2019 NFL preview: Rams try to take next step, but with more questions (like Todd Gurley)

Yahoo Sports

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 2019 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on July 31, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

The Los Angeles Rams chased a Super Bowl title hard last season. They didn’t get what they ultimately wanted, but it’s not like their season was a failure.

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The Rams were aggressive, knowing they had a unique and short-term opportunity with Jared Goff on his rookie contract. They acquired as much talent as they could for a run at glory.

Only one team ends the season totally happy. The Rams had a great season, won a memorable overtime NFC championship game at the New Orleans Saints and made the Super Bowl. In that Super Bowl, the Rams picked a bad day to have a bad day. Sean McVay was out-coached. The Rams’ offense, and Goff in particular, really struggled. New England slugged out a 13-3 win. It’s a great feat to win an NFC championship, though given the Rams’ big dreams, the finish probably felt a little empty.

We figure the next step in the story is that the Rams take that Super Bowl loss, use it as motivation and win a championship this season. The problem is, that almost never happens in the NFL.

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It’s not like the Rams’ window closed that night in Atlanta. They’re still wildly talented, with a great head coach. But we’ve seen plenty of Super Bowl teams fall short of making it back the following season. Last season’s Patriots were the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to win a Super Bowl after losing one the previous season. That’s a long gap, and the Patriots are an outlier in many ways. Super Bowl hangovers exist, and they’re usually especially hard on the loser. The season is long and the recovery time is shorter. It’s hard to mentally regroup for a new season. You might not catch as many green lights when it comes to injury luck or fortunate bounces in close games. And the roster always changes.

Guard Rodger Saffold, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, linebacker Mark Barron and safety Lamarcus Joyner left via free agency. Center John Sullivan was let go. Those might not be crippling losses, but they do change the chemistry of a team and the margins are very slight in the NFL. The 2018 Rams were a great example. They needed a horrific non-call against the Saints to get to the Super Bowl. Had that call been made, we’d be having a different conversation about the Rams. A lot of things need to go well in a Super Bowl season. You can have a very talented team and never make it back to the Super Bowl, especially with Goff about to triple or quadruple his salary-cap number with an expected extension.

Todd Gurley’s situation is as good as any to illustrate the temporary nature of the NFL. Over the last two seasons, Gurley has 3,924 yards from scrimmage and 40 total touchdowns. Through three-quarters of last season, Gurley looked like a legitimate MVP candidate again, though it’s nearly impossible for non-quarterbacks to win that award. It has all changed since then.

There was a mysterious knee injury, Gurley’s baffling disappearance from the game plan in the playoffs, the Rams trading up to draft running back Darrell Henderson in the third round and reports of Gurley having arthritis in his knee. When the calendar changed to December last year, Gurley was the Rams’ biggest offensive star and seemingly a lock to keep it going for years. There was no thought that by this point he’d the Rams’ biggest question heading into this season. The NFL can change fast.

Even if Gurley is never the same — and to be clear, any outcome seems possible because we have no idea how to predict the health of his knee — the Rams could overcome it. They have a great passing game (though, how much of that has been opened up due to Gurley’s dominance?) and the Rams liked Henderson for a reason. The defense lost some pieces but still has Aaron Donald.

The Rams aren’t going anywhere. The roster is loaded with stars. They’re still the class of the NFC West. They still should feel they are well within their Super Bowl window. And yet, everyone knows nothing is guaranteed in the NFL.

Aaron Donald hits Tom Brady in last season's Super Bowl. (Getty Images)
Aaron Donald hits Tom Brady in last season's Super Bowl. (Getty Images)

We’ve already mentioned the four key free agents who left: guard Rodger Saffold, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, linebacker Mark Barron and safety Lamarcus Joyner, and unsigned center John Sullivan, too. It’s worth mentioning C.J. Anderson as well, because he was very good at the end of the season. Anderson signed with the Lions. The Rams signed safety Eric Weddle and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, banking on a couple of stars in their mid-30s still having at least one more good season left. They prioritized re-signing pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., who was inconsistent with the Jaguars before the Rams acquired him in a midseason trade. Blake Bortles was added as a backup quarterback, which is an interesting transaction but one the Rams hope doesn’t matter to their 2019 season. The Rams traded their first-round pick to Atlanta, and over the past three drafts they have no first-round picks and only two second-round picks. The Rams made a nice value pick with safety Taylor Rapp in the second round, and they liked running back Darrell Henderson enough to move up and get him in the third round. Overall, there was more talent leaving the roster than was added.

