The writing had been on the wall for months and sure enough the Los Angeles Rams lost quite a few starters during the 2020 offseason. And even after being able to retain potential losses like Michael Brockers and Austin Blythe, the Rams had to make more difficult decisions than expected by releasing Todd Gurley and trading Brandin Cooks with little to negative cap savings for either move.
That was in addition to losing a leader in the middle of the defense, their top edge rusher, starting nickel, and long-time placekicker.
No less than six key Rams from the 2019 season are now key players for other teams, including two on the Falcons, two in the NFC East and two in the other conference. There’s less information than most years coming out of camp but I wanted to check in on the progress, development, team fit, and health of those former LA starters.
Todd Gurley, Falcons
The offseason talk around Gurley has been about as expected, highlighting that he’s “healthy” and that the Falcons are excited to have one of the NFL’s best running backs of the last half-decade when he can do everything he wants to be able to do. The question we won’t get answered in camp is “What can Todd Gurley do?”
He had a scheduled day off on Tuesday and Atlanta could limit him as much as possible in the hopes of his knee holding up well until Week 1, at which point they probably keep him on a snap count even though the Falcons have no other notable running backs on the roster. Not notable yet, at least.
Gurley back on practice field today. So is Alex Mack. pic.twitter.com/vMIdp6AGmX— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) August 19, 2020
Dante Fowler, Falcons
Gurley’s presence in Atlanta reunites him with the state of Georgia, while Fowler signing with the Falcons reunites him with former college coach Dan Quinn. And prior to 2019, the last time Fowler had posted more than 10 tackles for a loss or more than eight sacks was as a senior at the University of Florida prior to being the number three pick in the draft. Then he struggled for a few years in Jacksonville before settling into a groove last season with the Rams, totaling 16 TFL and 11.5 sacks.
Early in camp, Fowler talked about the “bumps in the road” with the Jaguars but that he feels all that is behind him now, in large thanks to being around Rams teammates Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Eric Weddle. The Falcons hope so after signing him to a three-year, $48 million deal to replace Vic Beasley on a defensive line that includes Pro Bowl defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, 2017 first round pick Takkarist McKinley, and 2020 second round defensive tackle Marlon Davidson.
Dante Fowler Jr. on his mindset going into the season pic.twitter.com/OWueEQsett— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) August 4, 2020
His new teammates are on board:
“He brings a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm,” Deion Jones said of his new teammate. “I love his dog mentality.”
Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and safety Ricardo Allen – two of Atlanta’s best players on defense – have been impressed with Fowler’s approach.
“Being a teammate with him has been awesome and I look forward to him adding to our defense,” Jarrett said. “I know he’ll be able to do a great job for us and I’m ready to go wreck it up with him.”
Allen also noted the way he’s seen Fowler interact with his coaches speaks to his professionalism. “To be able to see someone listen and say, ‘Yes sir,’ after he talks to every coach and try to do the things he may not be comfortable with, I can play with someone like that,” Allen said.
Atlanta has struggled to find a consistent edge rusher. Back in 2014, they had 22 sacks as a team — leader Kroy Biermann was the only player above 2.5 sacks and he only had 4.5 — so they drafted Beasley. Then in 2015, Beasley led the team ... with four sacks. Beasley then led the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016, but no one else on the team even had five sacks. Then Beasley disappeared and in 2017 they were led by 29-year-old Adrian Clayborn at 9.5 sacks — but six of those came in one game. They drafted McKinley that year and he’s been mostly a non-factor as a pass rusher with the team declining his fifth year option for 2021.
The Falcons had just 28 sacks last season and are hoping for Fowler to be the key not only for himself, but for McKinley, whose early-career “bumps in the road” should sound familiar to him.
Brandin Cooks, Texans
Bill O’Brien got roasted for his DeAndre Hopkins trade but if the reaction to that deal pans out — sending a second round pick to the Rams for Cooks and a fourth rounder — then Deshaun Watson should be just fine. Cooks missed zero games and posted four-straight 1,000-yard seasons with three different teams from 2015-2018. In 2019 he still showed up 14 times to play, but the results were disappointing for Cooks and everyone else on the Rams offense.
In a vacuum, Cooks’ stats aren’t totally out of whack though.
His 13.9 yards per reception was low, but he averaged 13.5 YPC in 2015 and had a great year. His 58.3-percent catch rate was low, but he had a 57-percent rate in 2017 and had a great year. His 8.1 yards per target was well below his career average of 9.3, but even two or three plays in the season could’ve made the difference between that and the 8.8 YPT he had in 2015. If Cooks is healthy enough to play, then rebounding isn’t hard to believe for a player turning 27 next month.
Is he healthy enough to play? There are no reported setbacks but we won’t see it until we see it during the regular season. Cooks is comfortable with moving to a new team again though.
“It’s been a blessing for me,” Cooks said. “One of the things that I reflect and look back on when I have time is like, ‘I’ve been blessed with special teams, special quarterbacks and great coaches.’ But, at the same time, they have the blessing of playing with me as well.
“So when it comes to the success that I’ve had throughout the league since I entered, things I can’t control, I keep out of my hands and I just continue to focus on the grind and being the best teammate and best player that I can possibly be.”
