In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.
The Los Angeles Rams have come to be defined by Sean McVay’s offense since he took over as head coach, but it was the Rams’ defense under first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley that stole the show in 2020. Their play on that side of the ball — which allowed a league-low -0.15 expected points added (EPA) per play — was critical to their 10-6 record in a competitive NFC West.
Light on cap space and draft capital, Les Snead kept his foot on the gas pedal with yet another blockbuster trade for Matthew Stafford that sent Jared Goff back to the Detroit Lions. The team has made it clear that they’re all-in for a Super Bowl in this window that they’ve created.
Projected cap space (Over the Cap): – $35,136,331 (2nd lowest in NFL)
Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 57, 101, 103, 140, 210, 251
Projected 2021 offense
|Position||Player||2020 PFF grade rank||2021 cap hit|
|QB||Matthew Stafford||13 / 32||$20.0 million|
|RB||Cam Akers||22 / 70||$1.4 million|
|WR||Robert Woods||57 / 127||$13.9 million|
|WR||Cooper Kupp||18 / 127||$14.5 million|
|TE||Tyler Higbee||30 / 71||$7.5 million|
|LT||Andrew Whitworth||6 / 38||$11.2 million|
|RG||Austin Corbett||7 / 40||$1.5 million|
|RT||Rob Havenstein||5 / 38||$8.3 million|
The big news offensively is the change at the quarterback position from Goff to Stafford. You can balk at what the Rams had to give up in the trade to bring Stafford in, but he does project as a better option heading into the 2021 season.
The current needs offensively are sparing. The Rams could add another player to compete for the WR3 job with Josh Reynolds hitting free agency. Second-year wideout Van Jefferson currently sits as the favorite to take those snaps next season. Gerald Everett joins Reynolds as a notable receiving threat hitting free agency, but Higbee remains under contract to lead the position.
Los Angeles’ offensive line is the other area where we could see some movement. It was a much-improved group from 2019 to 2020, but Austin Blythe’s free-agent status opens a potential hole at the center position. Joseph Noteboom began the 2020 season as the team’s starting left guard before a calf injury sent him to injured reserve. David Edwards, the second-year man out of Wisconsin, played well in his place, likely leading to an offseason competition at the position.
Where does Stafford serve as the biggest upgrade over Goff?
From a high-level perspective, Stafford has been a better quarterback option than Goff over the past four years. Since 2017, Stafford’s 87.6 grade ranks ninth among 32 qualifying quarterbacks, while Goff’s mark of 82.4 ranks 17th. The gap becomes even wider if you simply look at the last two seasons, with Stafford ranking 10th and Goff ranking 22nd.
The one area where Stafford really stands out compared to Goff is his play at the extremes, captured by big-time throws and turnover-worthy plays. Over the last two years, Stafford ranks fourth in big-time throw rate behind only Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Goff ranks 26th. Part of that can be attributed to the offensive schemes, as the Rams offense didn’t provide as many opportunities for impressive downfield throws as Detroit’s.
In that case, the reverse should be true when it comes to turnover-worthy plays. Schematically, one would expect Goff to do a better job of taking care of the football than Stafford, but that wasn’t the case. Stafford ranked ninth among qualifying quarterbacks in turnover-worthy play rate, while Goff ranked 23rd. You have to assume the discrepancy in “highs” and “lows” was a big reason why the Rams were so aggressive in making the change at the position.
Will Los Angeles make adding speed to the wide receiver position a priority this offseason?
When you’re looking at what this wide receiver position could use heading into 2021, it’s more speed. The Rams’ top two wide receivers both do their best work in the short and intermediate portions of the field. Jefferson has some speed, but he’s not necessarily a player whose speed will scare defenses downfield. There is no Brandin Cooks on this roster.
The Rams are going to be hard-pressed to find a receiver of Cooks’ caliber this offseason, but they should be looking to add someone who can pick up yardage in chunks outside. Per Cameron Da Silva of the Rams Wire, it’s something that McVay himself has mentioned since the 2020 season.
