This article is part of our Team Previews series.
No team has improved more than the Rams in the last calendar year, transiting from bottom feeder to legitimate Super Bowl contender. With difference makers dotting the roster, the pressure to live up to expectations has been lessened for Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and company.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
ALL IN AFTER BUSY OFFSEASON
After making their first playoff appearance since 2004, the Rams loaded up with big names on both sides of the ball during the offseason. Brandin Cooks was acquired for a 2018 first-round selection to replace free-agent departure Sammy Watkins. The secondary received a considerable boost with the additions of cornerbacks Marcus Peters from Kansas City and Aqib Talib from Denver, and Los Angeles also signed Ndamukong Suh to wreak havoc alongside Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers in the trenches. While it's rare for a contender to add four Pro-Bowl talents in a single offseason, the team may have paid a long-term price. For the second consecutive draft, the Rams didn't have a first-rounder, and offensive lineman Joseph Noteboom was their first selection at 89th overall. The win-now approach puts pressure on both coach Sean McVay and quarterback Jared Goff to demonstrate their 2017 success wasn't a flash in the pan, and on-paper upgrades haven't always guaranteed improvement in the past, either. Still, this roster explodes off the page, and while McVay's track record isn't extensive, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has proven capable of putting together top-notch units. With talented playmakers on offense and defense, the Rams are poised to build on last season's success.
GURLEY POSITIONED FOR ANOTHER MONSTER SHOWING
Todd Gurley was the lifeblood of the Rams offense last year, and there's no reason to expect him to slow down in 2018. Not only did his 2,093 yards from scrimmage pace all running backs, but he was also just the 10th rusher to top the 2,000-yard mark over the past 10 seasons. Furthermore, his 19 total touchdowns were five more than the next closest player (the Saints' Alvin Kamara), and his 64 receptions for 788 yards marked career highs. Gurley's breakout was fueled by efficient running – his yards per carry soared from 3.2 in 2016 to 4.7 last season – under the play calling of first-year coach Sean McVay. In the passing attack, Gurley thrived as a safety blanket for quarterback Jared Goff, silencing concerns about the back's ability to contribute through the air. Notably, his 12.3 yards per catch ranked second among running backs with at least 30 targets. He took the final step to workhorse status with his usage in the red zone, where he gobbled up 63 runs, including 22 inside the five-yard line. Proving himself as a do-it-all option, Gurley came to an agreement with the team on a four-year extension with $45 million guaranteed just before training camp. With little competition for touches and behind an offensive line that returns intact, he'll have the best possible situation in which to replicate his 2017 campaign.
WHAT WILL YEAR 3 BRING FOR GOFF?
Jared Goff looked drastically overwhelmed as a rookie signal-caller in 2016 but he silenced doubters and shook the bust label last season by shepherding the Rams to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. While coach Sean McVay's game planning deserves a lot of credit for the quarterback's coming-out party, Goff's campaign shouldn't be underappreciated. After all, the Rams made the leap from lowest-scoring offense to leading the entire NFL in points in one season. Goff was one of the driving forces, especially after a Week 8 bye, throwing for multiple touchdowns in seven of the next eight games on his way to 19 during that span. For the entire year, his completion percentage (64.8) and QB rating (106.9) were highest on third downs, and he was also much better on the road (63.3 and 109.8, respectively). Ranking third overall with 8.0 yards per attempt was simply the icing on the cake. There is cause for modest concern, though. The Rams lost both offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson to other organizations in the offseason, but it'll also mean a closer connection with McVay, who hasn't replaced LaFleur on the coaching staff. Considering Goff's pedigree as a first overall pick and the supporting cast around him, he should be able to extend his breakout.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Todd Gurley
Coach Sean McVay's offense was a perfect fit for Gurley last season, when the Rams went from worst to first in scoring in just one year. After leading the league in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns, Gurley will retain a hefty workload in a Rams offense that ranked first in pace of play in the first half of games in 2017.
RISING: Cooper Kupp
The Rams' top receiver as a rookie, Kupp should enhance his name further with a full offseason to build chemistry with Jared Goff. Kupp projects as a red-zone favorite after garnering 23 targets in the region last season.
FALLING: Robert Woods
On a per-game basis, Woods had a career year in 2017. That said, the target share of the possession receiver may not increase with Brandin Cooks' arrival in Los Angeles and projected development from Kupp.
SLEEPER: Gerald Everett
While considered a reach in the second round of the 2017 draft, Everett flashed athleticism as a rookie with two touchdowns and four of his 16 catches going for 20-plus yards. A lack of targets is the only concern.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING TIGHT END
While there aren't likely to be many targets to go around in the Los Angeles passing attack for tight ends, it would be surprising if Gerald Everett was more involved in the offense in 2018. Remember, getting the ball in Todd Gurley's hands will continue to be priority No. 1. Tyler Higbee is the better blocker and will continue to be leaned on in that realm, especially in rushing situations. Having said that, Everett's athleticism and pedigree (44th overall selection in 2017) should position him well ahead of Higbee for fantasy purposes. The Southern Alabama product showcased big-play ability with 15.3 yards per reception on 16 catches during his first pro season, and Everett owns the potential to mimic Jordan Reed's usage when Sean McVay guided the Redskins offense as coordinator from 2014 through 2016.
Brandin Cooks – WR (from Patriots)
Deep threat parlayed trade from New England into five-year extension.
Marcus Peters – CB (from Chiefs)
His 19 interceptions since 2015 are an NFL-best.
Aqib Talib – CB (from Broncos)
Playmaking corner reunites with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Ndamukong Suh – DT (from Dolphins)
Signed at a discount to play for a contender.
John Kelly – RB (Rd. 4, No. 176 – Tennessee)
Could carve out role in the pass game or as a change-of-pace back.
Sammy Watkins – WR (to Chiefs)
Scored eight touchdowns in a low-volume role in 2017.
Tavon Austin – WR (to Cowboys)
Unable to fulfill promise, couldn't find a place in potent offense.
Alec Ogletree – LB (to Giants)
Led all Rams with 95 combined tackles last season.
THE INJURY FRONT
Greg Zuerlein, K – On track for Week 1 following December surgery to remove part of a disc in his back, Zuerlein is in line for another monster fantasy showing. He was on pace to set the single-season record for points by a kicker through 14 games last year. Barring a setback during training camp, he projects to have another strong season kicking for a likely contender. However, duplicating his 95.0 percent conversion rate on field goals will probably be tough to repeat.
Josh Reynolds, WR – The 6-3 receiver underwent offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in February, but Reynolds is expected to be ready for training camp. He projects to begin the season fourth on the depth chart, so his virtual upside is probably limited unless an injury or two afflict the wideouts in front of him on the depth chart. Still, he flashed deep-league potential during a three-week stretch as a rookie last year.
Marc Barron, LB – The potential signal-caller for coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 defense is recovering from shoulder surgery and also had bone spurs removed from his left heel during the offseason. Barron was a tackle machine for the Rams the past three years, and his health will be paramount to the success of Los Angeles' inexperienced linebacker corps. Expect the training staff to be extremely cautious with the 28-year-old Barron heading into the 2018 season.