OWINGS MILLS, Md. – A year ago at this time, entering their preseason opener, the chore for Rams then-rookie head coach Sean McVay was pretty simple: Get Jared Goff as many reps as humanly possible to immerse him in this offense, rebuild his confidence and make him forget about his shaky rookie season.
Now, well, the situation is quite different.
Goff had a strong 2017 season – just the latest young quarterback to blossom under McVay's tutelage and play calling – and he appears at ease in this offense as the Rams have suddenly gone from playoff afterthoughts to potential Super Bowl hopefuls with a reloaded roster and heavy expectations. And it just so happens that one of the few roster spots not teaming with experience and depth is at backup quarterback, where the assembled group of three passers behind Goff have combined for 50 career NFL attempts, one start, and zero touchdowns. It's not exactly teaming with options should Goff miss a few games, and McVay is now charged with protecting Goff through the preseason – where he undoubtedly will end up playing less than last summer – and cultivating something from the group of backups (Sean Mannion, Brandon Allen and Luis Perez) in case of emergency.
McVay and his staff are going over that mental calculus this week, with their joint practices with Baltimore over at the Ravens' practice facility and the preseason opener at M&T Bank Stadium looming Thursday night. With Goff now established in this offense, the days of him taking expanded reps with the second-string offensive line are probably over, while Mannion (a fourth-year pro who has accounted for all 50 of those NFL pass attempts I mentioned) is now an injury away from trying to prop up a team with Super Bowl aspirations
"The thing that is tricky, especially with some of the starters is," McVay told me, "when you are talking about a guy like (left tackle) Andrew Whitworth, who is going into year 13, now if you don't play him then how comfortable do you feel with putting Jared out there? So it's a lot of layers to it, to where when you want to rest somebody else then it affects how you operate …
"I'm really having a tough time – and we've talked about this as a staff – at how do you balance the dynamic between getting those preseason reps, and then, what the risk that potential could come from if something happens. And you can't do that – you can't be scared – but you also want to be smart and mindful of, those couple snaps, does it make a difference in how sharp he can be and can you try to mimic and emulate those game-like situations and limit the risk? And those are things that, I'll be honest, I struggle with and continue to learn. And as you get more experience you maybe have a more clear-cut philosophy."
Bottom line, I don't think we'll see much of Goff this summer. The Rams starters as a whole will likely be rested for this preseason opener, and Mannion – who threw for 185 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions in his lone NFL start (a loss to San Francisco last season) – will have a chance to gain some confidence this time around. For a team that collected this much talent, I continue to wonder if the Rams might be prompted to acquire a more experienced and proven No. 2 quarterback at some point based on how the preseason goes (one team official didn't exactly rule out that possibility, noting how in the past the backup job here has been manned by guys like Nick Foles and Case Keenum, who went on to great starting success elsewhere).
"I think he's really taken a lot of steps in the right direction," McVay said of Mannion.
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- I cautioned against the anti-Orlando Brown, Jr. tide during the pre-draft season, when much was made of his poor combine results. He was still going to be a Day Two pick and he has done a nice job grabbing an early hold on Baltimore's starting right tackle spot. Even with All Pro guard Marshal Yanda back off the PUP list, and a possible reshuffle in order at some point, Brown has given the coaches plenty to think about and if the rookie keeps this up I believe he starts the season in this spot.
- Aaron Donald's holdout from the Rams remains indefinite. McVay is trying to stay in touch with him but the Rams don't expect to see him for a while. "Our conversations have been good," McVay said.
- Cooper Kupp was more or less unstoppable in Tuesday's practice. The second-year receiver was a go-to guy for Goff and the chemistry was obvious in the 11-on-11 unscripted portion. The Ravens tried lining up slot corners and regular corners and even hybrid linebackers on him but to no avail. In general, he was a matchup problem and with Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks on the outside, and the Rams hopeful for a breakthrough season for tight end Tyler Higbee, Kupp remains in line for a bevy of targets. Goff and he have something special going on.
- The Rams secondary has the makings of being elite. Its size leaps out at you on the practice field, as well as its tenacity and speed. The secondary created turnover after turnover against Baltimore's starting offense on Tuesday, including picking off Joe Flacco several times in the red zone. "Today was a real challenge for us communicating with a little noise (music blared from the speakers during 11-on-11s) and a lot of different looks," said corner Aqib Talib, one of several new parts on that defense. "We got to communicate on the fly, fast, so I think it was like a quiz for us … and we did a helluva job." Toggling between watching two fields, I didn't have a full count of how many interceptions the Rams got on the day, but Talib asserted, "we got like five."
- Questions remain about how what amounts to a group of mercenaries will gel on this defense but Talib said he and corner Marcus Peters are hitting it off well. Both have worn out their welcome in past stops, and the Rams have them here on short-term contracts hoping to find lightning in a bottle. "We good," Talib said. "That's my homie. We good." During a long season, this dynamic could go a long way to determining the team's fate with so many players in L.A. for one year on more-or-less prove-it contracts. "The guys we've added have all been smart, conscientious football players," McVay said of a group that includes Peters, Talib and Ndamukong Suh.
- Ravens rookie tight ends Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews are often featured on packages with the starting offense and their size and outside ability provide some matchup problems and new looks. Some of those sets are ripe for running the ball, or allowing for one of the tight ends to keep deep. Hurst made several diving catches and big plays during these two practices and he should be an immediate contributor if he can avoid nagging injuries. Andrews flashed as well. "He's really made a huge jump," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said of Hurst, "both in-line and with his route running."
- Baltimore has been desperate for youngsters to emerge to compliment Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon with the pass rush. A year after barely playing, Timmy Williams is taking big steps in that regard. He was a disruptive force in team drills and someone who will be featured quite a bit in the preseason. A natural edge presence at Alabama, his breakthrough would be a major development for this defense. "He's becoming the player we thought he was going to be when we drafted him," defensive coordinator Don Martindale said of the 2017 third-round pick, who he believes "is going to be a premier pass rusher."
- Keep an eye on the ball when it comes out of rookie quarterback Lamar Jacksons hand. His spiral has consistently had a wobble to it throughout camp – most notable on deeper stuff – and he continues to adjust to the NFL football. "It's still a work in progress," Mornhinweg said.
- There were no real incidents between these teams during two spirited practices in some extreme heat. The past history between Talib and the Ravens' new receiver Michael Crabtree never boiled over despite them being lined up against one another quite a bit, and there was nothing extracurricular save for some brief pushing and shoving and some trash talking.