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Why starting Josh Reynolds in 2020 could be an issue for the Rams

Even though Sean McVay seems content with going back to him every time a receiver becomes unavailable

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Warren Sharp writes about the NFL and he has a website, writers, and an annual season preview, the 2020 version of which you can purchase here.

Within that, you can see team breakdowns such as advanced offensive and defensive metrics (the LA Rams were sixth in red zone offense but 29th in red zone defense last season), strength of schedule, betting lines, usage rate by player and situation (Malcolm Brown was the main back when the Rams led by 9+), target distribution by player and distance, personnel groupings, and plenty more.

When it comes to the outlook for the 2020 Rams based on the tendencies of 2017-2019, I want to focus on what the preview pointed out regarding personnel groupings, as this was the writer’s main focus in the section for Los Angeles.

I think it will be easier if I break it down in bulletpoints while adding in some of my own research. I will hold back in revealing everything from the season preview, but trust me there’s plenty in there besides these notes.

  • In 2017, Sean McVay used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) 81-percent of the time. That was up from 66-percent under Jeff Fisher in 2016 and well above the NFL average of 59-percent.
  • With Robert Woods through 11 games in 2017, the Rams were in 11 personnel 74-percent of the time, 85-percent of passing plays. Without Woods for the next three weeks, 11 personnel went up to 92-percent of total plays and 96-percent of passing plays.
  • Woods had been Jared Goff’s top target up to then, catching 47 of 70 throws for 703 yards, 10 yards per target and 15 yards per reception.
  • Instead of using 11 personnel less, he used Josh Reynolds more. Reynolds had played in only 84 snaps and been targeted three times prior to Week 12, at which point he had 62 snaps and was targeted six times. Reynolds caught four passes for 37 yards and a touchdown that week against the New Orleans Saints, a win. The next week he was target six times again, but caught only two of those for six yards. The next week he caught two of two for 17 yards.
  • Goff’s Y/A dropped from 8.2 with Woods to 7.7 in the three games without him.

Sharp then examines how McVay responded in 2018, his most successful season to date.

  • Los Angeles was in 11 personnel on 97-percent of their offensive plays in the first four games of 2018.
  • Again a receiver was hurt, this time Cooper Kupp. After playing in all but a handful of offensive snaps, Kupp could only manage 55-percent and 38-percent of snaps in the next two games, both road wins. This didn’t change McVay’s usage of 11 personnel at all, as he maintained around 97-percent, even when Kupp was finally rested. Kupp returned to play in all 60 snaps against the New Orleans Saints in week 9, but was placed on IR two weeks later. The usage of personnel did not change.
  • Reynolds played in nine snaps in the first four weeks. Then when Kupp was injured, 55-percent of the snaps in Week 5. Then 62-percent. Then 84-percent. Then 88-percent. Without Woods, Reynolds was a starter. Without Kupp, Reynolds was a starter. An ineffective one.
  • Goff posted a 10.3 Y/A, 59-percent success rate, and .39 EPA (Estimated Points Added) per attempt with a fully-healthy offense in the first quarter of the season. Without Kupp from Weeks 11-15 and with the same basic strategy, Goff posted 6.3 Y/A, 49-percent success, and -.07 EPA/attempt. The passing game, even for a team on its way to the Super Bowl, was technically a net negative over that quarter of the season. This includes scoring 54 points against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Then 2019 did see McVay play with new packages on offense.

  • The Rams were in 11 personnel on an NFL-high 85-percent of snaps in the first quarter of last season.
  • From Weeks 5-7, LA was in 11 on 66-percent of snaps, in 12 on 24-percent of snaps, and in 13 on eight-percent. “13 personnel” would be one running back, three tight ends, and one receiver. “12” would be one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers.
  • The Rams were much more successful out of 11 during this time span.
  • They ran the ball a lot more from 12 and 13, but those runs were on average much less successful than running from 11.
  • When Brandin Cooks was hurt this time, McVay again responded with more 11 and more Reynolds. They went into 11 on 98-percent of snaps when Cooks was injured vs the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8. They were in 11 on 94-percent in Week 10.
  • Without Cooks, Goff was bad.
  • Without Cooks and Woods in Week 11, they were in 12 on 67-percent of their snaps, a 17-7 win over the Chicago Bears.
  • When Woods and Cooks returned in Week 12 against the Baltimore Ravens, McVay went 11 on 98-percent of the snaps, losing 45-6.
  • Without Gerald Everett for the final five games, McVay used 11 personnel 64-percent of the time and 12 personnel 34-percent. Instead of playing his receivers more, he played tight end Johnny Mundt more, going from 0 snaps against the Ravens to 23, 49, 11, 31, and 34 snaps in each of the final games, respectively.
  • When Reynolds has started since 2017, the Rams offense has dipped by one full yard per pass attempt, four-percent in success rate, Goff’s passer rating drops from 96.8 to 83.1, and the EPA per attempt drops to nearly 0. Essentially with Reynolds, the passing “attack” has been anything but.
  • Goff wasn’t sacked in any of his 80 dropbacks last season with two tight ends.

Trying to predict what Sean McVay will do next — with Kupp and Woods but for the first time not starting a season with a known third threat at receiver — would be ignoring the fact that he seems to do the opposite of the expectation in most of these cases. Is it as simple as predicting him to do the opposite of the expectation, which may be more 12 personnel?

Does the draft pick of Brycen Hopkins in the fourth indicate more 12 and 13 personnel? Does taking Cam Akers and Van Jefferson in the second indicate going back to 11 on 95-percent of the snaps? Can Jared Goff be expected to produce an above average EPA per play without a healthy Cooks, Woods, and a third receiver? Even if that receiver is Josh Reynolds?

These are not questions that can be worked out in the preseason, only scrimmages, and those full pad practices can’t even begin until August 17, about three weeks before the first regular season game. It may be that we see a lot of teams do dramatic personnel changes after the first quarter of the season anyway because there is no preseason. Or maybe not because we know we won’t be able to predict much of anything.

Except that whatever McVay does, unless he comes to camp as a completely different player, maybe it shouldn’t include more snaps for Reynolds.