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State of the Rams roster: OTAs edition

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By: Venie Randy Soares

Matthew Stafford is back for season 16 | Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

OTAs begin with Rams head coach Sean McVay and assistants ready to install 2024 schemes

Phase 3 of spring workouts get going next Monday for the Los Angeles Rams and it marks the end of individual/small group workouts plus the start of organized team activities (OTAs). While it is still “helmets only”, 7 on 7, 9 on 7, and 11 on 11 drills are allowed. This session is where Coach Sean McVay begins work on installing the 2024 season’s offensive schemes and Chris Shula does the like on defense.

While much work remains to be done on the field, it’s never too early for speculating on the state of the Rams roster. In this case, along with suppositions on its overall health, an opening roster and starting lineups are ventured.

The opening 53 are in bold, while the starters are bold/italics.

Special teams

Jay Ward, Ethan Evans, Josh Karty – Tanner Brown

I think it’s fair to say there is no where to go but up for this unit. The specialists will still be very young, but there’s talent to build on.

Long snapper Ward had a strong season until going out for the season in Week 13. I can’t say for sure if he can manipulate the laces up and/or out, but he was quite accurate in placement. Punter Evans had some ups-and-downs and needs work on hang-time. His ability to boom kickoffs through the end zone are now moot with the new rules. Karty and Brown will battle for the place kicking role. Brown won the role in camp last year, but couldn’t hold on and was waived in final cuts. L.A. fancied Karty enough to spend a draft pick on him and the Rams like to give their rookie space on the roster.

Offense

Quarterback

Matthew Stafford – Jimmy Garappolo, Stetson Bennett, Dresser Winn

This unit is improved and I would rate it as the best in McVay’s tenure. As long as Stafford stays healthy this is a Top 10 unit. And that’s the rub, he’s missed games in three of the last five seasons, 18 in total. So, there should be some thought to life after Staff, but the Rams future is now and in it, Stafford’s play still compares to his best. Once you choke down the fact that Garappolo was a 49er, he’s not a bad QB#2. He has a long record of coming off the bench, plenty of in-game experience with 63 starts and six more in NFL playoffs.

With the emergency QB rule changing to include the practice squad, L.A. will likely keep two QB’s on the 53. Bennett’s inglorious first season a a pro makes him a safe stash on the practice squad and Winn is a perennial Rams camp body.

Running back

Kyren Williams – Blake Corum, Boston Scott, Zach Evans, Ronnie Rivers

Let’s call this unit improved over the recent past, the L.A. offense now seems to value down hill runners. Over the years, running back injuries, major and minor, have sniped away at their overall production. They had a good unit mix last year, but are far short of those beastly Todd Gurley days when the offense hummed through the tailback.

With the Rams drafting Corum at #83, it’s not a question of whether or not the they will split reps/carries between he and Williams, but rather, what will be the shares? After Williams breakout performance last season, he should clearly start as RB#1, but running back is a position that needs less “transition to the NFL game” time and Corum appears to be a plug-and-play fit into the L.A. offense.

Another smaller back, Scott is the type of veteran back that McVay likes to keep on the roster— tough and versatile. Although his offensive usage has waned in the past couple of years, he can help out on special teams as a returner or coverage player. Evans has good traits, but could easily end up as the odd man out, this will be an important spring/summer for his future. Rivers is a 100%er with some special teams upside, but the depth upgrade in 2024 appears to render him expendable.

Wide receiver

Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua, Tutu Atwell – Demarcus Robinson, Jordan Whittington, Xavier Smith, Tyler Johnson, JJ Lapp, Sam Wiglusz, Drake Stoops

After only minor off-season changes, the receiving corps remains static. All in all, while an eye should be kept to the future, that is not a bad thing.

Is Kupp still a WR#1? He continues to be a master at creating separation and finding holes in coverages, but has only played one full season in a seven-year career and missed 13 games over the past two. Nacua emerged as the Rams go-to target last season and while he could step back a bit from his overall production numbers, there is no reason to expect him not to be the main part of the passing offense. Atwell offers an under-utilized deep threat and is equally tough on crossing patterns.

Behind the three starters, Robinson returns as a competent WR#4 and Whittington replaces Ben Skowronek in “the little bit of everything” role. I will project the inside track at WR#6 to Smith on account of his punt/kickoff return abilities, but if inconsistent hands return from his early college days, Johnson and his “steady Freddy” game could spring past him.