Cooks goes to a team that has won the division in each of the last two years but failed to breakthrough in the playoffs. He joins a receiver group that has Will Fuller, who has a true “oft injured” tag, missing 20 games in the last three seasons; Kenny Stills, who played in more than 50-percent of the snaps only 10 times in 2019; and Randall Cobb, who had 828 yards with the Cowboys last season.
Deshaun Watson on favorite play now without DeAndre Hopkins: "Go routes to 15 (Will Fuller) go routes to 12 (Kenny Stills), go routes to 13 (Brandin Cooks) .. spreading the ball around, spread the wealth.'— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) August 14, 2020
Four games into the Rams 2019 schedule, Cooks had 19 receptions for 296 yards, putting him on pace for a normal Brandin Cooks type season. It wasn’t that long ago. Houston has the quarterback in place and opportunities for him to be a threat with yet another new team.
Cory Littleton, Raiders
If there was an area of focus for Las Vegas in the offseason, it was restocking at wide receiver (again) and overhauling the linebackers. For the latter, they signed Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski and Jon Gruden that may be the most notable upgrade on the team between last season and now.
Even when including the transition to Henry Ruggs from a guy who intentionally froze his foot to get released by the Raiders.
Veteran safety Jeff Heath has been impressed by Littleton’s speed and agility.
“I think the first thing that stands out is his athleticism,” Heath said Sunday. “He moves like a [defensive back] but he’s in a linebacker’s body. He’s very fast and very fluid. This league is all about matchups now and offenses will have so many different guys at every position that can win down the field. Quick, agile, fast, so you have to have guys on defense to match up with those type of players. The days of the 265-pound linebacker doesn’t leave the hashes, that’s tough in today’s game.”
And while most of the focus on Las Vegas has been early impressive play by rookie receivers Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, the standout performance of undrafted free agent linebacker Javin White, and the “will he or won’t he” progress of Derek Carr, Littleton’s been doing his job well so far according to his coaches and Jon Gruden knows how important learning their defense will be for them.
“He can cover ground in a very short amount of time,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “He’s picking up the run fits in our defense, which is a little bit different structurally than where he came from. He’s done a really good job for us in everything we’re doing; both in base and the sub defense.”
“We think he can do it all,” Gruden said. “He’s been a three-down linebacker on a good team, a Super Bowl team. He’s got sideline-to-sideline ability. He’s got cover ability. He’s what we’re looking for. We just have to put it all together, put some time on task, teach him our defense and get him comfortable like he was in L.A.”
“To me, they’ve made a lot of great strides in the right direction, especially since Jon Gruden got there. And just to be a part of that, I believe we have a chance to do something special.” - Cory Littleton on signing with @Raiders. My story: https://t.co/9PpM6TXld8— Vincent Bonsignore (@VinnyBonsignore) May 17, 2020
Nickell Robey-Coleman, Eagles
Undrafted out of USC in 2013, Robey-Coleman is going into his eighth NFL season and he joined his third team when he signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia.
“The Eagles kind of came out of nowhere,” Robey-Coleman said Monday. “I had a couple of teams that (were) looking at me, evaluating me and we (were) getting down to some decisions. That’s when the Philadelphia Eagles gave us a phone call and expressed how much they liked my style of play.”
The Eagles were motivated to make Robey-Coleman their starting nickel corner, but he may also be helped by the fact that they were even more motivated to bring Darius Slay to Philadelphia. Robey-Coleman doesn’t have the pressure of “fixing” a pass defense that has been slipping in the two years since winning the Super Bowl and he can instead be part of a rebuilding plan to the secondary as a whole.
Robey-Coleman also noted that he’d be excited to play some man coverage for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz this year if that’s what the Eagles need.
“That’s definitely an easier transition,” Robey-Coleman said Monday during a video news conference. “That’s up my alley. I love man-to-man. I love getting in people’s face, putting hands on [them].
“That’s definitely going to be one of the [hallmarks] of this defense, is getting in people’s face and actually covering them and letting the D-line do what they do best, and that’s getting after the quarterback.”
And he likes being a part of a veteran presence on that part of the field.
“Me, Slay, Rod, Mills, guys that have been places and deep into the playoffs and won Super Bowls – we know how to adjust to things like this. We’re not lost in the sauce like we forgot how to play football.”
First team Eagles DBs.— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) August 17, 2020
Darius Slay, Avonte Maddox on the outside, Nickell Robey Coleman in the slot https://t.co/UOHIVs2dvG
Greg Zuerlein, Cowboys
The Cowboys had kicker Kai Forbath on the roster until two weeks ago but there’s not going to be any confusion at the position anyway: Dallas signed Zuerlein to a three-year deal and he’s their kicker. It’s hard to “evaluate” how the camp for a kicker is going and all I can say is that he’s making his kicks in practice.
Greg Zuerlein got his first opportunity of training camp on Monday. The Cowboys went through field goal drills for the first time during these open practices, and Zuerlein connected on all six of his kicks from approximately 28, 31, 33, 38, 40 and 34 yards.
The Rams are in an unusual position of having a kicking competition with no exhibition games to test these guys out with, instead needing to make their decision based on practice kicks. Even a meaningless preseason game would likely have more pressure on a kicker to test his meddle, but Sean McVay won’t get that luxury this year. It also doesn’t mean that some veterans won’t have bad seasons, as they often do.
The Cowboys know better what they have in Zuerlein and yet there will be some very good kickers this season who aren’t known at all right now.