This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Rams defense projects to remain stout, and first-year coach Sean McVay succeeded as an OC with the Redskins. Added weapons through the draft and free agency might help the offense get out of its own way in 2017, but both Jared Goff and Todd Gurley will need to show marked improvement.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
FRANCHISE QB ENTERS YEAR 2 EYEING SUCCESS
Jared Goff, the first overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, took over the starting quarterback job in Week 11 and went on to toss just five touchdowns versus seven interceptions while posting a league-low 5.3 yards per attempt. Additionally, he was sacked 26 times in seven games behind a porous offensive line, which couldn't generate a competent ground game either with Goff under center. By season's end, last-place finishes in yards (262.7) and points (14.0) per game presumably played a role in coach Jeff Fisher's firing after Week 14 and offensive coordinator Rob Boras searching for employment elsewhere. While it was a forgettable debut, Goff has said and done the right things heading into his sophomore season. In addition to preparing for the mental rigors of the position, he worked with QB coaches Tom House and Adam Dedeaux during the offseason to improve his conditioning and mechanics. There's also a new coaching staff to guide the 22-year-old signal-caller. First-year boss Sean McVay arrives after three successful campaigns as Washington's offensive coordinator, which includes posting the third-highest yards per game total (403.4) in 2016. Los Angeles also added weapons to surround its franchise QB, so the athleticism Goff showcased as a California Golden Bear could be more evident on Sundays in this term.
CAN RAMS CLIMB OUT OF OFFENSIVE BASEMENT?
There are a number of question marks surrounding the Rams offense in advance of the 2017 season. Jared Goff's seven career starts aside, neither coach Sean McVay nor offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur have any previous experience at their positions. Furthermore, the offseason overhaul at the skill positions leaves Todd Gurley and Tavon Austin as the only noteworthy holdovers from last year, and both are coming off poor showings. While free-agent pickups Robert Woods and Lance Dunbar have shown flashes, neither player is a game-breaking talent. To restock the offense, the Rams used three of its first four picks in the 2017 NFL Draft on that side of the ball, selecting tight end Gerald Everett and wide receivers Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds. At first glance, it appears as if there are too many unknowns to project a notable step forward from the offense. However, after orchestrating the Redskins' third-ranked offense in yards per game as coordinator in 2016, the 31-year-old McVay has recent experience getting the most out of the weapons at his disposal. In addition, it might not take a drastic improvement in either the running game or passing attack to kick-start the other and improve the entire offense. Hurting the cause is a general lack of big-play threats, which caps the Rams' explosiveness.
SWITCH TO 3-4 DEFENSE TO IGNITE A PLAYMAKING D
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips enters with an impressive resume and a preference for a 3-4 alignment, which projects to be a positive shakeup for the Rams. The results from his last three stops as a coordinator don't lie: in eight seasons with the Broncos, Texans and Chargers, his scheme was responsible for five double-digit sack artists, with Von Miller, J.J. Watt and Shawne Merriman accomplishing the feat in two different years. The Rams boast their own pass-rushing talent in the front seven. In recent seasons, Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn have reached the aforementioned threshold and again could do so due to Phillips' ability to dial up timely blitzes. If havoc reigns up front, Trumaine Johnson, Mo Alexander and the rest of the secondary will benefit by default, perhaps even vaulting the Rams beyond their 10 interceptions from 2016. The success of a defense is often connected with an effective offense, but this wasn't the case last season due to an inability to sustain drives with any degree of consistency. As such, the defense produced middling results – 24.6 points allowed per game, 18 takeaways and 31 sacks – which belied a No. 9 rank in fewest yards yielded (337.0) per outing. With an abundance of on-field talent and a coaching upgrade, improvement is in the forecast, even if the offense only shows incremental progress.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Todd Gurley
After a Pro Bowl nod in his rookie year, Gurley averaged 3.2 yards per tote with just six scores in 2016. A poor offensive line and league-worst offensive attack are adequate explanations, but he also thrived in similar conditions in 2015. Athleticism and workload aren't concerns, so don't rule out a rebound under the new coaching regime.
RISING: Robert Woods
A Southern California native and former USC star, Woods returns home and could lead the Rams in targets, receptions and receiving yards, while becoming a safety blanket for second-year quarterback Jared Goff.
FALLING: Tavon Austin
The speedster's game-breaking ability cannot be questioned, but Austin is still a raw route runner and pass catcher. A dependence on gimmicks makes him an unreliable weekly option, and L.A. added receivers this offseason.
SLEEPER: Josh Reynolds
The Texas A&M product already has the straight-line speed to spread the field and the size and ball skills to be an end-zone threat. The roster doesn't include another wideout with Reynolds' skill set, either.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING TIGHT END
After leaning on his tight ends as Washington's offensive coordinator the past three seasons, Los Angeles' new coach Sean McVay has a pair of talented young pass catchers in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett to turn to in 2017. Obviously, neither Higbee nor Everett project to have a Jordan Reed-like fantasy impact this year, but one or both could emerge as a serviceable asset. Higbee was hardly utilized in 2016 and has some off-field baggage clouding his outlook. Having said that, with rookie tight ends rarely climbing to the top of the depth chart as freshmen, Higbee should receive more than a fair shake to open the season as the starter. Meanwhile, Everett shouldn't be written off prematurely. He was Los Angeles' first selection in the 2017 draft and has the size, speed and athleticism to create immediate matchup nightmares for opponents, both off the line and in the slot. The Rams are also clearly bullish about the South Alabama alum.
Robert Woods – WR (from Bills)
Possession receiver projects to garner plenty of targets.
Gerald Everett – TE (Rd. 2, No. 44 – South Alabama)
Could see a sizable role with Sean McVay's history of utilizing tight ends.
Lance Dunbar – RB (from Cowboys)
Pass-catching specialist has sneaky separation ability in space.
Cooper Kupp – WR (Rd. 3, No. 69 – Eastern Washington)
Will work out of the slot as the third wideout on the depth chart.
Josh Reynolds – WR (Rd. 4, No. 117 – Texas A&M)
Owns size/athleticism combo to be an immediate red-zone threat.
Kenny Britt – WR (to Browns)
Will be tough to replace his 1,002 receiving yards and five TDs.
Lance Kendricks – TE (to Packers)
Loss of former second-round pick opens opportunities for younger TEs.
THE INJURY FRONT
Tavon Austin, WR – Despite undergoing wrist surgery in May, Austin was still able to put in work and run routes during minicamp. He's expected to be ready for training camp.
Nelson Spruce, WR – The undrafted free agent spent the majority of the second half of last season on injured reserve with a calf injury, but he did participate in practices at the end of the year. He projects to be recovered and ready for training camp.
Cory Harkey, TE – A triceps injury ended Harkey's season before Week 14 last season, forcing him to injured reserve. While he expected to be ready for training camp, it's worth noting that the 27-year-old tight end has been used mostly as a blocker during his career.