“When you have to go 12- and 15-play drives consistently, your margin for error is so small, the level of competition is so great that you’ve got to be able to find ways to continuously create explosives, give yourself a little bit of margin for error that it’s not always taking that many plays to produce points in this league,” McVay said.
McVay’s scheme is certainly capable of providing those explosives off the wide zone rushing attack and play-action progressions that follow, but adding guys who can find the end zone every single time they touch the ball is the quickest way to add explosiveness to an offense. Look for Los Angeles to try to add some of that speed in the coming weeks.
Do we get the 2019 or 2020 version of the Rams’ offensive line next season?
There were no significant personnel changes along the Rams' offensive line from 2019 to 2020, but the group took a massive leap this past season. In PFF’s offensive line rankings — which are primarily based on grade in a given season — the Rams jumped from 31st following the 2019 season to third after the 2020 season. As I said, the personnel wasn’t all that different, so what changed?
It’s really as simple as individual improvement across the board. Whitworth raised his overall grade from 72.8 to 86.8. Blythe went from 50.2 to 70.3. Corbett jumped from 51.7 to 73.4. Havenstein had a bigger one-year bump than all of them, climbing from a 50.9 PFF grade in 2019 to an 80.6 mark this past season.
Along with that improvement, health also played an important role. Only six offensive linemen played at least 100 snaps for the Rams in 2020 compared to nine players taking that many snaps for the team in 2019.
It’s a group that should return largely intact for the 2021 campaign, the lone exclusion being uncertainty surrounding whether Blythe will return in free agency. Los Angeles will be hoping that the group up front can continue to build on a bounce-back year last season to provide plenty of clean pockets for Stafford in his first year with the team.
Potential targets at open spots
I opted here for two players who could add some speed to the receiving corps. Stills profiles as the more immediate impact player, given the eight NFL seasons under his belt. He was released last season by Houston, but he averaged at least 14.5 yards per reception in each of his seven seasons before 2020.
Collins is more of a developmental prospect, but there is a ceiling to chase given his combination of size and speed. Listed at 6-foot-4 and roughly 220 pounds, Collins’ physicality could very well translate to the NFL, but he still has room to grow as a route-runner. There could be some value in a player like Collins later in the draft after he opted out of the 2020 season.
Recent comments by Sean McVay indicate that the Rams would like to have Blythe back if a tight salary cap situation weren’t an issue.
“Looking at what John Sullivan was able to establish his first couple years, then seeing Austin start to play in the latter half of 2019, then watching where he took it and ran with it last season was really impressive. He did a great job, and he’s definitely somebody that we appreciate, we value,” McVay said, via Stu Jackson of the Rams.
Blythe is coming off a solid 70.3 overall grade in 2020 that was buoyed by a strong performance in the run game.
Jackson makes sense as a schematic fit later on in the 2021 NFL Draft to potentially replace Blythe or add depth at center. He was one of the best centers in the country on the move at Kentucky, earning an 88.0 zone-blocking grade this past season. Jackson doesn’t have a lot to his frame, but he could fit in nicely in Los Angeles.
Projected 2021 Defense
|Position||Player||2020 PFF grade rank||2021 cap hit|
|DI||Aaron Donald||1 / 125||$27.9 million|
|DI||Michael Brockers||63 / 125||$9.8 million|
|LB||Micah Kiser||75 / 83||$0.9 million|
|CB||Jalen Ramsey||9 / 121||$22.5 million|
|S||Jordan Fuller||41 / 94||$0.8 million|
For a defense that just finished the 2020 season as the top-ranked unit in the NFL, that is a lot of question marks.
Some of those positions aren’t necessarily “holes.” They merely represent likely competitions where there is no clear starter as things stand right now.
Nose tackle is one of those positions, with Sebastian Joseph-Day, A’Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines all competing for snaps. The same can be said for strong safety where Taylor Rapp and Terrell Burgess will be battling for the open strong safety slot with John Johnson’s likely departure in free agency.
