The NFL season is more than 16 games. It’s more than a 53-man roster. The slog that begins in the tail end of winter that leads through the spring of renewal through the hot summer of preparation into the regular season schedule is a collection of thousands upon thousands upon thousands upon thousands of infinitesimally small moments and decisions and collisions of fate and will and skill and memory and instruction that make up the sport we love.
It is also May 31. If you’re reading this, you know that. Even in not so many words, you know the NFL season is a culmination of forces internal and external that define the process. It’s relocation and training camp and Eric Dickerson and Case Keenum and Jared Goff and #FireFisher and 4-12 and the Coliseum and Rampage and tailgating and sadness. And that’s just one team.
So today, ESPN has their 99 people who will make up the moments and the decisions and all that other stuff that will comprise the 2017 season. It’s not an order of lists, but a collection of categories of players and coaches and everyone else who will make this whatever it will be.
And the Los Angeles Rams are involved throughout.
The second section is “culture changers,” and while the Rams have a new head coach in Sean McVay overseeing that culture change, ESPN picked someone else on staff to represent the change in course:
5. Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator, Los Angeles Rams. He is 39 years older than Sean McVay, the head coach who just hired him, but Phillips' track record as a high-impact coordinator is unquestioned. Aaron Donald, Trumaine Johnson & Co. should be better just for Phillips' presence and take a lot of pressure off young Jared Goff and the offense.
It probably would have been fairer to just lump in McVay with Phillips here and stick a line in at the end about McVay needing to remake the NFL’s worst offense toward whatever his overall vision is. It’s still accurate re: Wade, his track record and the roster he’s been handed. Until McVay can get the offense turned around, it’s going to be incumbent on the defense to put a lid on opponents to win a significant number of games.
It’s worth noting that at #6 comes Cleveland Browns DC Gregg Williams. Just like Phillips and the Rams, the Browns are looking at the Rams’ former DC to come in and help spearhead a culture change. If nothing else, there’s bound to be plenty of spearing.
The next section is “players in a contract year,” and there are two of note for Rams fans. Down at #12 is Minnesota Vikings QB Sam Bradford, the #1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and the former franchise QB for the Rams. I’ll leave that at that.
But maybe one worth keeping tabs on that will no doubt have a ripple effect throughout the league come season’s end is one spot prior at #11: Washington Team of Football Players QB Kirk Cousins. McVay helped Cousins carve out an NFL career as his former OC. The coordinator he replaced, Kyle Shanahan, is now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Given Cousins’ difficulty in getting a long-term contract worked out in D.C., you could make a decent wager that Cousins is likelier to land in the NFC West than in the NFC East in a year. Where will likely depend on numerous factors in the 2017 season.
At #18 under “stars who need some help” is perhaps the Ram who needs a bounceback more than any other:
18. Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams. Gurley's 1.59 yards before first contact in 2016 ranked 41st in the NFL. He had no room to run. The Rams hope the installation of a zone scheme under Sean McVay and the additions of veteran offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and John Sullivan will help.
Jeff Fisher can be your scapegoat all the way until September 10. But when we kick off for Week 1? Yeah, that aint gonna work. Whether it’s Gurley or Goff or WR Tavon Austin or anyone else we want to use Fisher as a blanket excuse for, you get three and a half months to milk that. If Gurley’s 2017 season looks anything like his last 24 games in the NFL during which he’s averaging less than 60 yards per game? There’s going to be a hell of a lot less finger pointing at anyone else for his statistical troubles.
The offensive MVP race doesn’t feature any Rams (nor should it), but the defensive MVP race leads off with one:
27. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams. Only nine players have more than Donald's 28 sacks the past three seasons, and all nine of them play on the edge. So do the eight players who follow Donald on that list. No one else dominates from the interior of the defensive line the way Donald does right now.
While Donald remains a conspicuous absentee during OTAs, there should be no questioning the level of his play. Simply put, he’s one of the most dominant players in the NFL. Period. I’ve got no quips with him leading off their cluster of MVP candidates on the defensive side.
