Intro: With NFC West teams getting ready for training camp in the next week, now seemed like an appropriate time to give my prediction for how the Los Angeles Rams will stack up in 2018.
Los Angeles Rams
Offense:OK, I'm a Rams fan, so I will admit to being a little biased. But barring the dreaded injury bug wreaking havoc on this team, it's tough to see how the Rams don't win the division
Offense On paper, these guys match up with anyone in the NFL. Todd Gurley is a top three running back by almost any measure, and you could certainly make an argument for him as number one. Jared Goff took a huge step forward last year after a disastrous rookie season, and he should only get better. Brandin Cooks has (somewhat quietly) put up elite numbers the last few seasons. Robert Woods had a breakout season last year as Goff's "go to" guy despite missing some time with injuries. I would expect him to threaten to crack 1,000 yards this season seriously. Cooper Kupp won't blow you away with his 40 times, but he has good hands (despite a couple of crucial drops early in the season) and runs great routes. If he isn't the best number three receiver in the league, he's not far down on the list and should only get better.
The tight ends didn't contribute what I expected last year, especially considering how much Sean McVay used his tight ends with the Washington Redskins. One of the exciting training camp battles will be between Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee for the starting tight end position. The offensive line will be missing right guard Jamon Brown for the first two games, but I don't think that will be a huge blow. John Sullivan and especially Andrew Whitworth are getting a little long in the tooth, but if the can play up to last year's level, this is among the better lines in the league. The Rams led the league in scoring last year, and barring injuries; there is no reason they can't be even better in 2018.
But an injury to either Goff or Gurley could be a disaster. I'm fully expecting Sean Mannion to be Goff's back up again. He certainly should know the offense by now, but how much of a drop off the team would face with him at the helm is anyone's guess. He's played well in preseason, not so well in a start against the San Francisco 49ers in last year's season finale, so Mannion still a question mark. An injury to Gurley could be even worse, consider what we know--or more to the point, what we don't know about his backups Malcolm Brown is excellent as a backup, but he's a bit of a plodder and is undoubtedly no Todd Gurley. You get a lot of different opinions on John Kelly, the hard-running rookie the Rams drafted out of University of Tennessee in April. Some scouts like him, but as with Brown, he's not fast, and some consider him injury prone. Justin Davis is fast, but can't seem to hold onto the ball. If heaven forbid, Gurley does go down you might see the Rams go with a smash-mouth, between the tackles power running game to keep defenses honest against the pass. That can work if the line does its job. But Todd Gurley is an elite back, and none of these guys would really replace him, so let's hope he stays healthy.
Defense: A defense that added Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib should be significantly improved, and they were pretty well last season. If there is a better defensive line than the Rams trio of Aaron Donald (probably the best defensive player in the league) Suh, and Micheal Brockers, I don't know who it would be.
The Rams secondary is so good that two guys who don't figure to start at cornerback, Sam Shields, and Nickell Robey-Coleman would not only start for most teams, they would also be in the upper third of beginning NFL cornerback duos in my opinion. Safeties John Johnson and LaMarcus Joyner are upper-echelon players as well. So that leaves the Rams with elite talent on the defensive line and in the secondary. The linebacking unit though is something of an unknown. My personal opinion is that there is plenty of talent at linebacker, and when you add the coaching genius of Wade Phillips this unit will be at least beautiful to possibly perfect. At outside linebacker, I'm pretty confident that between Samson Ekubam, Matt Longacre and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (the rookie out of University of Oklahoma) the Rams will make things uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks. Longacre and Okoronkwo aren't great in pass coverage, but in Wade Phillips version of the 3-4 defense, job one will be pressuring the quarterback, and they can do that. Ekubam is a freakish athlete who I think has the potential to be a pro-bowl player at some point. He played well in limited duty last year. Rookies Trevon Young and Justin Lawler could also be in the mix. The inside linebacker position determination will earn in training camp, with incumbent Mark Barron, Corey Littleton, rookie Micah Kiser, Ramik Wilson, Tegray Scales (an undrafted free agent from the University of Indiana) and several others fighting for a chance to start. These guys aren't household names, but the Rams have enough of them that I like the odds of finding a couple who can do the job along with some decent reserves. When it comes to seeing guys who can play linebacker, in Wade we trust.
Special Teams: The Rams may very well have the best special teams in the NFL. Punter Johnny Hekker is not only the best punter on the planet; some think he may be one of the best. As a former high school quarterback, he's also capable of throwing a decent pass if the Rams decide to get tricky. Placekicker Greg 'The Leg" Zuerlein is a weapon anywhere from mid-field to the post. I consider him the best kicker in the NFL, although that opinion probably is not unanimous. Pharoh Cooper's poor showing in the playoff game against Atlanta shouldn't overshadow the fact that that he was a pro bowl return man last season. Corey Littleton blocked a couple of punts last year and came very close a couple of more times. The Rams special teams are just outstanding in all phases, and special teams coach John Fassell deserves a lot of the credit. Whatever problems the Rams may have going into training camp. Special teams won't be one of them.
Overview: There is no reason this team shouldn't win its division and compete for a Super Bowl this season. I don't think the Arizona Cardinals or Seattle Seahawks, has what it takes to win the division, although if everything goes right maybe one of them could go 9-7 and snag a wild-card spot. I doubt that, but you never know. The San Francisco 49ers closed strong last season, and you would think Jimmy Garoppolo could walk on water, based on the off-season hype. He does look good, but let's see a little more from him before we vote him into the Hall of Fame. The Niners are the only real threat in this division in my opinion, but I don't see them taking the NFC West this year. They could make it enjoyable though.
12-4, NFC West title