2020 NFL Preview: This is the season we find out about Sean McVay, Jared Goff and Rams in general

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5. 

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

When Greg Zuerlein nailed a 57-yard field goal in overtime at the Superdome on Jan. 20, 2019, the Los Angeles Rams were on top of the world.

They were headed to the Super Bowl. Jared Goff had just been named to his second Pro Bowl and was a few months away from a four-year, $134 million deal. Sean McVay had validated his hype as the NFL’s next great coach. Teams would scramble to hire coaches with even a remote connection to McVay, and brag about it in announcing the hires. You could have talked yourself into the Rams being the NFL’s next dynasty.

The thought that we’d go into the 2020 season questioning Goff, McVay and the Rams’ approach in general wasn’t on anyone’s mind. The NFL moves fast.

The Super Bowl was a rough one. Goff struggled badly. McVay was thoroughly outcoached by Bill Belichick and then-New England Patriots defensive coordinator Brian Flores. He immediately acknowledged it. The Patriots won an ugly game. Then, the Rams missed the playoffs in 2019 and had an offseason of reckoning. Many key veterans are gone, including running back Todd Gurley. Even Zuerlein, whose clutch kick at New Orleans was as true as could be, left in free agency.

The past year-plus since that Super Bowl loss revealed cracks. McVay’s offense, overly reliant on three-receiver sets and play-action passes, was exposed. Goff didn’t look anything like a $134 million quarterback and didn’t make another Pro Bowl. Not even close. The Rams went from a team that was lauded for aggressively pursuing a championship to one that looked impulsive and mismanaged. We’d rip any other team for some of the moves the Rams have botched.

L.A. hasn’t made a first-round pick since Goff in 2016. It has traded those picks for big-name players, but there’s a reason teams avoid that method of roster building. Those stars need contract extensions. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey is soon to be the latest to get a massive contract, and the Rams have no leverage after trading a ton for him. Brandin Cooks got a big extension after the Rams traded a first-round draft pick for him, and then he was dealt to the Houston Texans with an NFL-record $21.8 million dead salary-cap hit left behind. Gurley was cut two years into his four-year, $60 million deal (which was questioned at the time due to how often running back contract extensions fail), and then he and Clay Matthews openly complained the Rams were stalling in paying them guaranteed money they were owed. These moves aren’t indicative of a franchise that has any long-term plan.

And to think, that day at the Superdome was about only 18 months ago.

We’ve seen McVay and Goff rise and then fall together, and 2020 seems like a crossroads for them and the Rams. McVay started to morph his scheme, going to two-tight end sets 21 percent of the time last season, according to SharpFootballStats.com. The Rams used three receivers 89 percent of the time in 2018. He probably isn’t a quarterback who can carry a team, but he’s probably not as bad as he was last year.

It will be a challenge to bounce back. Key veterans are gone. The offensive line has become an issue, and the Rams haven’t had the cap space or draft picks to replenish it. The Rams are still looking for someone to take Gurley’s place, and have spent valuable draft picks two straight years on the position. This isn’t the loaded Rams roster that made the Super Bowl two seasons ago.

The Rams need their coach and quarterback to make up for those deficiencies. And we ask a question that seemed ludicrous that afternoon in the Superdome a year and a half ago: Do the Rams have the right pieces in those key places? We might find out this season.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff and coach Sean McVay are entering a big season. (Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Here’s a list of the key players the Rams won’t have back in 2020: edge rushers Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews, safety Eric Weddle, cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, linebacker Cory Littleton, running back Todd Gurley, receiver Brandin Cooks and kicker Greg Zuerlein. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was let go, too.

The Rams re-signed left tackle Andrew Whitworth, but there is some risk in a player who will turn 39 during the season. They also signed former Bears first-round pick Leonard Floyd to rush the passer, but he’s not as good as Fowler.

The Rams didn’t have a first-round pick as usual and used their first second-round pick on running back Cam Akers, a questionable allocation of limited resources. Running back is usually a luxury pick that high, and the Rams have holes to fill (linebacker and offensive line primary among them). There’s no way around it: This was a rough offseason.

GRADE: D

Jared Goff’s biggest issue last season was that the Rams’ play-action game evaporated. A staple of Sean McVay’s offense, the Rams still used play-action a lot last season but with far less success.

Goff ranked 23rd of 24th qualified passers in passer rating on play-action plays last season, according to Pro Football Focus. In 2017 and 2018, Goff led the NFL in passing yards on play-action passes and was sixth in the league in passer rating on those plays.

Goff used play-action on the third-highest rate among QBs last season (32.8 percent) but his rating on those plays fell from 109.3 in 2017 and 115 in 2018 to 85.9 last season. So the Rams were using play-action as much as anyone in football, and Goff was 25-30 passer rating points worse at it. That’s a problem.

Although analysts have shown there is little correlation between a strong running game and success on play-action, Los Angeles’ running game taking a big step back probably didn’t help. Also, defenses adjusted. That might have started late in the 2018 season, when the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions each took away the Rams’ outside zone runs and neutralized the play-action passes in the process. Either that trend turns back around and the Rams become a successful play-action team again, or Goff will have to figure out how to make up for that lost production.

