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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.
It’s amazing how one throwaway comment from Vince Young stuck.
The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles spent big in free agency, Young called them a “dream team,” and every team from now on that gets aggressive in the offseason gets that label. Go search how many articles on the 2018 Los Angeles Rams use the term “dream team.”
Of course, those Eagles flopped so every future “dream team” will be met with skepticism. But good luck finding a major flaw for these Rams on paper.
The Rams had a remarkable 2017 season. Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and Sean McVay swept the offensive, defensive and coach of the year awards. Jared Goff, freed from a horrendous coaching staff, blossomed. The Rams were a strong team across the board. Even though the season ended with a playoff upset to the Atlanta Falcons, it was a fine season.
And if the Rams decided to run it back with basically the same young core, that would have been fine. That’s what most teams would have done. Instead, the Rams had one of the most aggressive offseasons in history.
They traded for cornerback Marcus Peters. Then they traded for cornerback Aqib Talib. That’s seven Pro Bowls combined. They traded for receiver Brandin Cooks, who has three straight 1,000-yard seasons. And then they signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a one-year, $14 million contract. Five more Pro Bowls.
Dream team it is.
Will it work? I’m not going to take the example of one Eagles team that failed and say it’s a bad idea to add four blue-chip players. Football Perspective found that the last team to add four players with a career approximate value of 12 or more (approximate value is a stat used by Pro-Football-Reference, like WAR for baseball) was the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. They won a Super Bowl. Another good example of a team hitting free agency hard and having it pay off is the Denver Broncos, who spent big under general manager John Elway and won four division titles and a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning. The Seattle Seahawks, like the Rams with Goff, took advantage of Russell Wilson’s rookie contract and loaded up for two straight Super Bowl appearances and one title.
Just because the Eagles failed doesn’t mean spending big in free agency is a bad thing. It doesn’t guarantee the Rams a Super Bowl, but it’s not accurate to invoke the 2011 Eagles, derisively stick “dream team” to them and drop the mic. The Rams have played this the right way: They saw an opportunity to chase a Super Bowl, and they didn’t wait to see what happened. They attacked.
Maybe it doesn’t work out. The Rams had a tremendous amount of injury luck last season and that might not repeat. Their schedule is tougher. Goff could regress after a tremendous breakout, and it’ll be hard for Gurley to repeat as well. Regression could even hit McVay, especially since the league had an offseason to scout his work with the Rams. The Aaron Donald holdout is troubling, and there’s no guarantee all the shiny new pieces fit. The Rams took on a few players who aren’t the easiest to deal with in the locker room.
If the Rams fail, it won’t be because they had a bad plan and it definitely won’t be from lack of trying. They’ve done everything they possibly could to maximize their chances of winning a championship, and that’s all you can do. The results will be fascinating to watch.
We’ve talked about the additions, and it’s fair to point out the subtractions. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson and receiver Sammy Watkins each got huge deals elsewhere in free agency. Linebacker Alec Ogletree was traded to the New York Giants. Because of trades, the Rams didn’t have a draft pick in the first two rounds. The players the Rams added are exciting, but we have to consider the Rams lost some talent too and didn’t add any obvious impact rookies. There’s also the salary-cap ramifications of the Rams handing out a ton of money to just a few players, but that’s a problem for another day.
If non-quarterbacks weren’t practically ineligible to win MVP awards, Todd Gurley had a great case. Gurley had a miserable 2016 season, but as we’ve quickly figured out, that coaching staff was good at turning good players into non-factors. Gurley led the NFL with 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 total touchdowns last season. He was remarkable in every way possible, including durability. He played nearly every snap, a rarity at running back in this era. Gurley likely won’t win MVP because voters will just pick the best quarterback again, but he could repeat as the NFL’s best running back.
The Rams are conducting an interesting experiment. They have loaded up on the interior of the defensive front, but have very little when it comes to edge rushers. Maybe little-known outside linebackers like Samson Ekubam, Matt Longacre or someone else on the depth chart will break out with opponents’ attention focused inside. And defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will make the most of whatever he has to work with. But it’s rare to field a great pass-rushing defense without help from the edge, and that’s what the Rams are trying to do.
Whenever we put all the blame on a quarterback, remember that situations matter too. Jared Goff looked like a bust after his rookie season. As it turned out, his main problem was Jeff Fisher and that 2016 coaching staff. Goff was suddenly effective with Sean McVay calling plays from this century. Go figure. Goff’s improvement across the board was startling. His passer rating alone went from 63.6 to 100.5. There might be some pullback just because it’s hard to see Goff getting that much better in year three, but he’s with a smart coach and has a good cast around him. He’s clearly good enough to take the Rams to a title.
