Los Angeles Rams Top Offseason Position Battles To Watch
The Rams special teams last season was a debacle. So this offseason the squad is going to get a lot of attention. Sean McVay and new coordinator Joe DeCamillis will spend a lot of time this offseason overhauling this group. So much time that they brought in extra legs in Brandon Wright and Corey Bojorquez so they could practice with actual punt return variations rather than practicing with the monotone jugs machine. But it isn’t just the starting return-men that they need to solidify. There will be positional battles at all spots on the special teams. Well, almost all.
Kicker Matt Gay and punter Johnny Hekker are safe in their jobs. The extra punters on the 90-player roster are there to punt all those extra punts required to determine who will be fielding punts. Having Matt Gay in position is easily the biggest upgrade from last season and will go a long way in correcting what was wrong with the Rams STs last season.
In terms of the returner search, the Rams have already added several options this offseason. But because of Tutu Atwell’s speed, it is easy to picture him as the front runner for the jobs. Atwell has little but impressive experience in the role in college. He returned four punts for 84 yards at Louisville. He is also very excited to get a chance to earn the job, telling Greg Beacham of the AP, “It’ll actually help me. It would be a great spot for the team. I’m just excited and ready to take over the job and do what I have to do.”
While Atwell is eager to take the job there will be a few other guys that will want a say in that. Both Nsimba Webster and Raymond Calais returned to the team. Webster saw most of the return duty and Calais fielded seven kickoffs last season. Both will need to show improvement this season if either wants the spot. Desean Jackson may see some action at the position, but his injury history may preclude him.
Jeremiah Haydel is a player to watch for on special teams. He was a primary kickoff returner for Texas State. While he isn’t particularly speedy, he has a good skill set that makes him a good option as a return specialist. In his senior season, he took both a punt and a kick-off for a touchdown.
Going with Atwell may make the most sense for the team at the end of the day. Atwell will see time as a receiver as well. Not having a roster spot dedicated to KR/PR would allow the Rams some wiggle room when trying to get down to 53.
What the Rams special teams woes really points out is that the team lacks depth. First-stringers rarely, if ever, see time on special teams for a few obvious reasons. So generally the STs unit is made up of guys lower on the depth chart. With the losses of several key starters and a lack of cap space, the Rams are moving several players up a notch in the chart. Players like David Long and Nick Scott who played a majority of the special teams snaps will likely make the move to playing more snaps on defense in 2021.
The Rams have added several DB’s to try to fill these holes. Undrafted free agent safeties Paris Ford, Troy Warner, and Jovan Grant will all compete for a roster spot that will fill that need. But there are also several returning safeties and linebackers that may find that their only option to make the team will be to lock up a role on special teams.
The Rams also haven’t settled on a long snapper and the position has been a bit of a carousel. They signed Colin Holba mid-season in 2020 seemingly as the heir apparent to Jake McQuaide, who was a free agent after the season. The Rams allowed McQuaide to walk, then cut Holba and signed Steve Wirtel, a former UDFA in his second year, and claimed Matt Orzech from Tennessee. Barring another move, the two will compete for the position. Orzech has the edge having played 136 snaps to Wirtel’s 0 snaps. This is a less than ideal place for the Rams to be in. Long Snapper is a position rarely thought about unless your team has a bad one. Like placekicker last season, this position battle may bleed into the regular season and then the battle will be with themselves.
The Rams have a lot of safeties on their roster. 10 to be exact, which should make for a very interesting position battle to see who stays and who goes. Essentially one player is safe, Jordan Fuller. Fuller was a standout in his rookie season and will be the team’s defensive play-caller, replacing John Johnson III.
Taylor Rapp and Terrell Burgess are both coming off of injuries. Rapp had an impressive rookie season in 2019 when he came in for the injured Johnson, but in 2020 Rapp lost his starting job to Fuller and then went down with a season-ending knee injury in week nine.
Burgess broke his ankle in week seven which also ended his season. Before that, he had only played a handful of snaps on defense. Rapp is the front runner for starting safety alongside Fuller. Burgess will compete for a backup role along with Nick Scott. Their injuries will be something to watch. Both Rapp and Burgess are on track to play in week one, but lower body injuries can nag defensive backs.
So what of the remaining six safeties? They can’t keep them all, but the ones that impress on defense and on special teams will be the ones on the roster. That is essentially six players vying for two or three spots. Competing will be the three UDFA’s Paris Ford, Troy Warner, and Jovan Grant and second-year players JuJu Hughes and J.R. Reed, and third-year player Jake Gervase. None of which saw any time on defense and limited time on special teams.
Ford has incredible upside. He is undersized but is a good athlete that plays the position with a wild-eyed intensity, which can get the better of him on defense. As a special teamer, he would be less of a liability but would have to learn to play with discipline.
Grant is the polar opposite of Ford. He is big yet not a natural athlete. Drawing a further contrast to Ford, Grant has sound fundamentals and plays the game first between his ears. This sets him apart but may keep him from standing out on special teams. Grant also played at Merrimack College, so he will need to prove that he can translate his game against a higher level of competition.
