Are the Rams ready to take the last step in 2019?
They lost in the Super Bowl and then shed five starters, but the Rams remain contenders to return for another shot at the title.
Coach Sean McVay begins his third season, having won 24 regular-season and two playoff games in his first two.
With a massive contract extension for quarterback Jared Goff on the horizon, this will be the final season for the Rams to take advantage of the window of spending opportunity that his rookie contract compensation provides.
Here are questions facing the Rams:
Can McVay and his players put the Super Bowl defeat behind?
Only three teams that have lost in the Super Bowl came back to win it the next season.
The Dallas Cowboys did it in the 1971 season, the Miami Dolphins in 1972 and the New England Patriots last season, when they defeated the Rams 13-3.
The Rams have a tougher schedule than last season and lost key players from a team that finished 13-3 before defeating the Cowboys and New Orleans Saints in the playoffs.
The Rams offense had its worst performance under McVay in the Super Bowl.
But the defeat was not akin to the Seattle Seahawks’ team-dividing Super Bowl loss to the Patriots after a questionable play-call by coach Pete Carroll. Or the Atlanta Falcons’ soul-crushing meltdown during which they blew a 25-point third-quarter lead against the Patriots.
Is Goff ready to take the next step?
It was a similar question at the outset of last season.
After playing well before floundering in his first playoff game in 2017, Goff produced another Pro Bowl season and helped lead the Rams to the Super Bowl.
But Goff did not perform up to his standard against the Patriots. He was late on a potential touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks, and had a pass intercepted late in the game, all but clinching the victory for the Patriots.
Throughout his college and NFL career, Goff has improved every season. If that trend continues, the preseason question next year might be: Can Goff win two Super Bowls in a row?
Will Todd Gurley’s left knee hold up the entire season?
The Rams have been engaged in a full-on, load-management plan and narrative for Gurley since the star running back struggled late last season.
Gurley did not participate in team offseason workouts, practiced every other day during training camp and did not play in preseason games.
Throughout it all, Gurley said he felt fine. He even joked that reporters needed to stop putting bad mojo on his knee by asking him about it.
The Rams gave Gurley $45 million in guaranteed money before last season. His performance and durability in this one will go a long way in assessing whether the long-term investment was a wise one.
Speaking of knees, is Cooper Kupp all the way back from season-ending surgery?
During training camp, Kupp appeared to be at full speed, running crossing routes with confidence and deep routes with aggression. McVay even remarked that Kupp looked faster than before.
Kupp’s return to a lineup that also includes receivers Robert Woods and Cooks restores the next-level connection Goff has with the trio.
Josh Reynolds stepped up last season in Kupp’s absence and now helps give the Rams what Woods described as a “four-headed monster” of receivers. And tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee have developed into playmakers.
Receivers Mike Thomas, JoJo Natson and KhaDarel Hodge also are potential contributors.
Are Brian Allen and Joe Noteboom ready for starting roles?
McVay held the second-year pros out of preseason games, so it is difficult to assess how they will fare when the season begins.
Allen replaces 10-year veteran John Sullivan at center. Allen, 23, is a physical upgrade but lacks experience directing an NFL line and protecting Goff.
Noteboom, 24, played mainly as a swing tackle as a rookie. He replaces nine-year veteran Rodger Saffold at left guard.
Allen and Noteboom participated in joint practices with the Chargers and Oakland Raiders. That, apparently, was enough to convince coaches they will be prepared.
Can the defense improve after losing three starters?
The Rams let defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, linebacker Mark Barron and safety Lamarcus Joyner leave via release or free agency, veteran presences that could be difficult to duplicate. But the Rams did plug the holes.
They re-signed outside linebacker Dante Fowler and added safety Eric Weddle and outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Weddle, a 12-year veteran, will run the defense.
Second-year pro Sebastian Joseph-Day appears on track to start at nose tackle for a unit that struggled to consistently stop the run during most of last season.
Micah Kiser required surgery after suffering a pectoral injury during the preseason, so Bryce Hager will take Barron’s spot at inside linebacker.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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