Over at ESPN, Bill Barnwell has handed out grades to every NFC West team for their offseason and no team gets a higher grade in the division than the Los Angeles Rams who get a B-.
The San Francisco 49ers also come in with a B- while the Arizona Cardinals pull a C+ and the Seattle Seahawks fare the worst with a flat C.
It’s the analysis that stands out though.
What Went Right
They made drastic changes to their coaching staff. Jeff Fisher was technically fired before the season ended, but I'm going to lump him in as part of the wholesale changes the Rams made. Teams often (at least anecdotally) try to hire the polar opposite of the head coach they've just fired, so it's no surprise the Rams followed Fisher, a defensive-minded retread with a long history of middling teams, with Sean McVay, a 31-year-old offensive whiz kid taking his first head-coaching job at any level. McVay would be only the third-oldest player on this team, and he's the youngest head coach in NFL history.
Hiring McVay is a high-risk, high-reward move. Think about the Broncos hiring Josh McDaniels, then 32, and how that revitalized the organization before things fell apart. It's a welcome risk, given the franchise's mind-numbing mediocrity over the past half-decade. It's also worth noting that McVay (and not Kyle Shanahan) was the one who actually presided over Kirk Cousins' sudden leap from turnover-prone problem to franchise quarterback in Washington, which could come in handy, given the organization's investment in 2016 first overall pick Jared Goff.
The Rams also deserve credit for bringing in a veteran to work with McVay, hiring former Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Phillips leaves Denver having led the Broncos to the league's best DVOA each of the past two seasons. Phillips' defenses have finished in the top six in DVOA four out of his past five seasons in the league and in the top 10 seven out of the past nine tries. The Rams fell from seventh to 15th in DVOA last year during Gregg Williams' final year with the team. Phillips should be able to take a defense that often seemed to underachieve and quickly mold it into a dominant unit.
ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez listed McVay as the Rams’ most important acquisition this offseason, and I happen to agree with he and Barnwell. The Rams needed to move on from the Fisher era, and in doing they’ve opened the door for something much more exciting and, let us hope, more rewarding.
They signed Andrew Whitworth. The Rams kept Goff on the bench during the first half of his rookie season, but when they unleashed him for seven starts, the results were ... awful. Pro-Football-Reference.com adjusts quarterback statistics for the era in which they played. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, 53 first-round picks have thrown 200 passes or more during their rookie seasons. Here's how Goff ranks out of those 53 players in several era-adjusted statistics:
No quarterback since the merger has posted a worse adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A+) in a 200-attempt season than Goff's mark of 47 last year. Much of it can be blamed on Goff being sacked on an unreal 11.3 percent of his dropbacks last year. Only Russell Wilson, who was playing behind a Swiss cheese line, was pressured more frequently. Getting to play Goff and sack him three times probably tipped the sack title Vic Beasley Jr.'s way.
Part of this is unquestionably Goff's fault, given that Case Keenum was sacked on only 6.7 percent of his dropbacks over nine starts. It's also true that the Rams have had a porous offensive line for a while now, having struck out on both high draft picks (Jason Smith, Greg Robinson) and free agents (Jason Brown, Scott Wells, Jake Long). Goff might end up as a failure, but he's guaranteed to disappoint if the Rams don't build any infrastructure to support their second-year quarterback. You can't evaluate a quarterback who expects to run for his life before every snap.
Andrew Whitworth is a bit of an incongruous signing for a team far from contention, given that he's 35 years old. He also has been one of the best left tackles in football over the past few years, and the only exceptions during that stretch came when he kicked inside to play guard. Whitworth's three-year, $33.8 million deal can realistically be a one-year, $12.5 million pact, and while there are no guarantees the Rams will somehow manage to get the most out of this offensive lineman, Whitworth is the best chance they have at protecting Goff's blind side.
The only thing I’d add is that while Whitworth could be a fine addition, though Barnwell’s disclaimer of “no guarantees” is worth reiterating for people who think Whitworth is a perfect solution for the line, I think it’s equally valuable that Greg Robinson is NOT the starting left tackle anymore. Addition by subtraction, or somesuch.
