Today is going to be a bit uglier.
Now don’t think these are reasons to think the Rams are going to have a losing season or anything. Back in April when I looked at the schedule, I had the Rams going 12-4 this year. So it’s not as if these concerns doom the Rams to failure. But no team is perfect. Every team has issues.
So here are the five reasons to be concerned that the Rams will have a drop off this year and my level of concern for each:
5.) An actual Super Bowl hangover
Yes, I’ve talked about how little this phrase means. And I’ve talked about how the chances of anything supporting the vague idea of what it represents are unlikely.
What if the Rams come into 2019 less motivated? What if players were fueled by their early out in the playoffs two years ago and that fuel burned out in the run to the Super Bowl? What if the New England Patriots really did help show the rest of the league how to deal with Rams Head Coach Sean McVay’s offense?
Concern level: 1/10
4.) Personnel flops
The Rams went into the 2018 NFL Draft without a pick in the first 86 selections and a very strong roster already in place. That offered them the chance to draft almost exclusively for the future.
That just means we’ve seen very little from every player added to the roster since then.
So whether it’s OL Joseph Noteboom, C Brian Allen or ILB Micah Kiser, we haven’t seen them play much football on their side of the ball as they look set to assume starting roles. Kiser didn’t take a single defensive snap last season in fact. Sebastian Joseph-Day, who sounds like he might be angling to start at the nose, wasn’t active for a single game.
In free agency, the Rams brought in two aged veterans in LB Clay Matthews and S Eric Weddle. Matthews is coming off of his worst season in his 10-year career. Weddle was outright released mid-contract by the Baltimore Ravens.
The 2019 NFL Draft saw GM Les Snead open the Rams’ affairs with three trades back before adding depth in the secondary, the offensive line and a running back to handcuff RB Todd Gurley following the drama with his knee.
There is a chance that some/many/all of these moves fail. That the second-year players pushed into starting roles struggle perhaps mightily. That the late-career veterans validate their previous teams’ decision to move on from them. That the rookies aren’t ready for NFL action.
Concern level: 3.5/10
3.) Offensive line regression
The 2018 Rams offensive line was, to memory, the best Rams OL I’ve ever seen. Football Outsiders ranked them 1st in run blocking and 6th in pass blocking.
A regression is likely given that two members of that line, LG Rodger Saffold III and C John Sullivan, are no longer on the team. That their replacements are so inexperienced (Noteboom played just 78 snaps on the O-line out of the offense’s 1,100 snaps while Allen played 36) likely fuel that regression.
While a regression in run blocking would obviously pose difficulties for Gurley and rookie RB2 Darrell Henderson, it’s a regression in pass blocking that would be worse. QB Jared Goff was decidedly worse when pressured last year to a significant degree worse than his peers. Should he fail to improve in this area combined with a drop off in pass blocking, we’re talking a severe decline in offensive performance.
Concern level: 6/10
The Rams have been lucky.
Yes, the training staff absolutely deserves credit for keeping the Rams as healthy as they’ve been since relocating to LA. After being the healthiest team in the NFL per FO in 2016 and 2017, they were fourth-healthiest in 2018. That’s just a ridiculously fortunate run.
Rams fans were provided a glimpse into the abyss last year.
CB Aqib Talib missed half of the season as CB Marcus Peters played injured. Those two injuries combined dragged the Rams’ pass coverage abilities down significantly.
WR Cooper Kupp tore his ACL midseason; the impact of his absence down the stretch was hard to overstate.
EDGE Dominique Easley was lost after a quarter of a season promoting EGDE Matt Longacre into starting duties who performed so poorly the Rams were motivated to conduct a trade to replace him as a starter.
And RB Malcolm Brown’s injury in Week 13 ended his season and left the Rams without a viable backup; over the next two weeks, Gurley took 23 of the 27 running back carries before aggravating his knee.
Injuries are a staple of NFL seasons. The Rams have been outright lucky to have suffered from so few in the last three years.
They’ll need more luck to avoid a precipitous regression to the mean here.
Concern level: 8/10
1.) Lack of pressure from the edge
This is my biggest concern heading into 2019.
The Rams have DL Aaron Donald. He is, to be blunt, fantastic. He led the Rams, and the NFL, with 20.5 sacks. From the inside. Fantastic.
The Rams’ second leading sack totaler? DL Ndamukong Suh who isn’t on the team anymore. Behind Suh? ILB Cory Littleton.
The Rams’ edge rushers were incredibly unproductive last year. Longacre played himself off the active roster. Ebukam never offered much consistent threat. And Fowler was a plus in run defense but a minus in the pass rush.
The only personnel change here was to add Matthews who, at 33-years old, is out to prove his 2018 season was an anomaly and not a harbinger of the end of his career.
Should teams direct more resources to stopping Donald, there is a legitimate chance the Rams could struggle to effectively rush the passer. As good as the secondary should be, that’s a worrisome sign.
The Rams allowed 20 or more points 10 times in last year’s regular season. They allowed 30 or more points six times. They allowed 51 points on that memorable Monday Night against the Kansas City Chiefs as QB Pat Mahomes threw for six touchdowns.
The lack of a consistent pass rush could be a severe handicap for the Rams’ defense in 2019.