Los Angeles Rams rookies, quarterbacks, and veterans have reported for training camp at UC Irvine, and the first practice is scheduled for later today – Wednesday, July 28. With that first practice, we can officially consider the 2021 NFL season underway.
So, what storylines should Rams fans be concerned with? Well, the first and most obvious is always the training camp battles. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the positions where the starting spots are up for grabs and will be won or lost in camp.
In only his first season with the Rams, Leonard Floyd (6’5″ 244 lbs) set career highs last year in sacks (10.5), pressures (45), quarterback hits (19), total tackles (55), assisted tackles (24), and tackles for loss (11). Floyd was a key contributor on the NFL’s overall #1 rated defense and as a reward, was re-signed this past offseason to a 4-year $64 million dollar contract with $32.5 million of it being guaranteed which, due to the size of the investment in him, means his starting position is secure for at least the next 3-years.
As everyone knows, Raheem Morris has taken over as the team’s defensive coordinator but, it should be remembered Morris was instructed by the organization to continue to run Brandon Staley’s defensive scheme. In this defense, the Rams prefer long players manning the edge so that they can aggressively disrupt the passing angles of quarterbacks when they extend their arms. That said, first and foremost, whoever wins the starting spot opposite Floyd will need to be able to create pressure, they’ve got to offer a pass-rushing threat. They’ll also need to set the edge on running plays and turn the runner back towards the middle of the field into the heart of the pursuit.
Who starts opposite Floyd this upcoming season is up for grabs so let’s take a closer look at some of the possibilities.
Justin Hollins (6’5″ 248 lbs) – Hollins offers the length the Rams want in an edge defender and his burst score is the same as Floyd’s at 80%. A burst score of 80% means both Floyd and Hollins’ initial burst off the line of scrimmage on the snap of the ball is in the top 80% of all the players in the league playing the same position. Over 349 defensive snaps last year, Hollins was able to rack up 3 sacks which would have translated to 8 on the season had he played the same number of snaps as Floyd’s 916. Listening to head coach Sean McVay’s July 26 press conference, it sounds like Hollins may be the front runner to start opposite Floyd, “Justin Hollins has really inserted himself as a really good player opposite Leonard Floyd that has a virtual skillset. But, our outside linebacker group outside of Floyd, and then Hollins has done a lot of good things last year but he’s still an ascending player in terms of accumulating that experience.”
Terrell Lewis (6’5″ 262 lbs) – Of all the players trying to win the starting spot opposite Floyd, Lewis offers the highest upside. When healthy, Lewis offers first-round talent with an even better burst score than former first-round pick Floyd, and one that places him in the top 88% of players in the league. However, due to an extensive injury history going all the way back to his college days at Alabama (2017 missed 4 games due to an elbow injury, 2018 missed the entire season after tearing his ACL, 2020 missed 7 games with the Rams 6 games due to complications from an infection in his knee, and 1 game due to an ankle injury), he fell into the 3rd round. Lewis was able to flash that first-round talent in limited action last year recording 2 sacks in 124 snaps which would have projected to 15 sacks on the season if given the same number of snaps as Floyd. Unfortunately, it’s unknown what size workload Lewis can handle due to his injury history and risk. Until that can be determined, Lewis may be viewed more as a relief pitcher than a front-line starter.
Obonnia Okoronkwo (6’2″ 253 lbs) – The first thing that comes to mind when considering Okoronkwo is size, or lack thereof. At 6’2″ he doesn’t offer the same length advantages as Floyd, Hollins, or Lewis. While he may offer the same elite burst score as Lewis (88%), he doesn’t provide the same level of effectiveness. Okoronkwo had 1 sack in 158 defensive snaps which would’ve translated to 6 with the same number of snaps as Floyd last year.
Other but lesser possibilities include:
Chris Garrett (6’4″ 245 lbs) – Garrett is a rookie from Concordia, a D2 school. Garrett flashed large while at Concordia but the level of talent he was playing against wasn’t anywhere close to the level of talent he’ll now be facing at the NFL level. Garrett may offer some upside but it’ll take a year or 2 to develop before he’s ready. Some analysts and team observers are projecting Garrett as the eventual winner of this camp battle, but I just don’t see it due to the difficulties he still needs to overcome such as lack of experience against quality opponents, rookie indoctrination, and the level of competition he’ll be up against at camp.
Justin Lawler (6’4″ 263 lbs) – While Lawler may offer the length the Rams prefer, with a burst score of 8%, Lawler can only be considered a really long long long shot for the starting spot but weirder things have happened in the NFL.
Prediction: Justin Hollins holds off Lewis, Okoronkwo, Garret, and Lawler to start opposite Floyd. Hollins will be used primarily on running downs (first and second down), while Lewis will be inserted in obvious passing situations due to his initial burst and effectiveness in getting to the passer. Limiting Lewis’ “pitch count” will also serve to reduce any additional stress on his knee until the team can determine if he’s capable of taking on a larger workload. Okoronkwo and Garrett will be sprinkled in here and there while Lawler will feed on any playing time crumbs leftover.
