss of E.J. Gaines. Gaines was clearly St. Louis' top corner last year, and one of the best rookie cornerbacks we've ever measured. The options without him are bleak. Janoris Jenkins, quite frankly, is a terrible starting NFL corner. We track cornerbacks by two metrics, success rate (how often the corner was thrown at but forced an incompletion or short catch) and yards per pass when thrown at (self-explanatory), both of which we adjust for the caliber of receiver the cornerback was covering. It's harder to cover Calvin Johnson than Cecil Shorts, and we account for that. In three seasons, Jenkins has never ranked higher than 55th among cornerbacks in success rate, and never higher than 33rd in yards per pass. Last year he was 66th and 77th in those categories. Trumaine Johnson has hardly been any better -- in his only qualifying season, he ranked 66th in success rate and 34th in yards per pass. The Rams are good-to-great everywhere else on defense, but this looks like a team that will force a lot of third-and-10s -- and then give up conversions anyway.
Jeff Fisher Ball has finally been constructed and is ready to deploy. Can it work in 2015? What’s the more important aspect: offensive line play, consistency on defense to give the offense more and better opportunities or coaching? We know the Rams play physical, aggressive football which leads to penalties...lots of penalties...can a conservative offensive strategy and a Gregg Williams defense coexist in a successful way?
Sorry to sound like a broken record, but the biggest question facing the Rams is what they will get out of Nick Foles, and it's almost impossible to predict what they'll get out of Nick Foles. I wouldn't be surprised if he was an MVP candidate this year, but I wouldn't be surprised if he were benched for Sean Mannion in December, either. And assuming the talent is there, there's no reason those two philosophies shouldn't work well together. Don't worry about penalties. There's almost no correlation between committing lots of penalties and winning or losing football games. Seattle leads the league in penalties every year and they seem to do OK. And the two penalties that do correlate most strongly with winning and losing are offensive holding and false starts, and neither of those is the result of aggressive play.
Thanks to Vince for the time.
To purchase the FO Almanac, head here.