The UDFAs don’t have many standout traits and must find a way to make an early commotion and/or stand out on special teams play. Lapp is the most interesting, good mix of hands and size, with fair speed. Wiglusz had some punt/kick returns in 2002, it’s possible that could be a door-opener. Stoops played at the highest college level and is the type of underdog that McVay has a penchant for keeping around.

Tight end

Colby Parkinson – Davis Allen, Hunter Long, – Nikola Kalinic, Miller Forristall, Neal Johnson, Tyler Higbee

If there is an upgrade on this unit, it must be measured in potential. While the starters have all shown flashes of stellar play in their past, they all must take the next step. The Rams primary tight end usage has not been that of a downfield weapon, but as a needed and versatile tool (hammer) in both the run and pass game. Fans like to beat on Higbee, at times with good reason, but he’s been a tough SOB that does a lot unseen and under-appreciated dirty work.

Parkinson has the tools and look of an NFL tight end, he now has to show now that he can consistently perform all the tasks expected of a TE#1. Can’t count out Allen, he’s proven to be very good at catching the football and if he’s worked over the offseason to upgrade his play strength and blocking, he could win the starting job. Although I pencil him at TE#3, Long is basically an injury report in a uniform, How many more looks does a late Round 3 draftee get after 238 snaps over three seasons?

Kalinic and Forristall have both bounced around between teams and practice squads, but there is one path to the roster, almost to be sure. Long has not been able to stay healthy and has answered the call for 20 games and 238 snaps in three years. The earliest that Higbee could be expected return from his knee injury is well past the midway point of the season.

Offensive line

Alaric Jackson, Jonah Jackson, Steve Avila, Kevin Dotson, Rob Havenstein – Joseph Noteboom, Beaux Limmer, KT Leveston, Zachary Thomas, Warren McClendon, Logan Bruss, AJ Arcuri, Mike McAllister, Grant Miller, Justin Dedich, Blake Larson

Fans should love the upgrade to this unit. The left tackle decision may leave some wanting, but there was just so much draft capital and cap space to go around, if the Rams ever really considered a move there. This could end up as one best units L.A. has fielded in the Snead/McVay era. It will be interesting to see if the candidates chosen for depth are old school position/zone blockers or downhill bruisers.

AJax is still young and gives me two reasons for optimism. One, he’s coming off his first season as a full-time starter and two, most importantly, there was no real free agency or draft move that would equal his value at just under $5mil. JJax came out of college as a pass blocker and garnered himself a run blocking reputation as pro. Avila played primarily at center in college until his senior year, he should transition easily. Dotson got paid after he stood out in both run and pass blocking last year. Havenstein has been consistent force for years, no doubt a big reason the Rams ran so much to the right side.

Noteboom is a solid backup, when he’s not nicked up. I am a big fan of both Limmer and Leveston, they both fit comfortably into the Rams blocking schemes and could develop into strong inside/outside swing players. Thomas likely dropped back down to the bottom of depth chart when he stumbled in his big chance vs. Cincinnati last year. McClendon should be watched in preseason games for improvement, he has an outside chance as first tackle off the bench. I wish the best for Bruss, hopefully he is all the way back from injury and can give L.A. a tough decision. Arcuri has been around a couple years now and hasn’t got much traction. McAllister and Miller both spent last season on the practice squad and this season’s unit moves likely keeps them limited to that area. UDFAs Dedich and Larson would hope for that much, as well.

Defense

Interior defensive line

Kobie Turner, Bobby Brown, Braden Fiske – Larrell Murchison, Tyler Davis, Desjuan Johnson, Cory Durden, Anthony Goodlow, David Olajigba, Tuli Letuligasenoa

A unit that will look very different for the first time in many years and is searching for a pillar. It’s a big cast of young, inexperienced candidates vying for the role. While I do think you can delineate the three starters, competition for snaps will be wide-open and fierce. Patience, there are bound to be some growing pains to be dealt with.

As a rookie last year, Turner posted a stellar stat line, building up as the season progressed and now returns to build on it. In his first three seasons, Brown’s play points to the label of “underachiever”. He’s at a career crossroads, playing for his financial future. With the big disconnect in top defensive interior salaries, strong play equals pay day, while remaining inconsistent lumps him a group of big fella’s that work at league minimum levels. Fiske is obviously a player the Rams wanted. His potential is sky-high and now has to be translated onto the field. Hard not to be excited about his future.

