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State of the 2021 Los Angeles Rams: Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford should be eyeing Lombardi Trophy

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Rams organization, Rams fans around the world and those who feel the need to text me that "Let's Ram It" is the best football video of all time:

This really is an exciting time for the Los Angeles Rams. Even though they have been back in L.A. for a few years now, this is the first season where it will actually feel like the Rams are home where they belong, with fans poised to join the players in SoFi Stadium this fall. There is a real excitement in Southern California for this football team. And there should be. The Rams are going for it. Which actually isn't anything new in the Sean McVay era of this franchise. They trade first-round picks for superstars. They make bold trades when they need to. I mean, it would have been easy for the Rams to just sit back with the quarterback they had and been all, "Welp, he got us to a Super Bowl before. Let's hope he can do it again." Nope! They are going for it, bringing in a true upgrade at the game's most important position. Man, you have to love it when your team is willing to go all in.

How the Rams got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The highs:

  • Returning to the playoffs. After suffering a Super Bowl hangover in 2019 and missing the postseason, Los Angeles earned an NFC wild-card spot. And the Rams officially punched their ticket in Week 17 by beating the Cardinals, 18-7, simultaneously extinguishing Arizona's playoff hopes. NFC West rivalry juice! Oh, and did I mention the Rams prevailed with QB John Wolford making his first NFL start?
  • Knocking off the Seahawks in the first round of the playoffs. The Rams earned a 30-20 road win, with backup quarterback Jared Goff coming off the bench in relief of the injured Wolford. It was a weird few weeks at the position for L.A.
  • Cam Akers. I'll have more on him in a minute.

The lows:

  • Losing to the Jets in Week 15. Which was rather inexcusable. I mean, it's the Jets. But the funny thing is, you kept the Cardinals out of the playoffs and you kept Trevor Lawrence out of New York. This might have a significant impact -- one way or another -- in coming years.
  • Aaron Donald getting injured during the wild-card win over the Seahawks. He was clearly limited in the Divisional Round loss at Green Bay. Even showing his frustration by drawing a 15-yard personal foul that kept a Packers drive alive. Most (biased) Bears fans agree: The Rams win that game if Donald's healthy.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Sean McVay. The energetic coach burst onto the scene in Los Angeles a few years ago, kind of like one of those child stars in Hollywood. And for the most part, McVay has been more Leo DiCaprio than Jonathan Taylor Thomas. He's made the playoffs in three of his first four seasons as Rams coach. His three playoff wins trail only John Robinson (four) for the most by a head coach in club history. Which seems pretty amazing to me, because the Los Angeles Rams have made the Super Bowl twice, though they've yet to win one. They did have some legendary teams in the 1970s. (And before anybody asks, the St. Louis years are not cannon to me. Kind of like the way the Star Wars Holiday Special isn't really part of the expanded universe. Most people in L.A. feel this way. Maybe not you, but most people.)

I will say that despite McVay consistently making the playoffs, the shine is off Sean's star just a bit. The Rams' offensive ranks last year were the worst in any season under the coach. Not that they were atrocious. The Rams averaged 23.3 points per game last year, ranking 22nd in the league. Not ghastly. But they did average 24.6 points per game (11th) in 2019, 32.9 (second) in 2018 and 29.9 (first) in 2017. So last year wasn't The Man in the Iron Mask bad. But it wasn't Catch Me If You Can, either.

Some of that could be on former quarterback Jared Goff. But he's gone now. And there is a new quarterback in town. One who will hopefully lead to an ending that you only see (wait for it) … Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Quarterback: Matthew Stafford. Nobody in the Rams organization is openly saying Jared Goff was the problem. But you don't send him, two first-round picks and a third-rounder without telling on yourself a bit. And McVay can barely contain his exuberance over Stafford, gushing about how he's in a better mood, saying he is a better coach with Matt. Like he's some teenager on Instagram flaunting his new relationship, hoping his ex sees it. We get it.

