This fantasy preview is part of a preseason series by FantasyLabs Editor-in-Chief Matthew Freedman with contributions from Ian Hartitz and Joe Holka. Other pieces in the series are available on our Fantasy Football Preview Dashboard.
The Rams were a predictably mediocre team (27-36) in Jeff Fisher’s first four seasons as head coach. In 2016, the team took a considerable step back (assuming that missing the playoffs at 4-12 is much worse than missing them at 7-9). The last time the Rams won a playoff game was 2004 in Mike Martz’s last full year as HC. The hope is that in 2017 new HC Sean McVay can bring something as dramatic as the Greatest Show on Turf to a franchise that hasn’t had even a .500 season over the last decade.
McVay entered the NFL as a 22-year-old coach’s assistant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008. After a one-year stint in the United Football League (UFL), he latched on with the Washington Redskins as the assistant tight ends coach (2010) and was promoted to tight ends coach the following season. When Jay Gruden took over as head coach in 2014, McVay was promoted to offensive coordinator, a position he held for three seasons, serving as the play caller for the final two, during which the Redskins improved from 24th in points per drive (in 2014) to 11th and ninth most recently. Under McVay, the offense was a top-12 unit in points scored both seasons and finished 2016 ranked third in yards. With McVay calling plays, quarterback Kirk Cousins dramatically improved:
- 2014: 61.8 percent completion rate, 55.8 Total QBR, 7.4 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A)
- 2015: 69.8 percent completion rate, 71.0 QBR, 7.8 AY/A
- 2016: 67.0 percent completion rate, 71.7 QBR, 8.0 AY/A
Upon being hired this offseason, McVay became the youngest HC in modern NFL history at the age of 30. A young offensive-minded coach, McVay is the opposite of Fisher, who’s probably standing somewhere in an empty field still searching for his challenge flag. Working underneath McVay is new OC Matt LaFleur, who as the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta for two years (2015-16) helped guide Matt Ryan to consecutive top-six passing seasons.
Even with LaFleur as OC, McVay will call his own plays. With only two years of play-calling data, we shouldn’t read too much into McVay’s tendencies while in Washington, but it is notable that the Redskins were 24th and 29th in neutral pace the last two seasons. Additionally, they skewed toward the pass, especially last year when they were eighth in pass/run ratio, seventh in pass attempts, and second in passing yards. In comparison, the running game never finished in the top 12 in attempts or in yards. Nevertheless, it’s possible (and maybe even probable) that McVay will hide quarterback Jared Goff behind a (slow) rushing attack led by running back Todd Gurley.
Transitioning out of the Fisher era, this offense has made some major changes:
- QB: Case Keenum/Jared Goff –> Goff
- RB: Todd Gurley
- WR: Kenny Britt –> Sammy Watkins
- WR: Brian Quick –> Robert Woods
- WR: Tavon Austin –> Cooper Kupp/Austin
- TE: Lance Kendricks/Tyler Higbee –> Gerald Everett/Higbee
- LT: Greg Robinson –> Andrew Whitworth
- LG: Rodger Saffold
- C: Tim Barnes –> John Sullivan
- RG: Jamon Brown/Cody Wichmann –> Brown
- RT: Rob Havenstein
Last year’s Week 1 starter, Keenum is now the backup in Minnesota. The outside receiver duo of Britt and Quick was allowed to leave via free agency: Britt was a ‘Fisher guy’ and Quick never lived up to his second-round draft status. Replacing Britt and Quick is the former Buffalo tandem of Watkins and Woods. While Woods joined the team via free agency in March, Watkins was added to the team in August when the Bills traded Watkins and a 2018 sixth-rounder to the Rams in exchange for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-rounder. When healthy, Watkins is an upgrade on Britt and Woods, though uninspiring, is clearly preferable to Quick. Expected to split reps in the slot with Austin is the third-round rookie Kupp.
Traded to the Lions in June for a mere 2018 sixth-rounder, Robinson will be replaced by the free-agent acquisition Whitworth, who last year with the Bengals was Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 tackle. Barnes was cut this offseason and has caught on with the 49ers. PFF’s second-worst starting center last year, Barnes will be replaced by Sullivan, a six-year starter with the Vikings who played for the Redskins as a backup last year. Although the Rams are still weak at right guard — Brown and Wichmann had subpar 51.5 and 61.7 overall PFF grades last year — the unit will likely be better than the version that last year ranked 29th with 3.66 adjusted line yards per carry and an 8.1 percent adjusted sack rate (Football Outsiders).
