Salute Magazine’s Exit Interview series examines the status of each NFL team heading into the offseason, along with their free agents, team needs and more. Click here for the rest of the exit interviews. Up next: the Los Angeles Rams.
There was a lot of turnover for teams in the postseason in 2017, but none of them were more surprising than the Rams. With a 32-year old head coach and a quarterback that looked downright horrific in his rookie year, it seemed like the team was destined to at least struggle through the early part of the season.
That didn’t help. Jared Goff was a much-improved passer, while Sean McVay did a phenomenal job in turning the offense into one of football’s best, especially with his use of stud running back (and offensive player of the year) Todd Gurley. They ended up finishing in the top-ten both through the air and on the ground.
Not to be forgotten is veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who led that unit to relative success. Sure, they were in the bottom-five in stopping the run, but they were also in the top-half of the league against the pass. They had perhaps the best defensive player in the league with Aaron Donald as well.
The Rams are very clearly on the right path. Their main focus for 2018 should be avoiding complacency. General manager Les Snead should also plan on adding a few more weapons on offense for Goff and filling some weak spots on defense.
Other than that, if the Rams continue to perform like they did in 2017, they should be able to compete in the NFC. This is a young team that should be able to progress with more experience. Even so, it’s not uncommon to see a good team falter out of nowhere following a great season. Hopefully, for Rams fans, that won’t happen.
Current number of draft picks: 8 (#23 in the first round)
Cap space: $45 million
Notable free agents
Sammy Watkins, WR: The Buffalo Bills gave up a decent amount of draft picks in order to move up and take Watkins during the 2014 draft. However, injuries and inconsistent play marred his time there, and they eventually traded him to the Rams before the regular season began this year.
Watkins is in a weird spot. While he led the team with 8 touchdowns, most of those were red-zone targets, and he actually was fourth in receiving with 39 catches for 593 yards, not typical of a #1 wideout. He clearly has talent, but something is holding him back. The Rams may be able to bring him back for slightly cheaper money as a result though.
Lamarcus Joyner, S: When a solid player changes position, they’ll generally go through a slight period of growing pains. However, Joyner somehow got better after switching from corner to safety this year, leading the team with three interceptions. He also picked up 9 pass breakups as well. Joyner is arguably the top free agent safety on the market, which could be bad news for the Rams in their efforts to keep him around.
Trumaine Johnson, CB: Johnson had a breakout 2015 season, notching 7 interceptions and 17 pass breakups. Both he and Janoris Jenkins were to hit free agency during the next offseason, but the Rams decided to franchise-tag Johnson to keep him around, essentially choosing him over Jenkins, who left to sign with the New York Giants.
Should they regret making that choice? It’s hard to say. While Johnson hasn’t matched his 2015 production in the last two seasons (he got tagged again before this year), he’s still been a generally solid corner, leading the team in pass breakups with 13. His Pro Football Focus grade of 74.2 was down from 80.5 in 2016 though. Still, given the cornerback market this year, Johnson may end up getting a big deal elsewhere if the Rams get cold feet.
Connor Barwin, OLB: Barwin was known as one of the more reliable pass rushers in the league just a few seasons ago. Unfortunately, he’s started to show his age as of late, only getting 5 sacks this year. The Rams may want to find some fresh blood on the edge.
John Sullivan, C: Sullivan was a very solid center for the Minnesota Vikings for nearly seven seasons. Injuries sapped him of essentially two seasons in 2015 and 2016, and he was forced to take a cheap one-year deal with the Rams before this season. He rebounded well, starting every game and allowing just one sack. While he’ll turn 33 before next year, Sullivan is a dependable option when healthy.
S: Joyner leaving this offseason would be bad news, but to compound matters, backups Cody Davis and Isaiah Johnson are free agents too. Keeping Joyner is a top priority, and retaining one of the two reserves is possible as well.
CB: Trumaine Johnson and nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman are free agents this year, and the Rams will most likely be unable to keep both. If they want their defense to stay competitive, they’ll need to re-sign one of them and find a replacement for the other.
OLB: Barwin’s regression and impending free agent status will leave a hole across from Robert Quinn at the edge rusher spot. Maybe finding a young talent in the draft will give that position a boost.
C: With Sullivan headed to free agency, the Rams have no player on the roster with significant experience at center.
WR: The trio of Watkins, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp worked out well for the Rams this year, but none of these guys are true #1 options at receiver. Watkins is a free agent anyway. Imagine how well Goff will develop if the team can find him a long-term go-to guy at wideout.
G: Right guard Jamon Brown was the one weak link on the offensive line this season. Some competition could be useful.
LS: Long snapper Jake McQuaide is a free agent.
Best player/building block
Aaron Donald, DT/DE: He won defensive player of the year for a reason. Donald is a monster, and he’s only going to get better with age. He led the team with 11 sacks, the most out of any interior defender in the league. Additionally, PFF gave him a grade of 99.7, the highest for any player in football this season. Donald will be a free agent after next year, so the Rams need to lock him up ASAP.
Lamarcus Joyner, S: Adding to Joyner’s previously mentioned stats is his PFF grade. He earned a 90.3, third among all safeties behind Harrison Smith and Adrian Amos. It also far exceeds his previous three grades of 45.6, 62.4 and 78.4 when he was still at corner.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers