Players are arriving at UC Irvine for the start of Los Angeles Rams training camp and the start of the season brings optimism for each team and their fans. For the Rams, all eyes will be on new quarterback Matthew Stafford.
In his shadow are unproven players hoping to carve out a role in the league.
In recent years, draft choices have been given redshirt years and developed behind the scenes in LA. With few exceptions, such as Jordan Fuller and Cam Akers in 2020, it can be difficult for rookies to emerge atop the Rams depth chart.
Knowing this, what are realistic expectations for each of LA’s 2021 draft choices?
Tutu Atwell - WR (Rd 2, Louisville)
The Rams first selection in the 2021 draft is an undersized player at 5’8, 155 lbs, but may already be one of the fastest players on the team. Atwell’s first opportunity to earn playing time may come on special teams as the replacement for the recently released Nsimba Webster.
Realistically, Atwell should be expected to handle the majority of punt return duties this season, as well as rotate with and complement veteran deep threat DeSean Jackson. A rotation between Jackson and Atwell will help sustain the veteran over the course of the long season, and provide the rookie with time to learn the ropes. Second round picks are typically competing for a starting role on most teams, but Los Angeles is already four quality receivers deep heading into the season.
Atwell will start the season on the injured/COVID list:
As a reminder, vaccinated players need only to have 2 negatives 24 hours apart to rejoin teammates and clear protocol. Unvaccinated players must fulfill the 10-day incubation period same as last year. https://t.co/U25PKjLjNF— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) July 27, 2021
Ernest Jones - ILB (Rd 3, South Carolina)
Ernest Jones will be competing with veteran inside linebackers Micah Kiser and Troy Reeder for a starting role on the defense led by new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Either Kiser or Reeder will probably win the starting job to open the season, but Jones fits what LA’s coaches look for in this position. Backup linebackers also play an important part on special teams as they present a blend of size/athleticism versus reserves from other positions.
Bobby Brown - IDL (Rd 4, Texas A&M)
One of the youngest players on the Los Angeles roster, Brown won’t turn 21 until next month. With that said, Brown is likely in-line for a redshirt year as an athletic interior defensive lineman. Returning veterans Sebastian Joseph-Day, A’Shawn Robinson, and Greg Gaines are safe bets to make the team and sit atop the pecking order.
At 6’4, 321-lbs, Brown is a big body that could play either nose tackle or defensive end, so it is possible this position flexibility will earn him a spot in the rotation.
Robert Rochell - CB (Rd 4, Central Arkansas)
Robert Rochell seems to be more of project player than someone who can make an immediate impact. This is not a knock on the rookie, who seems to be a “freak” and present a significant amount of athletic upside. While not expected to be a key piece of the secondary in 2021, the Rams may need Rochell ready to play sooner than later. The team lost reliable Troy Hill to Cleveland last season, and expected starter/nickel David Long, Jr is mostly unproven.
Starting outside corner Darious Williams seems to be confident in the rookie:
Rams CB Darious Williams is here. He had high praise for rookie Robert Rochell, whom he mentored during OTAs this spring.— Stu Jackson (@StuJRams) July 27, 2021
“He’s going to be a player (in this league). He’s explosive. He’s got everything in his body to be an elite corner.” pic.twitter.com/phUkchuzbL
Jacob Harris - TE (Rd 4, UCF)
Similar to Rochell, Jacob Harris is considered a project player but an elite athlete at his position. Harris was primarily a receiver in college, but is expected to be a receiving tight-end for Los Angeles. It is rare for rookie tight-ends to make much of an impact, but the rookie impressed during Organized Team Activities and earned first team reps in veteran Tyler Higbee’s absence.
Harris shouldn’t be expected to contribute much this season, but there is certainly potential for Head Coach Sean McVay to take advantage of the pass catcher’s elite traits and scheme favorable matchups.
Earnest Brown IV - DL (Rd 5, Northwestern)
Earnest Brown IV seems to be a similar player to Morgan Fox and may be able to play both defensive end and edge in certain situations. His first NFL campaign is likely going to be limited to a reserve role and special teams, but it will be worth tracking where Brown lines up during the preseason games.
Can he make an impact from both the interior and edge positions?
Jake Funk - RB (Rd 7, Maryland)
Los Angeles lost starter Cam Akers to injury a week before the start of training camp, so rookie Jake Funk will be competing for a role on offense. In five games during his truncated senior season at Maryland, Funk recorded 60 rushes for 516 yards and 10 catches for 68 yards. The ability to contribute to the offense as a receiver may be enough to separate him from other young running backs Xavier Jones and Raymond Calais as the primary backup to Darrell Henderson.
Funk also figures to be a key special teamer this season for new coordinator Joe DeCamillis.
Jake Funk (RB Maryland) ran in the 4.4s, jumped 38” had a 10’ broad jump and incredible 6.71 3-cone. He’s racked up special teams tackles over the years. Guys like this will catch a team’s attention in the draft process. pic.twitter.com/iu5KFOUpIq— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) March 14, 2021
Ben Skowronek - WR (Rd 7, Notre Dame)
Skowronek is among the bigger bodies at the receiver position for LA, and he possesses a skillset that is different from the Rams primary pass catchers. Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson are very similar players, and the aforementioned Atwell and Jackson are undersized speedsters. Benny Skow has the length and ability to high point passes that other Rams receivers do not offer.
At the post draft press conference, McVay also discussed lining Skowronek up at fullback similar to how LA used Gerald Everett at times last season.
Fun play design from the Rams that leads to a wide-open Gerald Everett.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) October 15, 2020
They go into 12 personnel but line up TE Everett in a Fullback spot. Give some eye candy with the Jet sweep, a lead zone play action which draws up the LB/S and Everett gets a clean release for his route. pic.twitter.com/sZoZCG2Mlp
Chris Garrett - EDGE (Rd 7, Concordia St. Paul)
A relatively unknown player coming from the division II program at Concordia College St. Paul, Garrett led division II with 14 sacks in 2019, but did not play football in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The rookie will likely benefit from participating in a professional strength and conditioning program while being a willing contributor on special teams. Garrett will likely be on the fringe of the Rams roster or practice squad this season, but is someone to keep an eye on during preseason games. Is he able to replicate his division II success against the backend of NFL rosters?