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3 Rams entering ‘prove it’ year in 2020

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Why these players will make or break their future with what happens next

NFL: NFC Championship Game-Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, I read this piece by Timothy Rodriguez on With the First Pick where he argues that this is going to be a “prove it” season for New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold. The third overall pick in 2018, Darnold has posted a passer rating of 81.1 over 26 starts and thrown more than one interception per game. With another draft class expected to supply at least a couple of franchise quarterbacks to the league (honestly at this point, media is so obsessed with what a “franchise quarterback” is that it seems every draft must have 3-4 of them which is unrealistic), many are viewing 2020 as a “prove it” year for Darnold.

If he gets worse or even fails to improve, the argument could be made that the Jets should cut their losses in 2021 and draft a different savior. Fair enough.

But Darnold also entered the NFL at 21 — two years younger than first overall pick Baker Mayfield who by some accounts was worse than Darnold last season — and did improve virtually all of his stats across the board in 2019. New York went 7-6 in Darnold’s starts compared to 0-3 when he was out. Plenty of other analysts see Darnold as underrated and that a bright future is inevitable, so long as the Jets don’t screw it up.

Certainly I can see why next season will be the one that determines for many whether Darnold should be New York’s QB in 2022.

Who would those make or break players be for the Los Angeles Rams? You can certainly make a list longer than three names — perhaps the majority of every team’s roster feels this way — but I’ll start there.

Rob Havenstein

I see no other players on offense who deserve to be on this list more than Havenstein and on top of that his 2020 outcome could be the most pivotal for the future of Sean McVay’s offense. While Jared Goff is the player they most need to have success, I think we are all fairly aware of who Goff is and what he’s most likely to be.

And that is a quarterback who can do almost everything you need him to do — so long as he has the support around him. Havenstein is not only important for 2020 but should he prove to actually be great then it also settles major questions for the post-Andrew Whitworth seasons.

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A second round pick in 2015, Havenstein went after tackle Jake Fisher and before tackle Ty Sambrailo, two players who have combined to make 25 starts and are essentially reserves barely hanging onto their NFL dreams. In fact, Fisher is not signed by anyone. So Havenstein has already far surpassed expectations by making 68 starts in five years, earning a four-year, $32.5 million extension in 2018.

Unfortunately, following the losses of John Sullivan and Rodger Saffold in 2019, the entire Rams line suffered. That included Havenstein, who played poorly, got hurt, and didn’t immediately win his starting job back from backup Bobby Evans.

A bounce-back season from Havenstein means that LA is getting exceptional value from a right tackle ($6 million, $8.3 million, $8.8 million salaries over the next three seasons) and potentially a guy who could help a lot when Whitworth retires. A poor campaign and the Rams are likely releasing Havenstein and searching for more answers on the offensive line.

Samson Ebukam

With the loss of Dante Fowler, Jr in free agency, LA can’t be that much more aware than the rest of us when it comes to answering the question of “Where will the edge rush come from?” Absolutely free agent signee Leonard Floyd must be an equation to that answer but he is probably less interesting as a prospect now than he was as an actual prospect four years ago.

The thought was that he could be a great pass rusher. The reality is that he hasn’t been. Who could be?

We know that rookie Terrell Lewis will also get his shot, and to some degree he must “prove it” this season by staying healthy, and that there’s plenty of curiosity remaining about Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. But Samson Ebukam actually has looked good — at times — in the NFL. And he’s going to be a free agent in 2021, so now is definitely the time to prove it.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Ebukam’s sack total has gone from 2 to 3 to 4.5 in three seasons, but his greatest playing time came in 2018. He was in on 69% of the snaps but only had three sacks. Then last year Ebukam got in on 51% of the snaps and saw his sack total go up. If he participates in 70% again, could he get up to seven or eight sacks? He’d enter free agency at 26 and definitely as one of the more intriguing names for edge rushers. If not, he’ll get an opportunity somewhere, but maybe not with the Rams.

Any Kicker

Would you look at that: I get to cheat on my own article. I’ll name three names that need to prove it for one job: Sam Sloman, Austin MacGinnis, and Lirim Hajrullahu.

While Greg Zuerlein easily got “the boot” from many fans — as kickers tend to get when they hit the unavoidable part of their careers where they struggle, which is often associated with the simple fact that the whole job itself is luck influenced in ways that can make a random series of kicks look like a dangerous or optimistic trend when the reality is just bad luck — there’s no way that I would bet on any of these three kickers to do better than him.

That doesn’t mean that they won’t, it just means that I would bet on Zuerlein. And that doesn’t mean that the Rams should have re-signed him, because I didn’t say I’d bet $4 million on that. It just means that Zeurlein has been a really good kicker and really good kickers tend to rebound.

One example is Stephen Hauschka, who went 29-of-31 and 6-of-6 from 50+ in 2015 for the Seattle Seahawks. Then in 2016, Hauschka went 33-of-37 but missed six extra points and two very short field goal tries so the Seahawks moved on. The next year with the Buffalo Bills, Hauschka went 7-of-9 from beyond 50 and made all 29 extra point attempts. That season, Seattle kicker Blair Walsh went 21-of-29 overall and 15-of-23 beyond 29 yards and the Seahawks arguably would have been a playoff team with a slightly better result from the kicker.

As of now, the Rams are solving the Zuerlein problem with maybe their only option: three kickers who have no NFL experience but also cost nothing. They can’t afford to sign a player who might have perceived value, like Zeurlein or the still-available Stephen Gostkowski, so they’re letting a camp competition play out. That’s fine, those kickers can also turn out to be Pro Bowlers because frankly most kickers start out as “no names” like these ones. But camp, preseason, season, it’s all a time to have a prove it season for one of them.

You most likely may not get a second chance until you prove worthy of one.