Last season, it was discussed ad nauseam how improved the Los Angeles Rams were from the 2016 season. This was not a hard feat to accomplish, as the team’s first year in LA bared a 4-12 season, resulting in the firing of then head coach Jeff Fisher.
Under new head coach Sean McVay, the Rams surprised all by winning the NFC Western Division with an 11-5 record. They were rewarded with a trip to the National Football Conference playoffs, where their Cinderella story came to a close with a 26-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the wildcard round.
The true victory from all of the improvements the Rams made a year ago, is that it gave them an identity, one of a young and talented team ready to take the league by storm. Naturally, other talented players would want to be a part of such a team.
The result is what LA fans have seen all offseason, the revamping of a defense that, last year, was 12th in the NFL in points allowed with 20.6 per game. Key additions to the secondary, and on the defensive line have given defensive coordinator Wade Phillips plenty to work with, and have put the Rams in Super Bowl contention conversations.
Before any new additions are discussed, it is important to note key players Los Angeles has lost from a season ago. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who led the team with eight receiving touchdowns in 2017, will now be catching passes from Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. Meanwhile, one of the Rams’ top cornerbacks, Trumaine Johnson, is now the focal point of the Jets’ secondary. Johnson had two interceptions last season, returning one for a touchdown.
It would be hard to believe that, after losing Johnson, Los Angeles’ secondary would actually become stronger, but this is in fact the case. The team has been busy in the trade market, obtaining star cornerbacks Marcus Peters from Kansas City, and Aqib Talib from Denver. Both come with their fair share of baggage, Peters occasionally losing his temper while playing with the Chiefs, while Talib is known throughout the league as one of the game’s dirtiest players.
It’s because of these factors that the Rams were able to get both on a bargain. Kansas City received Los Angeles’ fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, as well as, their second-round pick in 2019. Los Angeles had to part ways with just their fifth-round pick in this draft, to obtain Talib.
Character issues aside, Peters and Talib are incredibly talented. Peters came in fifth in the NFL in interceptions with five last season, while also forcing four fumbles, and returning one for a touchdown. Talib had a down year in 2017, recording just one interception. However, in his four seasons with the Broncos, he registered 11 interceptions, and returned six of those for touchdowns.
Los Angeles was able to resign Nickell Robey-Coleman, who matched Johnson with two interceptions last year. They also took a chance on Sam Shields, the former Packers cornerback who was sidelined for the entire 2017 season due to concussions. The combination of these two, along with Peters and Talib, give the Rams one of, if not, the best secondaries in all of the NFL.
When defensive end Robert Quinn was traded to the Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles lost one their better edge rushers. Quinn came in second on the team in sacks with 8.5. The defensive line more than made up for the loss of Quinn, when they added Ndamukong Suh on a one-year $14 mil deal. Suh lines up as the nose tackle in the center of the line, so he won’t provide the same kind of edge pressure that Quinn did. What makes Suh special is the pressure he creates in the backfield from the interior of the defensive line. He doesn’t merely look to plug holes, but actively tries to bring down the quarterback.
Because of this mentality, he recorded 4.5 sacks last season, while forcing a career high two fumbles. His mindset is also the reason why he has been labeled as one of the dirtier players in the NFL, his most notable offense coming in 2011, when he was ejected for stomping a Green Bay Packers’ offensive lineman.
The addition of Suh gives the Rams the most feared defensive line duo in the league, as he will line up next to Aaron Donald. Like Suh, Donald plays on the inside of the defensive line, generating more pressure in the backfield than anyone at his position. He led Los Angeles in sacks in 2017 with 11, while forcing five fumbles. The beauty of having both, is that offenses can’t double team them, and if they try, it will be a cakewalk for any other defensive lineman to make a play in the backfield.
There is an area of weakness in Los Angeles’ defense, and it comes at the linebacker position. The hole is self-induced, as the team traded Alec Ogletree, who lead all Rams with 95 tackles last season, to the New York Giants. In return, Los Angeles received New York’s fourth-round and sixth-round picks in this year’s draft. As the free agency pool dries up, it appears the only fix to this problem will come from the draft. The Rams pick 23rd in the first-round, which is the one downside from having a strong season. Fortunately, one impact linebacker is projected to be there, but first, let’s discuss the best case scenario for Los Angeles.
Roquan Smtih, the one-time UCLA recruit, who famously flipped his allegiance to Georgia in 2015, has been viewed as a top-10 pick after recording 135 total tackles and 6.5 sacks in a 2017 season that ended with a loss in the College Football National Championship. Smith, however, has recently been medically red-flagged by multiple teams, potential causing his draft stock to fall.
For reference, the same thing happened to Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster last year. This caused Foster to fall to San Francisco, who drafted him with the 31st pick. Foster did miss six games with a shoulder injury, but in the 10 games he played, he recorded 72 tackles.
One thing to note, is that Foster also had off-field concerns, culminating in his arrest in February for domestic violence and potentially possessing an assault rifle. Smith has never had questions about his character brought up, and would only fall in the draft if his injury concerns were dire enough.
Now that that day dream is over, it’s time to talk about the more realistic linebacker possibility for the Rams. Rashaan Evans of Alabama is slotted to be drafted late in the first-round, right around where Los Angeles is to pick. He totaled 74 tackles last year, 13 of which went for a loss. To pile on to these solid stats, Evans added six sacks.
Clearly, the Rams are in a good position. Yes, they have a few holes to fill at linebacker and wide receiver, but other than that, there are few areas of weakness for this team. They just went 11-5 and received some postseason experience, albeit a short one, and have one of the best young head coaches in McVay. It may be a stretch to say they will make it to the Super Bowl when they will have to eventually take on the Eagles and Vikings to get there, but this Rams team is built for the long-haul. Pretty soon, there will be a parade in the streets of LA, celebrating the World Champion Rams.