The “Greatest Show on Surf” has returned to Los Angeles with an upgrade at the quarterback position. The Los Angeles Rams paid a significant price in draft capital to switch from Jared Goff to a more aggressive downfield passer in Matthew Stafford. The hope is that Stafford's vertical aptitude will unlock the full potential of Sean McVay’s offense, one that already features plenty of big-time playmakers.
The wide receivers are shaping up to be draft-day values at the position, while third-year running back Darrell Henderson Jr. looks to step up big with starting running back Cam Akers ruled out of the 2021 season with a torn Achilles.
2021 TEAM PREVIEW
L.A. is betting on Stafford turning back the clock to 2019 when he was an elite fantasy producer until an injury ended his season around the halfway mark. He ranked sixth in fantasy points per game (21.6), first in big-time throw rate, first in touchdowns from a clean pocket and first in aDOT (11.4).
Stafford’s success came in his first season under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell thanks in part to his tendency to push the ball downfield. Even without Bevell, expect Stafford to deliver the deep-ball threat — a trait that Goff did not provide.
Since the start of the 2019 season, Stafford ranks second in pass-play percentage over 20 yards (17%) and in aDOT (10.7), while Goff ranks 31st (9%) in pass-play percentage over 20 yards and 52nd out of 60 qualifying quarterbacks in aDOT (7.5).
On 20-plus yard passes over the past two seasons, Stafford has a 93.0 PFF passing grade (1,869 yards, 13 TD, 6 INT, 13.0 YPA, 98.1 rating). Goff sits at just 77.6 (1,011 yards, 4 TD, 6 INT, 9.3 YPA, 55.0 rating).
Bank on McVay to embrace Stafford’s ability to throw the ball vertically — that’s what he did with Goff when the offense was first coined the “Greatest Show on Surf” from 2017-2018. Goff owned an impressive 94.1 PFF passing grade on 20-plus yard throws (ninth) and a deep-ball rate of 12%.
Aside from downfield throws, McVay also trusted Goff to throw into the end zone; the young QB finished 11th in end-zone pass attempts. But the Rams offense ranked 31st in end-zone passes last season. That won’t be the case with Stafford, who finished last year seventh in end-zone pass attempts.
This newfound trust in the quarterback position projects extremely favorably for the Rams’ top two wide receivers, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Their fantasy ceilings have increased dramatically with a surplus of high-value targets on the horizon. The days of Woods and Kupp being viewed as only safe-floor options are long gone. They're going to be dangerous this year.
Woods only saw five end-zone targets and ranked outside the top 45 in team air-yards share last season. Yet the perennially underrated receiver finished the 2020 season as the WR12 overall in fantasy points and the WR18 in fantasy points per game. While Woods' ADP (WR19) seems like his absolute floor given his three consecutive top-22 fantasy finishes since 2018, there’s nowhere to go but up with his new quarterback.
The same goes for Kupp, who led the team in yards per route run (1.89), PFF receiving grade (77.0) and target rate per route run (23%) in 2020. Let’s not forget that last time Kupp saw a spike in touchdowns (10 in 2019), he finished as the WR4 overall. He’s already a prime candidate for positive touchdown regression as one of just two receivers to finish with at least 950 receiving yards and score less than four touchdowns.
The only real concern for this Rams passing offense is that it could start slow out of the gates. They'll see the third-most difficult schedule for quarterbacks and fourth-toughest for wide receivers over their first three games. The schedule is also the second-most difficult for running backs.
Still, with playmakers as far as the eye can see, Stafford should undoubtedly finish as a low-end QB1 for fantasy football, especially with the Rams' defense likely to regress from its top-tier status. The defensive line remains elite, but they have lost key pieces to their secondary (John Johnson III, Troy Hill) and linebacker unit (Cory Littleton). That will force Los Angeles to score more points on offense.
A small step back on defense will ensure that the Rams offense continues to rank just above average in total passing attempts after averaging 40 per game over the past three seasons. They've also ranked seventh in pass-play rate within a neutral game script (63%), suggesting that this team is pass-first. That might sound perplexing considering the Rams' overall pass-play rate ranked 25th in 2020 (58%) and 20th (62%) over the two previous seasons.
They have shown an affinity to run the ball, but those numbers don’t tell the entire story. The Rams wait to garner a lead first (by way of the pass) before unleashing their rushing attack. When leading by at least seven points, they ran the ball at the third-highest clip (63.3%) in 2020. With a more competent quarterback under center — along with the injury to their star running back — expect this rate to fall slightly more in line with their average from the past two seasons (53%, 11th), solidifying them as one of the more balanced NFL offenses.