Aaron Donald had a little more “normal” season in 2019. His 2018, when he set a record for a defensive tackle with 20.5 sacks and also had 41 quarterback hits, is one of the greatest seasons ever for a defensive player. In 2019, Donald was still great. He had 12.5 sacks, 24 quarterback hits, and was the No. 1-graded interior defender in the NFL by Pro Football Focus for the fifth consecutive year. But he wasn’t superhuman. The Rams lost a lot on defense this offseason, but they still have the best defensive player in the game.

The Rams’ over/under win total at BetMGM is 8.5, and most of the action has come in on the under. The odds have moved to -125 on the under, meaning a bettor would have to risk $125 to win $100. They’ll be close to that number. The odds on the Rams missing the playoffs are -200. They’re 2.5-point underdogs at home in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys. There’s not a lot of faith in a Rams bounce-back among oddsmakers.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Tyler Higbee had four straight 100-yard games at the end of 2019. Baseball analyst Bill James would call this signature significance — the magnitude of that performance is enough that we can overlook a smallish sample. Higbee looks like a full-season breakout waiting to happen, as the Rams likely change the shape of their offense [remember how eagerly they discarded Brandin Cooks?]. The market has been proactive with Higbee, but I am still comfortable drafting him as one of the top 6-8 tight ends.”

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Cooper Kupp was a monster in the first half last season, posting a 58-792-5 line. Then in the second half, that dropped to 36-369-5. The Rams’ offense changed, and so did Kupp’s role. The Rams started using more two-tight end sets and that moved Kupp out of the slot. Kupp saw a target on 30.3 percent of his snaps from the slot in the first half, which led the NFL by a wide margin, according to Pro Football Focus. That dropped to 21 percent in the second half. Kupp’s percentage of snaps from the slot fell from 74.1 to 59.7. Kupp is a slot receiver and one of the best in the game, but if the Rams continue to move away from using so many three-receiver sets — tight end Tyler Higbee’s late breakout might ensure that — that means fewer slot snaps for Kupp and presumably less production.

Can the Rams run the ball?

The Rams were a top-10 running team in every major category in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, they were 26th in rushing yards and 27th in yards per attempt. Some of that falloff was game-script related — the Rams went 24-8 in 2017 and 2018 and were often running to protect leads — but the efficiency wasn’t there either. Todd Gurley was a shell of his old self. The Rams drafted Darrell Henderson in the third round last year, and he did very little. The Rams seemed to give up on Henderson when they picked Cam Akers in the second round of this year’s draft. Akers is a good talent, but a significant investment in running back seemed odd with the Rams’ other questions. In a perfect world, Akers is Gurley 2.0 and he reinvigorates the run game and that assists play-action passing. That could help the Rams’ offense return to 2017 and 2018 levels.

The Rams weren’t a bad team last year. They went 9-7 against the toughest schedule in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. They weren’t egregiously poor in any area, aside from rushing offense. If Sean McVay can reinvent the offense, Jared Goff returns to his 2017-18 form and Cam Akers (or someone) gives the run game a punch, the Rams could be in the playoffs again. There were a lot of defections this offseason but still enough front-line talent to be a quality team.

The Rams lost a lot of important players and because they don’t have much cap flexibility, they didn’t add too much. They play in perhaps the toughest division in the NFL, so there won’t be many easy weeks. If Sean McVay is as good of a coach as advertised — and he probably is — then he’ll use the offseason to reinvent his scheme that opponents have caught up to a bit.

What if it doesn’t happen? What if McVay and Jared Goff struggle again? It would feel crushing to realize the Rams’ window to be a contender was that small.

We never think good teams will fall off right away. It’s inconceivable to us that the Kansas City Chiefs, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers or another promising team from 2019 will become mediocre overnight. Unless you’re the New England Patriots, it happens all the time. The Rams took a shot and were tied halfway through the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. Any team would take that scenario. However, it came at a price. The Rams’ sudden success under Sean McVay obscured some poor moves with contracts and trades. Now that the success has waned, we’ll see the Rams take another small step back, as that NFC championship becomes more of a distant memory.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Football Team
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25. 
Atlanta Falcons
24. 
Miami Dolphins
23. 
Las Vegas Raiders
22. 
Los Angeles Chargers
21. 
Houston Texans
20. 
Arizona Cardinals
19. 
Minnesota Vikings
18. 
Chicago Bears
17. 
Los Angeles Rams
16. 
Cleveland Browns
15.
Pittsburgh Steelers
14.
Denver Broncos
13.
Indianapolis Colts
12.
Philadelphia Eagles
11.
Seattle Seahawks
10. 
Green Bay Packers
9.
New England Patriots
8.
Tennessee Titans
7.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6. 
Dallas Cowboys
5.
Buffalo Bills
4. 
San Francisco 49ers
3.
New Orleans Saints