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3 “this or that” position questions for the Rams in the 2021 NFL Draft

How should Les Snead approach team building in the draft this year?

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Practice Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

The LA Rams might only have one obvious need entering the draft and we all know that it is at center. But so few rookies ever contribute in the NFL that it would be unfair to assume that the real team “needs” are those positions that look dire for the upcoming season, as opposed to the probable issues that a franchise could face in the following one, two, or three years after that.

Given one year of NFL development in camps and practices and sporadic playing time, a draftee now could turn into a starter down the line. Can people wait that long? If there’s an injury to one of the starters — and we know that there will be at least a few — you may not have to. And that’s another reason that drafting for “need” is never as simple as it seems.

Offensive Tackle Eventually or Center/Guard Now?

We already know that the Rams are set to have Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein at the tackle spots next season, so instead let’s focus on what the year would look like if LA lost one of those players for an extended period of time. After all, Whitworth did miss half of 2020 and will turn 40 this year, so it is a fair reality to ponder.

Last season, the Rams turned to Joseph Noteboom at left tackle and he performed no less than adequately. Havenstein, 29, didn’t miss any time and was one of PFF’s highest rated tackles, but he did miss seven games in 2019, a nightmare campaign for LA’s entire offensive line.

That was the year that they had no center and then got a disappointing performance from Austin Blythe at right guard even though many were high on him entering the season.

Similarly in 2021, the Rams have no center and while people could be high on Austin Corbett or David Edwards, there is little guarantee that they wouldn’t also answer those expectations with an underwhelming season. It’s not a far road that LA would have to travel to get from thinking they’d have a 2020 season and ending up with a 2019 season and it might only take that one injury to Whitworth or Havenstein to set off the dominoes.

Should Whitworth be supplanted by Noteboom again, Jamil Demby, Bobby Evans, and Tremayne Anchrum could be one snap away from getting into the starting lineup. A starting lineup without a single interior player who at this point has earned the right to call himself an “extension candidate.”

That’s why the Rams might want to favor a tackle over a guard though, because the 2021 draft class seems to be a lot deeper at the bookend spot than in the book areas. Luckily, many of those tackles could project to guards at the next level, though there is no telling how long or difficult that transition will take for each.

At least grabbing a tackle and converting him to guard would leave open the option of reverting him back to tackle in 2022 or later. And if the Rams can add a guard, then perhaps Corbett can move back to center.

Receiver Potential or Returner Potential?

LA has been talking to a lot of receivers this draft season, but most of them project as late picks and many of those would seem to be more returner than receiver. But some may argue that the Rams only need a player who can push Nsimba Webster on returns, and I’d say that the need for a weapon on offense is as great as it was last year, if not more so.

Yes, LA did sign DeSean Jackson, but given his age and injury history, I’m compelled to not even “count him” towards the depth chart for next season. For me, it adds up to a player who will not typically cross over 300-400 of the 1,000+ offensive snaps each year. (Well, now we have to increase that a little bit because of the 17th game, another reason depth is key.)

If you didn’t account for Jackson, then the Rams’ depth at receiver becomes Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson, and Trishton Jackson, before Webster and J.J. Koski.

Considering the nature of the position, the number of hits that LA receivers take each season, the advanced age of Woods and Kupp compared to most starting duos in the NFL, the lack of optimism that followed Jefferson through and since his rookie campaign, Kupp suffering injuries in two of the last three years, the absence of elite receiving production at tight end, and the emphasis that championship teams have put on depth among their weapons, it would not surprise me to see the Rams draft a receiver as early as their first pick.

Even if that’s “all” that he is: a receiver.

Overkill as it may seem to some people, the Buccaneers featured Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scott Miller, Tyler Johnson, Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, and O.J. Howard at points last season. And the depth was just as important as the two guys who were starting outside.

Safety or Cornerback?

Similar to the receivers, I acknowledge that there does not appear to be an immediate need at safety in spite of John Johnson leaving in free agency. Not only did the Rams draft Terrell Burgess and Jordan Fuller a year ago, but Taylor Rapp, Nick Scott, and Juju Hughes all profile as guys who could stick on the field in the future.

Yet I’m not sure any of them outside of Fuller and Burgess could ever come to match the value of Johnson, and the latter of those two has barely put his feet on the field of an NFL game. When he does, it might be as the Rams’ nickel cornerback given that Troy Hill also signed with the Browns and also took 1,000 defensive snaps with him.

The Rams must replace both of those players, either internally or through external means, and so far no moves have been made. It could be that the draft’s apparent dearth of safety talent — it could be the worst group of this class — pushes LA to either seek out the corners first or browse the linebackers for versatility.

But I wouldn’t say that the losses of Johnson or Hill can be dismissed. And even if the Rams do start the best corner duo in the NFL, facing off against all-pro receivers in the NFC West means that depth will be key, especially given the fact that Darious Williams is likely to depart in 2022 if he has a good season.