The Rams’ 10.5 projected win total (tied for fourth in the NFL) suggests plenty of positive game scripts are on the way, which will be ideal for the team’s stable of running backs.
In the first iteration of the Rams fantasy football team preview, Henderson was originally listed as a sleeper. He had immense upside if an injury were to occur to Cam Akers — and unfortunately, that scenario came to fruition.
As the team’s entrenched starter, Henderson is primed to break out in 2021 — as all the factors that made Akers a highly-touted breakout player prior to his injury are set up to help Henderson thrive.
All indications are that the Rams are viewing the newly fantasy-ranked RB17 as “the guy,” and they will not add any free agents. However, their depth behind Henderson says otherwise. With no NFL experience across the board from Xavier Jones, Jake Funk and Raymond Calais, don’t assume that Henderson won’t face more competition for touches by the time Week 1 comes along. Free-agent running back Adrian Peterson has strong ties back to the Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell from his tenure spent in Washington.
For now, Jones is the favorite for the RB2 job, and the Athletic's Jordan Rodrigue claims the Rams will deploy a running back by committee to keep Henderson available for the long haul. McVay believes Jones is ‘going to carve out a role for himself,' becoming someone the Rams are “expecting to count on throughout the season.”
And that aligns with what the team did last season with Henderson. The Rams were reluctant to feature him despite the 2020 injury to Akers. He played just two games with a 55% plus snap share and commanded just 14 touches in five games. Malcolm Brown always found a way to get a fair amount of touches working in tandem with Henderson.
Even so, Henderson still has plenty of upside playing in a high-powered offense to warrant status as a fantasy RB2. He was PFF’s highest-graded RB in Weeks 1-8 (90.2) and should be the favorite to be the team’s primary goal-line runner. Henderson also finished third in yards after the catch per reception (10.1) and fourth in PFF pass-blocking grade (83.5), which bodes well for him to seize a legitimate role in the passing game.
Henderson was already posting low-end fantasy RB2 numbers last season as the starter in a committee (RB23 in expected fantasy points per game), so it’s not outlandish to project him higher in 2021 in what should be a high-flying offense. Even a small uptick in general usage would easily put him into the top-15 conversation, making him fairly priced at an RB19 ADP.
Just be wary that he could start slow out the gates, with the Rams facing the second-most difficult strength of schedule for running backs to open the first five weeks of the season.
TE Tyler Higbee
Many are betting that Tyler Higbee will be a fantasy TE1 now that Gerald Everett is out of the way. Sell the hype. The market is overvaluing his 2019 five-game sample instead of looking at what Higbee has been for the rest of his career, functioning basically as a blocking tight end. His 21% pass-blocking snap rate was second among all tight ends. Only Chris Herndon blocked more in 2020.
To make matters worse, Higbee’s decreased threat rate is also extremely alarming. It fell by 40% from 2019, the most among all players. Great players are targeted at a high rate, so Higbee’s dramatic fall is very bad for his outlook.
Also, don’t overlook second-year tight end Brycen Hopkins. He barely played as a rookie, but he profiles as a prototypical pass-catching TE who can deliver splash plays on deep routes. He has the speed to be a mismatch in the passing game, and that could elevate him to a receiving tight end role.
Van Jefferson had his moments as a rookie despite commanding only 34 targets and only seeing a 50% snap share twice. The 2019 second-round pick led the Rams wide receivers in total receiving yards (96) over their last two contests and emerged as a reliable deep-threat with a 10.4 aDOT.
His production stemmed from creating separation from defenders. Against single coverage, Jefferson ranked in the 94th percentile among wide receivers last season, gaining separation on 70% of his targets.
Expect Jefferson to reprise the perimeter/downfield role in 2021 with the departure of Josh Reynolds, who led the team in air yards share (23%) and deep target share (27%) last season. If Jefferson can fill that “high-value target” role on the perimeter, it will be extremely tantalizing for his fantasy outlook.
The additions of DeSean Jackson and the selection of TuTu Atwell in the second round have soured some on Jefferson's Year 2 potential but fear not. D-Jax has only 23 catches over the past two years in eight games — several of which he left early due to injuries. And Atwell profiles much more like a gadget/slot-type player, so there won’t be much if any overlap with Jefferson’s opportunities in what is shaping up to be a top-five scoring offense.