If I had asked last season which team was going to win the NFC West, everyone I talked to would have given me the same answer: Russel Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. Little did we know just how surprised we would all be as the Los Angeles Rams stood on top of the division at the end of the regular season.
The Rams were the surprise excellence of the league last year, posting an 11-5 record and ending a thirteen-year playoff drought that has followed them from their years of ugliness and mediocrity in St. Louis to the sunny shores of Los Angeles. After struggling to gain leverage in the previous season, running back Todd Gurley ran rampant across the league and cemented his name as one of the biggest backfield threats in football. Combined with the emergence of second year quarterback Jared Goff following his disappointing rookie season, the dominant presence of league defensive player of the year Aaron Donald and the direction of first year head coach Sean McVey, the Rams seemed poised to become contenders in the division for years to come and perhaps win a few playoff games over the next decade.
But I don’t think anyone could predict just how quickly the potential of this team would rise over the last two months.
Beginning on February 26, the Rams made the first splash of the league offseason and gave up a 2018 fourth round pick and 2019 second rounder for Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters, who is often regarded as the best pound for pound corner in the league over the past three seasons. His ability to play the ball has been truly historic, with his nineteen interceptions serving as the most out of all defensive backs since he was drafted in 2015. Despite a few issues with maturity off the field, Peters would be guaranteed to bolster a secondary that already included the likes of safety Lamarcus Joyner and cornerback Trumaine Johnson (signed with the New York Jets) and help manage the plethora of receiving threats that exist within the conference. Just a few short days later, the Rams were once again at the center of the league offseason talks when they gave up a 2018 fifth round pick for the Denver Broncos smash-mouth cornerback Aquib Talib, known for his off the field presence despite his undeniable talent at the position for the last ten years. His thirty-four career interceptions since he was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2008 leads the league in that time frame; and brings undeniable veteran presence to an inevitably young Rams defense who struggled against the Atlanta Falcons in their January playoff matchup and cost the team a chance at a deep playoff run.
These two acquisitions helped the secondary of the Rams to become (on paper) one of the best in the league, drawing comparison to division rival Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” and Denver’s “No Fly Zone” from seasons past and cementing themselves within the nightmares of opposing quarterbacks aiming to throw the ball over the field against them next season.
Yet as we learned this week, the Rams plans were far from over.
Los Angeles pushed their name further into the contender ring and signed another defensive threat with a history of maturity issues: former Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. He has seen a decrease in production since receiving a huge payday from the Dolphins in 2014, yet his sheer presence alongside of Donald and Michael Brockers on the Rams defensive line creates a force unlike few we have seen in football for a very long time.
Oh yeah, and unless you’ve been under a rock for the past week- you can’t turn on the television without the banner Odell to the Rams? scrolling past every thirty minutes. While still highly unlikely, Giants general manager Dave Gettleman has openly stated that no one on the roster is off limits after Beckham pronounced earlier this week that he would not step on the field for New York without receiving a new contract for next season.
This meteoric addition of talent over such a short time span raises the question, is it too early to start taking the Rams as the early favorites to run the league for the next three to five years?
I know, you’re going to tell me that the conference belongs to a healthy Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles in the foreseeable future, with their addition of troubled Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett allowing them to form the other most dominant defensive line in the league for years to come. You may even include the Minnesota Vikings in the conversation, with their stellar defensive pieces, razor sharp head coach Mike Zimmer and addition of free agent quarterback Kirk Cousins enabling them to take control of the NFC North (I truly hope this is not the case). Some may even look towards “new franchises” on the block, including one very close to Los Angeles in the form of the San Francisco 49ers who added Richard Sherman to bolster their defense during the offseason and have the magnificent combination of offensive guru Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garropolo leading them in the right direction for the first time since their Kapernick/Harbaugh years.
Even though the conference is loaded compared to its counterpart, with the enduring threat of the New England Patriots most likely coming to an end within the next three years and the Pittsburgh Steelers also not getting any younger, I believe that the league is primed to run through Los Angeles for the next decade. Their new defense, spearheaded by coordinator Wade Phillips, certainly has the pressure up front to get through even the most robust offensive lines in football (looking at you Philadelphia) and cause havoc in the backfield. In the slight chance teams do have the opportunity to get the ball downfield, they’re throwing it up into the arms of three all-pro caliber defensive backs, who have shown their prowess in the past and can certainly generate turnovers for the offense to capitalize upon. Once you give it back to the offense, you have arguably the best running back in football trudging behind one of the most dominant offensive lines in the league- with the option to allow Goff to sling the ball around to a flurry of receiving threats in Robert Woods and Tavon Austin. No other team across the league simply has the weapons on either side of the ball like Los Angeles.
The moves this team has made over the past six weeks have been truly astounding, and definitely propel them to the top of the division and potentially the conference and league. It’s only April, and there’s still a lot of football left to play, but could the Rams truly go from surprise upstarts out west to the future standard of excellence in professional football?