The 2021 NFL Draft is finally over and the question every Rams fan wants to know is… how did they do? And herein lies the debate as improvement can take on many forms some obvious and some less so. In this article, I’ll review the Rams’ draft and analyze what it means both for the upcoming season and beyond.
To answer that question, let’s get started at the very beginning by familiarizing ourselves with the picks and scouting reports on each player…
Concordia St. Paul
Note: RAS (Relative Athletic Score) uses 10 categories to grade a player’s athleticism on a 0 to 10 scale compared to their peer group and can be interpreted as a percentile. For example, a wide receiver with a 9.88 RAS would be considered in the upper 98.8% of all receivers in his athleticism.
Pros: He’s a game-breaking player with homerun hitting speed as both a receiver and return specialist, he possesses an incredible burst that allows him to beat opponents in one step, he’s fluid off the line of scrimmage, he sells his routes, extends his hands to catch the ball away from his body and watches it into his hands, has excellent body control allowing him to adjust well to errant throws, and is willing to layout for the hard catch.
Cons: Is grossly undersized, gets knocked off routes easily due to diminutive size, offers very little in the area of contested catches due to size, multiple times dropped or fumbled the ball due to contact, drops without contact have also been an issue, will occasionally round off his routes.
Pros: Aggressive and plays angry with attitude, very strong in run support, really attacks ball carriers, good hand techniques uses them well, good lateral flow, isn’t caught out of position much, smart.
Cons: A little undersized, slowed by blocks, slow with assignments on passing plays, slow hip movement when asked to drop into coverage, lacks aggressiveness when blitzing. Projects as a 2-down linebacker in the NFL.
Pros: Excellent size, aggressive and tough to move at point of attack, fires off the snap, excellent fundamentals, explosive playing three-technique, excellent pad level, can quickly change attack angle, displays agility and good leverage.
Cons: Plays high, gets knocked off balance too easily, struggles shedding blocks.
Pros: Possesses good play awareness and instincts, displays good pass defense timing, does well keeping plays in front of him, fast and closes quickly with good burst, has good size and NFL level ball skills.
Cons: Not physical in run support, slow with hip movement in transition and slow to turn when having to run with receivers. Relies on athleticism to bail him out, poor fundaments and technique. Will need to be coached up at next level.
Pros: Excellent size/speed ratio, tough and physical, possesses strong hands and watches ball into hands, uses size advantage to out physical smaller defensive backs for contested balls, strong downfield blocker.
Cons: Doesn’t always play to long speed, lacks quickness, raw skills and will need developmental time.
Pros: Has quick first step, fires off the ball, changes direction easily, athletic, consistent knee bend, uses hands well to shed blocks, prefers inside move, possesses closing burst.
Cons: Needs to get stronger, gets stood up at point of attack and struggles against the run.
Pros: North & South type runner who keeps knees moving, good receiver out of the backfield, adjusts well to errant throws, has soft hands, able to extend well and catch away from his body, rarely out of position on blocking assignments.
Cons: Multiple ACL surgeries on same knee, not much wiggle, lacks ability to make defenders miss, slow to the perimeter.
Pros: Good size, good hands and looks ball into hands, catches ball away from body, good at winning contested balls uses size well, high-points ball well, solid route runner, plays smart.
Cons: 40 time unknown as sustained Jones fracture at Senior Bowl practice, lacks burst, struggles to get separation due to sluggish play speed.
Pros: Strong off the snap, gets good leverage, plays with excellent pad level, utilizes multiple moves, and uses hands well, quick to alter attack angle when needed, has closing burst, good body control with non-stop motor.
Cons: Small and struggles against the run, limited stand-up experience, mostly played in 3-point stance. Projects as outside pass rush specialist in 3-4 defense.
Now that we know a little more about the players the Rams drafted, let’s look at the means with which Rams General Manager Les Snead worked the draft to bring them in.
Going into the 2021 NFL Draft, the Rams originally had six picks:
But, as we all know, the Rams came out of the draft with NINE players as during the draft the team completed trades with the San Francisco 49ers, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Houston Texans. General Manager Les Snead took four picks in rounds three, four, and six, he sprinkled them with fairy dust, wished upon a star and somehow turned them into not five, not six but SEVEN players for his team this year, some of which have the potential to be impactful in the years to come.
Snead has been one of the best General Managers in the league in terms of wheeling and dealing to secure what his team needs at all levels of the roster from the elite player such as Aquib Talib, Marcus Peters, Jalen Ramsey, and Matthew Stafford, through to the special teamer and this draft just goes to further solidify that impression. Where most other General Managers in the league are content to conduct “business as usual”, Snead continues to find creative ways to bring in more with less not only in terms of quantity as this draft proved, but also in terms of quality as few teams in the league can match the Rams mid-to-late round player “hit” rates since he took over in 2012.