Perhaps most interesting among them? They’re all defensive linemen save for Denver Broncos OLB Von Miller. No inside linebackers or 4-3 OLBs or any members of the secondary. Not sure if that’s a message on the current generation of cornerbacks and safeties in the NFL or if it’s one on the value of those two positions in this era, but it’s a pretty damn obvious message nonetheless.
The off-field game changers is probably the most important group with the opportunity to have the most profound longest lasting impact on the league and the sport as a whole if not modern American entertainment in general as it shapes the world’s most dominant economy. So let’s skip it!
“Immediate-impact signings?” No Rams. “What now for the reigning champs?” Screw those guys. “Next wave of QB stars?” Come on...don’t do this to yourself. Just be glad that there are no Rams in the next section, “hot-seat watch.” The Rams are too young to feature anyone crucial in “how much longer will they play?” The Rams were too healthy in 2016 to feature anyone crucial in “injuries to keep an eye on”, though you could make a case for OLB Robert Quinn having deserved to be in there. Were the Rams coming off of a better year or more popular, he’d likely have been here. And no, there are no Rams in “lightning rods”, everyone’s favorite section for the hottest of hot takes.
So from Donald at 27, the next Ram is all the way down at #76 in “What's in store in Year 2?“ as maybe the most important Ram on the roster heading into Week 1:
76. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams. A new coaching staff is in place that had nothing to do with drafting Goff No. 1 overall in 2016. They're stuck with him for at least a couple of years, so we'll see how Sean McVay & Co. do developing a guy they didn't pick. His future and theirs depend on it.
I’d say Goff’s future will determine the Rams’ future, though not necessarily McVay’s. The Rams’ new head coach would be unwise to tie his own future to the current starting QB. His comments yesterday suggest he is wise, indeed. As for Goff...the pressure is on. We all know it. Goff knows it. Let’s see how the season goes. I don’t think it’s fair to condemn him yet unlike say MMQB’s Peter King. Until we get a decent sample size for Goff in the post-Fisher era, the conjecture likely lacks impact. But once we do? Just like Gurley et al, Fisherball can no longer absorb any of their struggles.
The list cycles through fantasy impacts, coaches of note and rookies on both sides of the ball, none of which are the Rams’ strong suit (you could make a case for McVay, but as the youngest head coach in history in Year 1, there’s a stronger case for his inclusion on this list in a year or two).
The Rams nearly close out the entire shebang in the last group, “underrated additions” in what could be the most important lowkey addition for the franchise in a long, long time:
98. Andrew Whitworth, OT, Los Angeles Rams. The Rams lured the veteran left tackle from Cincinnati by guaranteeing him $15 million over the next two years. He and veteran center John Sullivan are being asked to stabilize the line in front of young QB Jared Goff and young RB Todd Gurley.
The Rams put up the NFL’s worst offense in 2016 behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. To fix it, they drafted...well, they drafted nobody. That leaves Whitworth leading the charge to improve the line through hard work and coaching and internal development. The mix of linemen back from 2016 currently hold three spots on the line in OL Rodger Saffold, OL Rob Havenstein and OL Jamon Brown...who has already taken over the right tackle nod from OL Greg Robinson. Meanwhile, your starting center is John Sullivan who in the last years has all of one start.
It’s hard to understate how consequential Whitworth’s play will be. He’s as fair of a candidate to close out the group of the Rams’ entries as anyone.
Who else would you have included? Does Donald’s fellow OTA absentee CB Trumaine Johnson merit inclusion? What about any of the rookies from the Rams’ 2017 NFL Draft class? What about Owner Stan Kroenke who is funding the construction of the Rams’ new home in Inglewood that has already been delayed by a year, altering the near-future timelines for the Rams, the Los Angeles Chargers, the USC Trojans, the UCLA Bruins, and Super Bowls LV and LVI? And was excluding McVay at the expense of Phillips fair for year 1?
What’s your feeling on the Rams who will impact the 2017 season in Los Angeles and beyond?