Biggest Improvements The Rams Must Make During Offseason
The problem with high expectations is that they make decent things seem intolerable. Sean McVay set the bar very high in his second year at the helm. They made it look too easy, then the 49ers became an elite team and Lamar Jackson became an unstoppable force. There was nothing easy for the Los Angeles Rams in 2019.
To the Rams, not making the playoffs is a gut-punch of reality. A punch they are taking seriously. They have already made significant changes to the coaching staff, firing DC Wade Philips and hiring new DC Brandon Staley and OC Kevin O’Connell. And there is still so much offseason to go and a lot of improvements to get this team back up to that high bar. Here are the biggest improvements the Rams must make during the offseason
The Running Game
Just like those tiny sunglasses from the ’90s, 2019 saw the running game come roaring back into fashion out of nowhere. Seven of the top 10 rushing teams made it to the playoffs.
2. San Francisco
While only three of the top 10 passing teams made it.
5. Kansas City
7. New Orleans
8. New England
This flies in the face of the prevailing narrative from the last few seasons: If you want to win in the NFL you needed to throw… a lot. We saw many teams double down on this tack for 2019, including the Rams. In 2018 the Rams threw the ball 56.4% of the time, which ranked them 24th in passing play percentage. In 2019, they jumped to eighth, throwing the ball 62% of the time.
Sean McVay made the decision to put the game squarely on Jared Goff, calling 65 more passing plays this season. Goff finished 2019 tied for first with Jameis Winston with 626 passing attempts. Those extra passing attempts resulted in five fewer total yards, 10 fewer touchdowns, and four more interceptions.
All that said, the Rams aren’t having a Jared Goff problem. Goff did everything that was asked of him. This is a Todd Gurley problem. More specifically, it’s a ‘what-is-Sean-McVay’s-problem-with-Todd-Gurley’ problem. And that is a big problem. A $60 million problem
Without a contribution from Gurley, the Rams are woefully predictable. Predictability is one thing when simply talking about run/pass ratio. The Chiefs are doing just fine throwing 61.4% of the time, but the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff is not Patrick Mahomes. The Chiefs also threw to their running backs 125 times. The Rams only threw to Gurley 50 times and 12 more passes to the rest of the backs. That’s down from 109 in 2018. Gurley was thrown to 88 times in that season.
No one really knows why exactly McVay lost confidence Todd Gurley and the offensive backfield, in general. That mystery has been brewing since before Super Bowl LIII. What isn’t a mystery are the huge contract extensions. The Rams are locked into Goff and Gurley until 2023. Those contracts and the fact that the Rams haven’t had, and don’t currently have for 2020, a first-round draft pick since they picked Jared Goff in 2016, shows just how much confidence the front office has in this squad.
Therein lies a paradox: With the best in the league turning to the running game, the Rams seemed precinct in paying a boatload to keep Gurley. Plus, with McVay’s reputation as a genius, he should be at the forefront of any big trends in the offense. And yet, given all those factors, they stick to an ineffective game plan game after game. After making the Super Bowl in only his second season, McVay was seen as the reincarnation of Bill Walsh. It is time for McVay to look to Walsh’s former team to get back to the top.
The 49ers decided to zig when much of the league was zagging. Last offseason, everyone wondered what Kyle Shanahan was doing adding Tevin Coleman to an already crowded backfield featuring Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and (maybe, eventually) Jerick McKinnon. There was more head-scratching when they weren’t loading up on downfield targets for their $140 million QB, Jimmy Garoppolo. But now it all makes sense, the 49ers were going to revolutionize the game by running the ball. Wild stuff, right?
Rather than going with the traditional workhorse running back, the 49ers would spread the carries around. The 49ers ranked second in rushing yards per game, but not one back carried the load. Coleman and Mostert ended with 137 carries each and Breida had 123. Compare that to league rushing leader, Derrick Henry, who finished with 303 carries in the regular season.
Not only would this approach alleviate the wear and tear on Todd Gurley, but it would also reinstate the Rams running game as a legitimate threat.
Of course, this would mean that the Rams would have to find and develop some talent at running back. The 49ers picked up a blockbuster free agent in Tevin Coleman, but the standout backs were Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida. Both were undrafted coming out of college. Breida was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Mostert spent time on practice squads and in backup roles on six different teams before landing with the 49ers. Their contracts combined are just over $2 million. Point being, an NFL team can find talent anywhere if they know what they are looking for.
The Rams would have to trade up to select anyone in the first round, so let’s table that idea until after the combine. What is left are the multitude of good running backs up for free agency this offseason. Beyond the big names on the FA list there are some good young potential for a lower cap hit. Jordan Howard, Jonathan Williams, and C.J. Prosise just to name a few. After that, it is up to Sean McVay and Kevin O’Connell to develop the right scheme around that talent.
The Offensive Line
The reason that Sean McVay lost confidence in his back field could be that he actually lost confidence in his offensive line. The Rams unit went from fifth in PFF’s o-line ranking in 2018 to 31st in 2019. Certainly, the poor line play didn’t help Gurley and Co. run the ball, but the biggest impact was on Jared Goff.
It is no secret that Jared Goff struggles under pressure. Goff’s completion rate on throws under pressure is just 42.4%. According to PFF, since 2017, Goff is graded 92.7 in a clean pocket (ranked 6th overall), but under pressure, it drops to 45.9 (20th overall) in the same time frame.
The line looks much different than it did in its hey-day just a year ago. In 2019 the Rams played five different tackles and three different centers. Compare that to 2018, when their starters played at least 95% of all offensive snaps. For a unit that relies heavily on its cohesion, that much rotation is detrimental.
The Rams offensive line was playing musical chairs all season, but a medieval version with swords and those swinging ball weapons. Both Brian Allen and Joe Noteboom were knocked out for the season with injuries. The Rams coaching staff showed confidence in Allen and Noteboom, so they will most likely be retained as starters.
Austin Blythe is joining the free-agent ranks. It’s conceivable that the Rams would bring him back, as he was a good soldier while others were out with injuries, moving back and forth from guard to center as needed.
The Rams will most likely look to move on from Andrew Whitworth if they are unable to bring him back on a team-friendly deal. He is 38, very expensive and a free agent this spring. Replacing him will not be an easy task. As it is shaping up now, it’s a very young squad that would need veteran leadership. With the free-agent market lacking quality left tackles, don’t be surprised if the Rams use their second-round pick to snag an OT and hope they can convince Whitworth to stay for significantly less money than he was paid last season.
If it were last offseason, Rob Havenstein would be the obvious replacement for Whitworth. As of now, Haverstein has to earn that kind of lofty position back. He allowed five sacks and committed eight penalties in 2019, up from two on both accounts in 2018. PFF took him down to a 50.9 rating from an 84.8.