In fairness, Stafford is one of my favorite QBs, too. I've always been a huge fan of his, believing he's been one of the league's best quarterbacks over the past decade. He's tough as nails. And he has the most (or tied for most) quarterback wins (74), passing yards (45,019), passing TDs (282) and game-winning drives (38) of any active quarterback to have never played in a Super Bowl. And that's the rub. While the guy he is replacing led the Rams to the big game (though saying "led" seems very generous, like the 4-foot putt I gave myself the other day), Stafford has never played on the game's grandest stage. Hell, I don't even think he's won a playoff game. Wait, I just checked. He hasn't. 0 for 3. And with the Lions undergoing another regime change/rebuild, let's be honest: That wasn't going to change for him any time soon in Detroit.

So I'm happy for Stafford to finally have a legitimate chance at a playoff run. And for both McVay and Stafford, this is the opportunity they have been waiting for. The excuses are no longer valid. They need to win.

Projected 2021 MVP: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle. Donald just won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Again. Donald is one of four players in NFL history to win either DPOY or OPOY at least three times in a four-year span, joining J.J. Watt, Marshall Faulk and Earl Campbell. Donald has become to the DPOY what Bryan Cranston was to the Emmys while he was on Breaking Bad. Donald had 13.5 sacks in 2020 (tied for second in the NFL). He had his second career game with at least four sacks in Week 5 at Washington. Donald's 85.5 career sacks are the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2014.

2021 breakout star: Van Jefferson, wide receiver. I love DeSean Jackson, and I'll get to him in a minute. It might seem strange to pick another wide receiver to break out. Especially when you consider the Rams' impressive receiving room also includes Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and D-Jax. But Jackson last played all 16 games in 2013 (also his last Pro Bowl season). Jackson has played in just eight games and missed 24 since 2019. I'm not hating or anything like that -- I'm just being practical. The bigger hindrance for Jefferson could end up being second-round pick Tutu Atwell.

New face to know: DeSean Jackson, wide receiver. D-Jax was a huge name in Southern California when he played at Long Beach Poly High School. The famed Long Beach Poly. Now he's back in his hometown to jump-start the Rams' offense. Fun fact: Jackson led the NFL in yards per reception in two of three seasons with McVay as his offensive coordinator in Washington.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: EXTREMELY HIGH. You mortgaged the future for a veteran quarterback. Your top O-lineman turns 40 in December. You have the best defensive player on the planet. The Rams might not be the front-runner to win the NFC -- considering the defending Super Bowl champs also reside in that conference -- but they are in the neighborhood. And honestly, the fans should expect a trip to the Super Bowl. Or at least be bullish on the possibility.

Three key dates:

  • Week 3 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Rams open up with three playoff teams from last season. But there's nothing like facing the defending Super Bowl champions early in the year to get a gauge of where you're at. And since I expect the Rams to be one of the top teams in the NFC, this is a highly anticipated game.
  • Week 12 at Green Bay Packers. Going against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year. And while Matt Stafford gets to face his former team in Week 7, facing the Packers with an actually legitimate team around him is probably more special.
  • Week 18 vs. San Francisco 49ers. I'm not telling tales out of school when I say this should be for the NFC West title. No disrespect to Arizona or Seattle. But these are the two top teams in the division.

Will the Rams be able to …

Field the No. 1 defense again without Brandon Staley? First off, I have to say: It's not unusual for coaches to get hired because of their association to Sean McVay. I mean, it's still a thing, and it's kind of crazy. But I believe Staley is the first prominent defensive coach who got hired after working for McVay. I mean, sure, it was the same M.O. of a young coach working for McVay for like a year and then getting hired elsewhere, but at least Staley had something to put on his résumé other that just knowing McVay. Because under Staley last year, the Rams led the NFL in scoring defense (18.5 PPG allowed), total defense (281.9 total YPG allowed) and pass defense (190.7 YPG). The Rams were much worse against the run, however. They allowed 91.3 rushing yards per game, the THIRD-fewest in the league. The good news is L.A. still has Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. So this unit is going to be kind of good. And I wouldn't worry about the new coordinator, as Raheem Morris takes the reins. Congratulations on getting the Bengals' gig next season, Raheem.