While the Rams defense has been good for a number of years — last season it was eighth with just 5.2 yards allowed per play — the unit might be even better this year with the arrival of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is transitioning the defense from a 4-3 to his one-gap 3-4:
- DE: Ethan Westbrooks
- DT: Michael Brockers/Dominique Easley –> NT: Brockers
- DT: Aaron Donald –> DE: Donald
- DE: Robert Quinn/William Hayes –> OLB: Quinn
- OLB/S: Mark Barron –> MLB: Barron
- MLB: Alec Ogletree
- OLB: Eugene Sims –> Connor Barwin
- CB: Trumaine Johnson
- CB: E.J Gaines –> Kayvon Webster
- SCB: Lamarcus Joyner –> Nickell Robey-Coleman
- SS: T.J. McDonald –> Maurice Alexander
- FS: Maurice Alexander –> Joyner
The No. 1 PFF interior defender last year, Donald should combine with Quinn and Barwin to form a powerful pass-rushing trio in Phillips’ scheme. Of course, Donald is currently holding out because of his contract, and the holdout could extend into the season. With Ogletree and Barron manning the middle of the field, theRams have PFF’s No. 5 front-seven unit entering the season.
An above-average corner, Johnson is the only returning core member of the secondary playing the same position. Gaines was sent to Buffalo in the Watkins trade and will be replaced Webster. McDonald signed with Miami in the offseason, so Alexander is shifting from free safety to strong safety, Joyner is shifting from the slot to free safetey, and the veteran Robey-Coleman will play in the slot. Last year the Rams allowed the fourth-most passing touchdowns in the league, and they might not be better this year with all the changes. The secondary is currently PFF’s 24th unit.
Although the Rams have some intriguing players at the skill positions, their prospects are uncertain: How many offensive players can Goff support?
Jared Goff, QB
Before the Rams traded two first-, second-, and third-round picks to the Titans for the right to draft a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick last year, Goff played his college football at California, where he was first-team All-Pac-12 in 2015. Starting right away as a true freshman, Goff averaged a 62.3 percent completion rate on 522.7 attempts per year for 4,065 yards and 32 touchdowns to 10 interceptions over his three seasons. In his last season, he tied for second in the nation with 12 touchdowns under pressure. While he underwhelmed at the combine — he was slow (4.82-second 40) with small hands (nine inches) — he did display great ball velocity (58 mph) and significant intelligence (34 Wonderlic).
As a rookie, any promise he had seemed to vanish. He was 0-7 as a starter, completing only 54.6 percent of his passes. His 4.3 AY/A was unspeakably low. He had a pathetic 47.5 quarterback rating under pressure (PFF). He attempted just 2.4 passes per game over 20 yards. He had truly one of the worst rookie campaigns of all time. Of course, it’s hard to know how much of that is due to Fisher and the toxic environment he created. So far this preseason Goff is 19-of-24 passing with 194 yards and a touchdown. We shouldn’t read too much into preseason performance — but he’s looked better than he did at any point last season.
Right now Goff has an average draft position (ADP) of 208.9 in DRAFT best ball leagues. He’s nothing more than a Hail Mary option for teams in need of a third quarterback. In daily fantasy sports he was nearly unplayable last year even as a contrarian option. Only once in seven starts did he not have a minimum salary — when he was playing on the road at the Coors Field of fantasy football — but even so he was unprofitable to roster, as he averaged 8.89 DraftKings points per game (PPG) with a -5.09 Plus/Minus and a pathetic 14.3 percent Consistency Rating (per our Trends tool). He had an ownership rate of less than one percent, but even that might’ve been too high.
This year, however, he might warrant some speculative exposure in particular spots, given that his ownership will likely be nonexistent. FantasyLabs users can review ownership trends across guaranteed prize pools of various buy-in levels with our DFS Ownership Dashboard, which is reason enough to subscribe to FantasyLabs. Be sure to monitor our Vegas Dashboard to see how the market views this team on a weekly basis. If Goff shows significant improvement and you want to stack him with a receiver, do it with our Lineup Builder.
Todd Gurley, RB
Although Gurley was terribly inefficient last year, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry (YPC), his volume is secure. In 2016 he played on 73.9 percent of the offensive snaps and was just one of six backs in the league to have at least 250 carries and 50 targets, the others being David Johnson (293, 120), DeMarco Murray (293, 67), Le’Veon Bell (261, 94), Melvin Gordon (254, 57), and Jordan Howard (252, 50). Even if his production isn’t elite, Gurley’s usage places him in some impressive company.
