It has been the Rams preseason M.O. to rest starters and veterans. This year is going to be very different. Mostly because they don’t know who the 11 offensive starters will be and they also hardly have many players that qualify as veterans on the roster. So these Rams preseason games will actually carry a lot more weight than years past.
Rams Preseason Watchlist: Offense
This is the most fluid of all groups. Only one position is truly set; Rob Havenstein at right tackle. All others are truly up for grabs. Everyone will except him will play in the preseason and their performances will be used to determine who will play in Week 1 of the season.
Who is competing where?
LG: Steve Avila and Noteboom
RG: Tremayne Anchrum and Coleman Shelton and Logan Bruss
Behind Matthew Stafford, the Rams revamped their quarterback room. They signed Brett Rypien and drafted Stetson Bennett. The two split reps during training camp and both will do the same on Saturday against the Chargers. Sean McVay said that he hasn’t decided who will ‘start’ the game, but both will see action. 2023 undrafted free agent Dresser Winn will also take snaps, but he is a lower priority than the others. A new NFL rule allows teams to dress one quarterback as an emergency option, but that player isn’t ‘active’ on the 53-man roster. So the Rams will keep two of them, likely Bennett and Rypien, but there will be a lot to learn from all three performances.
This will be one of the most fascinating groups to watch. The Rams have their top two spots figured out, Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson. For that reason, neither will play. They have also been injured. Kupp hasn’t participated in training camp for several days and Van Jefferson has taken several ‘veteran rest days’ and is coming off a knee injury that kept him out of about half the season.
But behind them are several players that will be vying for the remaining four spots. The interesting thing about these players is they are all in very different places in their careers:
Tutu Atwell, the small speedy first Rams overall draft pick of the 2021 draft is coming off his best camp. 2023 seems to be a make-it-or-break-it type of year for him.
Demarcus Robinson is a journeyman receiver heading into his 8th season and third team. He looked impressive in camp but was mostly playing against the second-string defense. Tyler Johnson is also on his third team but is only heading into his 4th year. Both he and Robinson have proved to be able to contribute as pass catchers and both have Super Bowl rings. Robinson with the Cheifs and Johnson with the Buccaneers.
Puka Nacua was drafted this year in the 5th round and has been highly touted through training camp. He has even earned Robert Woods comparisons from Rams beat writers, Jourdan Rodrigue and Stu Jackson during The Athletic’s 11 Personnel podcast.
Sophomore, Lance McCutcheon was last preseason’s favorite and will compete for a spot on the 53-man roster. My dark horse pick to make the team is Xavier Smith, a 2023 undrafted free agent out of Florida A&M. He flashed as a receiver in limited snaps but also worked a lot with the return specialist. The Rams have had issues finding a suitable returner for several years. His 4.48 40-yard dash makes him a perfect candidate.
The Rams like to run tempo which requires them to have a ‘top 3’ to avoid changing personnel, so figuring out who that receiver will be is very important.
The Rams running game was lost in the woods last season. They had the worst rushing DVOA of the McVay era and at one point attempted to trade Cam Akers, the best running back on the team. Adjusting how they use the rushing attack was a focus of the offseason and a contributing factor to bringing in Mike Lafleur, a disciple of Kyle Shanahan, as offensive coordinator.
I doubt Akers will play, but it is certainly on the table. I could also see neither Akers nor sophomore Kyren Williams playing out an abundance of caution. Williams was hurt for much of last season.
‘The who’ isn’t as important as ‘the how’ in this case. How the Rams use the ground game will be fascinating and will shed light on how McVay’s thinking has shifted with new input from Lafluer.
The other backs on the roster are second-year Ronnie Rivers, Rookie Zach Evans, and Royce Freeman. 2023 will be Freeman’s sixth season and the Rams are his fourth team. The Rams signed him when Sony Michel retired earlier this offseason.
Tyler Higbee has the starting spot locked up. Behind him is a mystery. Both Hunter Long and rookie Davis Allen have been injured. Brycen Hopkins looked good at camp but has had limited experience in live-game action. He did show up under the Super Bowl light, catching four passes for 47 yards. This remains the best game of his career.
Despite their best efforts the Rams haven’t seemed to have found the answer behind Higbee. Which is becoming more and more important while NFL offense’s trend toward more two tight end sets.