Showtime, finally, for a fully loaded offense
Tavon Austin needed some wheels for the Rams' first training camp back in California after 21 seasons in St. Louis. So, naturally, the fourth-year receiver called rapper-actor-reality star Ray J for assistance. While teammates peddled bicycles around the UC Irvine campus, Ray J hooked Austin up with a blue-and-gold electric scooter outfitted with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Perhaps there's a metaphor in there about a franchise gone to Hollywood and an offense that has finished no higher than 24th in the NFL since 2007—and dead last in '15—but has upgraded in recent drafts. The Rams took running back Todd Gurley, last season's Offensive Rookie of the Year, with the 10th pick in '14, then dealt six choices to obtain the No. 1 selection from Tennessee this year, using it on Cal quarterback Jared Goff.
The 5'8", 176-pound Austin, known as Pocket Rocket, arrived in 2013 after running a 4.34 40 at the combine. His speed intrigued the Rams, and they deployed him all over the field, creating mismatches, trying to find him space. Last season he hauled in 52 passes, gained 473 receiving yards, added 434 rushing yards and scored 10 touchdowns (five receiving, four rushing, one returning). It marked his most productive NFL campaign and spoke to the offense's (admittedly slow) evolution. Gurley's presence demanded defenses' attentions, freeing Austin from double teams. All the Rams needed was a quarterback.
Now that they have one, count coach Jeff Fisher among the optimists. He predicts that Austin could double his numbers in 2016. And while even Austin wonders how realistic that forecast is, he says, "I feel good that they have confidence in me."
The Rams have failed to make the playoffs in the last 12 seasons, and their roster regularly ranks among the youngest in the league. "We've gone from 32nd [in talent] to competitive, but we're ready to contend now," says general manager Les Snead. "The guys are hungry. They're tired of being close."
Snead sees depth on offense now more than in any year since he took over in 2012. He notes that Gurley and Austin combined for 20 TDs in '15 and singled out sixth-year tight end Lance Kendricks as someone poised for a breakout season. "In terms of having players you know are horses and that are going to be around, we know we're getting closer," he says.
The Rams ranked 13th in points allowed (20.6) in 2015, impressive for a D that again carried the team. Whether they're even moderately successful in their return to L.A. will hinge on QB play. Beyond Gurley and Austin, Goff (who'll start soon, if not immediately) will work behind a young line and with limited options after Austin at receiver. To address that, the Rams hired Mike Groh to coordinate their air attack and drafted receiver Pharoh Cooper (fourth round, South Carolina) and tight end Tyler Higbee (fourth round, Western Kentucky).
Goff headed to Southern California early this spring, living alone, familiarizing himself with the playbook. His neighbors dropped off muffins and apricots, and he visited the Santa Monica Pier and Warner Bros. Studio and ate Korean barbecue with his fellow rookies. "Much more comfortable," Goff says. "I'm tenfold ahead of where I was this spring."
That's good because demand is high now and a seven-win season—a Rams specialty—won't sustain long-term interest in a town with so many entertainment alternatives. "The honeymoon wears off quickly," says Snead, a Dodgers cap atop his head. "In our sport, home field advantage is a huge, huge, huge thing. We have to win here. That's what will sustain us."
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
One of pro football's fastest-growing trends is the rise of three- and four-safety dime packages—replacing linebackers with box safeties. And there's no greater beneficiary of this movement than 6'2", 213-pound Mark Barron(left). The No. 7 pick in 2012 by the Buccaneers, Barron floundered for 2½ years as a strong safety in a zone-based scheme before being traded to the Rams, who smartly recognized that he's best on the attack, not reading and reacting. So they made him a linebacker who would blitz and chase ballcarriers behind a penetrating defensive line. Barron has flourished. Yes, there can be problems when a 310-pound run blocker gets his hands on him. But with the NFL presenting an increasingly space-oriented game, those sorts of matchups are more rare. Barron also provides flexibility with coverages because his experience at safety helps him to better guard tight ends.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 6--10
2015 Record: 7--9
SEPT. 12 atSF [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 vs.SEA
SEPT. 25 atTB
OCT. 2 atARI
OCT. 9 vs.BUF [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 16 atDET [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 vs.NYG
NOV. 6 vs.CAR
NOV. 13 atNYJ
NOV. 20 vs.MIA [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 atNO [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 4 atNE
DEC. 11 vs.ATL
DEC. 15 atSEA
DEC. 24 vs.SF [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 vs.ARI
= PREDICTED WINNER