GRADE: C-minus

It’s becoming clear that we’ll look back at Aaron Donald’s career and realize we were likely watching the greatest defensive tackle of all time (no offense, Joe Greene). Donald simply can’t be blocked. He faced double-team blocks on 60.5 percent of his pass-rush snaps last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats (via ESPN). He still had 73 quarterback pressures, which led the league according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Donald won his second straight NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after leading the NFL and setting a single-season record for defensive tackles with 20.5 sacks. Donald is probably the best player in the league, regardless of position. He should be in the MVP conversation, though it’s getting harder to believe a defensive player ever wins that award again. No matter if you prefer breaking down film, traditional stats, advanced stats or simply watching him work on your TV every Sunday, everyone should agree Donald is already an all-time great.

The Rams defense isn’t without flaws. They allowed the most yards per run in the NFL last season. Los Angeles was tied for 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed per pass play. The Rams were ninth in pass defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric, but 27th against the run and 18th overall. The Rams’ secondary will be relying on 33-year-old cornerback Aqib Talib and 34-year-old safety Eric Weddle, which is a bit scary, as is relying on mercurial cornerback Marcus Peters. The Rams lost a lot of pieces off a defense that was a bit disappointing. If the Rams fall well short of expectations, it’ll probably be because the defense faltered.

First off, this scenario I’m about to present won’t play out. However, we all seem to agree that the most valuable thing to have in the NFL is a good quarterback on his rookie deal, right? And the history of highly paid quarterbacks winning Super Bowls is spotty. Wouldn’t it make sense for an NFL team to cycle through quarterbacks on rookie deals? Draft a quarterback, use him for four or five years, then trade him to move on to the next cheap rookie. And if a team did try that, why not the Rams? After this season and before signing him to a contract extension, Los Angeles could theoretically trade Jared Goff to a desperate team willing to pay a couple first-round picks, at least. If we believe Sean McVay is the real machine behind the Rams offense, he could develop the next young quarterback playing at a fraction of what it’s going to cost to extend Goff, which would allow the Rams to allocate most of their salary cap to build a great defense and stellar offensive supporting cast. McVay and general manager Les Snead are in the rare position to have enough job security to survive if this hypothetical plan failed miserably. We all understand no team is ready to try this out (though it makes sense for some team to fade the inefficient salary market for quarterbacks), and Goff will be extended soon. But it would be an interesting experiment if the Rams decided to move on from Goff as he gets set to break the bank.

Not to dwell too much on Todd Gurley, but it seems like the Rams might not be the same team if he can’t bounce back after his strange end to last season. We know what Aaron Donald, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, Andrew Whitworth and the rest of the Rams’ stars will do. Gurley is a mystery. Gurley will be on a “veteran plan” through August, resting for practices and sitting out the preseason, and who knows what his workload will look like once the season starts. Gurley will turn 25 years old on Aug. 3, which is way too young to have these questions about his health. And this isn’t an ACL, in which there is a finish line in rehab and he can plan to be 100 percent at some point. Gurley’s workload and his ability to stay healthy through the season are questions that are hugely important to the Rams season (according to Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson, they currently view rookie Darrell Henderson as a “Chris Thompson-type” change-of-pace back, so perhaps he wouldn’t necessarily take over Gurley’s role if needed), and we have no idea how it will play out.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Todd Gurley turns 25 at the end of the week, and he’s without question one of the oldest 25-year-olds in America. His body has been through the ringer, man. He had knee surgery at Georgia, and his knee is considered a chronic issue now as he deals with arthritis. We saw the Rams pull back from Gurley in key moments of last year’s playoffs, and then the team traded up to draft running back Darrell Henderson.

“Most NFL teams are not in the business of informing us on sensitive topics — there’s no incentive for that, anyway. A fantasy pick on Gurley is a fantasy pick partially invested on blind faith and the past résumé of a player who might not effectively exist now. I’d be shocked if Gurley played much, if at all, in the preseason.