And even though he didn’t play well last year he still managed a Frank Gore-esque campaign of 1,212 scrimmage yards, 43 receptions, and six touchdowns. In his 26 career games with at least 10 carries, he’s averaged 73.9 rushing yards per game (YPG) — as well as 19.2 receiving YPG — and scored 0.62 touchdowns on his way to 15.89 DraftKings PPG. Last year he had a success rate of just 41 percent and only seven runs of more than 15 yards, and his efficiency as a runner and receiver was in the 21st and 23rd percentile of a 60-player sample via my Rushing Expectation methodology, but volume is everything for running backs, Gurley has little competition for carries, and he could enjoy some positive regression this year, especially if the offensive line improves. If McVay decides to feed Gurley, he could return value at his 22.1 DRAFT ADP.
Malcolm Brown, RB
The third-year undrafted Brown is an unknown entity with just 100 total career scrimmage yards on 22 carries and four targets, but he has good size (5’11” and 224 lbs.) and great agility (6.86-second three-cone). One of the top running back recruits in the country in 2011, Brown saw significant action immediately as a true freshman at Texas, but he never emerged as a true workhorse in any season. In his 44 career games, he averaged 15.5 touches for 69.6 scrimmage yards and 0.61 touchdowns. While he was competent in the passing game, he never had more than 17 receptions in a college season. McVay has said that Brown has “established” himself as the backup running back, but he’s done almost nothing in the NFL and seems like an irresponsible choice as the No. 2 option. Still, if Gurley suffers an injury, Brown will apparently be the one who receiver the majority of his snaps.
Lance Dunbar, RB
An undrafted scatback out of North Texas, where he averaged 1,676 scrimmage yards and 15.7 touchdowns per year in his three workhorse seasons, Dunbar played as a change-of-pace back for the Cowboys in his first three seasons (2012-14) before emerging as a pass-catching force early in 2015, turning 23 targets into a 21-215-0 stat line and 15.60 DraftKings PPG in Weeks 1-3. In Week 4, however, he tore the ACL, MCL, and patellar tendon in his left knee, and he’s been slow to return from that injury. Signing with the Rams in the offseason, Dunbar is slated to play the Chris Thompson role in McVay’s offense, but he’s currently on the Physically Unable to Perform list and there’s no timetable on his return.
Sammy Watkins, WR
Just 24 years old, Watkins is entering a contract year after Buffalo declined the former first-rounder’s fifth-year option and then traded him to the Rams. Watkins has missed most or all of 13 games with foot issues over the last two seasons, but when healthy he has been on the verge of WR1 stardom. Only four 21-year-old rookies have had more receiving yards than Watkins did in his first year (982): Randy Moss (1,313), Amari Cooper (1,070), Mike Evans (1,051), and Keenan Allen (1,046). And over the last two seasons Watkins has averaged 16.4 DraftKings PPG in the 15 games in which he’s played at least 70 percent of the snaps.
Of course, the problem with Watkins is that he has not played at least 70 percent of the snaps in 17 of the last 32 games. He’s dealt with stress fractures in his left foot for parts of the last two seasons, and although Watkins is reportedly healthy there’s no guarantee that he won’t once again have injury issues as his physical activity intensifies.
Robert Woods, WR
Just when Woods thought he was out, they pulled him back in. After serving as Watkins’ water boy for three years in Buffalo, Woods was slated to play as a No. 1 wideout this year — and then the Rams traded for Watkins. Over the past three years, Woods has been a drastically less productive with Watkins on the field on a per-game basis:
- With Watkins (33): 5.7 targets, 3.4 receptions, 38.6 yards, 0.21 touchdowns
- Without Watkins (10): 7.3 targets, 5.0 receptions, 58.6 yards, 0.20 touchdowns
Although Woods has played frequently in the slot — he ran 49.3 percent of his routes there last year with an 80.0 percent catch rate on 35 targets (PFF) — he will likely line up outside more frequently this year with Austin and Kupp occupying the middle of the field. While last year he had a solid 3.5 yards of separation per route (Next Gen Stats), he averaged a pathetic 1.7 yards after the catch. Woods is a middling fantasy option.