Inside linebacker has been considered a trouble spot for the Rams by many in the media over the last couple of years. But realistically, how much of a trouble spot can a position group be when the team defense was rated #1 overall in the NFL (#1 in pass defense, and #3 against the run)?… obviously, this unit isn’t near as bad as some people keep trying to make it out to be.
Last year, multiple players started for the Rams at inside linebacker, all of whom return in addition to a third-round draft pick and a projected starter coming back from a season-ending injury. All of this will make for a wide-open and interesting competition.
Travin Howard (6’1″ 219 lbs) – Howard was projected to start opposite Micah Kiser last year, but he injured his knee in training camp (torn meniscus) and was lost for the season. Viewed as a starter as recently as the start of last year and now fully recovered, Howard cannot be dismissed so quickly and should be viewed as a front runner for one of the starting spots.
Micah Kaiser (6′ 238 lbs) – Kaiser is the most experienced of the bunch with 25 starts and a 2020 week 2 player of the week award under his belt. Unfortunately for Kiser, he opened the door to the competition when he sustained a knee injury late in the year causing him to miss 6 games. A wounded animal is a dangerous animal and Kiser is in the last year of his rookie contract, which means he’ll be playing all-out giving maximum effort this year to put good film out there. He’ll then hope to parlay that into a big-money contract either with the Rams or another team after the season.
Troy Reeder (6’1″ 235 lbs) – When Kaiser went down last year, it created an opportunity for Reeder to become the “Next man up” as the saying goes. Reeder played well in his limited action and with 15 starts over the last 2 years has enough playing experience where the coaching staff has confidence in him. That said, I believe the team views Reeder more as “quality situational depth” than as true starting material. If Reeder does win a starting spot this year, I believe he is someone the team will look to upgrade from as quickly as next season.
Kenny Young (6’1″ 236 lbs) – The Rams acquired Young as part of the Marcus Peters trade with Baltimore and he started 6 games for the team last year. He’s in the last season of his rookie contract which means, like Kiser, he’s going to be going all out in a contract year. But, based on his limited playing time, I have a tough time believing the Rams view him in their starting plans for this season.
Ernest Jones (6’2″ 230 lbs) – Jones was being compared to Kiser throughout the draft process and as such, I have a tough time seeing Jones winning a starting spot as Kiser 2.0 when the team already has Kaiser 1.0 playing in a contract year. As the team has multiple more experienced players at the position, I have a tough time seeing Jones leapfrogging them in the pecking order this season. I view this as a near redshirt season for Jones, one in which he’ll be tasked with learning while being sprinkled in here and there to gain a little on-field experience. That said, I most certainly do see Jones as starting for the team in 2022.
Prediction: Travin Howard wins the starting inside spot as the coverage linebacker while Micah Kaiser wins the inside spot as the run-stopping linebacker. Contrary to what the analysts and team observers think, in this defense, the Rams do not view a “do-it-all” type linebacker as a necessity. They’re comfortable playing one linebacker with coverage skills who can be tasked with covering an opponent’s tight end and running back out of the backfield, and another linebacker who specializes in stopping the run. Two separate linebackers, strong in separate areas which is how the Rams view Howard and Kaiser. Reeder will be the “super sub” jack of all trades master of none strong against both the run and pass but not elite in either, while Young will back up Howard as the team’s cover linebacker. Jones represents the team’s future thumper and was drafted to replace Kaiser who will be allowed to leave via free agency after the season. Jones will be sprinkled in throughout the season to gain valuable playing time experience so that he’ll be ready to take over a starting spot in 2022.
The Rams let 2020 starting center Austin Blythe leave via free agency this past offseason and in doing so, opened the door for somebody new to take over the team’s pivot in 2021. Through OTA’s (organized team activities), the Rams lined up Austin Corbett (6’4″ 306 lbs) at center while starting Bobby Evans (6’4″ 312 lbs) at right guard. However, it should be noted just because the Rams lined up this combination at OTA’s doesn’t mean they will end up the starting pair at those respective positions. OTA’s are one thing, putting on the pads and hitting somebody lining up opposite you is something entirely different.
The Rams will have to choose between two choices, “Rocky Road” or “Mint and Chip” if you will. The team will have to choose between:
Option-A: Austin Corbett at center with somebody else at right guard, or
Option-B: Somebody else at center with Austin Corbett at right guard
Corbett was the 6th overall rated guard in the NFL last year tied with All-Pro Quentin Nelson of the Colts according to SIS DataHub metrics. Additionally, right tackle Rob Havenstein was the #1 overall rated offensive lineman in the league regardless of position, so lining up Corbett next to Havenstein provides the Rams the strongest offensive line right side in the league. A team would really have to think twice about breaking up such an effective tandem and the only way one would even consider doing something like that would be if they had a replacement player they believed was ready to play and were very confident in. Personally, I do not like the idea of breaking up such an effective duo and would really look to exhaust all Option-B possibilities before considering such a drastic move.