What Went Wrong
They didn't do anything else with the offensive line. The only other addition the Rams made up front was center John Sullivan, who missed all of the 2015 season and took only 98 offensive snaps with McVay in Washington last year. They're going to shift everyone else around and hope the line sticks, with Rodger Saffold in at left guard, Rob Havenstein moving inside from right tackle to right guard, and the wildly frustrating Robinson shifting from left tackle to right tackle.
Adding Whitworth might not have been enough. The Rams did make a useful buy-low move in signing Connor Barwin after the Eagles released him, but they chose to spend big in adding Bills wideout Robert Woods on a five-year, $34 million deal with $15 million in guarantees. Woods is regarded as one of the best blocking receivers in football, but blocking receivers don't get paid premiums in free agency, and Woods simply hasn't been very productive as a wideout. Woods could still improve, given that he's just 25, but this is money that would have been better served going to offensive line help.
Fair criticism, but as I’ve noted the Rams simply had too much to do in one offseason personnel-wise. Weapons on offense were needed. Secondary talent was needed. Pass rush talent was needed. And yes, O-line upgrades were needed. It’s simply to hard to get all of that done at the starting lineup level in a single offseason.
So while it’s a criticism worth voicing, I’d voice louder criticism at the sheer scope of personnel moves the Rams had to make this year overall. That scope has nothing to do with McVay and everything to do with his predecessor and GM Les Snead’s navigation of the roster over the last five years.
They didn't lock up Trumaine Johnson. The Rams took some flak last offseason for choosing to retain Johnson, their former third-round pick, as opposed to Janoris Jenkins, who had the best year of his career in New York. While there was nothing wrong with choosing Johnson, the Rams' plan went sideways when they were unable to re-sign him and were stuck franchising him for a second consecutive season. Johnson will have the second-largest cap hit of any cornerback in the league behind Josh Norman, and his $16.7 million salary only serves to increase the pressure on the Rams.
It's hard to imagine the Rams justifying a $24 million franchise tag for Johnson next year, so they need to make their move. Johnson reportedly refused to sign a long-term contract with the Saints this offseason, which prevented the Rams from seriously considering a trade that would have sent him to New Orleans for a second-round pick. Adam Schefter's report suggested Johnson wanted to stick around in Los Angeles for the long term, so it should be possible to make a deal, but the contract hasn't come together yet. Johnson's leverage and inflation will allow him to top the $40 million Jenkins got over the first three years of his deal with the Giants.
“The Rams' plan went sideways” is a very gentle way of putting it, especially given that the Jackrabbit was named the 54th best player in the entire NFL this week.
Tru is the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. That he negated the trade tells you he wants to be a Ram. That the team has now for two seasons been unable and/or unwilling to sign him to a long-term deal is indicative of a front office that doesn’t know what it wants. That’s not good. At all.
Sign Johnson. The Rams are already talking with All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who will probably become the highest-paid defensive player in football the moment he signs an extension to stay in Los Angeles, but there's no rush in locking him up. Donald is still two years away from free agency, and even if the Rams need to franchise him in 2019, they would owe him something in the range of $24.3 million over the next three seasons. Contrast that with Kawann Short's new deal, which will pay him $52 million over the next three years. Unless the Rams get a stratospheric discount, it behooves them to wait at least one year before re-signing Donald.
I mean, I guess. Or don’t? The public line is that the Rams are waiting to see if Johnson fits with Wade Phillips’ defense before signing him long-term. Should we assume the same for Donald? Should we assume the same for the defensive rookies? It’s a pretty ridiculous line, but here we are.
I’ll take it. Especially given that Barnwell doesn’t even mention the Rams’ haul from the 2017 NFL Draft. Should one or two gems surface from this crop to stand out from whatever capable depth we’re able to develop, I’d expect the grade to be higher in retrospect a couple of years down the line.
McVay’s employment is not going to be defined by the 2017 season. A B- in Year 1 is a fine grade to take home on the report card. If his abilities as a head coach are strong enough and the Rams can bring on similar grades over the next two offseasons, we should be able to enjoy much better returns on investment than anything we’ve seen from the Rams for the last decade and a half.