Tavon Austin, WR
The most overpaid ‘receiver’ in the league and a total disappointment as a former first-round pick, Austin was talked up in the offseason as a potential DeSean Jackson-esque deep threat in McVay’s offense, but just 15 of his 181 career receptions have come on passes traveling 15-plus yards. Austin missed all of spring practices after having wrist surgery and now is battling a hamstring issue, so he’s unlikely to enter the season as a player who is fully integrated into the offense. While he theoretically has big-play upside — he’s one year removed from a 907-yard, 10-touchdown campaign, and in his 16 games with at least one touchdown he’s averaged 19.73 DraftKings PPG — Austin is currently little more than a gadget player.
Cooper Kupp, WR
An Austin Collie clone with average size (6’2″ and 204 lbs.), poor speed (4.62-second 40), and elite agility (6.75-second three-cone), Kupp is a 24-year-old small-school rookie with third-round draft pedigree and record-shattering production (428 career receptions for 6,464 yards and 73 touchdowns). While the difference between playing at Eastern Washington and in the NFL is substantial, Kupp is already running with the first-team unit and has been Goff’s go-to receiver, leading the team with an 8-105-1 stat line on 10 targets through the first two preseason games. The type of player typically characterized as “scrappy” — he made a heads-up play recovering a fumble in the end zone in the first preseason game — Kupp probably isn’t just another white-bread slot receiver. In his final college season he averaged 3.34 yards per route run (PFF). Playing the Jamison Crowder role, Kupp has an underappreciated chance of leading the Rams in targets, receptions, and maybe even touchdowns receiving. Kupp has a lot of upside at his 206.0 DRAFT ADP and at the bottom of Round 2 in rookie drafts.
Gerald Everett, TE
Drafted in the second round out of South Alabama, where he had a 90-1,292-12 stat line in his two final seasons and added four more touchdowns as a runner, Everett is slated to play the Jordan Reed role in McVay’s offense. A former high-school basketball star with good size (6’3″ and 239 lbs.), speed (4.62-second 60), agility (6.99-second three-cone), burst (126.0-inch broad), and strength (22 bench press reps), Everett has the potential to be a long-term playmaker in the league, as he led all draft-eligible tight ends with 24 missed tackles forced in 2016 and 22 in 2015 (PFF). He’s a discount at his third-round ADP in rookie drafts.
Tyler Higbee, TE
Rookie tight ends are notoriously slow to develop, and McVay used three-receiver personnel 73.0 percent of the time last year in Washington, so it’s possible that Higbee could play as the lead tight end if Everett isn’t ready for the responsibility. With good size (6’6″ and 249 lbs.), Higbee is likely to be the blocking tight end, but he also has potential as a pass catcher. Higbee entered college as a wide receiver, but he transitioned to tight end, where ha played his to final seasons at Western Kentucky. Before suffering a season-altering injury in the middle of his senior year, Higbee averaged a dynamic 5-76.5-1 stat line per game. Although Everett is receiving the hype, Higbee might be the more complete player.
In the futures market the Rams currently have a 2017 win total of 5.5 games with a -150 over and +120 under. They’re also +650 to make the playoffs and -1,200 not to. There seems to be little value in either of these props. The Rams were ‘only’ 4-12 last year and finished with 6-7 wins the four years prior. Last year the Rams were 32nd in both points and yards on offense. Under Fisher, they on average were 29th in yards for a half decade. With a respectable defense, the Rams have a good chance of reaching six wins as long as McVay can improve the offense. That said, the Rams will have tough time making the playoffs in a strong NFC.
The Rams are currently +15,000 to win the Super Bowl, +7,500 to win the NFC, and +1,200 to win the NFC West. The Rams haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 1999 season, they haven’t made it to a Super Bowl since they lost to the Patriots in February 2002, and they haven’t won their division since Hall-of-Famer Kurt Warner’s final year with the team in 2003. That said, if you want to burn some money, maybe bet on them at +1,200 to win the NFC West instead of +225 to make the playoffs. If they happen to make the playoffs, a major contributing factor will likely be the collapse of the Seahawks and Cardinals within the division.
Here’s something to note for the season: Perhaps due to the Washington offense, games with the Redskins were 21-11 on the over in 2015-16. If McVey improves the LA offense, we could see similar overperformance by the Rams in 2017.
In researching for this piece I consulted Evan Silva’s excellent Rams Fantasy Preview at Rotoworld and relied on data from Pro Football Reference, Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders, Football Perspective, PlayerProfiler, Team Rankings, The Power Rank, NFL.com, and the apps at RotoViz as well as the FantasyLabs Tools and Models.