Now that the 2014 NFL draft is in the books, are the Rams any closer to catching the Seahawks?
That’s all this offseason boils down to. Head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead beefed up the interior of their lines with the selections of Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald, added to their secondary depth with the choices of Lamarcus Joyner and E.J. Gaines, and hopefully added more playmaking ability to their offense with the surprise pick of Tre Mason in the third round. But while their draft was praised both nationally and locally, questions still remain.
It’s encouraging that the Rams are focused on playing the same hard-nosed football that has branded the Seahawks and 49ers for the past two-plus seasons. But while everyone is focused on the Rams’ ability to run the ball with authority and get after the quarterback (which are important, no doubt), they’re not focusing on two other components that helped Seattle and San Francisco get to the NFC title game a year ago. Listeners of “The Turn” know of my infatuation with team turnovers and the yards per attempt (YPA) statistic for quarterbacks. I focus so much attention on those two stats because they translate to wins and losses in the NFL.
Take last year, for example. I went week-by-week during the 2013 regular season and counted 125 teams that won both the turnover battle and saw their quarterback finish with a higher YPA than their opponent. Of those 125 teams, 113 of them won the game. That’s a winning percentage of 90 percent. There’s more.
The margin of defeat for the 12 teams that somehow lost the game despite winning the turnover and YPA battles was 5.17. Seven of those teams lost by a field goal or less, with only three teams losing by double digits: the Jaguars in Week 2, the Jaguars again in Week 16 and the Bills in Week 17.
How does all of this correlate to the Rams? While adding a run mauler like Robinson to the offensive line is important for a team that wants to establish the run, Sam Bradford must improve his career 6.29 yards per pass average if this team is serious about contending for a playoff spot. The Seahawks’ defense and running game rightfully drew most of the attention last year, but when the team needed to put the ball in the air, Russell Wilson completed passes at an 8.25 clip. I have my criticisms of Colin Kaepernick, but he, too, posted a solid YPA of 7.69. This isn’t all on Bradford, by the way. Whether it was a nagging ankle injury, added responsibility or a limited route tree, Chris Givens wasn’t the same player last year as he was as a rookie. Jared Cook also disappeared after his heroics in Week 1, Brian Quick gave the team little to nothing from a production standpoint and Brian Schottenheimer didn’t consistently find ways to exploit Tavon Austin’s playmaking ability.
It really didn’t matter if it was Bradford, Kellen Clemens or Brett Favre under center – the Rams simply didn’t receive enough production from their receiving corps last year. And outside of adding Kenny Britt, the front office didn’t do much to shake things up this offseason, either. Even knowing that Bailey would be suspended the first four games of the season, Fisher and Snead decided during the draft that they would stay pat at receiver. Like it or not, the Rams have doubled down on Givens, Austin, Bailey, Quick, Cook and now Britt.
Zac Stacy and the running game should remain the focal point of the Rams’ offense. Everyone saw what happened last year when Fisher decided to ditch spread-heavy concepts for ground-and-pound football. But whether the Rams run the football 10 times a game or 40, it doesn’t lessen the importance of Bradford, Schottenheimer and the receiving corps’ ability to stretch a defense when necessary. There’s not enough space in this column to discuss the pending health of the offensive line, but that will be a major factor for the offense as well.
The Rams also need to improve their turnover ratio to close the gap between them and the Seahawks, who ranked first in that category a season ago. The defense did its part in 2013 by forcing a league-best 24 fumbles, but it finished tied for 20th in interceptions with a plus/minus differential of even for the year.
The biggest questions facing the Rams’ defense is the secondary. Janoris Jenkins has the skill set of a Pro Bowl corner, but he proved last year that he needed to add strength this offseason after being manhandled by more physical receivers like Anquan Boldin. According to Pro Football Focus, Jenkins was flagged 10 times last season, which ranked him second behind only Green Bay’s Tramon Williams (who finished with 11). Trumaine Johnson wasn’t much better, as he was flagged a total of eight times, ranking him ninth among NFL corners. If those two were beat a year ago, they would result to grabbing and holding receivers instead of playing fundamentally sound.
How the current group of safeties fit into Gregg Williams’ defense will also be a question heading into training camp. T.J. McDonald is a heavy hitter who could excel in the role once held by former Saint Roman Harper when both he and Williams were in New Orleans. But who will man the free safety position next to McDonald? Rodney McLeod is a versatile piece, but he was seemingly exposed over the course of a 16-game season. Joyner is also an intriguing prospect, but is it asking too much for him to start as a rookie?
I loved what the Rams did in the draft. They selected prospects with talent, versatility and upside, and who also represented value at their respective draft slots. In fact, I like the makeup of this roster better than most in the league.
But the NFC West is a different animal. It’s the best division in football, and the Seahawks and 49ers weren’t only successful last year because of their defenses and rushing attack. Time will tell if the Rams can turn a successful offseason off the field into execution and production on it.