Larrell Murchison (252 snaps), Desjuan Johnson (102 snaps), and Cory Durden (19 snaps) all return and should provide a modicum of support as rotational/backup players. I think the Rams rookie interior players are very interesting. The stocky Davis comes in with sturdy plug-and-play possibilities, Letuligasenoa is built similarly and plays like a more traditional two-gapping nose tackle, Goodlow is a bit of a tweener size-wise, but has some plus traits, and Olajigba is a total physical freak.

Edge

Jared Verse, Byron Young – Michael Hoecht, Brennan Jackson, Nick Hampton, Ochaun Mathis, Keir Thomas, Zach VanValkenburg

The Rams entered the draft by needing to upgrade their pass rush and throwing their Round 1 and 2 picks at it certainly shows they meant business. It’s another young, inexperienced unit, but does show an incremental buildup in depth.

I may be somewhat pre-mature in relegating Hoecht to a backup role, he’s a strong competitor who in his first full season on the edge, put in work that is comparable/similar to the vastly higher-compensated L.A. edges that came before him. But because Verse does have all the tools and is primed to be the future, the Rams should insert him into the lineup and grow the group, as a whole, together. Young had a solid rookie year and while it’s true his production declined as the season stretched out, he played more snaps as a Rams rookie than he did in his whole college career. The normal growth between NFL players Year 1 and 2 bodes a another step up the ladder.

Jackson’s power-based game personified in his bullrush is a very nice complement to Verse’s explosion and bend. He’s got sneaky athleticism to go with the power and the two, with their tremendous motors, will set the tone for the whole unit. Tough projection at E#5 with all four on the roster bubble. Hampton (66 snaps), Mathis (74 snaps), Thomas (94 snaps), and VanValkenburg (97 snaps) all return as possible depth. Hampton is the most athletic and garnered the most special teams play. Mathis has those imposing physical traits. Thomas and Van Valkenburg have earned snaps and hinted at promise, but likely get swept out in a numbers game.

Off-ball linebacker

Ernest Jones, Christian Rozeboom – Jake Hummel, Troy Reeder, Olakunle Fatukasi, Omar Speights, Elias Neal

Very minor additions made for this unit, none of which could be realistically considered an an upgrade. One of the basic tenets of the 3-4 defense is asking the down defensive linemen to stalemate blockers, whether single or double teams, at the point of attack and have the off-ball linebackers clean up the tackles.

Jones has grown and prospered in this role, improving on his production and leadership in each of three seasons. Now he’s in the final year of his rookie contract and in line for a big raise. How big? While I wouldn’t him rate in the top-tier of NFL linebackers, he has proven to fit well into the Rams scheme and after another solid season, his agent could easily justify asking for $10 mil+ per season. Before 2023, Rozeboom had seven total defensive snaps, he was a special teamer on the bottom of the roster. Last year, he took over at the “will” linebacker role and while often taken out in nickel packages, was still able to contribute 79 tackles in 550 snaps. He did have a high 13.2% missed tackle rate. As a first-year starter with no previous experience could/should we apply the “biggest growth is between NFL Year 1 and 2” theory?

Like Rozeboom, the backup candidates are all UDFAs. Hummel has plus athleticism and is solid on special teams, but hasn’t been able to break through for defensive reps. Reeder is a known commodity, not quite up to NFL starting-grade standards, but his versatility makes a good mid/bottom of the roster player. Very hard to project Fatukasi, Speights, and Neal as much more than camp bodies with practice squad ceilings.

Safety

Kamren Curl, Kam Kinchens – Quentin Lake, Russ Yeast, Justin Taylor, Tanner Ingle, Jaylen McCullough, Kenny Logan

Maybe not a huge upgrade here, but there is serious potential. Any time you replace two NFL-grade starters with one, calling it an upgrade is optimistic. L.A has assembled a group of ball-hawking youngsters and much depends on how fast they can develop. Overall, it’s not an athletically-blessed unit, but that’s not particularly off-base compared to Rams deep secondaries of the recent past.

