Happy Friday, everyone. And since the regular season is here, that means the return of Five Good Questions where we get to know a bit about the Raiders’ next opponent from the perspective of someone who knows them best.
1. What’s been the feeling with regard to locking in your homegrown superstar defensive lineman for the rest of his career? Asking for a friend.
Well, it was a long process to hold on to Aaron Donald. A holdout last year that extended into the regular season. Another holdout this year. Rhetoric that amped up the suggestion that signing a defensive lineman to the kind of terms Donald eventually agreed to would undermine the Rams’ ability to sign top talent and remain competitive. And yet for all of that and whatever hurdles they had to clear behind closed doors in negotiations, they got it done.
If there’s a gripe, and boy is it a small one, it’s a question as to why the whole process had to drag on like this in the first place. If you had asked me last May if I was comfortable re-signing Aaron Donald to the terms they finally locked him down for, we would have never had to deal with any of the grief in the first place. And while I get that negotiations are a process and both sides have to respect that process in order to get to a point that both sides feel like they’re in a win-win situation, when you look at how quickly the Chicago Bears were able to sign Khalil Mack to a long-term deal, it at least lends credence to the idea that Donald just wanted to sit out of training camp and the preseason. And look...if Aaron Donald wants to sit out training camp and the preseason, Aaron Donald sits out training camp and the preseason. It just really didn’t need to be this hard.
But in the end, it’s done. Aaron Donald is going to be a Ram for years to come at a price that he deserves. It’s hard to really have any problem with that in any way.
2. Who is replacing Robert Quinn, Connor Barwin, and Alec Ogletree and do you expect those to be upgrades, downgrades, or other?
Uh...well, I don’t know!
So there’s been a ton of turnover across the linebackers. Quinn and Tree were traded out to help afford some of the other moves this year. Barwin was a transitory component to help ease in Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips to the existing personnel. And in came ILB Ramik Wilson and some rookie support inside and outside to push the existing depth chart up. But with such limited performance in the preseason (the “true” starting defense got just seven snaps in the four games; the offense got none...), it’s hard to get a good feel for who’s going to start and how the rotation will be managed. Throw in the fact that ILB Mark Barron came out of 2017 hampered by a couple different injuries and still isn’t 100%...
Normally, Barron would be the first man up in the middle. I’d expect third-year LB Cory Littleton to be the first choice alongside him. On the outside, Matt Longacre and Samson Ebukam will likely get first crack, but role will be key here. We could see Dominique Easley or even rookie Justin Lawler get significant time. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the Rams are apt to set up plenty out of a nickel base which would leave just three linebacking spots as opposed to a conventional 3-4 look.
As to whether it’s an upgrade or downgrade, the edge rush component was not consistent at all last year without blitz support. And the interior run defense, especially with regard to Ogeltree, was not good. By any measure. And while there’s room to downgrade, I think the likelihood is that there’s little dropoff in performance while coming in (a) much less expensive and (b) offering much more upside as the younger players grow under Phillips’ and the rest of the defensive coaching staff’s tutelage.
So um...let’s see!
3. What areas of Sean McVay’s coaching/schemes do you see shades of Jon Gruden’s influence if any?
I think more than anything, it’s more about personality and philosophy, not so much the football. I think McVay picked up a lot of that coming up with Washington and tinkering with different schemes over the last few years. Gruden, though, I think had an outsized effect on how he coaches, not necessarily what he coaches. Ideas of management and leadership moreso than any tactical or schematic carryover. And that’s obviously a good thing!
The biggest question for McVay (and yall’s Gruden 2.0 era at some point) is one of greater challenge. As satisfying as last year’s turnaround was, the Rams still bowed out of the playoffs without a win. Expectations are higher now, and the product delivered has to be too. So really the challenge for the duo moving forward isn’t as much about getting back to the fringe of success but delivering upon it in January (and/or February...).
4. I see a few very strong areas on the Rams roster, but what area(s) are way too suspect for comfort?
The two major ones are the aforementioned LB corps but also the offensive line. Starting LT Andrew Whitworth has had a very underrated career, but he’s nearing a 37th birthday this season. LG Rodger Saffold crossed into his 30s this summer. And C John Sullivan also just hit 33. RG Jamon Brown, still on his rookie deal, is suspended for the first two games of the season leaving RT Rob Havenstein to help out Austin Blythe alongside him for the first two games. Luckily, the entire line was healthy all of last season; they were the only line to play all five players all year and would have played all 16 games had they not sat the starters in Week 17 in anticipation of the playoffs.
Thankfully, the Rams brought in some talent through the draft to put together some legitimate options with potential should the starters miss time. But the Rams are starting the year with just eight offensive linemen on the 53-man roster, an indication of how thin the talent band is on the line.
5. With the turnover on the roster, do you expect this team to be better, worse, or the same as last season and why?
Overall, I think it will be better. The problem is that the roster might only be marginally better and it wasn’t the problem last year. The Rams held with every team they played last year...except when it mattered most. The Rams’ widest loss in terms of performance was in the playoffs against the Atlanta Falcons. So I think the major concern isn’t the roster. But it wasn’t last year.
It’s coming up with the best, most complete performances when they’re needed most. They failed, perhaps miserably, in this aspect last year. Answering the question as to why is going to have to come on the field this year. And that’s the real question we’re facing with this season is if the Rams have solved something beyond the quality of the roster they’ve assembled.
If they have, it’s going to make for a fun postseason for Rams fans. If they haven’t, it will be a monumental waste that we’re all going to be wondering what the cause of it was and where that means we’re headed beyond this year.
I will add a link to my answers to his question when they are posted.