The Los Angeles Rams enter the season with expectations that could range anywhere from last in the division to returning to the playoffs and more. Given that the Rams have one of the most accomplished head coaches of the last three years, were recently in the Super Bowl, and return a number of elite players like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, the difference in the end result will likely be how the “role players” perform.
The “middle” of the roster could be the most important names to watch right now. And in some cases, maybe these players won’t be considered role players for much longer.
Because LA didn’t have much money to spend in the offseason, most replacements other than Leonard Floyd at either inside or outside linebacker and potentially Cam Akers at running back, will be in-house promotions. Much like the players who left — Cory Littleton, Dante Fowler, Nickel Robey-Coleman — these are guys who could prove to be better with more and better opportunities.
These are four such candidates.
Gerald Everett, TE
2019: 37 of 60 targets, 408 yards, 2 TD
2021: Free agent
A number of people prefer Everett to Tyler Higbee, and that might include Sean McVay. In six games leading up to his injury that opened the door for Higbee to become a number one target for Jared Goff, Everett was targeted 49 times. That is a full season pace of 131 targets! In Higbee’s final six games, he had 62 targets, for a full season pace that would be 161 targets.
Only Michael Thomas of the Saints had more than 161 targets last year (185 targets, catching an unfathomable 149 of those) and only 15 players had over 131.
Travis Kelce (136) and Zach Ertz (135) were the only tight ends over 131 targets. Whether it was Everett or Higbee, McVay and Goff were regularly pitching the ball over to the tight ends and often not sharing between the two, even when both were healthy.
It could be that Everett ends up as Goff’s favorite tight end target in 2020 and that may result in a season somewhat close to what he was on pace for at midseason last year. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Everett finish the year with more than 600 yards and five touchdowns — numbers right in line with tight ends like Austin Hooper and Hunter Henry. Both of those guys are now making over $10 million in salary.
Austin Corbett, OG/C
2019: 8 games, 7 starts with Rams
Age: 25 in early September
2021: Final year of rookie contract
It’s somewhat unbelievable that the first pick of the second round was dumped by his team in less than two seasons, but we are talking about the Cleveland Browns here. It’s surprising that Jedrick Wills is still on the Browns. Cleveland ditched 2017 second round pick DeShone Kizer after one season, traded 2017 first round pick Jabrill Peppers after two seasons, and every first or second round pick prior to then is gone with the exception of Joel Bitonio.
Speaking of which, the Browns have done a decent job with the offensive line picks. Even when they leave, they turn out pretty good. For example, 2012 second round pick Mitchell Schwartz is arguably the best right tackle in the NFL, now with the Chiefs. Bitonio has a case as an all-pro left guard. Alex Mack is one of the best centers of this century. And Kansas City was at least able to do enough with Cam Erving to put up an elite offense in 2018 and win the Super Bowl in 2019, as the former first round bust filled in at various positions.
And the only thing the Browns have done right since re-joining the league in 1999 is draft Joe Thomas.
The Rams are hoping that Cleveland’s next “mistake” that helps someone else is Austin Corbett, the 33rd overall pick in 2018. Bitonio was high on Corbett when the two became teammates two years ago, they were both college left tackles drafted early in the second round moved inside, but not even that mentor could help him locally. The Browns traded him to LA last season and he filled in at left guard.
It’s far too soon to give up on Corbett and an entire offseason with McVay, Andrew Whitworth, and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer could do more for him than we expect. When he was with the Bills, Kromer rebuilt the career of left guard Richie Incognito, who made the Pro Bowl in both years with Buffalo. Center Eric Wood made his first and only Pro Bowl under Kromer in 2015. With the Saints, Kromer had Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin and all-pro right guard Jahri Evans, both enjoying their greatest career successes with Kromer. And way back in 2002 with the Raiders, Kromer coached up all-pro (and infamous) center Barret Robbins.
Corbett may be the exact type of lineman that Kromer anxiously waits to coach next.
Micah Kiser, LB
2021: Final year of rookie deal
Let’s not make it too complicated and we don’t need as much of a deep dive on Kiser: With Littleton gone, 1,000 snaps opened up in the middle of the defense. We don’t know how the linebacker depth chart will shake out, maybe Leonard Floyd benefits the most from the opportunities, but Kiser seems in the lead to start somewhere alongside Floyd.
Maybe that doesn’t turn out to be the case and the next snap on defense played will be Kiser’s first non-special teams snap in the NFL, but most expect him to be on the field regularly. If that instead turns out to be Travin Howard, Kenny Young, or other, then that is someone who could look a lot more important by the end of the year.
Or perhaps LA doesn’t find “the next Cory Littleton.” He’s not necessarily the type of talent who grows on trees, or branches out from the middle of the roster every year.
Troy Hill, CB
2019: 14 games, 43 tackles, 2 INT, 8 PD, 26 of 57 targets caught, 5.8 yards per target, 2 TD allowed
2021: Free Agent
Hill will start opposite of Ramsey and if you believe Pro-Football-Reference’s advanced stats, that could be a very good thing for defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. If those numbers were correct, Hill allowed fewer yards per target then 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore (5.9 YPT allowed) and he was right in line with Pro Bowl numbers for the position.
Can he do that for 16 games, maybe add two or three more interceptions, and become an unlikely premier signee in the 2021 free agent market at age 30?
Hill is basically the same age as Darius Slay, A.J. Bouye, and Bryce Callahan, while being one year younger than Patrick Peterson, Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, and Desmond Trufant. When you think of “young,” you probably don’t think of Peterson, Butler, and Trufant. (Although geez, Peterson is younger than we often believe probably.)
It will be interesting to monitor that situation as Hill could be a popular player for opposing quarterbacks who are looking to avoid both Ramsey on the edges and Donald in their faces. If he turns those targets into turnovers, Hill could be a late stage household name. Assuming those households are really into football.