With all the pieces in place to perform a draft analysis, let’s break it all down and try to make some sense out of it. The foremost question that everyone wants to be answered is… Did the Rams improve the team through their draft?
To answer that question, we need to better understand some of the ways a team can improve. The most common and most obvious way is to pick a player who is viewed as an upgrade over a current starting player. An example would be Atlanta’s pick of Kyle Pitts at tight end. Last year the Falcons traded for former first-round pick Hayden Hurst from the Baltimore Ravens to replace Austin Hopper who signed with the Cleveland Browns as a free agent. While Hurst may not be lacking in talent, Pitts is viewed as a very special talent and clear upgrade. Entering the 2021 season, Pitts will now be Atlanta’s starting tight end while Hurst will be relegated to backing him up or will be dealt to another team who may view him as an upgrade over what they currently have in place.
Another and often forgot of way to improve a team is by raising the floor. By drafting players who are viewed as upgrades over those players who make up the bottom of the roster, typically the players mostly used on special teams and who are listed as third or fourth on a team’s depth chart. By improving a team’s lower depth, they are less vulnerable when a starter goes down and everyone has to “step up”. In some years, certain positions are hit harder than others and when multiple players from the same position group go down, it forces the team to tap into that lower depth and when the depth is weak, it gets exploited weekly by everybody in the league. Upgrading a team’s lower depth improves the team’s overall strength.
The least obvious and rarely considered means when thinking about how to improve a team involves those situations where the team already has a productive starter in place who is also someone the team expects to or knows may lose to free agency at the end of the season. Recent examples include losing fan-favorite safety John Johnson this year and drafting Will Fuller, Tyrell Burgess, and Taylor Rapp over the previous 2 years replace him, losing wide receiver Josh Reynolds but drafting Van Jefferson last year to replace him for the upcoming season, losing former Pro Bowl middle linebacker Cory Littleton in 2020 but drafting Micah Kaiser as his future replacement in 2018. Johnson himself was drafted to replace T.J. McDonald back in 2017. The Rams knew in advance they were likely to lose Johnson, Reynolds, and Littleton to free agency so a season or two before, they set about finding and drafting their replacements. By drafting the replacements a year or two early, the Rams were able to provide them with a necessary developmental year so when they were needed, they were ready to take on the larger roles.
And what about those situations where an aging but productive veteran begins to lose a step? Is a developed and viable replacement already on the roster ready to take over? Both Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp will be over 30 when their current contracts expire and that’s right around where skill players hit “The Wall” and when their performance begins to slip noticeably.
To the casual observer and fan, this year’s draft wasn’t sexy, there were no big names picked and no trades up, the only means by which the media and less knowledgeable fans consider a draft to be successful. But make no mistake about it, this year’s Rams’ draft was highly productive flying under all but the most astute of Rams fan’s radars. To an outsider incapable of assessing improvement in any form other than that of the most obvious, the Rams did not draft any new starters hence they had a poor draft which is why most draft pundits, analysts, experts, talking heads, “wannabes”, or whatever else they might be referred to gave the team a draft grade anywhere from a C+ to a D-. They obviously lack the capability to evaluate beyond a single season and a single means so when evaluating this draft, the thought of taking into consideration how next year’s long list of pending free agents may have played a role never even crossed their minds.
For a full list of the Rams’ potential free-agent losses in 2022, please refer to my previous article Horns Up! | What Will the Rams Do in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Knowing what we now know, let’s take a much closer look at the Rams draft but this time, through the filter of this year’s needs with an eye on next year’s potential free-agent losses.
Lacking a first-round pick previously used in the 2019 Jalen Ramsey trade, the Rams draft didn’t start until pick 57 of the second round where they shocked the football world by taking 5’9” 150 pound Louisville wide-receiver Tutu Atwell. Rumor has it the Rams were actually on the phone with Western Michigan speedster D’Wayne Eskridge when the Seattle Seahawks took him just ahead of the Rams with pick 56 which, if true, would indicate Atwell was the Rams fallback option.
If speed was the Rams’ target with this pick, they didn’t miss as Atwell is one of the fastest players in this draft class if not THE fastest receiver himself. According to Pro Football Network, Atwell ran an official 4.27 40 which can only be considered as otherworldly fast. To put that number in proper perspective, the current 40-yard record is 4.22 by New York Giants wide receiver John Ross at the 2017 scouting combine so if the Rams were looking for someone capable of taking the top off, they most definitely found him in Atwell.
