LOS ANGELES RAMS (5-12)
EXPECTATIONS: Less than two years after their Super Bowl championship season, the Rams are hard to recognize. They’re voluntarily taking most of their major salary cap hits this year by gutting their roster and making no major free agent additions, leaving a skeleton crew of youngsters and castoffs to play around Aaron Donald, Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. The defense is particularly barren, with unimpressive ex-backups and untested rookies or second-year players expected to take on major roles in the absence of any proven talent. Not everything is grim, however: Stafford appears to be healthy and re-energized after missing half of last season, and coach Sean McVay seems enthused and confident about his ability to build a winner from a humble starting point, just like he did in 2017. The team that McVay inherited six years ago was more talented than the group that will try gamely to compete in 2023, but the Rams believe they’re on the way back up, with playoff contention not out of the question one year after the worst season by a defending champ in NFL history.
NEW FACES: S John Johnson, G Steve Avila, CB Ahkello Witherspoon, WR Demarcus Robinson, CB Tre Tomlinson, QB Stetson Bennett, WR Tyler Johnson, QB Brett Rypien, TE Hunter Long.
KEY LOSSES: CB Jalen Ramsey, LB Bobby Wagner, LB Leonard Floyd, WR Allen Robinson, DT Greg Gaines, S Taylor Rapp, S Nick Scott, G David Edwards, CB David Long Jr., QB Baker Mayfield, WR Brandon Powell, K Matt Gay, P Riley Dixon, LS Matt Orzech, G Chandler Brewer, DT A’Shawn Robinson, CB Troy Hill, RB Sony Michel.
STRENGTHS: Quarterback and coaching staff. Stafford and McVay are likely the best in the NFC West in their respective jobs, and that’s the primary reason for any optimism about a team with clearly subpar talent on both lines and in the defensive backfield. If Stafford stays healthy and feels rejuvenated after last season’s struggles, he has the playmakers necessary to dial up enough offense in McVay’s schemes to win a few high-scoring games. Two skill-position players will be particularly motivated in their contract years: running back Cam Akers and receiver Van Jefferson.
WEAKNESSES: Offensive and defensive lines. The Rams’ only addition to the mediocre, injury-plagued O-line that allowed Stafford to get crushed repeatedly last year was second-round pick Steve Avila, who looks sharp at guard so far. The rest of the group is fairly unimpressive — but not quite as unimpressive as the undersized, undertalented players alongside Donald on the Rams’ defensive line, which could be one of the lightest in recent NFL history. Los Angeles could get bullied all season by more physical teams. The secondary also is relying heavily on late-round draft picks from the past three seasons, which could lead to top quarterbacks carving up the LA defense.
CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Avila appears to be seizing a starting job, and Tomlinson seems likely to play extensively. Rookie tight end Davis Allen has been very promising despite injury woes, and Bennett is making progress toward becoming a playable backup quarterback as a rookie.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: Kupp. Everything depends on health for a Super Bowl MVP who missed the second half of last season, but if Stafford and Kupp are both at full strength, Kupp has the chance to recapture the form that won him the NFL’s triple crown of receiving in 2021. Kupp hasn’t done much in the preseason, but he is on track to be healthy for Week 1.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 65-1. Over/under wins: 6 1/2.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL