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The Rams Still Face Uncertainty at the QB Position

In the buildup to the 2015 NFL Draft, the national discussion focused on the strengths and weakness of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, the top two quarterbacks in this year’s class.

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In 2013, Foles played in a QB-friendly offense similar to Mariota’s at Oregon.

One of the biggest arguments in favor of Winston developing into a better pro was that he played in Jimbo Fisher’s pro-style offense at Florida State, compared to Marcus Mariota, who operated within the spread and Mark Helfrich’s fast-paced system at Oregon.

So, if one of the drawbacks of Mariota’s game was playing in a quarterback-friendly offense, what does that suggest about Nick Foles?

Given Sam Bradford’s injury history and the lack of available quarterbacks in free agency and the draft, the Rams made a prudent decision to accept the Eagles’ offer for Foles and draft compensation in March. Bradford has only played in seven games in the last two years and was carrying a cap charge of more than $12 million.

As I wrote at the time of the trade, it made sense for the Rams to unburden themselves of Bradford’s cap hit durability concerns in one fell swoop, all while acquiring a quarterback in Foles that was a Pro Bowler in 2013. Plus, Foles is set to make just $1,522,000 this season.

While the trade was sensible for the Rams, there’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding Foles.

We can applaud Jeff Fisher and Les Snead for pulling off a good trade and still wonder about the quarterback production they’ll receive in 2015.

Critics ripped Mariota pre-draft because of the offense he played in at Oregon. In short, the system featured packaged plays that allowed the quarterback to pick up “easy” yards, assuming he could make decisions quickly.

On a given play, Mariota may have had the option to give the ball to the running back on an outside zone handoff, fake to the running back while keeping the ball himself on a read option, throw a “pop” pass to the tight end, or throw a screen to either the slot or outside receiver.

In short, he had options.

As long as Mariota made the right decision based on how the defense reacted, more times than not there was a play to be made somewhere. And because of his natural abilities as a runner and a passer, he was able to execute the offense to near perfection at times. Florida State’s defense will attest to that.

But because the offense is viewed as quarterback-friendly, many people have questioned Mariota’s ability to make the leap to the NFL.

That in mind, it’s fair to question Foles, whose best season came while running a similar system under Chip Kelly in 2013.

That season Foles threw 27 touchdown passes to just two interceptions and led the league in yards per attempt at 9.12. He also finished the season with a 119.2 quarterback rating and helped the Eagles win a division title and a playoff berth.

But last year Foles’ production slipped dramatically, which some believe was due to the play of his offensive line and the absence of DeSean Jackson. While injuries along the O-line did play a part in Philly’s demise last year, Jeremy Maclin proved to be a more than capable No. 1 receiver.

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Fisher has shown he intends to emphasize the Rams’ running game in 2015.

Foles flat out struggled.

NFL defensive coordinators are smart. They figured out that Foles’ athletic limitations meant that he wasn’t much of a threat on read option keepers and thus, he couldn’t force backside defenders to hesitate in efforts not to overpursue and create easy running lanes.

Defenses also started to commit more defenders in the box in order to contain LeSean McCoy. Without a legit running option at quarterback, opponents now had the numbers to choke running lanes and limit McCoy’s ability to pick up positive yards.

Ineffective line play also allowed defenses to put more pressure in Foles’ face, which he often countered by throwing off his back foot or forcing passes into traffic. Even when he wasn’t pressured, Foles was often inaccurate or struggled with ball placement (an underrated part of quarterback assessment, and an area where Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady excel).

This isn’t to suggest that Foles is incapable of being an effective quarterback for the Rams in 2015.

But it’s not rational to simply write off Foles’ 2014 season as an aberration and assume he’ll revert back to his 2013 form. He’ll be running a completely different system in St. Louis and just as we don’t know how Mariota will perform outside of Eugene, it’s fair to wonder how Foles will operate in a pro-style offense.

Here’s the hope: The Rams’ running game finishes with one of the best yards per carry average in the league and Gregg Williams’ defense is lights out from the start.

If Todd Gurley, Tre Mason and the offensive line is truly dominant, then opposing defenses will have to adjust. In theory, the running game will open up play-action and it’ll be up to Foles and Frank Cignetti not to leave production from the passing game on the table.

It’s been evident this offseason that Fisher wants to lean on his defense and rushing attack to win games in 2015.

In light of the Seahawks’ accomplishments the last two years, it’s not a bad strategy. Neither was nabbing Gurley with the No. 10 overall pick, although questions remain about his health as well as the team’s inexperienced O-line.

But that doesn’t mean the pressure won’t be on Foles. While he doesn’t need to be Brady, Manning or Rodgers for the Rams to contend, he does need to play better than he did a year ago in Philadelphia.

NFL teams can go a long way with a great defense and a solid running game. But one surefire way to thwart success is having to deal with a season’s worth of poor production from the quarterback position.

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