Rams' path forward remains unclear following initial moves in free agency

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Todd Gurley is gone. So are Dante Fowler Jr., Cory Littleton, Clay Matthews, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Eric Weddle and Greg Zuerlein.

That's seven key starters, including five on defense, whom the Los Angeles Rams have parted with during the offseason so far. Some left in free agency, such as Fowler, Littleton and Zuerlein. Others, including Gurley, Matthews and Robey-Coleman, were cut to save salary-cap space. Weddle was the lone retiree.

The Rams also let Michael Brockers initially go to the Baltimore Ravens in free agency, but an issue with his ankle now has him returning to the Rams.

Even with Brockers' return, this much is certain: The Rams will appear markedly different in 2020 than they have the past two seasons.

"Each year, your players change, your team changes and we knew walking into this season there would be tough choices," Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff recently told ESPN. "It's going to be a different-looking team than the one that left the field in 2019, but I think everybody knew that was going to be the case."

Turnover is inevitable, but few could have predicted after a 9-7 season that five starters on defense would not return and that Gurley -- the 2018 NFL Offensive Player of the Year -- would be cut. The Rams also will go into 2020 with three new coordinators: offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell, first-time defensive coordinator Brandon Staley and special-teams coordinator John Bonamego.

The Rams smartly prioritized their offensive line in free agency. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who turned 38 last December, will return on a three-year, $30 million deal, which ensures that the Rams don't have to force a young player into a key position before he's ready. They also re-signed Austin Blythe, who has started at left and right guard and center over the past two seasons, to a new one-year deal.

But for the most part, the Rams' offseason has raised more questions than answers. The biggest: Where do the Rams go from here?

In 2018, the Rams won a second-consecutive NFC West title as they sprinted to Super Bowl LIII with a 12-4 regular-season record. Last season, they finished third in the division behind the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, and missed the playoffs for the first time in Sean McVay's three seasons as coach.

Next season, the NFC West could be even stronger after the last-place Arizona Cardinals made several splashes in free agency, including the addition of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

The Rams' roster, as it stands now, didn't add much punch -- although the return of Brockers certainly adds a notable boost.

The Rams and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd agreed to a one-year, $10 million contract and the team also added defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson on a two-year, $17 million deal.

Neither Floyd nor Robinson upgrades their position, although there's reason for optimism that they could excel while lining up alongside star defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Brockers.

The Chicago Bears opted to cut Floyd, the ninth overall selection in the 2016 draft, before the final year of his rookie contract because of his lackluster performances through four seasons. In 2019, Floyd had three sacks.

Robinson, a second-round pick in 2016, never materialized into a consistent playmaker with the Detroit Lions through four years. Last season, he had 40 tackles and three sacks.

For the Rams to improve next season, it might come down to the development of several young players who lack significant experience.

"If you look at our team, we drafted a lot of young players who, ultimately, in a salary-cap era when you have stars who have been paid, are going to have to step up," Demoff said.

Micah Kiser, Kenny Young and Travin Howard will compete for starting roles to replace Littleton at linebacker. Cornerbacks Darious Williams and David Long must prove they're prepared for larger roles in the wake of Robey-Coleman's departure.

The Rams will need to scour the draft and free agency to replace Zuerlein, who converted 82% of his field goal attempts over the last eight seasons.

Then, there's the Gurley factor.

It did not come as a shock that the Rams decided to move on from Gurley given the untenable situation of last season, which included Gurley rushing for a career-low 857 yards while playing on a four-year, $60 million contract.

It is unclear how Gurley's departure will affect the offense, however, most notably the impact on quarterback Jared Goff and whether running backs Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson can shift into feature roles.

Over the past three seasons, since McVay arrived as coach and installed his offense, the number of touches Gurley received directly correlated to the Rams' chances of winning. More Gurley meant more victories, and last season, as the offense began to rely more on Goff than the run game, the losses began to mount.

A sixth-year pro, Brown rushed for a career-high 255 yards and five touchdowns last season. The Rams last year drafted Henderson in the third round to be a change-of-pace back, but he rushed for only 147 yards on 39 carries and caught four passes for 37 yards.

Demoff did not express concern about the roster following the first flurry of free-agency moves, and he asserted confidence in general manager Les Snead and McVay.

"It's always interesting how we are only a few days into the new league year and people think this is the team that you are going to field come September," Demoff said. "Not only do we have the draft and the rest of the offseason, I think Les and Sean have always proven they'll be aggressive fillings holes through trades and other avenues, and this is just the start of what the 2020 Rams will look like."

The Rams have six picks in the NFL draft next month, including two in the third round. However, after trading for cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams do not have a first-round pick for a fourth consecutive year.