There’s been a lot of focus on who will start at center for the Los Angeles Rams and much of the offseason media circus for the team has carousel’d around the interior of the offensive line.
Austin Corbett will start at center. There you go. Problem solved.
Time to move on to some of the other training camp battles that will happen in Rams camp this year. Some of the interesting competitions that are obvious are happening at punt returner, inside linebacker, weakside linebacker, defensive end, right guard, and as always, shaking out those last few roster spots.
Could there be surprises of veterans being challenged for their starting roles? Absolutely.
Tight End 1 - Will Tyler Higbee get unseated as the starter?
By looking at the NFL history of LA’s options at tight end, it would be easy to land on Higbee as the only viable receiver at the position for Matthew Stafford. The 28-year-old Higbee has played in 78 games, caught 173 passes, gained 1,927 yards, and just last season he caught five touchdowns. Every other tight end on the roster combined has played in 47 games and caught nine passes for 84 yards.
41 of those games and ever catch has come from Johnny Mundt.
But Higbee’s value has seemed to hit its ceiling and the Rams have drafted tight ends in each of the last fourth rounds: Brycen Hopkins in 2020 and Jacob Harris (pictured) in 2021. The team has also stashed Kendall Blanton on the roster or practice squad since 2019 and the 25-year-old could have tapped into some of his potential by now. Here’s what The Draft Network said about Blanton two years ago:
If you were going to create a tight end in Madden, he would probably look exactly like Blanton. If you were going to draft a tight end in real life, he would probably play very little like Blanton. The chiseled 6-foot-6 tight end is going to wow teams with his length and frame at the Shrine Game, but he’s a non-explosive athlete with little production as a receiver due to his inability to get open.
Billed as a blocking tight end, Blanton actually struggles consistently as an in-line blocker, and has received plenty of opportunity as a receiver, even from a flexed position in the slot. If he tests well, I can see a team taking a late day three flier on developing him to be an adequate depth tight end.
Blanton emerging as a starter would be shocking, but Hopkins and Harris were drafted for just that reason. To hopefully emerge as quality starters at the position, though Harris is rail thin for the position at 219 lbs. Hopkins appeared in five games as a rookie but never made his mark on the offense and his developmental season could have only been that. It certainly wasn’t productive.
However, I think Rams fans would love to see Hopkins or Harris breakout in training camp and to make their mark on the position so that the team can either have a pair of quality starters — better than what they had with Higbee and Gerald Everett — or to move on from Higbee in 2021 or 2022 for considerable cap savings.
Wide Receiver 3 - Does DeSean Jackson actually have a lock on the job?
If Rams fans want to see Jacob Harris have an impact this year, then make it double for Chatarius Atwell.
There’s also something enticing about the idea of a veteran finding his rhythm again after two years on the mend. Jackson led the NFL in yards per catch in 2018, when he was already 32, but he’s missed 24 of the last 32 possible games and there are reasonable fears that he won’t be a starter again, let alone a star.
Atwell is 21 and all he’s known over the last four or five years is the phrase: “Man, you’re a star.”
In high school, Atwell was a star dual threat quarterback who may have played the position at that level even better than Teddy Bridgewater, a predecessor at the position at his alma mater by a few years. But Atwell’s 5’9, 155 lb frame wasn’t going to get him offers to play quarterback at the next level, so he became an ‘athlete’ and chose to go to Louisville to play for Bobby Petrino. When Petrino was fired during Atwell’s freshman season, it opened the door for Scott Satterfield to take over in 2019 and that opened the field for Atwell.
In two years under Satterfield, with Malik Cunningham as his main quarterback, Atwell caught 115 passes for 1,897 yards and 18 touchdowns over 22 games.
Atwell’s size has again led to skepticism of whether or not he ‘belongs’ and I’ve seen many question why he was drafted in the second round, and they place him a few pegs lower than other receivers taken in that range. As it were, Jackson has often been cited as Atwell’s NFL comp and himself is listed at 5’10, 175 lbs.
Jackson did quite well for himself, including a 912-yard season as a rookie; 1,008 yards if you include runs; 1,460 yards if you include returns too.
But Atwell isn’t the only receiver who is coming after those all-important targets expected to come behind Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. There’s also Van Jefferson, now going into his second chance to build chemistry with a Rams quarterback; Trishton Jackson, an undrafted free agent that the team opted to keep on the 53-man roster all season; and seventh round pick Ben Skowronek, though to be fair, anyone other than Jackson, Atwell, or Jefferson would be more than just surprising.
Safety - Who will start next to Jordan Fuller?
The Rams drafted Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott in 2019, then Terrell Burgess and Jordan Fuller in 2020. The team let that position rest in the 2021 draft, but the competition to replace the departed John Johnson III (technically you could give this title to Fuller, but don’t be the nitpicking person who points out the obvious) is far from settled.
There is no “safe” assumption here but Burgess stands out as the player everyone seems hopeful for because Rapp’s history as a starter has not been good. There’s been thought to Rapp playing more linebacker, but did he add weight in the offseason? Because Rapp is listed at 208 lbs, which is 11 lbs lighter than Travin Howard, LA’s lightest linebacker.
Third round linebacker Ernest Jones is 230 lbs, a weight that Rapp will never be, unless it’s Shake Shack weight.
There may be more defensive sets with three safeties in the NFL next year than any other season in history. We’ve seen more and more teams transition towards having more speed with that 11th defensive player than a traditional outside linebacker can bring and certainly we might see that Fuller, Burgess, and Rapp are all out there at the same time. If Rapp or Burgess can comfortably cover the receivers, tight ends, and running backs that they’ll need to cover if they’re on the field.
But we also must shine a light on the competition to be the slot corner. If there isn’t a standout to replace Troy Hill as the number three corner, perhaps Burgess will slide over to that position, then it really is up to Rapp, Scott, Juju Hughes, and a slew of undrafted free agents to battle it out at safety.
It seems that the most likely choice is Burgess, but so far it appears that the Rams coaching staff likes Taylor Rapp as a starting safety a lot more than some fans do. And while Burgess had a nice training camp as a rookie, so did Van Jefferson and a host of other rookies around the league who never emerged as consistent options when the games began, so he’s far from a sure thing.
How should the Rams construct their secondary?