Now that the 2017 regular season is over, I’ll be doing this article differently. This week’s edition of the “A” team will take a look back at the top-six difference makers of the 2017 season. This is not to say that the players on the list weren’t a big part of their success because they all were. These are the players that had the most consistent contributions week in and week out. The ones who stood above their peers at their respective positions. It’s hard to make a list with only six Rams players. There are many arguments to be made for anyone not on this list, but here are the guys I chose for mine.
What a difference a year makes. Despite only having one more carry in 2017, Gurley gained 420 more yards than he did in 2016. His 4.7 yards per carry were a full yard and a half more than his sophomore season. It’s truly unbelievable what he was able to do for this offense, and he almost finished with the rushing title while sitting the season finale. That was only half of the equation. Gurley added 64 receptions to his numbers in 2017, the same amount he had combined his first two seasons. With those receptions, he added 788 receptions yards, only 38 yards less than Alvin Kamara who had 17 more receptions than Gurley. You don’t get NFL MVP consideration without having a special season and that’s exactly what he did. Gurley led the league in both scrimmage yards (2,093) and combined touchdowns with 19. Don’t overlook the Rams’ 9-0 record when Gurley touched the ball 20 or more times.
Even though he missed the final two games of the season, Zuerlein finished the season tied for second more field goals made with 38. His 40 attempts in 2017 were nine more than any other season in the league. On top of that, he made an additional 44 extra points. Bringing his total points scored to 158, tied for 10th most in a single season by any player. With playoffs looming, this is one of the scariest losses for a Rams team that ranks 14th in redzone touchdowns at 55.1 percent of redzone opportunities. With the Rams stalling on drives before, his kicks were the difference makers in a lot of games.
People don’t have the type of season Donald had when they hold out of organized team activities and training camp. It doesn’t happen. This guy is head and shoulders above any player at his position, period. He set a career high in quarterback sacks with his 12, despite missing the first and last game of the season. When the Rams lacked a pass-rush off the edge, he took over and pushed the pocket. Getting quarterbacks off their mark is a key part of contributing to the team’s 18 interceptions. With the edge presence of Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin increasing as of late, NFC quarterbacks beware. At his position, there aren’t difference makers like him. The only question is how much will he get in the offseason?
Cooper didn’t even start the season returning punts for the Rams, oddly enough. Since taking those duties over in week six, Cooper returned 32 punts for the second most yards in the league with 399. That’s an extra 12.5 yards of positive field position for the Rams each possession. Now that’s setting your offense up for points and affecting the opposing punter into possible mistakes. His kick return touchdown to open week six against the Jaguars was one of only two touchdowns the Rams scored. With the Jaguars allowing second-fewest points allowed per game at 16.8, it was huge what ended up being a ten point win. Once again, Cooper creates headaches for opposing special teams units. Special teams can be the difference makers in tight games and he tilts that in favor of the Rams.
There was never any doubt that Lamarcus Joyner was a great player. But at the end of the day, you would have to expect some growing pains after playing his first season in the NFL at safety. Not one. Joyner was absolutely amazing in 2017. Defenses didn’t want to target him in the passing game and for good reason. With three interceptions and five pass breakups, Joyner had almost as many of those as he did receptions allowed (12). He showed what he could do to a game when he deflated all of Seattle with his opening drive forced fumble in week 15. He is one of those Earl Thomas like difference makers, with even better coverage skills. Don’t let the size fool you, he likes to hit and he’s not afraid to do it either. His passion shows in his play and he is relishing in the fact that he’s on the field for almost every play.
The entire offensive line deserves credit for the success of both the run and pass game, they really do. Andrew Whitworth was a huge get and he made a difference. I’d say Whitworth actually helped show how great Rodger Saffold really is at left guard. For so long he had to play helping his left tackle more than anything and it took away from his ability. With Saffold being able to trust his left tackle to do his job, he could focus on his play. Opposing pass-rushers were only able to beat him for one quarterback sack this season. He had second level defenders making business decisions when they saw him coming in the flat to throw a block in the screen game. His play stood out more than anything and with his athletic ability, any play can spring for a big gain.
It certainly is an odd feeling thinking of trying to put only six players on here and if being difficult. This was going to be the top-five players of the season. There are definitely more people that deserve to be on this list but it’s a good problem to have. It helps when one of these players isn’t having that “wow” type game. The Rams are built with an emphasis on “We not me” and it shows. No single player is above the team and that’s exactly what Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk pointed out about the “Greatest Show on Turf” in his induction speech. That’s your key to success. Difference makers are great to have, but you can’t win depending on the play of a few people. The ultimate team sport, in my humble opinion.
It’s still hard to believe this is only the first year of this regime, the Rams are an average age of 25, and they are hosting their first playoff game in Los Angeles. The team mentality will be needed in a game that sees the Rams host the defending NFC champions against their four players with playoff experience. A lot of these guys have been with the organization a long time and are finally getting to see this through. It’s definitely well deserved.
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