With the 2017 regular season merely hours away from kicking off for the Indianapolis Colts, I went to Joseph McAtee of Turf Show Times searching for answers to some questions before Sunday’s matchup.
Matt Danely: Being that Todd Gurley had a disappointing season in 2016, and has yet to notch a receiving touchdown in his young career, is the Rams' offense going to be able to scheme him more touches? Is the offensive line equipped to improve upon his 3.2 yards per carry and get him to 1,000 yards again?
Joseph McAtee: The short answer is yes. The Rams brought in LT Andrew Whitworth, a three-time Pro Bowler. They also upgraded (potentially) at center with C John Sullivan who has familiarity with the offensive line scheme under new Rams Head Coach Sean McVay when both were in Washington. But honestly the biggest upgrade is simply the subtraction of LT Greg Robinson. GRob's play since being drafted second overall in the 2014 NFL Draft was just abysmal. So I'd argue more important than the upgrade of Whitworth is just moving on from Robinson who the Rams traded to the Detroit Lions.
The problem is that these fixes are perilously thin.
Whitworth is 35-years old. Sullivan is 30 himself and started just one game over the last two seasons. In between the two is LG Rodger Saffold who has played a full 16-game season just once in the last six years. The right side of RG Jamon Brown and RT Rob Havenstein come into their third years with severe talent questions.
So while there's reason for Rams fans to take heart that things should be better on the line at least early on in the season, a 16-game improvement in major measure is probably unlikely. If anything, Rams fans should be hoping there's sufficient improvement to allow Gurley to work and to keep Goff upright to evaluate his future with the franchise while preparing to draft sufficient talent on the line over the next few years.
MD: Understanding that there is a real possibility that Aaron Donald misses Week 1, can Wade Phillips do enough with what he has with the rest of the Rams' front seven to stop a less-than-impressive running team such as the Colts? Who would be stepping up in his absence?
JM: Yeah, let's be blunt. Aaron Donald's not showing up for Week 1. He has demands the Rams are unwilling to meet. Are the demands unfair? Perhaps. Are the Rams a poorly run franchise suddenly trying to negotiate as if they're not? Certainly. But hey, here we are.
Can new Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips make the front seven work? For sure. There's talent in NT Michael Brockers, OLB Robert Quinn and ILB Alec Ogletree. Free agent addition OLB Connor Barwin has put in good football under Phillips before, and ILB Mark Barron has really performed well since the Rams traded for him from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And they're backed up by a solid secondary to boot, so there's no panic needed that Donald's absence dooms the defense or front seven overall.
There are depth concerns. Quinn has missed half of each of the last two seasons. Barwin is 30-years old. And the Rams have seen much of their defensive talent leave in recent years in CB Janoris Jenkins, S Rodney McLeod, S T.J. McDonald and now CB E.J. Gaines whom the Rams traded to the Bills in the move to acquire WR Sammy Watkins. The Rams papered over those losses with free agent acquisitions. That could work out this year as long as we don't lose a ton of games to injury and new players gel quickly, but long-term the defense is on much shakier ground personnel-wise than in recent years.
Now if Aaron Donald doesn't get locked up over the next two years? The Rams won't have to answer questions as to why they couldn't keep arguably the best individual player in the NFL. We'll already know the answer.
MD: How will the Rams gameplan to defend T.Y. Hilton, and who will be matching up with him the majority of the time? Will this cornerback travel with Hilton?
JM: Well, it's tough to assume much of anything on either side of the ball. We've got so many new faces with a new coaching staff, so there's not a ton of precedent to go off of. Phillips suggested the Rams would double him every play out of necessity. I'd think that's likely inside corner work from Nickell Robey-Coleman and outside either from Trumaine Johnson and Kayvon Webster.
Like I said though, this is new territory for nearly everyone involed. Robey-Coleman and Webster are first-year Rams. How this goes is anyone's guess.
MD: Jared Goff has had a season to shake off the rookie butterflies, and now has a new coach who did an amazing job in Washington. Can Sean McVay produce any semblance of the system he helped Kirk Cousins master in Washington, minimize his mistakes and create successful situations for him? Or, will Goff be expected to be more aggressive? Does Goff have enough weapons to be successful even if he is mistake free?
JM: Oh man. This is kinda everything, right? I mean, the appropriate answer is, "I sure as hell hope so."
The Rams have really pushed to get Goff weapons to evaluate him immediately. We signed WR Robert Woods. We drafted TE Gerald Everett, WR Cooper Kupp and WR Josh Reynolds in the second, third and fourth rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. And then we shipped a 2nd-round pick and Gaines to the Buffalo Bills for WR Sammy Watkins and a throwaway pick. In terms of new, quality targets, they're pretty much inarguably the best they've been in a decade. So while the offensive line might still be a cause for concern, the wide receivers and tight ends shouldn't be.
As for whether he'll be successful and how aggressive the offensive playcalling will be for him? Yeah, this is Game 1. I have 0 clue.
MD: Cooper Kupp was one of the draft darlings of so many, yet simultaneously, so many others questioned his ability to create separation against NFL cornerbacks throughout the process of his routes. How will he be used within the Rams' offense, and will the addition of Sammy Watkins take some pressure off of him and allow him to shine in his rookie season?
JM: The only good preview we got of this was the Rams' second preseason game against the Oakland Raiders in which the offense looked very good in the first half, a showing in which Kupp was integral. If that's any indication, he's going to be a huge component in short-yardage work. He chipped across the middle as a regular second read for Goff in that first half with five receptions for 47 yards. Well, that excludes one reception: a 23-yard touchdown on broken coverage that left Kupp uncovered.
That's really all we have to go off of as Kupp sat the final two preseason contests. Watkins barely factored in as the trade for him came after the first week of the preseason giving him little time to learn the playbook. I just have very, very little grasp on how they'll work off of each other in meaningful football. But hey, coming off of the 2016 season, I'll take Watkins-Woods-Kupp any day of the week.