“Gurley’s ADP stock has tumbled about a round in the past couple of months, but he’s still landing at 19th overall, on average, in Yahoo leagues. That’s too rich for my blood. I like a sturdy floor with my first two picks, at minimum, but Gurley can’t be seen as a floor player at this stage of his career. I’d need at least a third-round ticket before I engage this conversation.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Los Angeles Rams]

Jared Goff was a one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks through the Rams’ epic 54-51 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Then, all of a sudden his numbers took a nosedive.

Goff first 11 games: 258-of-381, 67.7 completion percentage, 3,547 yards, 26 TD, 6 INT, 113.5 passer rating

Goff final 8 games, including playoffs: 165-of-286, 57.7 completion percentage, 1,853 yards, 7 TD, 8 INT, 73.7 passer rating

How much of the slump can be attributed to losing slot receiver Cooper Kupp to a torn ACL? Kupp missed three games in the middle of the season, and missed the Chiefs game too and Goff played fine in those four games. But without Kupp’s versatile talent out of the slot, the Rams’ offense wasn’t quite the same. Teams might have caught up a bit to the Rams’ play-action heavy approach, culminating in the Patriots confounding the Rams in the Super Bowl with a zone-heavy game plan. The reports on Kupp have all been positive and assuming he’s back in Week 1 and looking like his old self, it seems like a good bet that Goff will rebound too. Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson said the Rams have been very impressed with Goff in training camp.

CAN THE RAMS HAVE THREE 1,000-YARD RECEIVERS?

Five times in NFL history, one team has produced three 1,000-yard receivers: 1980 Chargers, 1989 Redskins, 1995 Falcons, 2004 Colts and 2008 Cardinals. Had Cooper Kupp not torn his ACL last season, the Rams might have become be the sixth in that group. Robert Woods had 1,219 yards, Brandin Cooks had 1,204 and Kupp had 566 in eight games. The Rams offense might shift toward a more pass-heavy approach if Todd Gurley needs his workload cut in a significant way, and that could mean big seasons for the Rams’ trio. Kupp will need to stay healthy, but all three have the talent to breeze past 1,000 yards and make some history. It’s the rare offense that can support huge seasons from three different receivers.

The Rams have the ability to make it right back to the Super Bowl and win it. Jared Goff could be productive and efficient with Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods returning and Cooper Kupp healthy. Maybe we’ll see Todd Gurley look healthy, or Darrell Henderson look like the next Gurley, or be reminded that the running back position generally doesn’t dictate a team’s success. The defense could be better because they have a lot of great blue-chip talent and might be healthier. Don’t forget, the Rams’ defense was fantastic in a Super Bowl loss. Los Angeles has the talent to take the final step.

Super Bowl hangovers exist. We’ve seen talented teams make a Super Bowl and play below its expected level the next season. We like to believe in the narrative of a team taking incremental steps and using a Super Bowl loss to vault themselves to a title, but only the 1971 Cowboys, 1972 Dolphins and 2018 Patriots have actually done it. It’s possible Todd Gurley was the lynchpin of the offense and he never recaptures his 2017-18 level. The defense isn’t guaranteed to rebound. I’m not buying that the Seahawks or 49ers could steal the division, but a lackluster season and quick playoff exit right before Jared Goff takes an enormous bite out of the Rams’ salary cap? That’s possible. We’ve seen Super Bowl losers take big steps back before.

I’m not sure what to do with the Rams. I obviously like their upside, but Todd Gurley’s status is a pretty big cloud over their outlook. I have them as the highest ranked NFC team in the countdown, yet I’m nervous about picking them to make it right back to the Super Bowl. Very few teams actually pull that off, and there are logical reasons behind that history. We’re also very unlikely to get much clarity on Gurley before the season starts. But who do you trust more in the NFC?

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

17. Carolina Panthers

16. Minnesota Vikings

15. Seattle Seahawks

14. Baltimore Ravens

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

12. Houston Texans

11. Dallas Cowboys

10. Cleveland Browns

9. Green Bay Packers

8. Philadelphia Eagles

7. Chicago Bears

6. Los Angeles Chargers

5. Indianapolis Colts

4. Kansas City Chiefs

3. New Orleans Saints

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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