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The 5 Ws about Rams training camp

Who, what, where, when, why — and HOW the Rams are doing at 2021 training camp

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Minicamp Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

In his final season with Washington, DeSean Jackson was targeted 100 times over 15 games, finishing with 56 catches for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns. That year, the 30-year-old Jackson led the NFL in yards per reception (17.9) and his 10.1 yards per target was third-best among players with at least 90 targets, behind only Julio Jones and Adam Thielen.

His quarterback was Kirk Cousins, his head coach was Jay Gruden, and his offensive coordinator was Sean McVay.

A year later, Jackson had signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and though he was targeted just as often, he wasn’t nearly as effective. Playing with Jameis Winston as his quarterback, Dirk Koetter as his head coach, and Todd Monken as his OC, Jackson averaged only 13.4 yards per catch and 7.4 yards per target.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, his old offensive coordinator from the previous three seasons — two of which resulted in Jackson leading the NFL in YPC — had turned the Rams around from the worst offense in the league to the highest-scoring in just one offseason.

Four years later, McVay and Jackson are back together again. But somehow in spite of the fact that Jackson is one of the most famous players on the whole team, the addition of one of the NFL’s most explosive wide receivers has become an afterthought to a franchise that features the biggest trade acquisition of 2021 and an upcoming fan-packed debut of the most expensive stadium in the world.

The most obvious answer as to why people aren’t talking more about DeSean Jackson as we head into training camp is the fact that he’s one of the oldest active players in the league and because injuries have cost him 24 games over the last two seasons. Even if those are both true and noteworthy facts, Jackson is still the player who had an 81-yard touchdown reception in his most recent game.

That was in a game with Jalen Hurts as his quarterback. Now Jackson is paired with Matthew Stafford, arguably the most talented quarterback who he has played with since Donovan McNabb in 2009 (all due respect to Michael Vick, who wasn’t much of a thrower). And Stafford might just have the best arm of any player who Jackson has ever been teammates with.

Not many people are talking about what kind of a season DeSean Jackson is going to have, instead assuming that because of age, injuries, and opportunities, he’ll only show up for the occasional deep bomb or trick play or punt return. However, McVay coached Jackson for three years, which is nearly as many as he’s had with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp.

One question I’ll definitely have going into camp is: How big of a role will Jackson have this season? It’s safe to assume an answer like “Only on a limited basis.” But answering questions like this one is never safe. We should expect surprises.

Here are six more questions that cover the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of Rams 2021 training camp:

Who will have the greatest chemistry with Matthew Stafford?

Few wide receiver duos can truly claim to be “equals” but Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp have roughly been that since joining the Rams in 2017. Last season, Woods was targeted 129 times in 16 games, Kupp was targeted 124 times in 15 games.

In 2019, Woods was targeted 139 times in 15 games, Kupp was targeted 134 times in 16 games.

In 2019, Woods was targeted 130 times in 16 games, Brandin Cooks was targeted 117 times in 16 games, Kupp was on pace for 110 targets but only played in eight games.

Given what we just covered with regards to Jackson, I don’t think that it is outlandish to suggest that McVay would like Stafford to spread it around to those three players as much as possible. If Jackson is anything like the player he was in Washington, we know that McVay would most likely prefer utilizing him in a role similar to that of Cooks — but we’re also making a lot of assumptions about how much Jared Goff had to do with those breakdowns.

Last season with the Lions, Matthew Stafford threw 115 passes to Marvin Jones, 101 to tight end T.J. Hockenson, and then 69 to Danny Amendola. He clearly favored Jones over all other receivers once Kenny Golladay was down for the count.

In 2018, Stafford threw 119 passes to Golladay, then 69 to Golden Tate, again showing a wide disparity between his number one receiver and his number two.

Will Stafford show any favoritism towards Woods, Kupp, or Jackson in camp, or are these previous numbers just a byproduct of not having great “number two options” when he was in Detroit?

What will it be like without Michael Brockers for the first time since 2011?

Speaking of the Lions, they’ll be the ones enjoying the veteran leadership of Brockers, which is something that had belonged to the Rams for the previous nine years. That’s great for Detroit general manager Brad Holmes, who drafted two defensive tackles on day two this year, giving Brockers two key players to mentor in camp.

