While he’ll be eligible to play in the preseason and take part in all practices until the Rams’ Week 5 home game against the Seattle Seahawks, the opening four games offer a stiff challenge for a susceptible roster that is leaning on a first-time head coach who happens to be the youngest head coach in NFL history in Sean McVay. So with those in mind, let’s look at the WR corps and how the suspension has affected it for the first month of the season.
The top of the WR groups is more or less set. Robert Woods was a big signing in free agency, so you can lock him in the starting mix. Tavon Austin is less of a certainty. Despite having just signed a contract extension less than a year ago to make him the third-highest paid WR in the NFL in 2017, Austin’s performance in his four professional seasons have been defined by an underwhelming lack of manifestation of potential.
Along with those two, drafted rookies Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds are all but certain to make the 53-man roster because of the capital invested.
Next man up
This is where Thomas factors (factored?) and where things get interesting.
Pharoh Cooper, like Thomas, was a Day 3 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. They’re certainly in the mix for playing time and probables for the 53-man roster. Along with them is perhaps Nelson Spruce, a UDFA fan favorite who played a strong quarter of football in the Rams’ first preseason game last year and nothing else.
If anything, Thomas’ suspension helps those two gain a leg up and Kupp and Reynolds enjoy a bit of a buffer as they attune their game to the NFL level of competition.
The real key is how things develop at the end of camp as we get into the preseason action.
The first training camp practice takes place Saturday, July 29, exactly two weeks from today. The Rams’ first preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys kicks off two weeks thereafter on Saturday, August 12. The Rams have 11 training camp sessions before the Cowboys game and just four afterward.
With Thomas set to miss the first four games, does the coaching staff elevate the amount of work provided to Kupp, Reynolds, Cooper and Spruce just because of the imminent threat of the first four games? Does his unavailability lead to a lack of time in practice and/or early preseason action with the first few strings?
I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case.
Fighting for survival
Behind that septet, the Rams have four other wideouts on the roster: Bradley Marquez, Paul McRoberts (roster preview), Brandon Shippen (roster preview) and Shakeir Ryan (roster preview). This is where special teams availability reigns supreme, and thus Marquez’s heavy experience on teams likely nods him ahead as the front runner.
Has Thomas’ suspension relegated him into this group? Is his skill as a wideout thus less important than his availability on special teams (and I’m not talking about as a return man where he’s proved himself to be less than reliable...)? Perhaps.
Firstly, we need to see how things line up in training camp two weeks from today. If the Rams’ first two or three strings on offense don’t feature much of a sniff of Thomas (even as a reserve to spell the active string members), he could be facing a long climb back into activity.
The timing of the suspension is unfortunate, as is made clear by our roster preview installment from Misone earlier yesterday:
I fully expect Thomas to take a massive leap forward.
One thing that can be taken away from his rookie season is his ability to beat the press, stack the defender, and get downfield. He did this weekly as a gunner on punt against both starting and backup corners, and routinely was the first man down to prevent a return. This same skill is used to get deep on routes in the vertical game. Word from spring practices suggest he's implementing this skill into his offensive game.
He should shine on intermediate to deep routes.
I have a hard time seeing Thomas not making the final 53-man roster. In fact, I see him securing the fourth receiver slot, and splitting reps with Kupp as the third receiver. Thomas has the potential — and is a serious contender — to be one of the Rams’ breakout performers this year.
More than anything, that assessment in and of itself (accurate as it might have been just hours before the suspension news) has now been thrown into question.
That’s the real effect of the suspension news - his talent has been put on hold because of his decisions, whatever the course of consequence might have been.