LOS ANGELES -- From the start of 1990 to the end of 2016, 23 teams did what the 2017 Los Angeles Rams just pulled off, improving by seven or more wins from one season to the next. Only one of those teams, the 1998 New York Jets, increased their victory total even further the following year. Two teams, the 2013 Indianapolis Colts and the 2015 Houston Texans, remained even. The rest dropped off immediately after their resurgence, many considerably.
The past 23 teams that made seven-plus-win improvements averaged four fewer victories the following season. Earlier this week, we identified seven common traits from the 10 who dropped off the most. Now we'll take a look at seven things that need to happen so the Rams -- who went from 4-12 in 2016 to 11-5 in 2017 -- don't join the crowd.
Develop the tight ends: Rams coach Sean McVay volunteered this during his end-of-season news conference. He talked about how the Rams were almost exclusively in "11" personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) down the stretch. "You don't want to just operate out of one personnel group in an ideal world," McVay said, "so we've got to continue to develop some depth at the tight end position." Gerald Everett, last year's 44th overall pick, is only 23. Tyler Higbee, who just finished his second year, is 25. Temarrick Hemingway, who spent all of last season recovering from a broken fibula, is 24. They're all loaded with athleticism and playmaking ability. But the Rams ran only 147 snaps in multiple-tight end sets last year, last in the NFL. Everett, Higbee and Hemingway must take the next step to give this offense a new dynamic.
Give Sammy Watkins another chance: Watkins didn't join the Rams until August, and the fourth-year receiver never felt like he built real chemistry with quarterback Jared Goff. "He got on a roll with the guys that he had during OTAs," Watkins said, "and once a guy is used to throwing it to someone else, he throws to his guys." A full offseason within McVay's offense would be huge for Watkins, who caught only 20 percent of Goff passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. Putting the franchise tag on Watkins makes sense. No, his numbers (39 catches, 593 yards, 8 touchdowns) weren't great. But he stayed healthy, and his presence as a legitimate downfield threat was vital in opening the middle of the field for Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. It would be risky to pursue a long-term deal, especially with Josh Reynolds waiting in the wings. But it's worth giving Watkins another try.
Identify scheme fits at linebacker: The Rams need to find the right answers to some tough questions here. They can save $22 million in cap space the next three years by parting with inside linebacker Mark Barron, and they can save more than $24 million the next two years by letting go of outside linebacker Robert Quinn. With Barron, the Rams must ask themselves if they would be better served with a bigger, run-stuffing linebacker inside, which could help a defense that allowed the third-most rushing yards per carry in 2017. With Quinn, it's a matter of whether he made the transition from defensive end well enough to warrant his high salary. With both, it also comes down to projecting health. Another starting linebacker, Connor Barwin, is a free agent. Barwin is an ideal scheme fit for Wade Phillips. But he's 31, and Pro Football Focus gave him the second-worst grade among qualified edge defenders.
Bring back Lamarcus Joyner: Who was the Rams' second-best defensive player? That would be Joyner, who was exceptional in his first season as an NFL safety, earning Pro Football Focus' third-highest grade at the position. Joyner had three interceptions, 61 tackles and, according to the Rams, seven pass breakups. He affected games as a high safety, near the line of scrimmage and, when called upon, in the slot. He boasts great ball skills, but he's also a ferocious hitter. He changes the dynamic of the Rams' defense, and they need to find a way to keep him now that he's a free agent. Joyner would probably command roughly $10 million a year on an extension. His ability and drive make him worth it, even at 5-foot-8.
Find the next wave at offensive line: Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, 36, left guard Rodger Saffold, 29, and center John Sullivan, 32, combined to play in 93 percent of the Rams' offensive snaps through last year's first 15 games, before the Rams sat their starters for the regular-season finale. That's a near miracle. The Rams can't bank on that kind of health from their three sage offensive linemen again, which is why it's crucial for them to find young players who can step in when needed and lock down those positions long term. Whitworth and Saffold will be back. Sullivan is set to become a free agent, but he had a good enough year, and is familiar enough with McVay's system, that he could conceivably return, too. But the Rams might need more talent behind them. It might be worth allocating significant draft capital or salary-cap dollars to it.
Inject more talent at cornerback: This is currently the Rams' biggest position of need. Trumaine Johnson, their primary corner, and Nickell Robey-Coleman, their standout slot corner, are set to become free agents. Their No. 2 corner, Kayvon Webster, is coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon. Behind them is Troy Hill, who played well down the stretch but seems a little too small to lock down the outside. Behind Hill? Not a whole lot. The Rams are expected to target cornerbacks in the draft, and bringing back Robey-Coleman should be a no-brainer if the price is reasonable. The big question is Johnson, who has been franchised in back-to-back years and could command about $14 million a year on an extension. Rams general manager Les Snead said he could "definitely" envision a scenario with Johnson returning, but that will hinge on a multitude of factors.
Limit turnovers: Eleven of the 23 teams that made seven-win improvements from 1990 to 2016 regressed by four or more games the following season. One trait they all shared: a significant drop-off in turnover margin. Limiting turnovers will be key for the 2018 Rams, as it is for every team in every season. And it starts at quarterback. Goff did a nice job of staying within himself in his second year, throwing an interception on only 1.5 percent of his attempts, which was tied for the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL. But Goff also was susceptible to opponents coming around the edge and knocking the ball loose while he looked downfield. The 23-year-old fumbled eight times, losing three of them. The Rams expect Goff to take another step forward in Year 3, even after making the Pro Bowl. But they mainly need him to take care of the ball and get it to his playmakers.