Aaron Donald (USA Today Sports)
Aaron Donald (USA Today Sports)

2018 win total (via Bovada): 9.5

2017 ATS record: 9-7

Optimist view: Have you been watching what the Rams have done this offseason? It’s been a while since we’ve seen a team go for it the way they have, trading for Marcus Peters, Brandin Cooks and Aqib Talib and signing Ndamukong Suh. Wade Phillips has two of the elite interior forces in the NFL in Suh and Aaron Donald, and he has a secondary teeming with depth and talent.

With 10 of 11 starters returning on offense and Cooks stepping into that final spot, the Rams should be in great shape on that side of the ball, too. Jared Goff is entering Year 3, coming off a fine season. Todd Gurley turns 24 in training camp and still has fewer than 1,000 NFL touches — very much still in his prime. Everyone is another year steeped in Sean McVay’s system, the one that produced an NFL-best 478 points.

They were 4-3 in one-score games and won games by 37, 33, 34, 26, 16 and 35 points — and three of those came on the road. They also were 7-1 away from home and won impressive games against playoff teams such as the Jaguars, Saints and Titans. Most weeks, the Rams left little doubt about how good they were.

Vegas projected six wins for the Rams a year ago; only the Bears, 49ers, Jets and Browns were below them. Coming off an 11-5 campaign that shocked many, the Rams can smell a Super Bowl window opening for them.

Pessimist view: For all the incoming talent, we must note who left. There’s a bit of a displacement factor here — are Cooks and Peters massive improvements over Sammy Watkins and Trumaine Johnson? Can anyone step into the roles played by Alec Ogletree, Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin? Overall, the Rams might have come out with a net of higher-end talent, but the depth must be listed as a concern.

After all, they were extremely fortunate, injury-wise, last season. They lost a total of 148 man-games to injury last season, which placed them in the top five for best injury luck. They also didn’t lose many key players. What happens if Goff or Gurley misses time? What about left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who turns 37 this year, or center John Sullivan, who turns 33 and has a history of back injuries? The team added OL and RB depth in the draft, but with the 89th pick and lower.

The LB unit stands as a possible worry. With valuable reserve Morgan Fox out with a torn ACL, we’re looking at some mix of Cory Littleton, Matt Longacre, Micah Kiser, Bryce Hager, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Samson Ebukam vying for starting roles. Is there an effective outside pass rusher among them? What about someone to take Ogletree’s spot and help improve a bottom-five rush defense? Those are legitimate questions to ask, even with talent in front and in back of them.

Then there’s the elephant in the room — or out of the room, perhaps. Donald has not yet received an extension, and he’s currently holding out until further notice, it appears. Will he show up on time? Sit out the first 10 games? Last year’s late arrival didn’t hurt much, as he still won Defensive Player of the Year. But staying away could send a massive message, as there’s no one who can replace what he provides.

On schedule: On the one hand, it’s hard not to notice how tricky the schedule could be. They face five of the top 10 teams in terms of Vegas projected win totals, four of which are NFC teams with whom they’ll be jockeying for conference supremacy. They have a few road stretches that could be daunting — three straight away from home Weeks 5 to 7, as well as three of four on the road in Weeks 13-16, which is followed by what could be a showdown game for the division against the 49ers at the L.A. Coliseum.

On the other, the Rams actually stand to be favored in a whopping 15 of their first 16 games. Granted, 12 of those games currently are within a small point-spread margin — 3.5 points or fewer. But the one game in that stretch the Rams currently are not betting favorites is the road contest at the New Orleans Saints, who are minus-2 in Vegas as of this writing.

Plus, are we sure the NFC West is going to be that formidable? Sure, the 49ers stand to improve with a full season with Jimmy Garoppolo; they were 1-10 when he didn’t start and 5-0 when he did. But the Seahawks might be taking a step back, and the Cardinals figure to be a team seeking an identity as they reshape the defense and go through a quarterback battle.

One big difference between last season’s schedule and this year’s — the primetime slate. The Rams had their only night game in Week 2 against the then-lowly Niners. This year, they’re slated to play five. Luckily for them, they come at opportune times and with few miles traveled.

The Week 1 Monday night game will come in Oakland in Jon Gruden’s return. Yes, it will be a spirited atmosphere, but it’s a short trip and followed by a home game against the Cardinals the next week. Week 4’s Thursday nighter comes at home vs. the Vikings in L.A., giving the Rams 10 days to prepare the next week to play at Seattle. Week 7 is a Sunday night return trip to the Bay Area to face the 49ers, again a fairly short trip. Week 11 against the Chiefs also happens in L.A., followed by the late-season bye. They’ll also be at home for the Sunday night game in Week 15 against the Eagles — tough game, yes, but better home than away.

Prediction: Under

We went back and forth on this one for a while. Yes, the Rams could be a better team than last season with all the incoming star power, but it doesn’t guarantee a higher win total. Even with that, we still are saying that they won’t win 10 games — and yeah, that’s where it hurts. With the number set at 9.5, it’s right in that range to be both tempted by and leery of the “over” call.

The Rams were only 4-5 at home, playoffs included, last season. They won 11 games, but only three against playoff teams. Five of those victories came where Scott Tolzien, Brian Hoyer, Drew Stanton, Tom Savage and Blaine Gabbert played more than half the game for the opponent at quarterback.

Of course, they were also 7-1 on the road, including notable wins over the Cowboys, Jaguars, Seahawks and Titans. The Rams tied for third in the league in point differential, too. It’s foolish to write off what they did in McVay’s first year, but it’s also fair to ask if the Rams can match some of that magic this season. You also have to expect that they’ll get a little worse luck in the injury front, just by the law of averages. That’s where a lack of established depth at a few positions could really sully things.

Even with a talented defense aside from Donald, his potential absence frightens the heck out of us. We’re talking about one of the rare individual defenders whose presence could forecast a defense’s outcome, and it’s not as if there aren’t a few questions at linebacker. If he’s signed to a long-term extension in the coming weeks, we’d ask to reserve the right to reconsider our position a bit.

But for right now, we are going ever so slightly “under” — a 9-7 season would not shock us in the least if a few forces work against this talented team. It's our toughest call to date in this series, and one we frankly don't feel that overwhelmingly confident about wagering on.