The Rams are built to play in the rough-and-tumble NFC West, with a power running game and a swarming defense. As evidenced by their three victories in four games versus the powerhouse Cardinals and Seahawks, they can play with anyone in the league when the quarterback stays out of the way and simply manages the game.
Thanks in part to the windfall from the Robert Griffin III blockbuster, the Rams' starting lineup can boast nine first- or second-round draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. That number jumps to 10 if safety/linebacker hybrid Mark Barron is re-signed. The ringleader is ultra-disruptive pocket pusher and run stufferAaron Donald, a serious challenger to J.J. Watt for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Gurley's emergence as a difference-maker in the Week 4 upset over Arizona was the first sign that the blueprint of coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead is finally coming together on offense. While Fisher and Snead can build around Gurley and jitterbug playmaker Tavon Austin, they have to start hitting on a greater percentage of draft picks at offensive line and wide receiver.
Most importantly, though, the Rams must turn over every rock to find a solution at quarterback after wish-casting Sam Bradford and Nick Foles into the role over the past half-decade. Fisher has already anointed undersized journeyman backup Case Keenum the offseason starter. In other words, this roster is 32nd among 32 teams at professional sports' most important position.
The Chargers are in much better shape than their 4-12 record might suggest. They were victims of bad luck, for starters, losing 10 of those games by a touchdown or less. The injury bug struck to an unbelievable degree, dismantling the offensive line, the wide receiver corps and the secondary. The Bolts were also sabotaged by the season-long specter of relocation hanging over the heads of the players and coaches.
Toward the end of the season, Philip Rivers called for a "reload" rather than a full-scale rebuilding effort. The case for the former starts with Rivers himself, a legitimate franchise quarterback who offers the high football IQ, quick release, durability and leadership to carry a stronger roster into the postseason.
Beyond Rivers, stellar passing-down back Danny Woodhead and No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen -- who was enjoying a Pro Bowl-caliber season prior to an early November lacerated kidney -- questions abound on offense. Veteran deep threat Malcom Floyd is retiring. Talented first-round tailback Melvin Gordon never solved his hesitation at the line of scrimmage, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry without a single touchdown. Tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green are both free agents. The offensive line will need tinkering after using more than a half-dozen combinations throughout the season.
While the offense around Rivers is in flux, the disappointing season masked the rise of a talented young defensive nucleus which started paying dividends with an impressive December. The surge began with rookie inside linebacker Denzel Perryman, who showed uncanny instincts and playmaking ability once he ascended to the starting lineup in late October. The Chargers finally unearthed an impact edge rusher in Melvin Ingram, who racked up nine sacks over the final nine games. The other star is cornerback Jason Verrett, who offers lockdown potential.
With a strong draft and a couple of free-agent signings, the Bolts can take advantage of their last-place schedule to make a playoff push in the AFC West next season.