So with a fourth game looming on Thursday to sort through the deepest part of the 90-man roster, this third game will likely be the best look at the primary backups and the 53-man roster fringe.
Here are five things I’m watching the most closely on Saturday:
1.) Special Teams
I know. It’s not sexy. But it’s the most important thing here.
Think about how many players are locked in on the offensive and defensive depth charts. Let’s take cornerback. On the outside, we have Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, David Long and Troy Hill all likely locked in with Nickell Robey-Coleman in the slot. That leaves any potential additional cornerback on the 53-man as the sixth corner and fifth on the outside depth chart. What are the chances that fifth cornerback plays a down at cornerback this season?
I know the impulse is to gravitate toward offensive and defensive performances, but special teams is the most important unit in the preseason:
How to make a NFL roster pic.twitter.com/UxJcvw8hZl— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) August 23, 2019
2.) Who will he on the D-line in Week 1?
Who is on the line with them is left to be determined. The three primary candidates, John Franklin-Myers, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Greg Gaines, all played in last week’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. I’d expect to see all three. Unlike other positions without much space for position performance to effect roster availability (like the cornerback scenario above), this one does have on-field implications.
And it’s not as if there’s just room for one and only one. Donald played just more than 90% of the defensive snaps last year. Departed DL Ndamukong Suh played less than 88%. And Brockers played about two-thirds.
I’ll be keeping an eye out on the Rams’ young defensive lineman trio since we’re going to see them in the regular season.
3.) Inside linebacker
Sadly, we got a stark reminder of why Rams Head Coach Sean McVay has been so hesitant to play starters the last two preseasons when ILB Micah Kiser injured his pectoral muscle last week leading him to undergo surgery that will likely force him to miss the entire 2019 season. While that means ILB Bryce Hager will be the first man up to replace him, it doesn’t necessarily mean Hager will be a like-for-like match in terms of snaps.
The Rams have two inside linebacker roles: the Mo and the Mike positions. The Mo is plays the weakside while the Mike is the strongside. The Mike was previously filled by Alec Ogletree, but after he was traded to the New York Giants, Cory Littleton jumped into the role. Mark Barron had been the Mo, but he’s now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. His spot was the one Kiser was expected to fill. In terms of the technicalities, there’s not a ton separating the two positions though Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips has historically preferred to pair an athletic, rangier linebacker (Ogletree/Littleton) which more direct, physical linebackers (Barron/Kiser).
So while Hager is the immediate fill-in, I’ll be watching to see who could fit the mold of the more physical, run-stopping linebackers to maybe step in if Hager either gets injured or just doesn’t play well.
4.) John Kelly v. Justin Davis
Todd Gurley, Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown are on the 53-man at running back. Will the Rams carry four? Or maybe even five? Either scenario likely requires special teams proficiency over running outputs, but it’s an interesting pair to watch.
5.) The edge
While I’m concerned at the potential lack of pressure from the edge from the starting group, things looked very good from the depth going against the Cowboys last week.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Natrez Patrick and Landis Durham have all flashed. And there’s a chance the depth gets involved on defense this year.
Last year, the Rams started with Samson Ebukam and Dominique Easley on the edge. Easley injured his knee and was replaced by Matt Longacre. By midseason, Longacre’s play motivated the Rams to go out and trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars for Dante Fowler, Jr. In free agency this year, the Rams signed Clay Matthews. With Fowler and Matthews likely starting on the edge, the only 2018 edge rusher of the first three left is Ebukam.
So given the rotation on the edge, we could see one or two of the depth make the roster and contend for occasional playing time. While practice might outweight game performance for the coaching staff’s evaluation, their performance in these next two games won’t be without merit.
Are Brandon Allen or John Wolford worth stashing? Backup QB Blake Bortles is only around for 2019. A long-term backup for Jared Goff is a key addition moving forward if it’s not Allen or Wolford.
Wolford certainly looked brighter in the preseason opener, but much of that was the unreliability of the offensive line.
Let’s see if either firmly establishes themselves as the brighter option and whether that might motivate the Rams to keep them around.