NFL season preview 2017: Los Angeles Rams

Newly acquired Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Sammy Watkins, center, walks with a team official before the Rams play the Dallas Cowboys in a preseason NFL football game Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, in Los Angeles. Watkins was acquired from the Buffalo Bills. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 7. Today, the Los Angeles Rams.

Head coach: Sean McVay
Last season’s record: 4-12
Playoff result: Did not qualify

Key free agent gains: In terms of offensive-skill positions, the Rams made a blockbuster deal with the Buffalo Bills last week to acquire dynamic receiver Sammy Watkins. The former fourth-overall pick gives Los Angeles a legitimate top-end receiver if he can remain healthy.

Robert Woods, another ex-Bill, signed with the Rams after a season in which he caught 51 passes for 613 yards.

Los Angeles also made some changes to its offensive line, adding Cincinnati Bengals stalwart Andrew Whitworth on a three-year contract to solidify left tackle. Whitworth has started every game he has played in since 2007, and is coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons. Veteran centre John Sullivan also joins the Rams’ front line. Sullivan started only one game for the Washington Redskins in 2016, but spent the previous six years as the Minnesota Vikings‘ first-stringer.

Defensive end Connor Barwin joins the Rams after being released by the Philadelphia Eagles in March. Barwin emerged as one of the NFL’s premier pass rushers in 2014, registering 14.5 sacks and earning a Pro Bowl berth while playing linebacker. He hasn’t shown that same explosiveness since, amassing a combined 12 sacks over the past two seasons.

Key free agent losses: Kenny Britt led the Rams in receiving a season ago, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career. That production earned him a hearty four-year contract with the Cleveland Browns.

Other notable departures include Tim Barnes, who was replaced at centre by Sullivan, and safety T.J. McDonald. McDonald signed with the Miami Dolphins in free agency, but was suspended for the first eight games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Key draft picks: The Rams used their first pick of the draft to grab South Alabama tight end Gerald Everett in the second round. Rookie head coach Sean McVay, who served as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator from 2014-16, loves to incorporate tight ends into the offensive scheme, helping Washington rank first in tight end production a season ago. Everett gives Los Angeles a fast, athletic pass catcher who could present matchup problems for linebackers and safeties.

Receivers Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds were taken in the third and fourth rounds, respectively. Kupp profiles as a possession receiver while Reynolds has more big-play potential. These additions to the receiving corps should complement Watkins and help the Rams improve on their woeful aerial attack from 2016.

X-factor: After being drafted in 2014, safety Maurice Alexander made headlines because he used to work as a janitor at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Now he’s on the radar because of his on-field performance.

Alexander showed great improvement one year ago, appearing in 14 games for the Rams. He registered two interceptions and did not give up a touchdown when he was the primary defender. Alexander may not be a household name quite yet, but keep an eye out for him on this rebuilding Rams squad.

2017 will be a success if: Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff shows significant signs of improvement. The Rams traded up to take Goff first overall in 2016, but gave the Tennessee Titans a litany of picks in return that left Los Angeles without a first-round selection in April’s draft.

Goff looked good in his first pre-season action Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys as he completed three of four passes for 34 yards. That said, he was underwhelming to say the least in his rookie campaign, going 0-7 as a starter and eclipsing 200 yards passing just once. McVay’s rebuild is on, and it would accelerate things if Goff proves he can be the quarterback to anchor the team moving forward.

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