That said, let’s dig a little deeper. The reason it’s so important the Rams line up someone capable of hurting teams deep is because Sean McVay’s offense is tier-based with a short tier (within 10-yards of the line of scrimmage), a middle tier (between 10 and 20 yards of the line of scrimmage), and a top tier (20 yards and farther from the line of scrimmage) and is built around the premise of attacking all tiers on the field.
Previously, under quarterback Jared Goff, the Rams threw mostly into the shortest tier while occasionally throwing into the middle tier and very rarely throwing into the top tier of the field. This had a consequential effect of defenses not respecting the Rams deep passing game of which there really wasn’t one, so safeties kept creeping closer to the line of scrimmage to help in run support putting more bodies into the middle tier and thereby clogging the area of the field the Rams relied on for Woods and Kupp to primarily work in.
That makes spacing in McVay’s tier-based offense, a critical factor towards its success. If the spacing starts to bunch up, the receivers will have less room to operate in and that makes each drive harder and harder to sustain. That’s what McVay was talking about when he said the offense needed more “explosives” as in explosive plays. If the offense can demonstrate it can score quickly and from anywhere on the field, it will stress the defense by spacing them out and making them cover more of the field. And if the Rams can demonstrate they can score over the top of defenses, the safeties will have to play deeper so that Ram receivers don’t get past them and by doing so, it opens up more of the intermediate tier where both Woods & Kupp are the most effective.
So, what did the Rams do to help open up the field? Well, the first thing they did was trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford who has a proven and long track record of being both willing and able to throw a very accurate deep ball. They also signed free agent wide receiver DeSean Jackson, one of the game’s better deep threats over the last dozen years, and are asking him to continue to do what he does best, make teams pay for selling out to stop the run by getting behind them.
But Jackson is only signed for this season and is already up in years not to mention his well documented injury risk history. Atwell was clearly picked with the intent of him learning from Jackson in 2021, replacing him in 2022, and ensuring the Rams offense remains capable of creating the spacing required for the underneath receivers to remain successful be it Woods, Kupp, Jefferson, or maybe another in the years to come.
In the third round, the Rams selected ILB Ernest Jones who according to NFL Analyst Lance Zierlein, compares with current Rams starting ILB Micah Kaiser who coincidentally… or not… is another potential 2022 free agent. The Jones pick has all the markings of the John Johnson free agency trappings. I believe the Rams already know in advance Kaiser will be difficult to bring back and that Jones was drafted as his replacement.
With their first fourth-round pick, the Rams selected DT Bobby Brown III. Is there a real need for Brown this upcoming season?… not really. The Rams did trade away Michael Brockers, and Sebastian Joseph will be a free agent after the season but A’Shawn Robinson was signed last year to replace Brockers when he originally signed with Baltimore as a free agent. Then, when the deal unwound, Brockers was re-signed by the Rams which turned out to be a stroke of luck as Robinson was found to have a heart ailment that sidelined him for most of the 2020 season. By the time he was able to rejoin the team, he was so far down the depth chart that he barely saw any playing time at all.
With Brockers now in Detroit, and Robinson’s heart ailment under control, Robinson is now scheduled to start as originally planned but… low and behold, Robinson is also one of those players scheduled for free agency after the season and will be expensive to bring back. Was Bobby Brown III drafted to replace A’Shawn Robinson and possibly the loss of Sebastian Joseph in 2022? All indications are pointing in that direction.
Also drafted in the fourth round was cornerback Robert Rochelle. Rochelle has all the physical traits to one day be a true shutdown cornerback, a true CB1 but he’s raw, he’s poor with his techniques and he relies too much on his athleticism. In college, he could get away with that but in the NFL, he’ll find having poor technique is a recipe for disaster. He’s going to need a year or two to develop which is fine because the Rams can afford to give him a year to polish his game.
As everyone knows, the Rams field two of the best cornerbacks in the league in Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams. They were so good in fact, that last season Ramsey finished first in the NFL in most coverage snaps per reception with 18.2 snaps before yielding a reception while Williams finished second with 16.2 snaps. With both corners returning in 2021, and with Rochelle being as raw as he is, he doesn’t have a chance to unseat either of these starters and truth-be-told, doesn’t even have a chance to unseat David Long Jr. as the Rams nickelback.