The Rams put in a waiver claim for former Cardinals center Lamont Gaillard as recently as last week (July 23) which could indicate either the Rams want to keep Corbett at right guard, or it could mean they were looking at Gaillard as a possible upgrade in the competition for a reserve spot. Since the Rams lost out to the Bengals for Gaillard, it looks like we’ll never know which direction the team was leaning in their thought process.
In addition to Corbett, the Rams will also be looking at Brian Allen (6’2″ 303 lbs) and Coleman Shelton (6’4″ 299 lbs) at the center position. If either of these two can prove to team decision makers they can play the position at least as well as Blythe last year, the Rams may be inclined to leave Corbett at guard where his play has been elite. The competition at right guard could also affect the final decision on where Corbett plays. If somebody such as David Edwards (6’6″ 308 lbs), Jamil Demby (6’5″ 321 lbs), or Chandler Brewer (6’6″ 320 lbs) steps up and shows well at guard, the Rams might then be inclined to move Corbett.
Regardless of how the competition turns out, this is one of the most important camp battles because it will affect the team’s ability to protect their newest and shiniest toy, the asset that all the team’s hopes are pinned on… the ability to protect and keep newly acquired franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford injury-free and upright.
Prediction: I think the Rams really want to move Corbett to center so the real question becomes who will win the battle at right guard and that battle is just too close to call at this time.
Another camp battle and storyline people seem concerned with is who will replace John Johnson at safety? In my opinion, that question has already been answered… Jordan Fuller. The more appropriate question is, who will start opposite Fuller? Will it be 2019 2nd round pick Taylor Rapp who played very well his rookie year, or 2020 3rd round pick Terrell Burgess, who also played well last year until he broke his ankle in week 7. The competition between Rapp and Burgess isn’t as hot as some of the other camp battles because the Rams oftentimes line up 3 safeties on the field which means there will be plenty of playing time for Fuller, Rapp, and Burgess. Additionally, it shouldn’t be forgotten Burgess can also play some corner so he’s most certainly in line for a major bump in playing time this year.
Prediction: I primarily see Fuller and Rapp playing in running situations due to Rapp being stronger than Burgess against the run, and Fuller and Burgess in passing situations due to Burgess having better coverage skills than Rapp. But, since the team likes to deploy 3 safeties there will be plenty of playing time for all three of them.
Another storyline is who will replace Troy Hill at slot corner? Many team observers are predicting rookie Robert Rochell (6’2″ 195 lbs) will win this battle due to his freakish athleticism. Rochell posted a 9.65 RAS (Relative Athletic Score) which means he’s more athletic than 96.5% of the other players playing cornerback in the league. But, being athletic and being ready are two different things. What they’re not telling you is Rochell hasn’t played against top-level competition playing his college ball at D1 subdivision Central Arkansas. Rochelle is talented but raw, very raw and now he’s lining up against the best players at the highest level. Rochell will need a year to develop if he’s a quick learner and 2 years if not.
Realistically, there is no competition for the nickel corner spot. This is David Long Jr’s (5’11” 196lbs) job to lose. Arguably the best cover cornerback coming out in his draft class (2019), Long had the lowest reception rate against in the nation (29%) by a whopping 8% his last season at Michigan and only allowed 18 receptions on 595 coverage snaps during his entire collegiate career. People tend to discount Long because he hasn’t been able to break into the starting lineup before now but who could when playing behind guys like Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, Marcus Peters, and Aquib Talib not even factoring in the draft capital the Rams gave up to secure those guys. When teams give up draft capital to secure a player, they’re not apt to let a rookie compete fairly with someone they just gave up multiple draft picks to acquire, it just isn’t done. Now, with a clear runway to the starting slot cornerback position, and the only competition being a talented but raw rookie a year or 2 away as well as practice squad player Donte Deayon (5’9″ 159 lbs), it’s “go for launch” as NASA would say for Long in 2021. McVay (unsolicited) even mentioned Long by name during his July 26 press conference, “I was really pleased at what David Long did at the corner.” referring to what Long has shown up to and including his work through OTAs.
Prediction: This one is easy, while Rochell has all the talent in the world, is freakish athletically and offers a very bright future, he’s nowhere near ready to start this season and Deayon is more like a CB4-5 than a starter. Long wins this battle by default. His coverage skills and developmental time with the team are just too good and too much to overcome for an unpolished rookie and a very good practice squad player now stepping up.
So there you have it, the hottest camp battles and storylines for all Rams fans to keep their eyes on over these next few weeks.
So, who do you think will win these hot camp battles? Sound off below and let me hear what you’ve got to say and check out Fan to Fan Network for more training camp coverage.