ESPN recently put together power rankings based on how each NFL team is positioned for these next three seasons. The Los Angeles Rams finished 28th. That is, um, not good. It's not good because, well, 28th is bad. It's really not good because of what the next three years represent for this franchise. Thanks to heavy rainfall in a city that never experiences heavy rainfall, these next three years now constitute the buildup to the Rams -- and Chargers -- moving into their vast, opulent $2.6 billion stadium in Inglewood, California.
The Rams -- 13 years removed from their last playoff appearance, 14 years removed from their last winning season -- want to become legitimate contenders as quickly as possible. More specifically, they want to ensure they are a playoff-caliber franchise by the time they move into that new stadium. ESPN's Louis Riddick, Mike Sando and Field Yates don't think they will be -- at least, not as currently constructed. The trio graded each team's roster, quarterback, draft, coaches and front office, and crunched the numbers to come up with a final score. The result: 27 of the 31 other teams are, in their minds, better positioned for success from 2017 through 2019 than the Rams.
The Rams can't afford that. They can't have a disinterested fan base in the nation's second-largest media market, and they can't play second fiddle to the Chargers in a stadium they themselves are funding. This week -- the last full week before training camp -- we're going to take a look at the five things that need to happen in order for the Rams to be a lot better than the 28th-best team at the conclusion of this three-year stretch. Long-term improvement, after all, is what it's all about.
No. 5: Solidify the offensive line.
This offseason, the Rams signed Andrew Whitworth, a 35-year-old left tackle, to a $36 million contract over three years. And they added John Sullivan, a soon-to-be-32-year-old who started one game over the last two years, to serve as their new center.
The Rams drafted seven offensive linemen from 2014 to 2015, but not one of them has lived up to his potential so far. Greg Robinson, taken second overall in the hope that he would lock down left tackle for at least a half-decade, was traded for a sixth-round pick last month. Rob Havenstein, a second-round pick in 2015, is moving from right tackle to right guard after a down year. Jamon Brown, taken one round after Havenstein, is being tried out at right tackle in an attempt to salvage something from his underwhelming play. The others -- Andrew Donnal, Cody Wichmann, Demetrius Rhaney and Mitchell Van Dyk -- are either gone or on the bench.
Pro Football Focus, an analytics-based site that studies every player on every play, ranked the Rams' offensive line 28th in 2015 and 27th in 2016, two seasons in which the offense finished last in the NFL in yards. Behind that offensive line last year, Todd Gurley averaged 3.2 yards per carry for an entire season and Jared Goff was sacked 25 times over a six-game stretch. Enter new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who replaces 30-year NFL veteran Paul Boudreau. Kromer spent the last two years coaching the Bills' offensive line, a unit that enabled Buffalo to lead the league in rushing in 2016. He is intrigued by the Rams' group because it is still very young.
While Kromer needs to get the most out of what he has, the front office must locate the next wave of talented guards and tackles.
Whitworth is still really, really good, but he is now too old to be considered a long-term solution. Sullivan was a solid player before back issues took their toll, but it's hard to consider him anything more than a stopgap at this point. The Rams likely still need to identify a long-term solution at center, either in-house -- Austin Blythe, recently claimed off waivers, could be one -- or elsewhere. At some point, they also need to draft their left tackle of the future and actually hit on him.
It's a dicey proposition. Thirteen left tackles were taken in the first round from 2012 to '16. Those 13 have combined for two Pro Bowl invites, one each for Matt Kalil and Taylor Lewan. The proliferation of spread offenses in today's NFL has made it very difficult to evaluate collegiate offensive line play -- almost to the point where it may no longer be worth it to take a gamble on a spot as difficult to master as left tackle. The Rams learned that lesson with Robinson in 2014. Soon, they'll take another chance and hope their gamble pays off.
The success of Gurley and Goff -- and thus, the long-term stability of their franchise -- depends on it.