1. How is former Cal Bear Jared Goff looking this season? Is there any kind of QB competition or is Goff the guy?
Yup, that's the question. The Rams moved up to take Goff with the first pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, sending their 2017 first-rounder to Tennessee Titans and ensuring that any immediate major improvements to the team would have to come through development of the existing roster and not an influx of draft picks akin to what the Rams earned from the RGIII trade in 2012. In doing so, Jeff Fisher ensured that his only pathway to avoid being fired was to ensure the Rams won with Goff in 201g (Ron Howard voice: they did not).
So now having fired Fisher on the back of Goff's disastrous rookie season, it's up to the youngest head coach in NFL history, Sean McVay, to extract some kind of legitimate improvement on Goff's behalf not necessarily to validate the trade (that might have already been ensured to be impossible) but to just get him to a playable level that doesn't prevent the Rams from their first winning season since 2003, a winning season that doesn't have to come this year.
McVay wasn't hired to turn the team around in 2017. He'll have a couple of years to do it. So while there's perhaps not a QB competition between Goff and third-year backup QB Sean Mannion who never saw the field working behind Nick Foles and Case Keenum in 2015 or Keenum and Goff in 2016 (though HOFer and former Rams RB Eric Dickerson might disagree), there is a level of pressure on Goff that didn't exist last year. McVay's trajectory is to get the Rams into the playoffs in the next 2-3 years. If Goff's play suggests he's going to be a an active reason that trajectory becomes harder to achieve? We'll get a QB competition on our hands regardless of who's on the roster.
The bottom line is that Jared Goff is a #1 overall pick in his second year coming off of a season in which he went 0-7 and put up one of the worst rookie campaigns in history. He doesn't have to lead the Rams to a 12-4 record, but he's got to put 2016 as much to bed as the Fisherball era.
2. Can we expect to see Sammy Watkins play in the game? If so, how much?
Yeah, supposedly he'll be involved early on on Saturday. It's hard to know what to expect in general given the turnover on offense. Watkins is the best WR the Rams have had, talent-wise, in a decade. They've provided him with depth cover in his former teammate with the Buffalo Bills, Robert Woods, and four picks from the last two drafts: Pharoh Cooper (fourth-round) and Mike Thomas (sixth) from 2016 and Cooper Kupp (third) and Josh Reynolds (fourth) from this spring. So the WR depth chart is stacked but also radically different from 2016. Same goes for tight end with second-year TE Tyler Higbee and rookie second-round pick TE Gerald Everett wrapping up an entirely new receiving group for Goff.
He's got targets to work out. And figuring out a comfort zone in McVay's offensive system is likely priority #1. How he does that while forming a connection with Watkins is obviously untested, but Saturday will give us a first glimpse.
3. Both the Raiders and Rams have a player with the name Donald holding out at the moment. What's the status of Aaron Donald's situation, do the fans seem to side more with Donald or the organization? Who is filling in for him?
It's tough to tell. Rumors have leaked suggesting some kind of six-year, $120m deal for Donald, but I'm not sure how much to buy into that given that they're being whispered at and not legitimately reported. It's the kind of rumor that comes out because one side is trying to capture some leverage in the negotiations.
As for the fans, I'm actually pretty surprised. I assumed that Donald, based on his play and that the Rams aren't in a win-now situation, would have carried near universal support from the fans. That just hasn't been the case. I'm seeing more and more, fans are turning on Donald and calling for him to join the team. With Khalil Mack reporting while angling for a new deal, many Rams fans are asking why Donald's not doing the same. It's definitely a schism that I wasn't prepared for as deeply as it has developed.
As for the fill-ins, it's hard to say. The starting defensive line was going to be Donald and DE Dominique Easley aside NT Michael Brockers. Donald's holding out, and Easley injured his ACL in training camp and will miss the season. So I think the Rams are trying to figure out who might be able to contribute there. This is the first year for the Rams to bring in a 3-4 defense under new Defensive Coordinator, so it might give a leg up to guys who have 3-4 DE experience. So some combination of Ethan Westbrooks, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Tanzel Smart and Morgan Fox are in line for support in the interim.
4. Give me an under the radar guy on each side of the ball for the Rams who could give the Raiders the most trouble in this game
On offense, I'm eager to see rookie WR Josh Reynolds. A fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M, Reynolds has been injured for training camp and just got on the field this week. Perhaps that's not the same as someone who could give you trouble, but I'm sure he's motivated to make up for lost time. If I'm answering it sincerely, RB Justin Davis opened a lot of eyes last weekend. A UDFA RB out of USC, he already had a hometown bandwagon. Despite two fumbles (one of which was recovered by the opposing defense), Davis was decisive in his running. Perhaps more emboldening, he had more room to work with than starting RB Todd Gurley or backup RB Malcolm Brown. If that third string running game has something figured out, I could see Davis' style working well again.
Defensively, last week was so complete it's hard to pick one guy. The Rams held the Dallas Cowboys to just 200 yards passing and 48 on the ground. Suffice to say, all levels were working on defense. Up front, I'm eager to see rookie sixth-round DL Tanzel Smart. He got a ton of work on Saturday and flashed some good gap fill skills. Behind the line, OLB Ejuan Price had a good game against the Cowboys. A seventh-round rookie out of Pitt, Price should have opportunities in the regular season with little depth at OLB behind starters Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin. And CB Mike Jordan probably had the best game out of anyone on the Rams overall. So it's tough to pick one of those three in Smart, Price and Jordan, but the Rams have such good depth that it's likely to be a good problem to have in 2017.
5. What area of this Rams team would you say is the strongest? Weakest? Why?
Welp, I kind of led this one at the end of my last response. It's all about defense right now.
The offense last year was the worst in the NFL (by a large margin) and one of the worst in history. As much as fans want Jeff Fisher to act as a scapegoat and assume responsibility for all of the Rams' failures last year, the 2016 offense was the worst of the five Fisher oversaw. So there's something beyond just Fisher's skils as a coach or his staff's that made last year's offense so bad.
Defensively, the roster is much better, but the performances never lived up their potential on a consistent basis. Two years ago, MMQB's Andy Benoit proclaimed the Rams would be able to claim the NFL's best defense. They ended up 23rd in yards allowed including a four-game stretch from Weeks 10-13 in which they lost by a combined 36-111. Last year, the Rams were again hoping that a stronger defense would paper over the deficiencies of the offense, but they finished 23rd in points allowed with six games in which the Rams' opponent scored at least 30 points in a season in which they were by some metrics the team that dealt with the least injuries in the NFL.
I offer only of that as context as we're in the same spot. McVay was brought in to oversee the offensive transition while Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips is being leaned on to finally get the Rams' defense into the top tier.
Being more specific, on offense I worry most about the offensive line. It was horrible last year. And while the signing of LT Andrew Whitworth should immediately pay dividends both for protecting Goff's blindside and taking Greg Robinson out of that role (the latter probably being more valuable than the former). The issue though is that Whitworth is 35-years old and he only plays one position. So while he could help the left side immensely as long as he stays healthy and age doesn't catch up to him too quickly, the Rams have more issues than just left tackle. The depth does little to quell those concerns.
On defense, any line with Aaron Donald is going to be able to wreak havoc. Playing Donald alongside Brockers will always be a potent combination. I'm also a fan of the secondary, though cornerback depth could be an issue especially in 2018 if CB Trumaine Johnson, franchise tagged successively for the last two seasons, ends up finally swimming in the free agent waters.
To see my answers to his questions, click here.