Know Your Enemy is back for 2021. The NFC North takes on the AFC North and NFC West in a tough schedule year for 2021. A seventeenth (17th) game was added for 2021. The NFC North squads will face the same team in the 2020 standings from the AFC West along with one game each from the NFC East (home)/NFC South (away) based on standings from 2020. The experts, a.k.a me, will start by analyzing the NFC West teams. No better place to start than the team with a great new QB in Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams were 10-6 in 2020 earning a wild card with former stud QB Jared Goff, the number 1 defense in the league PPG (18.5) and a good running game with rookie Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson. Sean McVay enters year five (5) as head coach. The young coach calls the plays over OC Kevin O Connell. The Rams have a new DC in veteran coach Raheem Morris replacing one-year DC Brandon Staley (Chargers new head coach). Rams lost some talent in free agency (safety John Johnson/DE/DT Michael Brockers/nickel CB Troy Hill), but should still have a good defense.
Sean McVay and GM Les Snead made a huge change at QB sending 2016 1st round pick Jared Goff to Detroit and bringing in super stud Matthew Stafford. Goff helped get the Rams to the Super Bowl in the 2018 season but regressed the last two seasons after two 100 QB rated season in 2017/2018.
The Rams got the last laugh and beat the Seahawks (division winners) in the wild card but lost to the Packers at Lambeau in the divisional round with a toothless offense under Goff. Rams gave up two first round picks in 2022/2023, a 2021 3rd rounder and Jared Goff (plus bonus money) to Detroit for Stafford. The Rams leadership feel they were a good QB away from winning the Super Bowl, despite Goff’s early success.
Matt Stafford is a God. Stafford notched 4,084 yards 26 TDs and 10 interceptions in 2020 after a 106 QB rating in an injury shortened 2019 (8 games). This may look mediocre but is actually incredible given the Lions lack of run game, bad coaching, spotty at times protection and injury to Kenny Golladay (missed 11 games).
Stafford has an incredible arm, incredible talent and canny ability to read defenses. Sean McVay is beyond delighted to upgrade and see what Stafford can do with the proper support around him (coaching, run game, defense, turnovers forced by defense for short fields, protection). I cant’ wait to see what he can do in LA. If he fails, the Lions get a good 1st round pick in 2022 and 2023 (win win).
Run Game and Pass Protection/Oline
Cam Akers had 625 yards at 4.3 YPC and 2 TDs in his rookie season in 13 games. Darrell Henderson added 4.5 YPC 624 yards and 5 TDS in 15 games. Rams have a good young one two punch at running back. Rams rank 6th of 79 at tackle with veteran Andrew Whitworth and 14th of 79 with right tackle Rob Havenstein. Guard is strong too with 11th ranked of 80 Austin Corbett and 17th of 80 guard David Edwards. Brian Allen is the long weak link at center.
Jalen Ramsey is a stud shut corner (9th of 121) and Darius Williams was 4th ranked in 2020 at CB. Troy Hill leaves in FA though at slot CB. David Long or 2021 4th round pick Robert Rochelle will need to step up in slot and depth.
Taylor Rapp (34th of 94) is a good safety and Jordan Fuller (41st of 94) had a nice rookie season for a late round pick. Replacing John Johnson (top 10 safety) will be very difficult though as JuJu Hughes and Nick Scott is not good safety depth.
Solid but Some Holes
Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are very good WRs. 974 yards and 3 TDs for Kupp was a regression from 1,161 yards and 10 TDS in 2019. Woods earned 936 yards and 6 Tds but had 1,134 yards and 1,219 yards the previous two seasons. Speedy DeSean Jackson was added replacing slot WR Josh Reynolds (left in FA). If Jackson stays healthy, Stafford will have a big deep threat.
2020 2nd round pick Van Jefferson will need to progress in year 2. The Rams drafted Louisville WR Tutu Atwell in Round 2 this year as well. Tight End Tyler Higbee had 521 yards and 5 TDs but should see more action with Gerald Everett gone in free agency (400 yards and 1 TD). Rams drafted a TE Jacob Harris in Round 4 for depth. LA has plenty of young talent and good veterans mixed for their top 5 WRs and top two TEs. Woods and Kupp will pick up their production with Stafford back to previous seasons.
The Rams have Aaron Donald (13.5 sacks). Best DT in league and will wreck games. Leonard Floyd had a nice renaissance with 10.5 sacks. He rejoins the Rams for 2021. Pass rush beyond them is suspect with AShawn Robinson, nose tackle Sebastian Joseph Day, rookie 4th round pick Bobbie Brown, backup NT Greg Gaines. OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and 3rd round 2020 pick Terrell Lewis will need to step up with Sam Ebukam gone in FA. OLB Justin Hollins was above average (47th out of 108) in 426 snaps at OLB as well. Earnest Brown was added in Round 5 at DE. Rams have one elite, one good player and some questions at OLB and NT/DE.
ILB Micah Kiser (75th of 83), Troy Reeder (27th out of 83 LBs), Kenny Young and 3rd round rookie pick Ernest Jones have some athleticism at ILB but are not strengths for the defense. They can get the job done though behind Donald and strong run defenders. The Rams might miss DE/DT Michael Brockers who was a good run defender for years for them (traded to Detroit for cap reasons).
The front 7 will need Donald and Floyd very healthy all year.
Rams host the Bears on Sunday Night Football in Week 1 on NBC. Stafford will get to torch the Bears yet again. Rams host Detroit and Stafford will surely want to torch his former team in Week 7 against Goff. The Rams go to Green Bay and Lambeau in Week 12 for the divisional round rematch. Maybe Stafford won’t be screwed by the refs this time against Green Bay. Finally, the Rams travel to Minnesota in Week 16 the day after Christmas for some Stafford magic at US Bank Stadium. Rams were 6-2 at home and 4-4 away last year so advantage for Green Bay and Minnesota here. Actual HFA in 2021 too with full stadiums.
Rams have Super Bowl aspirations but their roster lost some juice on defense despite the QB upgrade. It will be very interesting to see what Stafford can do with “a better team” and “coaching”. The NFC West is tough with Seattle, Arizona rising and the 49ers healthy. Getcha popcorn ready.