Los Angeles also drafted two defensive tackles — Bobby Brown and Earnest Brown — but the task of mentoring them will have to fall onto the shoulders of somebody else. Or, you know, they can figure it out on their own like a lot of other players, but clearly Brockers is somebody who the organization valued for a very long time, even if he never met expectations as a former first round pick.

The Rams have plenty of questions surrounding the defensive line — from Aaron Donald turning 30 to the two rookies to replacing Morgan Fox to realizing what they have in A’Shawn Robinson — but the biggest hole of all will be the one left by Brockers. Camp couldn’t possibly be the same without him, though change is not necessarily a bad thing.

Where will Terrell Burgess line up this season?

Burgess was drafted with “versatility” as maybe his key attribute coming out of Utah, and Les Snead was also well aware that both John Johnson and Troy Hill would be free agents in 2021. He also likely knew that LA wouldn’t be able to afford or keep Johnson and Hill if they performed well, which is exactly what happened.

Therefore, Burgess and the team were both preparing for this moment for over a year: going into training camp with open competitions at both safety and nickel cornerback.

For now, it appears that Burgess could be the leader in the clubhouse to replace Hill in the slot. The 5’11, 202 lb Burgess didn’t see a lot of playing time during his rookie season, unfortunately getting injured midseason just as his snap counts were beginning to ramp up, so getting him on the field in any way he can will be McVay’s main priority.

Hill didn’t really become a “play maker” until he started playing for McVay and though Burgess only had one career interception in college, we could find out that he’s got plenty of plays left to make in the league. Where will those plays originate from this season though: slot or safety?

When will Sean McVay decide on his linebacker rotation?

We know where Leonard Floyd will be lining up and that he will probably get over 90% of the defensive snaps, if healthy. Now, onto all of the linebackers who we don’t know about yet: Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Micah Kiser, Ernest Jones, Kenny Young, Chris Garrett, Troy Reeder, Terrell Lewis, Travin Howard, Justin Lawler, Christian Rozeboom, and more.

That’s a lot of names. I feel like it’s one of those situations where you look at all the potential outcomes and then a mathematician comes in and says some truly unbelievable number like, “There are 1.67 billion possible combinations as to who could start!”

Maybe there aren’t that many possible combinations but so much can happen between now and Week 1. Which three other linebackers will step up and who will be the next man up, because we can guarantee that LA will use more than four linebackers next season. Depth is going to be just as important as who is named as a starter.

Why not use more of that remaining cap space?

The Rams are not in “salary cap hell” right now and if they needed to spend another $5-6 million, they could do that. OvertheCap.com estimates that LA has roughly $6.9 million in cap space, though some of that will need to be spent on incidentals. There are also ways to save more money, if they needed to, such as by extending Matthew Stafford or re-working certain contracts.

All the talk surrounding the Rams right now is that they’re making a clear push “all-in” for the 2021 season, so there shouldn’t be an emphasis on the team attempting to save money to roll over into 2022, even if they are going to be strapped again next year. Things look open up again for 2023, but a Stafford extension will eat into some of that “$78 million in 2023 cap space” immediately.

The main areas of focus for the Rams to spend are clearly at a few positions, but running back has come into the frame as the lead need following the injury to Cam Akers. There are a few veteran options available and LA might wait until final cuts are made before scouring free agency for another runner.

Offensive line, cornerback, and defensive end could also be considered as areas for reinforcements, but keeping around some cap space in case of more injuries — which we know is inevitable — is also going to be a consideration.

How will Darrell Henderson respond to being “the guy” from day one?

Henderson didn’t enter training camp as the number one running back when he was a rookie behind Todd Gurley in 2019. He could have entered training camp as the number one in 2020, but the selection of Cam Akers with an even higher draft pick than what was used on him — and even the presence of Malcolm Brown — meant that there would be some question and competition as to who would be the starter. Henderson also entered camp with an ankle problem.

Had Akers not been hurt during camp, he might have been LA’s starting running back from Week 1. Then Henderson suffered a soft tissue injury in August and it turned out that Brown would be the Rams’ top back entering the season. Henderson eventually became LA’s starting running back but by Week 12, he was virtually out of the picture, making way for the explosive starting debut of Akers.

Now in year three, Henderson finally enters camp without any real competition to be the Rams starting running back. Will that still be the case when we get to Week 1? Will he run away with the job and allow LA to focus on other needs besides adding another running back before the season? Or will injuries/inconsistency keep the Darrell barrel from rolling?

We’ll get those answers fairly soon.