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Week 1 Game Preview: Matthew Stafford's debut under the lights at SoFi Stadium against the Chicago Bears

Certainly the group includes Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes.

Josh Allen is ascendant and a popular pick to join them this season. Russell Wilson's track record cannot be ignored.

The category, of course, is the elite tier of quarterbacks. And it has become one of the most contested classifications of the NFL offseason.

I'm not too concerned with where the line is drawn for the purposes of this Week One preview.

The point is that Matthew Stafford isn't there right now. But the narrative of the 2021 Los Angeles Rams season can be distilled down to whether or not he has a compelling case come February.

At 33-years old, Stafford has a golden opportunity to make the leap from good to great.

And as their city and stadium prepare to host Super Bowl LVI, so too do the Rams.

Have to See It To Believe It

Let's say it comes to fruition and Stafford is the key that unlocks what so many of us believe this offense is capable of. What should we expect that to look like on Sundays this fall? I put these visions in two categories.

For Stafford: Fewer hits taken. Fewer fourth quarter heroics required. More open targets with lower drop rates. Heavier doses of pre-snap motion and higher totals of yards after catch. The most efficient running game he's ever enjoyed. Shorter fields than he's used to.

For the Rams: Better ball security. Production under pressure. An increase in average depth of target. Lighter boxes and more favorable numbers in the running game. Offensive line performing even better than the sum of their parts. McVay spending fewer timeouts on offense early in halves. Red zone mastery.

The Right Stuff

Aside from elevating production at the most important position in sports, where else do things have to go right for the Rams to own the division, earn home field advantage in the postseason, perhaps the NFC's top seed and a bye, and win a championship?

Here's a short list of individuals the organization has planned around and invested in, who need to rise to the occasion in 2021:

Leonard Floyd (happy 29th birthday this week)

Career years from the majority of this list should put the Rams on track for where they're trying to go.

Picks to Click

As for who I think will really shine in 2021…

On defense, Sebastian Joseph-Day was undeniably disruptive in training camp. His time is now.

And with Stafford at the controls, threatening defenses vertically with DeSean Jackson and others, it feels like Cooper Kupp is poised for his best year yet – he might even be able to do it while playing lower snap counts this season. Tyler Higbee could be in line for a massive 2021, as well.

Center of Attention

Let's delve a bit deeper with Allen, who was our guest on Rams Revealed this week.

The Chicago native was thrust into that infamous 2018 game at Soldier Field, had his career derailed by a Week 10 injury in 2019, and has not seen the field since.

Yet despite major knee surgery and becoming the first active NFL player to test positive for COVID-19 (which compromised his rehabilitation efforts), Allen outperformed this summer and earned the right to send Stafford his first snap with the Rams.

In our conversation, the 25-year-old center makes a strong case that he's capable of overcoming the perception of being "undersized" and details why he's a better player today than the last time we saw him in uniform, some 670 days ago.

Left Tackles Long in the Tooth

While Allen attempts to establish himself as an NFL starter, left tackle Andrew Whitworth strives to cap his 16-year career with a ring.

We'll hold our hope that this isn't the last hurrah for the NFL's oldest offensive lineman, but Whitworth has hinted more strongly than ever that it could be.

This week's opponent is a vivid reminder of just how difficult it can be to replace someone of his caliber.

In desperate need of offensive line maintenance, the Bears signed fellow 39-year-old Jason Peters less than a month ago, hoping he can bridge the days until rookie second-round selection Teven Jenkins (on injured reserve following back surgery) can assume the role.

So there will be nearly 80 years and 34 seasons of experience at left tackle on Sunday night.

Ramily Reunion

Elsewhere on the roster, the Bears have quite the collection of former Rams.

Edge rusher Robert Quinn is hoping to rebound from a lackluster 2020.

Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree got a late-summer phone call, and with Danny Trevathan on injured reserve, the former first-round selection of the Rams will start in the middle of the Bears defense on Sunday night.

Kicker Cairo Santos earned a three-year contract extension this offseason.

One time L.A. safety Marqui Christian is in their secondary. And Chicago even claimed Nsimba Webster off waivers last week to deploy as a core special teams contributor.

Secondary to None

Here are a few quick-hitters regarding skill players and coverage units on both teams.

First, the Jalen Ramsey gauntlet of a matchup schedule begins with Allen Robinson, who the Bears brought back on the franchise tag. Last October, with Nick Foles at the controls, Robinson hauled in four receptions for 70 yards at SoFi Stadium. And despite lackluster quarterback play throughout the year, he caught a career-high 102 passes in 2020.

But if you were paying attention this offseason, it was actually Ramsey's back-and-forth regarding Chicago's number two target, Darnell Mooney, that could set the stage for an even spicier showdown on Sunday night.

Secondly, it seems to me the Bears are taking a large leap of faith with their corners.

Following an injury-shortened rookie campaign, Jaylon Johnson figures to be their best defensive back. Teammate and safety Tashaun Gipson actually compared him to Ramsey recently.

Opposite Johnson is fellow 2020 Draft selection Kindle Vildor, taking over for Kyle Fuller (now in Denver).

As for their third corner, who figures to see a ton of work against L.A.'s 11-personnel packages? Can Artie Burns or Duke Shelley contend with Kupp for four quarters if the Rams pass protection holds up?

And lastly, Terrell Burgess might be the most interesting Ram on the roster. He was highly coveted in the draft and was just coming on as a rookie when he suffered a season-ending injury against these Bears. Now, I'm uncertain what role he'll fill on this defense, having seen him play extensively in the Rams final two preseason contests. With Nick Scott performing well and J.R. Reed really arriving during the month of August, it will be fascinating to see how the Rams deploy Burgess, their third-round choice at safety from 2020.

Will History Repeat Itself?

In this exact space one year ago, we projected that if things went according to plan for the Rams defense, first-year coordinator Brandon Staley might be one-and-done.

And fortunately/unfortunately, that's exactly how things played out. The 2020 Rams allowed the fewest points in the NFL. The 2021 Chargers have a new head coach.

Not that I'm wishing a fourth defensive coordinator in four seasons on the Rams – far from it. However, a repeat of last season's dominance would of course be welcomed. And should that unit have similar success, who would be surprised if Raheem Morris was interviewing for a return to the head coaching ranks come the New Year?

That would be, to steal one of McVay's favorite phrases, a champagne problem.

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