Get a great second year out of Cam Akers? Anybody who drafted Cam to their fantasy team last year and held onto him after a slow start -- like me! -- was rewarded with an epic finish. Akers averaged 113 scrimmage yards in his last seven games of the season (including the playoffs) and scored four total touchdowns. He ran over both the Seahawks and the Packers in the postseason, rushing for 221 yards and a pair of scores, while also racking up three grabs for 51 yards. And dude was doing it with Goff and Johnny Dubs as his quarterback, too. (No disrespect to John Wolford.) The Rams have averaged 120-plus rushing yards in three seasons under McVay -- all three seasons resulted in trips to the playoffs. (L.A. averaged just 93.7 yards in 2019.) Akers might be more important to this offense than Stafford. Might be.

Really count on Andrew Whitworth? But for Stafford and Akers to thrive, they are going to need solid play from the offensive line. A line that is counting on Whitworth to remain a stalwart in Year 16. Even though he played just nine regular-season games last year, Whitworth was the Rams' highest graded offensive player, per Pro Football Focus. And L.A. finished third in PFF's final offensive line rankings. They are now PFF's eighth-ranked O-line heading into this season. But you have to remember this division can be nasty. Nick Bosa returns for the 49ers. The Cardinals brought in J.J. Watt to go with Chandler Jones (who skipped minicamp, BTW). So it's going to be important for the Rams to remain healthy this year in order to be successful. Which I know is kind of obvious, but sometimes I'm an obvious kind of guy.

One storyline …

… people are overlooking: Jalen Ramsey's strange obsession with Bears fans. I'm as guilty as anybody. It started with a Checkdown post about the great receivers Ramsey was going to face this season. And I happened to mention that it was a shame they didn't cite Darnell Mooney, considering the move he put on Ramsey last year. And the next thing you know, Ramsey was in the mentions of all of these Bears fans, taking time out of his busy day to let them know that he wasn't thinking about that play at all. Even though his actions said something else. I know it doesn't mean he's not a great corner. But it's odd, right? For a dude with more than a million IG followers?

… people are also overlooking: Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods were one of five teammate duos with more than 2,000 receiving yards in each of the past two years. The others: Kansas City's Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, Seattle's DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, Tampa Bay's Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, plus Atlanta's Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.

… people are overthinking: Jared Goff wasn't that bad. You know what's funny? Over the last two years, Goff had a higher completion percentage and more passing yards per game than Stafford. But the latter easily beats Goff in a number of critical categories, including having a passer rating that was 11 points higher over the last two years. And Stafford dominates in passer rating on deep passes (119.1 to 81.1), play-action passes (108.7 to 92.1), tight-window throws (73.8 to 21.8) and under pressure (67.6 to 54.3), according to Next Gen Stats. So even if you concede Goff wasn't that bad, you have to admit he wasn't that great. Like if you spent your whole life eating at Sbarro, and then you were told you didn't have to eat at Sbarro. Your life would change forever.

For 2021 to be a success, the Rams MUST:

  • I'm saying win the Super Bowl. Rams fans should believe this is a championship team. The pieces are in place. And if McVay and Stafford are as good as we all think -- or Rams fans hope -- then they need to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

In closing

I always like to take a positive outlook for a team. The Rams' ceiling is the Super Bowl. It really is. And if you look at the trends, well, think about this: The Buccaneers had a former No. 1 overall pick at quarterback who wasn't a disaster. He wasn't Trubisky. But they made a bold move to bring in a more established veteran. And it resulted in a Super Bowl win that took place in their own stadium. And I should point out that this coming season's Super Bowl will be in Los Angeles. Again, I'm just pointing out the trend. The NFL (like Hollywood) is a copycat business.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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