Curl has proven to be a solid NFL player, productive, durable, and versatile. Although best at strong safety, he began his college career as a cornerback and according to Pro Football Focus, his game has shown year-by-year improvement. Kinchens brings some boom/bust vibe to the safety room. Poor testing at the NFL Combine was the likely culprit of why he dropped down the draft board, but if he plays up to his film performance, he could turn out a gem after a little polish. Lake really should be considered a co-starter. He stepped up as the nickel back and rotated in for the “will” linebacker on a regular basis. The snap counts for Lake and (ILB) Rozeboom were very close.

Taylor is a player I really liked coming out of college, probably the best athlete of the unit. He struggled with early-season injuries, but down the playoff stretch, earned both defensive and special teams reps. Yeast has made the 53 in each of his two seasons and over that time has played in 32 of 34 games with 915 defensive snaps and another 215 on special teams. He’s a solid role-player to have on a roster. Ingle spent last season on the practice squad and although he has an aggressive play-style, is not very big or fast. McCullough and Logan are both UDFAs, they were both good college players, but neither possess a real “hang-your-hat-on” trait that projects to passing the players above them on the depth chart. Logan did return some kickoffs at Kansas, is it enough to get (and keep) a foot in the door?

Cornerback

Tre’Davious White, Darious Williams – DeCobie Durant, Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, Derion Kendrick, Josh Wallace, Cameron McCutcheon, Shaun Jolly, Cam Lampkin, Charles Woods

The Rams followed form from their recent past to upgrade this unit, they went with a veteran presence. Taking the “right now” path is not new, in 2017 it was Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman, 2018 brought Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Sam Shields, Jalen Ramsy came along in 2019, L.A. stood pat in ’20, ’21, ’22, and went back to work in 2023 with Ahkello Witherspoon.

White’s career got off to a red-start in Buffalo and he was a top NFL corner over his first four seasons. Since, he has battled injury after injury and played in only 21 games in three years. These were not the nagging soft tissue type, but rather, the major degradation of a torn Achilles tendon and a torn ACL/meniscus. Rams fans are very familiar with Williams, a starter on the Super Bowl LVI winning team. He appears at the top of his game.

Who will step up as the primary backups? Durant had a huge step up in defensive play-time last year with mixed results. His coverage, although generally adequate, was marred by allowing too many explosive plays. He has to play bigger as well, he missed over 13% of tackles and took himself out of plays with poor angles on too many occasions. THT showed well in coverage during preseason games, but was stunted by silly penalties. He has to be aggressive to make up for his diminutive stature, but must mature and dial it down to find the field. Kendrick was favorite of the past defensive coordinator, stacking up snaps and starts over his first two seasons. Problem was that he eventually played himself off the field in both.

I find it hard to count out Wallace, Michigan players are smart, disciplined, and leather tough and he’s the type that could leverage a way in with a special teams role. McCutcheon has plus size/length and spent 2023 on the practice squad. I’ll be watching out for him in preseason games. Since poaching Jolly from the Cleveland Browns in 2022, L.A. has waived and re-signed him four times. Must be a helluva practice player. UDFAs Lampkin and Woods are both longshots, neither are particularly big, long, or athletic.

Any roster surprises?

Of course, it’s all speculation at this point, but I wouldn’t think so. Although rumors linked the Rams to possible blockbuster trade up scenarios, they stayed the course on their re-imagining and have put back-to-back solid, needs-based drafts into the books. Veteran free agent signings have been both restrained and conservative in supplementing them. Cash was put into the offensive trenches and draft capital into the defensive.

L.A. did an excellent job of getting in-game looks for the big 2023 rookie class, last season. I wouldn’t be the least bit aghast if the Rams had 40+ roster spots already penciled in and it’s more a case of playing yourself off the roster than on. The UDFAs added almost seem an afterthought, stocking camp bodies onto positions with the most wear-and-tear.

It’s apparent to me the new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and line coach Ryan Wendell have put their stamp on the scoring half of the team and the four players drafted support that notion. You are going to have to be mentally and physically tough to see the field.

If the draft is any indication, new DC Chris Shula wants the same persona. He is very close to Brandon Staley, a hint at which way the Rams defense could be going. He’s worked with and knows all the veterans, excepting CB Tre’Davious White, in his various L.A. defensive capacities and he now gets to shape the unit in his image. This leads me to expect the few position/roster battles to be on defense.