Warner (whose brother is Fred Warner) is a good combination of Ford and Grant. He has a good football IQ, is a good athlete and he plays a physical brand of football. He also has an injury history that stunted his college career. He does seem to be fully recovered from the Lisfranc foot injury he suffered in 2017. His final season at BYU was by far his best. The greater concern about the injury is it set him back a year. He is actually older than Fuller, Burgess, and Hughes. Because he missed time due to an injury rather than spending an extra year developing, he doesn’t come in with more experience, just more wear and tear and more bad habits.
Of the three that were on the roster in 2020, Hughes is in the lead position to remain rostered. He put in good time on special teams and played well when on the field. Jake Gervase won’t likely make the cut, leaving Reed to compete with the rookies for the remaining open roster slot. Reed showed potential on special teams but got no time on defense.
T.J. Hockenson was one of Matthew Stafford’s favorite targets in 2020. He threw to him 101 times for 723 yards and six touchdowns. Tyler Higbee was the fourth most targeted receiver on the Rams last season, but when you combine Hibgee’s targets with Gerald Everett’s it is only one less than Stafford’s targets to his top two tight ends in 2020. But Everett was lost in free agency, so the battle for his role will be hotly contested.
Higbee ended his 2019 campaign on a hot streak, which didn’t continue into 2020. But none of the Rams pass catchers had a career year last season. So the introduction of Stafford will shed light on Higbee’s ceiling in Sean McVay’s offense.
The good news for whoever pairs up with Higbee is that McVay has embraced throwing to tight ends. In his first two seasons, he averaged around six targets per game. While he has averaged nine per game in the last two seasons. McVay also increased his usage of two TE sets from 22% in 2019 to 30% last season. That trend ought to continue, considering how much investment the team has made at the position.
Higbee’s position is solid. The Rams have typically kept three TEs, so that leaves four players to battle for the remaining two spots.
The Rams front office has been high on Brycen Hopkins this offseason. He has been touted as making a big jump and is ready to see the field. Last season, he was mostly a healthy scratch after being drafted 136th overall. He is nearly a physical carbon copy of Everett. 6’3” 245, with a similar skill set and athletic ability, and both bring versatility to the position. Hopkins has also shown the potential to be a slightly more dynamic offensive weapon.
If he has made the reported leap, he could fill the hole left by Everett, but would certainly have a spot on special teams if more development is required.
Drafting Jacob Harris could be proof that the Rams are ready to move on from Kendall Blanton and Johnny Mundt. Blanton only got on the field for four special teams plays. Mundt has become a fixture on the special teams but hasn’t contributed much on offense, outside of blocking duties. Harris can and will beat both out based solely on his ability to play on special teams and the Rams may get a twofer with Harris.
Harris has some freakish athletic ability. He posted a 40.5” vertical leap at his pro day. Only four tight ends have bested that number since 1987. He also ran a 4.43 40 at his pro day. Even when adjusted, he is in the 99th percentile of tight ends. How about the long jump? Well, only one other tight end jumped further. AND! He posted a 6.51 time, the best three-cone time of any tight end.
This athleticism alone must make Sean McVay’s eyes pop out of his skull. Many have pointed to Tutu Atwell and Desean Jackson as players that will vertically stretch the field. But Harris could be the answer when you add 40 additional inches to a 6’5” frame compounded by that kind of speed.
Despite all this raw talent, Harris was the eighth TE drafted. Kyle Pitts was fourth overall. Pitts statistically had a much better season than Harris, but Harris tested off the charts. There are a few reasons for this. 1) There seems to be a debate if he is a WR or a TE. Most outlets call him a receiver, but the Rams have him listed as a tight end. 2) He didn’t start playing football till his senior year of high school, so his game is unrefined. He has issues with both his handwork and his footwork. He also doesn’t seem to know he is a freak athlete yet.
George Kittle suffered from a similar blindspot until a coach told him not to let one guy tackle him and now he is one of the best tight ends in the game. Harris needs the same revelation to take the next step, but if he does, he could be the steal of the draft and could even battle Higbee and Hopkins for playing time. But if he doesn’t develop those baseline skills he could be riding the Brycen Hopkins red-shirt plan. If so, Mundt will retain his third spot on the depth chart.
Some position battles within the depth chart seem like an embarrassment of riches. Not so with the inside linebackers. Micah Kiser and Kenny Young played below average and Troy Reeder was surprising but isn’t the answer to the problem.
The good news for the Rams is that they are getting Travin Howard back from injury. They also added Ernest Jones, and Christian Rozeboom has been getting praise from the coaching staff for taking big steps toward making the team.
The Rams have high hopes for Howard’s return, so he will likely see a good chunk of playing time. They haven’t had enough draft capital to burn their second pick of the draft, so Jones will likely have a spot. Rozeboom will take a backup spot if the praise is true.
This leaves Kiser, Young, and Reeder to battle for the last position. Reeder’s performance last season and consistency over his two seasons lead one to believe he will win the position battle.
It won’t be the most interesting position battle, but certainly, one that Rams fans will be interested in given how poorly they performed last season.