Troy Hill (UFA) and Darious Williams (RFA) are also both free agents this offseason. It would be a surprise to see Williams walk, in particular. Outside linebacker is the other area that has the potential to be impacted heavily by free agency. Last season's snap leaders Leonard Floyd and Samson Ebukam will both be unrestricted free agents.
The linebacker position is the weak link across the board for the Rams’ defense. Inside, Kiser started just nine games last season due to injury, but he projects to lead the team in snaps again next season. The Rams have options behind him in Troy Reeder and Kenny Young, but it’s a position that could use some more speed.
At outside linebacker, 2020 draft selection Terrell Lewis is most likely to step forward if both Floyd and Ebukam depart, but health is a concern for the Alabama product. Ideally, the Rams would be able to keep Floyd coming off a strong 2020 season. His play may have priced himself out of the contract that Los Angeles can offer him, though.
Can the Rams repeat their 2020 success despite Brandon Staley’s departure?
When it comes to Staley’s accomplishments as the Rams' defensive coordinator and how he coaxed the success he did out of this roster, I’ll defer to the excellent work that has been done on the subject by PFF’s Seth Galina and Diante Lee. Needless to say, the Rams will miss him following his cross-city move to become the next head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.
Having access to talents like Donald and Ramsey will certainly smooth the transition for new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, though. Morris was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach for three seasons roughly a decade ago, but he has spent the last six years with the Atlanta Falcons. Most recently, he was the team’s defensive coordinator and interim head coach following Dan Quinn's firing.
Schematically, there’s reason to believe that the Rams will try to do similar things as they did last year. Per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times, Rams general manager Les Snead stated that McVay “has a vision to keep the DNA” of the 3-4 scheme that Staley learned under Vic Fangio. Additionally, Morris himself said the Rams would “look like a 3-4 base team.”
The bigger factor in potential regression in 2021 is the starters that Los Angeles could stand to lose in free agency. Johnson — the man who wore the green dot in 2020 — is the biggest, but that list extends to guys like Floyd, Hill, Ebukam and Fox.
How do elite players like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey help soften the blow of free-agent losses?
Having truly elite talents like Donald and Ramsey has a ripple effect on a defense. We’ve already seen that displayed in some of the edge defenders that the Rams have been able to get career years out of alongside Donald.
Dante Fowler Jr. came to Los Angeles and put up 67 quarterback pressures in his first full season with the team in 2019 after being labeled a first-round “bust” in his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He went on to sign a big deal with the Atlanta Falcons this past offseason and saw his overall grade fall to 49.9 while putting up just 30 total pressures.
Similarly, Floyd is coming off a career year in his first year with the team. Now, he’s likely to turn that into a nice multi-year contract in free agency. The attention that Donald commands gives more one-on-one and unblocked opportunities to players like Fowler and Floyd, allowing the Rams to get the most out of pass-rushers who may not have lived up to expectations elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Rams can feel confident putting Ramsey on any wide receiver in the NFL, and he showed this season that he can have success both inside and outside. That flexibility he gives your defense only raises the floor for players like Williams and Hill at the cornerback position — they won't be set up to lose nearly as often.
Can Terrell Burgess start next to Jordan Fuller at safety in 2021?
With Johnson likely on his way out, you have to think that the Rams are hoping this duo of 2020 safety selections is the future at the position. Fuller has already proven enough to pencil him in for one of the starting safety jobs next season. He ranked second among all rookie safeties in PFF WAR last season, trailing only Antoine Winfield Jr. in Tampa Bay.
Burgess was PFF’s 57th-ranked player in last year’s draft. His versatility, man coverage ability and tackling were all listed as strengths coming out of Utah. Theoretically, he should fit in well on a defense that moves their players around and plays a lot of two-high safety coverages. Unfortunately, we just didn’t get to see a whole lot of that in his rookie season. Burgess played only 49 snaps on defense before an ankle injury ended his year.