Some people, mostly the media, lack the ability to put things into context, and context makes all the difference in the world with regards to better understanding. What the people who are down on Long see, is that he hasn’t started in his 2-years with the team so that must automatically mean he’s not very good right? I mean it’s obvious, good players play and bad players don’t right? Well… no. Sometimes things just aren’t that simple which is why context matters. Long was drafted onto a Rams squad that only the year before traded for 5-time Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro Aquib Talib and 3-time Pro Bowler and 2-time first-team All-Pro Marcus Peters so was there any chance Long was going to start as a rookie ahead of either of these two in 2019?… in a word, no. Long could have been the second coming of Jalen Ramsey but as a rookie, he had a zero point zero chance of playing ahead of either in 2019.
And speaking of Ramsey, it was also Long’s bad luck when the Rams gave up 2 first-round picks and later traded for him that same year. With the amount of draft capital the Rams gave up for Ramsey, Long could have been the best of Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes all rolled into one and he still wasn’t going to play ahead of Ramsey. The unexpected, and pleasant surprise, however, was Darious Williams who actually outplayed Ramsey in 2019 then, enjoyed his own breakout season in 2020.
So overall, looking at Long through a context filter, we can see he really hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do as he’s been buried on a VERY deep depth chart behind some pretty good cornerbacks who have a combined 12 Pro Bowls and 5 first-team All-Pro awards between them.
How good is Long? Well, while at Michigan, he only allowed 18 receptions on 595 coverage snaps during his entire collegiate career. The media and fans have very short memories and have forgotten that he was considered one of the best cover cornerbacks in his draft class.
At the time, Pro Football Focus said of him,
while The Draft Network’s scouting report stated,
“A two-year starter for Michigan, Long was a shutdown corner for the Wolverines. Rarely tested and even more infrequently beaten in coverage, Long dominates in press coverage and features superb pattern matching skills. While he doesn’t have ideal length, Long is savvy in zone coverage and clearly grasps spacing. Long offers the versatility to play outside or from the slot in a variety of techniques. Long has the upside to be a top-three corner early in his career and enjoy a productive career.”
So, knowing what we now know about Long, which seems the more likely… that Long isn’t a very good cornerback and is at risk of losing his position to a very talented but very raw rookie who’s going to need a year or two to develop his technique, or that maybe he was buried on the depth chart behind some very good cornerbacks all of whom have a good chance of one day making it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
While Rochelle will need some time to develop his game, he may only get one season to do it as Darious Williams is also one of the players who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and if Williams plays as well as he did last season, he’ll price himself beyond the Rams’ ability to re-sign him to a long-term contract. I believe Rochelle was picked as insurance against losing Williams and if he’s able to develop quickly enough, could be starting opposite Ramsey in 2022.
The last of the Rams’ fourth-round picks was probably the most intriguing of all their picks as Jacob Harris offers the greatest upside of any of them. I must admit to being as Dr. Elsa Schneider described Indiana Jones’ father in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ when she called him, “as giddy as a schoolboy.” Well, yeah, that’s exactly how I felt when I first heard the Rams drafted Harris. But then I learned they’re planning on playing him at tight end and all the air was let out of my sails. Harris offers a very unique size/speed combination being 6’5” tall, weighing 219 pounds, and still being able to run a 4.39 40. The best way to describe Harris is as a mismatch nightmare for defenses.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any faith in McVay to unlock Harris’ fullest potential. In Washington, McVay made Jordan Reed a household name, a Pro-Bowler but that was largely because Reed was all McVay had in Washington, he was McVay’s only viable passing game option. In Los Angeles, the Rams have rostered and continue to roster some pretty good wide receivers in Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, and soon Van Jefferson. McVay likes to run his passing game through the wide receivers at the tight ends’ expense.
Late in the 2019 season, and out of necessity, McVay turned away from his preferred “11” personnel package (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers) and leaned more on his “12” package (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 receivers) to help a then struggling run game. In doing so, tight end Tyler Higbee broke out and showed the football world why he was considered the best tight end in his draft year ahead even of other very talented tight ends such as Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper. From week 12 through to the end of the regular season, Higbee was the NFL’s overall #1 rated tight end in terms of production which just went to reconfirm his talent level. And even though Higbee proved he could play at the same level as the best tight ends in the league when given the same amount of attention as Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz, he was ignored again in 2020 as McVay went back to leaning on his receivers.
With the evidence of having a now proven and highly productive tight end being relegated to an afterthought in the offense, why would anyone believe McVay would make Harris a bigger part of the offense when Woods and Kupp are still in their primes and Van Jefferson is waiting in the wings ready to breakout? Don’t get me wrong, I think Harris is an incredible talent with as much upside as anyone the Rams drafted this year, I just don’t believe they’ll get the most out of him that they can because I think they just don’t place as high an emphasis on the tight end position in the passing game as they should.
