It seems an annual tradition. An NFL player, drafted or undrafted, turns heads in the offseason, and raises the expectations for their upcoming year dramatically. Sadly, it oftentimes leads to disappointment, as the on-field results in the fall don’t match that of their stellar pad-less display from summer.
And there are also those that show up out of nowhere and prove to be solid contributors, sometimes stars, for their respective teams.
The Los Angeles Rams have had quite a bit of turnover this offseason, to include an entirely new coaching staff in 2017. Which player(s) do you think are likely to become pleasant surprises for the Rams in the upcoming year?
Who Emerges as the Team’s Top Deep Threat?
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Sean McVay is going to attempt to turn Tavon Austin into DeSean Jackson. Easier said than done. DJAX averaged 17.9 yards per reception in 2016...Tavon averaged 8.8. In 2016, DeSean caught 19 passes of 20+ yards. Austin has 18 in his 59-game NFL career.
To be fair, a Jeff Fisher lead offense is built to kill productivity, so maybe hiring McVay is just what the doctor ordered for Austin. Still, a complete 180 - providing this kind of production - is unlikely.
Could rookie Josh Reynolds become the team’s top deep threat? It may prove difficult for Reynolds to see significant playing time, considering it appears that Austin, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp are penciled in as starters, but one glance at Reynolds’ 2016 highlight reel shows that he could indeed be the deep threat the Rams are looking for...
The good news for Reynolds is that he’ll have the opportunity to flash those skills for the next few months, with Austin sidelined due to a wrist surgery he had in early May.
Who Emerges as the Team’s Backup Running Back?
This will be one of the more interesting offseason position battles, despite the fact that it’s not for a starting spot — which Todd Gurley has locked down.
The only real notable moves the Rams made at the position this offseason were a) letting Benny Cunningham walk, and b) signing Lance Dunbar in free agency. Aside from that, the Rams added some competition to the bunch through undrafted free agency.
Tavon Austin was the team’s backup running in 2016, at least from a carries (28) standpoint. That figures to change in the upcoming year, though he’ll probably see the occasional end around.
So who sees the second most touches this year?
Is it Lance Dunbar, a veteran who’s proven he can do damage as a receiver out of the backfield on 3rd down? Or is it going to be an undrafted free agent - old or new - who proves to the new coaching staff that they’re worthy of spelling Gurley?
It’s getting a bit crowded at the running back position with Malcolm Brown, Aaron Green, Justin Davis, and Lenard Tillery. One or more are destined to special teams or the practice squad.
Who’s going to be the guy on the sideline ready to strap on his helmet prior to the all-important punt plays?
Who Emerges as the Biggest Threat at Tight End?
I wouldn't necessarily deem this a “battle” per se, simply because both guys will see plenty of snaps in 2017, but who will emerge as Jared Goff’s top receiving tight end: will be it 2016 4th-round selection Tyler Higbee, or McVay’s very first draft pick as a head coach, 2nd-round pick Gerald Everett?
Transitioning from college to the pros oftentimes proves difficult for rookie tight ends; as they’re asked to do so much more. And while Higbee has one year of experience under his belt, he’ll also be learning a new offense this year. And let’s face it, he wasn’t asked to do much of anything under Fisher as a rookie.
Both players will probably spend a great deal of time this offseason working on their blocking skills, but one - and possibly both given their size, speed, and athleticism - are going to become mismatch nightmares and down-the-seam threats.
Which TE emerges as Goff’s go-to tight end in 2017...Higbee or Everett?
Who Emerges as the Team’s Starting Center?
Getting rid of Tim Barnes was one of the biggest no-brainers for the Rams’ this offseason. But the Rams, somewhat surprisingly, have done little to solidify the position.
After missing out on Buffalo’s Ryan Groy, who appeared to be their top target at the position in free agency, the Rams signed veteran John Sullivan — a familiar face for Sean McVay, having spent 2016 together in Washington.
Sullivan, who’s heading into his 9th year in the league, is not the player he once was but played very well at times in his stint with the Vikings. Back problems have sidelined him in recent seasons, and he’s been relegated to backup duty. For now, however, it appears that Sullivan, though a short-term solution to their center woes, is the team’s starter.
That is unless a surprising young talent steps up this offseason. And there are a few names that could emerge as the summer wears on.
Two names to keep an eye on are Jake Eldrenkamp (Washington) and Jon Toth (Kentucky). Eldrenkamp (6’5”, 287 lbs) saw praise from Pro Football Focus for receiving grades similar to those of the draft’s top guards, despite being an undrafted free agent in 2017. It may have come to a surprise for some as Toth also slipped to UDFA, despite getting mid-round grades from draft experts.
Regardless of whether either of these guys are able to steal the (presumed) starting job from Sullivan for Week 1 remains to be seen. But the Rams now have options outside of Demetrius Rhaney, and that’s a good thing.
Any guesses as to who becomes the team’s starting center for the majority of the 2017 season, and potentially beyond?
Who Emerges as the Team’s Starting Right Tackle?
Sean McVay couldn't have gotten off to a better start in Los Angeles. One of the very first moves made was acquiring veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency. And while he’s also not a long-term solution, Whitworth has proven to be one of the best blindside tackles in football over recent years.
Bringing in Whit immediately brought about questions for the Rams’ plans for Greg Robinson, the No. 2 overall pick from 2014, who isn’t far off from being deemed “a bust.” For now, we’re told, the right tackle position is up for grabs; and it appears to be a battle between Robinson and Rob Havenstein, who has started at the position since being drafted in 2015.
Injuries unfortunately lead to a drastic slide in production for Havenstein in 2016, and he didn’t look anything like the player he was his rookie year. Quite honestly, there were times where he looked as bad, and as lost, as Robinson did last year.
Assuming they’re both healthy, the battle for who bookends the Rams’ line opposite Whitworth will be another interesting one to monitor this summer. One player earns the right tackle spot, and we’re told the other lands at guard.
Rams’ new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer stated he wanted to work with the guys already on the roster before investing draft capital to improve the line. He’ll have his hands full. But may prove a wise move, one that allowed the Rams to focus elsewhere this offseason, if he’s able to turn a few of these (still) young players into serviceable blockers.