The Los Angeles Rams’ response to a long-awaited breakthrough season in 2017 has been a Hollywood marquee-worthy 2018 offseason.
After going 11-5 and winning the NFC West for the first time in 14 years thanks to rookie coach Sean McVay getting the best out of the offense, the Rams went to work in upgrading their defense. Six new starters are projected to flank stud lineman Aaron Donald, as the team acquired tackle Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to be key personnel in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.
McVay and general manager Les Snead did not forget to make a splash on the other side of the ball. They traded for former Saints and Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks late in free agency.
That’s a lot of change for a talented, young team still trying to find its championship groove. When examining key parts of the Rams’ depth chart going into training camp and cutting through the hype, some new questions come with those new solutions.
Cooks, still only 24, was traded for the second time in many offseasons ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. After going through a roller coaster in New Orleans and New England with Drew Brees and Tom Brady, respectively, Cooks hopes to last in LA as Jared Goff’s go-to guy.
The Rams had Cooks on their radar in 2017, and he gives them both a big-play and a little-play upgrade over Sammy Watkins, who signed with the Chiefs. Cooks got a head start working with Goff before they officially became teammates. There’s a good Pac-12 vibe going with Goff, Cooks and last year’s surprise top wideout, Robert Woods.
Cooks and Woods are more interchangeable than Watkins and Woods were when it comes to their hands and skills after the catch. With Josh Reynolds, who once was tabbed as Watkins’ possible replacement, coming off shoulder surgery, Cooks is a luxury born out of necessity. His quickness will give McVay new ways to stretch the passing game.
Cooper Kupp, who was outstanding from the slot as a rookie last season, is a few months older than Cooks. Their styles cross well, especially on pivot routes, which are staples of the Rams and Patriots’ offenses in which Kupp and Cooks excelled separately in 2017. This year, when spreading the field against man coverage, the Rams will be harder to stop.
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While Donald does whatever he wants while away from the team and waiting to get a lucrative contract extension worthy of the league’s most disruptive defensive player, the Rams are figuring out the best way to fit Suh next to him on their base three-man front.
Suh arrives in LA with new motivation on a one-year “prove it” deal for the first time in his career. Although he has gone through the wringer of defensive coordinators, Suh played in a base 4-3 scheme throughout his time with the Lions and Dolphins.
The trick for Phillips is getting the most out of Suh in the inside pass rush and not putting him in a more limited (though more comfortable) run-stopping role in an unfamiliar defense. The Rams’ third starting lineman, Michael Brockers, is so good against the run that Suh can assume an attack-based (instead of gap-clogging) nose tackle role.
Suh, 31, saw his sack total trickle down to 4.5 in Miami last season after registering 8.5 in his last year with Detroit (2014). Phillips will put him in an ideal position to be more productive as Suh plays directly off the attention Donald receives.
The Rams ranked No. 4 in the NFL with 48 sacks last season, with Donald (11) and Brockers (4.5) producing nearly a third of them. Another 15.5 sacks from linebackers Robert Quinn, Connor Barwin and Alec Ogletree are gone, so with LA now lacking a dominant edge-rusher, Suh must rediscover some of his pop with Phillips’ help.
The Rams parted with Quinn, Barwin and Ogletree, and with Mark Barron at inside linebacker as the only returning starter, there are no surefire replacements on the roster.
Based on situational snap counts last season, Samson Ebukam (fourth-rounder in 2017) and Matt Longacre (undrafted in 2015) are set to start outside now that rookie Ogbonnia Okoronkwo is coming off foot surgery. Ebukam is the better run-stopper and Longacre is the better pass-rusher, but neither has proved himself in coverage. Third in the mix is Morgan Fox, who is a little more well-rounded but also is converting from defensive line. Compared to how strong they are elsewhere on defense, the Rams are weak, inexperienced and thin at linebacker.
The Rams’ defense last year ranked No. 28 against the run, giving up 122.4 yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry. Although Barron can boost the coverage as a converted safety, he struggles against the run. Ogletree was even worse, which led to his being traded to the Giants despite signing a contract extension during the 2017 season.
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Barron could be challenged in camp, too, but for now, Cory Littleton, Bryce Hager, former Chief Ramik Wilson and rookie Micah Kiser are battling for snaps at the other inside spot. Kiser is a natural inside pass-rusher but not much else. Littleton also can get to the QB and is equally good at run and pass coverage. Wilson goes in with the most seasoning, having started 11 games for the Chiefs two seasons ago. But Hager, who produced as a starter in the Rams’ 2017 regular-season finale against the 49ers, has a chance to emerge as the best of the bunch.
Phillips in LA doesn’t have a DeMarcus Ware or a Von Miller at linebacker. While steadiness is important for those positions, the strengths of the Rams’ front and back ends can allow the coordinator to take risks with the players who provide the most youthful energy and upside vs. those who might be considered safe.
There was a perception last season that the Rams had strong corners, but their coverage was propped up by their two priority re-signees, nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman and free safety LaMarcus Joyner. They were active playmakers who combined for five of the team’s 18 interceptions.
Trumaine Johnson and Kayvon Webster had their moments outside but were below-average starters. Enter Talib from the Broncos, where he once played for Phillips, and Peters, the former Chiefs corner who arrives as the Rams’ biggest offseason prize.
Talib is a sturdy shutdown type who seems to get better into his 30s. Peters can be burned for big plays, but he is fearless in trying to make them himself. It’s hard to find a better combination of players who complement each other’s games so well. They also combine to match the Phillips mentality of mixing consistent reward with worthy risks.
The key for Talib and Peters will be meshing their personalities, as well as accepting the fact that they will be considered co-No. 1 corners. Phillips has handled plenty of aggressive defenders with attitude; his track record is making them happy by putting them in positions that mutually benefit the team and the individual players.
Behind Peters, Talib and Robey-Coleman are few viable fill-in options, but former Packer Sam Shields brings another veteran presence to the depth chart. Throwing downfield against the Rams and their revamped secondary will be difficult. The new defensive backs give Phillips endless blitzing scenarios to generate an improved pass rush by committee.
Phillips is as good at masking defensive weaknesses as he is at magnifying strengths. With LA’s offense expected to score plenty of points and put pressure on opponents to pass, the defensive coordinator now has the goods to capitalize on the mistakes those opposing offenses make.