In the fifth round, the Rams selected defensive end Earnest Brown IV out of Northwestern. Last year, the Rams drafted Terrell Lewis out of Alabama and Lewis flashed some very nice potential when given the chance, but he also battled complications in his surgically repaired knee, and during his entire time at Alabama, he battled injuries so much so that he only played in 14 games during his entire collegiate career. If his knee is sound, and Lewis doesn’t miss much playing time to injury, the Rams would be in fine pass rush shape lining up Leonard Floyd on one end, Lewis on the other, with Aaron Donald between them, and having Brown available off the bench to spell either Floyd or Lewis. However, and on the other hand, if the complications in Lewis’ knee turn out to be chronic, then the drafting of Brown becomes paramount in the bigger picture. The Brown pick needs to be viewed as an insurance policy against Lewis’ knee with a huge upside should it be found to be sound.
With the first of their seventh-round picks, the Rams selected running back Jake Funk from Maryland. As the Rams are pretty solid at running back having just drafted Cam Akers last year and Darrell Henderson the year before, both players are young and just starting their careers so drafting Funk can’t be considered an investment for the future. Additionally, by all accounts, the Rams are high on third-string running back Xavier Jones. One of Funk’s strengths is special teams so I’m sure the pick was used with an eye there but perhaps the Rams also wanted a different look from their RB3, a short-yardage specialist to get that hard third and two, fourth and one yard with an upside for more should the play pop. This pick is hard to quantify for sure but there can be no doubt it was made with special teams in mind.
With their second pick in the seventh-round, the Rams selected wide receiver Ben Skowronek from Notre Dame. Skowronek is a big-bodied wide receiver who offers a different dimension than what the Rams already have in place so perhaps they’re looking for a physical presence in the Red Zone for the upcoming season as it is common knowledge, the team continues to struggle in the Red Zone.
And with their final pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Rams selected outside linebacker Chris Garrett out of D2 Concordia St. Paul. Garret offers elite athleticism but coming from a small school, he will need a year to acclimate himself to the bigger bodies and faster speeds with which the game will be played. A glance back at the 2022 list of Rams’ potential free agents also shows they could lose outside linebackers Travin Howard and/or Obonnia Okoronkwo. The Garrett pick absolutely looks like an insurance and redshirt season pick against losing either Howard and/or Okoronkwo after the season.
In summary, and now that we’ve looked at the Rams draft much closer with an eye towards this year’s needs and of filling some of next year’s potential holes, it is obvious what Snead was doing. He drafted to replace potential 2022 free agency losses by bringing in players who demonstrated elite athleticism. Most, if not all, of these draftees, will need a year or two to develop so they’ll be ready when more will be asked of them but… it’s also inevitable that more WILL be asked of them. In the interim, much of that athleticism will be quickly put to good use to improve the special teams’ unit as that unit definitely needed upgrading finishing second from the bottom last year.
The Rams field very strong units on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball so cracking the starting lineup was always going to be hard if not impossible for any of these draftees especially when considering the Rams’ first pick didn’t even take place until pick 57.
As everyone knows, the Rams fielded the league’s #1 rated defense last year and while it will be losing a few players on that side of the ball this season such as safety John Johnson, defensive tackle Michael Brockers, and slot corner Troy Hill, they have been developing players over the last couple years who they believe are now ready to take over. Fans might also want to remember those same concerns were expressed going into last season after the defense lost key contributors in defensive end Dante Fowler, middle linebacker Cory Littleton, and slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman and not only were those holes filled but they were actually improved on.
Make no mistake about it, this draft was not conducted with an eye on the 2021 season, although some of these players will get the chance to play minor roles this year. This draft was all about making sure the Rams had the replacements in-house and ready to go when the team expects to lose several starters in 2022 the same way it did in 2020 and the same way it did the year before that in 2019.
So, getting back to answering the question foremost on every Rams’ fans’ mind… Did this draft improve the team? The answer is yes and no. If you’re asking did the Rams improve the team overall through the draft, then the answer is yes, as they positioned themselves to not slide when they’ll inevitably lose many free agents after the season, some of which are productive starters. If however, you’re asking specifically about this year, then the answer is no. Based on how strong the starting offensive and defensive units will be this season, and where the Rams were drafting, they were never going to find players capable of cracking into the starting lineups.
In short, the Rams did exactly what they needed to do to keep the train on the tracks and keep their playoff window open over the next few seasons while the team’s “elites” such as Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, Matthew Stafford, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp remain in their primes and continue to be highly productive.
So what do you think, did the Rams improve the team through the 2021 NFL draft?
Sound off below and let me hear what you’ve got to say and check out Fan to Fan Network for more draft coverage.