Rapp is the other guy in that conversation. He does come with more experience, playing 823 defensive snaps as a rookie in 2019 followed by 365 snaps this past season before also going down with an injury. Don’t be surprised if Burgess is the guy who ends up coming away with the starting position, though.
At any rate, all three players should see plenty of the field on a defense that employs a fair bit of dime personnel packages.
Potential targets at open spots
If the Rams are looking to add players on the interior this offseason, guys who can play from 3- to 5-tech make the most sense. Brockers isn’t getting any younger, and the team could potentially be losing a key 2020 contributor in Fox. Odighizuwa and Williams both make sense in the draft and won’t cost a premium pick for a team lacking draft capital.
Odighizuwa has earned run-defense grades of at least 78.0 in each of the past three seasons for UCLA despite coming in on the smaller side for an interior defender. He projects well as a base 3-4 defensive end for a team like Los Angeles.
Williams is not quite as pro-ready, but the Rams could also target him later on in the draft as a flier. He earned a 90.8 PFF grade this past season for Louisiana Tech. Like Odighizuwa, size might be Williams’ biggest limiting factor. He won’t be able to get by on strength like he was able to at the collegiate level.
If Floyd ends up being outside the Rams’ price range, it’s hard to see them being contenders at the top of the free-agent edge defender class. Okwara will likely be a tier below that group but does offer some upside following a career year in 2020 with the Detroit Lions. An 84.5 pass-rushing grade and 61 total pressures were both easily career-high marks for the five-year veteran out of Notre Dame.
Smith’s length and grading profile at UAB indicate that some team will get good value by drafting him where he is likely to come off the board. The 6-foot-7 Smith is coming off two straight years with 90.0-plus pass-rushing grades on over 400 defensive snaps for the Blazers. However, Smith will need to add some more power to have a chance at a similar impact at the NFL level. He looks to be a solid mid-round target for the Rams to add into a thin group on the edge.
If you can gather from this list of targets, I don’t think the Rams will make the linebacker position a priority. There will only be one to two linebackers on the field for the vast majority of their defensive snaps, and the team does have some young options on the roster. It’s not an overly talented group, though. They could be looking to add some speed to the position.
McMillan can move for a guy his size, but things haven’t worked out for him since taken in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins. He did profile as a solid run defender his first two seasons of action in the NFL (75.0-plus PFF grade in both 2018 and 2019). McMillan has simply been a liability in coverage. It could be an intriguing buy-low opportunity on a young player for a team like Los Angeles.
McGrone brings even more speed to the table out of Michigan. The PFF Draft Guide states for one of his pros, “Range is his calling card. He can shut down a wide running game on his own.” Those are the kinds of players Los Angeles could be looking to add in the middle rounds of the draft. His cons include limited starting experience and little impact as a coverage defender in the passing game.
Williams and Hill don’t require much elaboration. Both players had success on this defense in 2020 and are strong candidates to return at the right price this offseason. As a restricted free agent, it’s hard to see Williams leaving in particular.
Graham is a potential draft target who could help smooth over any losses from that group. Graham didn’t play in 2020, but he does have three years of starting experience on his resume from his time at Oregon. He earned strong PFF grades of 82.1 and 80.9 in his final two years. He’s one of the more versatile corners in the class, something that the Rams could make use of with Ramsey playing both outside and inside.
As the PFF Draft Guide states, Nasirildeen is “the quintessential dime safety and should be coveted by every team that utilizes that position in their defense.” The Rams ran plenty of dime in 2020, and they’re losing their top safety from a season ago in Johnson. Nasirildeen has the size and length to play in the box and was a strong tackler in his time at Florida State. His selection would add depth both at safety and a relatively thin inside linebacker position.
LeCounte, on the other hand, fits well into the “limit explosive plays” philosophy that the Rams lived by under Staley in 2020. He may not have the measurables that NFL teams will stumble over themselves to add to their roster, but he does bring multiple years of starting experience on a good Georgia defense while playing a varied role.