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There is one preseason stat for Rams that is actually worrisome

If the Rams don’t clean up their punt coverage, L.A.’s defense will be even worse off in 2023

Los Angeles Chargers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

There’s a scene in the movie Hook in which the lost boys gather around the dinner table to eat, but instead of real food that they don’t have, they eat whatever they can imagine is there and pretend like it’s the genuine article. That’s sort of like the experience of reading preseason stats: They look real, but they’ll leave you feeling empty in the end.

However, the Los Angeles Rams do have at least one preseason stat that warrants a closer look and a genuine bit of concern: Over 13 punts by rookie Ethan Evans, the coverage team has allowed 181 return yards and a touchdown.

The preseason is a great opportunity to learn your mistakes and clean them up, but considering that we expect these players now to be the ones covering punts in the regular season, we have to assume that Evans’ net average of 36.5 yards per punt is a legitimate area of concern.

Don’t mistake that as an indictment of Ethan Evans’ leg, the rookie can boom the ball as far as anyone.

But the VAST separation in Ethan Evans’ average punt yards to his average net yards could indicate that L.A.’s coverage team is not prepared to catch up to the balls that he sends downfield.

There is a significant difference between the 70-80 punts that could happen in the regular season and a sample size of 13 in the preseason, but 13 punts is also 13 punts. It’s not two punts. It’s the beginning of a sample size and what Sean McVay and new special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn need to figure out is how to make sure its not a trend. Because 36.5 net yards per punt is not just bad.

It’s a fireable offense.

Of the three punters who averaged less than 38 net yards per punt in 2022, none of them played a full season and two of them split the year with the Patriots: Bengals veteran Kevin Huber was let go midseason and retired this offseason. Huber averaged 37.4 net yards/punt and 43.2 yards/punt. Replacement Drue Chrisman was better, averaging 42.7 ny/p and 47.8 y/p.

New England signed Jake Bailey to a four-year contract in 2022, but placed him on IR after he was averaging 35.3 ny/p, citing a “back problem”, and then the Patriots released him this past March. Replacement Michael Palardy wasn’t better, averaging 36.3 ny/p. New England spent a sixth round pick on punter Bryce Baringer this year.

So take the three punters who had at least 30 punts in 2022 and less than 38 net yards per punt, two of them changed teams (Palardy is not likely to beat Tress Way in Washington, Jake Bailey is on the Dolphins) and one retired. The next lowest, Pat O’Donnell of the Packers, is in a competition for his job and could be falling behind.

That doesn’t mean that Ethan Evans is in danger of losing his job if the Rams have a poor coverage team. His 53.5 yards per punt in the preseason is longer than any mark in the NFL last season.

What it does mean is that Evans, L.A.’s punt coverage team, and Blackburn all need to get on the same page to figure out how he can put the ball as far downfield as possible without the end result being 36 net yards per punt. Like putting the lamp from A Christmas Story in the garage, that’s a waste of a great leg.

Try as McVay, Matthew Stafford, and Cooper Kupp will to not rank 27th in first downs again this season, the truth is that the Rams may need more help from special teams than usual. Given that L.A. also has the youngest and most inexperienced defense in the NFL, it would be hugely beneficial to pin the opposing offenses as far back as possible and inside the 20.

However, last year Riley Dixon averaged a more-than-respectable 48.4 yards per punt, the 11th-best mark in the NFL, but only 40.6 net yards per punt, which ranked 21st. Worst of all though, Dixon only had 19 punts inside the 20 and his 26.8% average in that stat ranked 33rd out of 34 punters who played at least half the season. Only Palardy was worse.

In a limited preseason sample size, Evans has put 4 of 13 (30.7%) punts inside the 20 and two touchbacks. Opposing teams have returned 8 of those 13 punts and gained 181 yards (22.6 yards per punt returned) and scored a touchdown.

For a reference points, teams have punted 7 times against the Rams in the preseason, and only averaged 42 yards per punt, over 11 yards less than Evans. However, they have a net of 41.3 yards per punt, almost 5 yards better than L.A.’s. The Rams have three punt returns and gained five yards.

This is an area that the L.A. Rams can’t afford to be mediocre or bad at again. It’s great that the Rams may have found the filet mignon of punters, but if they can’t figure out how to harness his talents and catch up to his punts then the only thing they’ll be eating is more air.