The road to a Rams repeat Super Bowl appearance

The Rams are coming off a spectacular season that saw them finish with a 13-3 win/loss record and appear in their first Super Bowl since 2001. The team finished 2nd in the league with 32.9 points per game while ranking within the top three in total yards (421.1) and rushing yards (139.4) per game. Overall, 2018 was an impressive accomplishment for a team that returned to Los Angeles just three years ago.

However, if the Rams want to return to the Super Bowl for a second consecutive year, the five points listed below will be critical to their success.

1 | The health of Todd Gurley and Cooper Kupp

The biggest question marks for the Rams headed into the 2019 season are the injury statuses of two of their top players. This offseason, Gurley was initially diagnosed with an “arthritic component” in his left knee, the same knee the All-Pro running back suffered a torn ACL in during his final college season at Georgia. Gurley’s trainer, Travelle Gaines, later confirmed the condition to CBS Sports analyst Dave Richards after months of speculation and debate. The diagnosis provided an explanation for Gurley’s puzzling lack of production in the playoffs last season, but also raised more questions about the All-Pro running back’s workload and longevity. Many wonder if the Rams will place Gurley on a snap restriction in 2019 and if his days as a workhorse are over.

Currently, Gaines isn’t expecting any significant changes to be made to his client’s job description. “It’s never been told to me that there’s a plan to decrease his workload come Week 1,” Gaines said in the same interview with CBS.

Gurley isn’t the only playmaker on the Rams’ roster dealing with knee problems. Additionally, wide receiver Cooper Kupp is continuing to rehab a torn ACL suffered in November against the Seattle Seahawks, which prematurely ended what was shaping up to be a superb sophomore season. Kupp was on track to smash his rookie numbers before the injury, tallying 40 catches through eight games for 566 receiving yards and six touchdowns, and even started to make a name for himself as one of the NFL’s top slot men. Eight months after the injury, Kupp appears to be progressing towards a Week 1 return. Although he was a limited participant in the Rams’ offseason workouts, he worked with trainers off to the side and even lent his efforts to a few quarterback drills. 

Rams head coach Sean McVay has also been impressed with Kupp’s progress.

“He’s really doing an excellent job staying right on track, making good progress, and we want it this way, where we’ve got to pull him back because he’s so excited to get back out there,” McVay said.

If Gurley and Kupp can return to pre-injury form, the Rams offense should retain their offensive firepower that suffocated defenses a season ago. However, as of right now, that “if” is far from certain.

2 | Maintained competitiveness against tougher division

One of the Rams’ biggest strengths last season was their ability to win division matchups. Actually, they managed to win all of them; the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, and Seattle Seahawks failed to register a win against the division leader. So, what are the chances that kind of dominance continues next season?

Well, the Cardinals and 49ers ended up with the top two picks in the NFL Draft and both teams selected players capable of becoming franchise cornerstones within a few years. Kyler Murray, Arizona’s second consecutive first-round quarterback selection, is coming off a stellar Heisman-winning campaign at Oklahoma and appears to be meshing well with his teammates in Kliff Kingsbury’s fresh scheme. The 49ers added Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, who was tabbed as the top pass rusher prospect in his class before the 2018 draft process wrapped up. San Francisco will also have a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo back under center (torn ACL in 2018) to throw to George Kittle, who enjoyed a nice breakout despite the team’s inconsistency on offense. Meanwhile, the Seahawks lost a few pieces this offseason after Kam Chancellor and Doug Baldwin were forced into retirement due to their injuries. Nevertheless, Seattle figures to stay competitive with the succeeding selections of Utah safety Marquise Blair and Ole Miss wide receiver D.K. Metcalf, who became a media sensation after a ridiculous performance at the NFL Combine in March.

Bottom line? The Rams have their work cut out for them if they want to remain on top. The division only got better this offseason. In 2019, the Rams must be as well.

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff passes against the Los Angeles Chargers during the first half in an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

3 | Jared Goff’s continued development

Four seasons have passed after Goff’s selection by the Rams with the first pick in the 2015 draft. In that time, McVay has certainly brought out the best in the fourth-year quarterback after many labeled him a bust after a miserable first year under Jeff Fisher. However, it’s also safe to say that Goff has yet to reach his potential.

Goff is a solid quarterback, but there were still instances in games (see Super Bowl LIII) that exposed instances of poor decision-making and decreased accuracy under pressure. The 25-year old enters 2019 with two postseason appearances and a plethora of dangerous weapons at his disposal. A strong campaign that shows improved awareness of his issues will provide more convincing evidence for the contract extension Goff desires, even if he says it’s not on his mind at all.

4 | Dante Fowler enjoys a long-awaited breakout

In 2018, quarterbacks dreaded the thought of facing the pass rush duo of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. When Los Angeles acquired Dante Fowler from the Jaguars at last November’s trade deadline, that thought turned into a nightmare. Fowler’s presence allowed McVay to become more creative with his blitz packages, which helped open up lanes to the quarterback for his teammates.

Suh left for the Bucs to join forces with Jason Pierre-Paul during free agency, but Fowler decided to re-sign on a one-year “prove-it” deal worth $14 million. After seeing minimal starting action throughout the majority of his first three seasons, Fowler must prepare to take on a bigger role opposite Donald in 2019. The former no. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft recorded two sacks and 21 tackles in eight games with Los Angeles. Something tells me he’s got more than that in his bag headed into a critical year.

5 | Quality of play in a tough first half of season

According to national media, the Rams were gifted the second-easiest schedule for 2019 behind the Redskins. If you have been following football for some time, you’ll know that means absolutely nothing because the strength of a schedule is determined using the 2018 win-loss record of their opponents. Los Angeles will still have their work cut out for them, especially in the first eight weeks leading up to their bye slate. An NFC championship rematch with the Saints in Week 2, a test against the new-look Browns a week after for Sunday Night Football, and a date with the Falcons in Atlanta for Week 7. Don’t count out the three games against the Panthers, Bucs, and Bengals, who all took steps forward in the offseason. Oh, and there are two division rival games we highlighted earlier in the article.

The road to Super Bowl LIV will not be easy. However, the Rams are as good of a bet as any to retain their dominating ways in the NFC.

Cole Topham is a 17-year old sportswriter from Salt Lake City, UT. He is the lead editor and founder of snacktimefantasy.com. Besides journalism, his passions include fantasy rankings, drinking chai lattes, rock climbing, and absurd amounts of hair paste. Follow him on Twitter at @HamAnalysis.

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