In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC West, continuing with the Los Angeles Rams today.
Recap of 2015: 2015 was supposed to be the year the Rams finally broke through in the tough NFC West and made the playoffs. They had the potential of one of the better defenses in the league on paper led by a young and extremely talented defensive line. They also added stud rookie running back Todd Gurley in the first round of the draft. The Rams had finally ditched former number one overall pick Sam Bradford after years of injuries and inconsistent play. The Rams new savior at quarterback was Nick Foles fresh off two good statistical seasons and a 14-4 record as a starter with the Eagles. The Foles era started off with a bang after Saint Nick hit tight end Lance Kendricks for a touchdown with 53 seconds left in regulation to force overtime against Seattle. The Rams would go on to win in overtime 34-31 giving Rams fans legitimate optimism for the first time since the Bush administration. However, that optimism was short lived, outside of a three touchdown performance against Arizona in Week 4, Foles was a bad player and the Rams were quickly back to the drawing board at quarterback. Head coach Jeff Fisher also became a running joke among NFL fans and writers, “If you want to go .500 or worse, hire Jeff Fisher”. In four seasons under Fisher, the Rams have won 7, 6, 7 and 7 games respectively. There was really no light at the end of the tunnel for Rams fans once it was announced Fisher would return for the 2016 season and to top it all off, the team left St. Louis for a return to Los Angeles. The Rams’ record in their final season in St. Louis was a very fitting 7-9. Their first season in St. Louis they went 7-9 and they finished a season with exactly 7 wins five times in their 21 seasons in the Show Me State.
Significant Additions: DT Dominique Easley, DE Quinton Coples, CB Coty Sensabaugh
Significant Subtractions: S Rodney McLeod, DT Nick Fairley, CB Janoris Jenkins, TE Jared Cook, DE Chris Long, MLB James Laurinaitis, QB Nick Foles
Potential Impact Rookies: QB Jared Goff, WR Pharoh Cooper, TE Tyler Higbee, WR Mike Thomas
Team Strengths: For my money this is the best defensive line in all of football. The starting group of Robert Quinn, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and William Hayes have been making Sunday’s a living hell for offensive lineman the last two seasons and I expect that to continue in 2016. Aaron Donald has quickly become one of the best defensive players in all of football. Pro Football Focus had Donald as their defensive player of the year in 2015 as he earned a grade of 99.9, a perfect grade and the highest PFF has ever handed out in a single season. Now there is no such thing as perfect player, but if there was one, I agree that Donald would have to be in the discussion. The value of defensive tackles has risen over the past several seasons with the rise of players like Ndamukong Suh, Fletcher Cox, Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy and Jurrell Casey. The ability to not only stuff the run, but also get interior pressure with just one player is a huge asset to a defense and something a lot of teams around the league are really starting to look for. Donald is the best one of this group and is still only 25 years old.
Team Weaknesses: Outside of Todd Gurley, this entire offense is a weakness. Tavon Austin is a nice player, but you have a major problem if he is your most targeted pass catcher as he was in 2015. Their best outside option is either Kenny Britt or Brian Quick who both have had injury issues in their careers and there’s enough evidence on both players to show that they are really nothing special even when healthy. This was one of the worst offensive lines in the league in both run and pass blocking in 2015. Left tackle Greg Robinson has been a bust to this point in his career and there just isn’t a lot of talent on the rest of the offensive line. The Rams also did nothing of note this offseason to try and improve it. Can you imagine how good Todd Gurley would be if he ever had a real offensive line blocking for him?
Fantasy Players to Watch: This is a real wasteland fantasy wise. Todd Gurley will be one of the first names called on draft day and then it will take roughly four slices of pizza, two beers, one bathroom break and at least three arguments on whether or not Eddie Lacy is still fat before the next Rams player is drafted. As for Gurley, I love everything about him, he is everything you could want in a running back. You can make an argument for him being the first running back selected and personally the only running back I am even considering taking ahead of Gurley is Adrian Peterson, who like Gurley is probably from another planet. Outside of Gurley, Tavon Austin is worth a late pick in deeper leagues, the defense should be useful most weeks and rookie Jared Goff should go in all two quarterback leagues and if you are in a dynasty league take him and pray that one day the Rams give him some help. Rookie receiver Pharoh Cooper is someone to keep an eye not so much because of his own talent, but because of the lack of talent already on this roster at receiver. Someone has to catch passes on this team and who doesn’t want to have a player on their team named Pharoh Cooper?
2016 Outlook: As much of a disappointment as 2015 was for the Rams franchise, 2016 offers similar optimism heading into the season. A new city ,especially one as powerful as Los Angeles is enough to jolt any franchise, and the Rams also traded everything to move up to the number one overall pick in the draft and select Cal quarterback Jared Goff. The excitement that a new home and a new number one quarterback brings will certainly have the front office and fans hopeful for 2016, but is there anything substantial to be excited about on this team? Will the on field product be any different than it has been over the last four seasons under Jeff Fisher? The departures of Rodney McLeod and Janoris Jenkins could potentially make the secondary a liability as whole. This offseason the New York Giants paid Jenkins like a star corner and while Jenkins has shown flashes of that in his career thus far, his overall lack of consistent play made it easy for the Rams to say goodbye and they probably should have for that price. The problem was the Rams did not bring in or already have a starting caliber corner on the roster to take Jenkins place. The Rams are hopeful that E.J. Gaines, who showed flashes in 2014, but missed all of 2015 with a foot injury, will be able to take Jenkins’ place. If Gaines cannot play up to the caliber of a starting NFL corner along with the loss of underrated safety Rodney McLeod, this secondary could become a huge mess quickly. As for the previously mentioned rookie signal caller, regardless of what you may think about Jared Goff as a prospect, he is going to have some rookie struggles as most rookies do. Will those struggles be any worse than the struggles of the Foles, Case Keenum and Austin Davis trio that has started most of the Rams games the last two season? Maybe not, but it is very hard to predict a lot of consistent quality play from Goff especially when you consider the lack of talent surrounding him on offense outside of Todd Gurley.
Record Prediction: The crazy thing about Jeff Fisher and the Rams recent run at mediocrity is that they’ve accomplished (or failed to accomplish) it in the same way every season. In four seasons under Fisher, the Rams have finished between 13th and 16th in points allowed each season. That in itself is something you can definitely build off of, however they have finished in the bottom 12 teams in points scored each season basically offsetting the stability they’ve built on the defensive side of the ball. Now this is not all Fisher’s fault, general manager Les Snead has also been there for all four seasons and has yet to really add any top end talent to this roster outside of Gurley and the defensive line. Looking at the Rams schedule in 2016, it is really difficult to see where they buck this current 6/7 win trend. In fact, they may even struggle to reach that. Los Angeles has four games this season with a 1pm east coast start time, plus they forfeit a home game against the Giants when they travel to London in Week 7. The Rams do have what should be favorable home games against Miami, Buffalo and Atlanta but those games are not exactly cake walks. In 2015, the Rams went 3-1 against division power houses Seattle and Arizona, I just do not see that happening again in 2016. I think the Rams first season in L.A. will be a struggle with some flashes of a fun future led by Goff and Gurley mixed in. The Rams will go 6-10 and the Fisher/Snead run of mediocrity comes to an end after the season.
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