Rare is the offense that feels it can “plug-and-play” just any quarterback, but at the end of last season we got a glimpse of what the Sean McVay Rams could look like with a quarterback other than Jared Goff.
When John Wolford, a former undrafted free agent out of Purdue who is arguably as “replacement level” as you can get, stepped in to start for the Rams against the Cardinals in Week 17, there was less concern than you might normally have in that situation and it wasn’t because Goff was struggling or because we knew anything about Wolford.
It was because the Rams had as much continuity around the quarterback position as any team in the NFL could hope for.
When McVay joined the Rams in 2017, he helped — to some degree — bring in Andrew Whitworth, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Gerald Everett, Josh Reynolds, and Austin Blythe, while also stabilizing and increasing the value of Tyler Higbee and Rob Havenstein. Though Whitworth was injured, Wolford was able to step into an offense that still had Woods, Kupp, Everett, Reynolds, Blythe, Higbee, and Havenstein almost four years later.
As Matthew Stafford integrates himself into McVay’s offense five years after LA made him the youngest head coach in history, many of those players remain and will be starting around Stafford in 2021.
And we do know something about Stafford, including that he’s probably a lot better than Wolford. No offense, Stafford is a lot better than most quarterbacks.
The unparalleled continuity around him next season, including the fact that it will be McVay’s fifth year of running the show and getting players and coaches to buy into the program, could help Stafford make an easier and smoother transition to a new team than most any other quarterback will ever get to enjoy.
No other team in the NFL is returning a starting wide receiver duo, a starting tackle duo, and a starting tight end next season that was also the same starting five from 2017. The same starting five players who have also been to a Super Bowl and played in six playoff games under McVay.
Can they now get to three more playoff games and another Super Bowl with Stafford filling in the gap between them?
The longest-tenured starting wide receiver duo
When McVay joined the Rams in 2017, the team signed Robert Woods to a free agent contract that seemed to be oversized in comparison to his production with the Bills. They also traded with Buffalo for Sammy Watkins, perhaps the biggest star LA added that year, but it was Woods and rookie third round pick Cooper Kupp who proved to be McVay’s long-term answer at wide receiver.
Kupp and Woods are entering their fifth season as starters under McVay and no other team in the NFL can really claim the same.
The Buccaneers added Chris Godwin in 2017 to pair with Mike Evans, but DeSean Jackson served as Tampa’s number two that season. And in fact, Adam Humphries was even more of the number two in 2018 than Godwin.
The Chargers added Mike Williams in 2017, but he only caught 11 passes for 95 yards as a rookie.
Maybe the closest competition would be Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara becoming a powerhouse duo in 2017, but of course Kamara is primarily a running back.
WR Target Leaders since 2019:— Moody (@EricNMoody) June 14, 2021
DeAndre Hopkins 310
Allen Robinson 304
Keenan Allen 297
Davante Adams 276
Robert Woods 270
Stefon Diggs 261
Cooper Kupp 259
Tyler Boyd 257
D.J. Moore 253
Amari Cooper 249 pic.twitter.com/PgIn0NeQ5G
Over the last four years, Woods is 10th in targets (483) and Kupp is 20th (407), and that’s only a fraction of the total number of McVay routes that they’ve run since 2017. Woods-Kupp, Thomas-Kamara, and Travis Kelce-Tyreek Hill are the only teammates in the top-20 of that list who’ve played together in each of the last four seasons.
Tyler Higbee enters year five under Sean McVay
The Rams keep spending fourth round picks on tight ends, and this year we’ve already heard more about Jacob Harris through OTAs than we did about Brycen Hopkins during his entire rookie campaign. However, McVay continues to be effusive in praise that Higbee is a “complete tight end” and there’s at least one thing that is true about him: He’s completely available.
Dating back to his first year under McVay, Higbee has played in 62 of a possible 64 games. The only other tight end in the NFL to play in 62 games and to have at least 100 targets is Kelce. The only other tight end to even play in more than 55 games and to get at least 100 targets in that time is Kyle Rudolph.
My ideal scenario for Higbee is that he is more consistent — his stats tend to get inflated by a few monster performances per season — but he’s got the availability and he’s actually still a more productive player than many of his peers at the position.
With Rudolph leaving the Vikings, Jonnu Smith leaving the Titans, and Zach Ertz potentially leaving the Eagles soon, Higbee will become one of the longest-tenured starting tight ends in the NFL in 2021.
The bookend tackles enter their fifth season with Sean McVay
Let’s say you could use magic to crystalize Andrew Whitworth’s age at 35 (turning 36) when he signed with the Rams in 2017, and he remained that same age today, Whitworth would still be tied as the oldest offensive tackle in the NFL. Seattle’s Duane Brown is 35, turning 36 in August.
Without magic (but still kind of with magic), Whitworth is turning 40 in December.
Look around the NFL rosters, like I just have, and you’ll find that many starting tackles were drafted in the last three years, whereas many others just plugged in veterans because of free agency, trade, or retirement. There are only a few exceptions, including the Rams.
The Saints return Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk for a fifth season together as the tackles, there is perhaps no greater duo at the position in the NFL. It will be interesting to see how that offensive line is rated without Drew Brees and his ability to make everybody look better.
The Cowboys return Tyron Smith and La’El Collins at the tackle spots, though last season the duo played a combined two games. So we have to strike 2020 from the record.
Whitworth missed half of 2020, Rob Havenstein missed half of 2019, but otherwise they’ve been a reliable, durable, fairly consistent pairing that few teams have enjoyed for a run as long as this one.
No offensive tackle was better as a run blocker than the Rams’ Rob Havenstein in 2018! pic.twitter.com/4iopK6Stcu— PFF (@PFF) June 6, 2019
So when Stafford goes under center next season, he should have a starting tackle duo that dates back to 2017, a starting wide receiver duo that dates back to 2017, a tight end who started his Rams career in 2016, a left guard going into his third year as a starter, a center who is going into his third season with McVay, albeit at a new position, and more current-team experience among the offensive line depth than most teams.
Perhaps the closest thing to the “new guys” would be Cam Akers, maybe the most exciting weapon on offense entering 2021, and DeSean Jackson, who is anything but “new” to the NFL.
And, of course, Matthew Stafford.