Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up: The Rams, who head back to Los Angeles with one giant question mark on offense. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
DE Chris Long, ILB James Laurinaitis, TE Jared Cook, DT Nick Fairley, OLB Mark Barron, CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Janoris Jenkins, DE William Hayes, QB Case Keenum
Players that must be re-signed
Johnson, Jenkins, Fairley, Hayes, Barron: The Rams saved $23 million in 2016 cap space with the recent releases of Long, Laurinaitis and Cook, and none of those guys will be back unless they agree to franchise-friendly contracts—probably one-year deals for the veteran minimum—after shopping their services around. Probably won’t happen. So with those names out of the way, there is the matter of Johnson and Jenkins, the Rams’ two starting cornerbacks. Both played very well in 2015, and Johnson was particularly marvelous, allowing a 55.0 opposing quarterback rating and one touchdown versus seven picks in 93 total targets. Right now, the Rams are around the $98 million mark in 2016 cap space, which may leave the team able to re-sign both players. Losing one would be a big hit—they can't lose both.
With all the legitimate talk about Aaron Donald as perhaps the NFL’s most dominant defensive lineman, Hayes and Fairley become more important now that Long is out of the picture. Both players had great seasons, and Hayes is one of the game’s most underrated ends right now: he finished second to Donald in total pressures. Fairley proved to be a highly disruptive presence in the middle during his one-year prove-it deal in St. Louis. Barron shone as a hybrid safety/linebacker in a defense built to support that position.
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Most important position to improve
Quarterback: It’s been more than a decade since the Rams could rely on the same quarterback from year to year, and since Marc Bulger announced his retirement in 2011, it’s probably time to find a new guy. Sam Bradford couldn’t get past his own injuries and the team’s failure to find credible receivers (a problem that continues to this day), and the trade that sent him to Philadelphia in exchange for Nick Foles was a disaster from the Rams’ side.
Foles’s prospects don’t look much better in L.A.—he’s throwing to questionable targets behind an offensive line that affords very little protection, and he isn’t the kind of quarterback who deals well with defensive pressure. He was eventually benched in 2015 for Case Keenum, who wasn’t much better. It’s abundantly clear that this team will not move forward until it finds that legitimate franchise quarterback. Heck, an above-average stopgap would be an enormous improvement at this point, and the process of finding a significant upgrade absolutely needs to start now.
Other positions to improve
Offensive line, receiver, secondary: Give the Rams credit—they’ve certainly canvassed the draft in search of better line talent. They took Auburn’s Greg Robinson with the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft and added two more offensive linemen—Wisconsin’s Rob Havenstein and Louisville’s Jamon Brown—in the first three rounds last season. The effectiveness of those moves, however, is highly subjective. Head coach Jeff Fisher has been committed to the idea that Robinson can be a credible left tackle, but the tape shows otherwise. Outside of Havenstein and guard Garrett Reynolds, there’s too much on that line that either needs development or outright replacement.
The Rams last had a 1,000-yard receiver back in 2007, when Torry Holt finished with 1,189 yards. Since then, they’ve fielded an unenviable cast of misses, busts and castoffs, and the current roster doesn’t offer much potential. Tavon Austin works in certain packages, but he has not yet proven that he can be an every-down threat to enemy defenses. He led the team with 52 catches last year but amassed just 473 yards and five touchdowns. Cook finished second with 39 catches, and he is now gone. Veteran Kenny Britt is a patch player. This team needs to completely rethink the position.
If the Rams can’t retain both Johnson and Jenkins, secondary help becomes on of their top needs.
Overall priority this off-season
Find a direction on offense: Jeff Fisher has been the Rams’ head coach since 2012. In those four seasons, the team has never finished higher than 23rd in offensive yards and 21st in offensive points. Last season’s 7–9 record despite an offense that ranked 29th in points and dead last in yards proved a couple of things: First, that a great defense can get you halfway there all by itself, and second, that it would be amazing to see Todd Gurley supported by the threat of a passing game. Three consecutive offensive coordinators (Brian Schottenheimer, Rob Boras, Frank Cignetti) did little to maximize their personnel in St. Louis, and without a true quarterback, any sort of defining vision is fruitless.
The Rams are back in Los Angeles for the first time since 1994, and that team may have had a better offense than this one, piloted as it was by quarterback Chris Miller, running back Jerome Bettis and the delightfully-named Flipper Anderson catching most of Miller’s passes. The team’s current offensive malaise goes far beyond this offensive coordinator or that quarterback—it’s a lack of performance that permeates the whole franchise. If the Rams aren’t able to turn that around sooner rather than later, it’s worth asking if Fisher will be able to keep his job. Season after season of “what if” on offense won’t play as well in the Rams’ new high-profile digs.