I’m not sure why Aaron Donald hasn’t gotten paid yet. I know he’s asking for an enormous deal and that gets complicated, but he has earned it. It’s possible Donald is the best non-quarterback in the NFL. There are a few blank-check players in the NFL, and Donald is one. While the Rams were handing out extensions for Brandin Cooks and Todd Gurley recently, Donald began a training camp holdout. Even without Donald, the Rams have Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers on the line, and that’s more than a few teams have. Donald didn’t show any rust last year when he held out through the preseason. If Donald reports in Week 1 or after, the Rams won’t fall apart. But it would be smart for the Rams to give Donald what he wants and get their best player into camp.
From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “Can Robert Woods get a little respect? According to current ADP data, the former Bill is the 30th WR coming off of draft boards. That’s cheap!
“Consider, if you will, that nearly a quarter (22.5 percent) of Jared Goff’s passes were aimed at Woods. Now factor in Woods’ 65.9 percent (No. 24) catch rate and the fact that the sure-handed wideout committed just one drop on the season. Throw in the fact that Goff’s efficiency improved (QB rating of 114.9) when targeting Woods… and it’s easy to understand why/how these two established such a solid rapport.
“Had it not been for a three-game absence caused by a shoulder injury, Woods would have closed out 2017 with a 75-1,040-7 stat line. When on the field, he posted WR2 numbers for the better half of the season. Even with the addition of Brandin Cooks – whose previous production has been far from steady – Woods remains the team’s ultra-reliable possession receiver. Only 26-years-old, he’s a high-floor value with low-end WR2 appeal for fantasy purposes.”
[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Rams.]
Strength coaches and athletic training staffs factor into a team’s injury situation, but for the most part a team’s injury situation is dictated by pure luck. And last year the Rams were the luckiest team in football, when it came to injuries. They had the fewest games lost to injury, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost injury metric. The Rams finished first in that stat in 2016 too, so either they are onto something or incredibly fortunate. I don’t assume the Rams will make it through this season without some key injuries. They’re due.
WHO WILL LEAD THE RAMS IN RECEIVING THIS YEAR?
This is one of the few NFL teams that has three legitimate answers to this question. Brandin Cooks is the big addition, coming over from the Patriots in a trade, and he has averaged 1,131 yards and eight touchdowns the past three seasons. But he has competition for targets. Robert Woods got a nice deal in free agency last year after a mostly unproductive Bills career, then played very well most of last season with the Rams. He had 781 yards in 12 games. Cooper Kupp had a fine rookie season out of the slot, with a 62-869-5 line. You can make a strong argument for any one of those three being the Rams’ top receiver this season. Todd Gurley also catches a lot of passes, and tight end Gerald Everett could improve his production in his second season. Jared Goff has a lot of options.
Clearly, the Rams are a Super Bowl contender. All of the pieces are in place, especially once Aaron Donald’s contract situation gets resolved (it will … right?). Sean McVay had a great rookie season at head coach, the defense was fabulous and should be improved, Jared Goff showed he’s a capable quarterback and Todd Gurley is the centerpiece of a talented playmaking corps. It’s not like the Rams need a lot to go right, they just need their players to perform up to expectations. The Rams have the easiest division among the NFC favorites, so the path to a No. 1 seed isn’t too bad. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the Rams have a special season.
There are a lot of regression concerns. The Rams improved by an amazing 254 points from 2016 to 2017, and Rotoworld pointed out how consistently great field position led to many short scoring drives. That might not repeat. The Rams’ injury luck almost definitely won’t repeat. They’ll now face a first-place schedule. And there are general regression concerns for a team that hadn’t posted a winning season in 13 straight years before going 11-5. On top of that, the Donald situation could get messy. It’s easy to see everyone blaming the offseason spree for the Rams taking a step back, when it was bound to happen no matter what.
Maybe I’m ignoring all the reasons the Rams won’t be great and buying too easily into the talent on the roster, but I think this team will be better than a year ago. The young talent is ascending and the additions are impressive. A bad injury here or there could derail things, but that’s true for just about any team. I have one NFC team higher on the countdown so I don’t anticipate picking the Rams to win it all, but they wouldn’t need many breaks for that to happen.
32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Dallas Cowboys
11. Kansas City Chiefs
10. Atlanta Falcons
9. Los Angeles Chargers
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
6. Jacksonville Jaguars
5. New Orleans Saints
4. Philadelphia Eagles
3. New England Patriots
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