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TST LA Rams Mailbag: Answering 5 questions as we head into Week 1

You wanted to know about RB order, the offensive line, Tutu Atwell, and more

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

The Los Angeles Rams have concluded training camp and the preseason, and are now focused on preparing for their Week 1 contest against the Chicago Bears on September 12th.

While the team is taking this weekend off from any game action, it’s a good time to focus on the questions that Rams fans have about the roster and the upcoming season as have barely more than a week until it begins again.

This week, we asked you to send in your questions about the 2021 LA Rams and then we chose the five most popular ones and sent them around to the Turf Show Times writing staff for answers.

To send in your questions next time, or to just be updated whenever big news about the Rams drop, be sure to go follow TST on Instagram and Twitter.

1 - Who will be the Rams RB1 in Week 1 and in Week 18?

Ben the Ram from Twitter asks who fans can expect to be RB1 for the Rams this season. TST reader Pmahc-AL added a twist - Who will be the starting running back in Week 18?

Holden Cantor (Follow on Twitter)

The RB1 at the start of the year will be Darrell Henderson. After trading for Michel, McVay reiterated that Darrell is still going to have a really big role and that it doesn’t change the outlook for him. I believe Michel is a good complimentary piece to Henderson, as is Jake Funk, but the team has a lot of confidence in Henderson to lead the way. As far as Week 18 goes, hopefully it’s Jake Funk because McVay will be resting the starters because we already secured the #1 seed! In all seriousness, it should be Henderson still if he stays healthy.

Read: Holden gave us some injury updates on Obo and Terrell Lewis on Thursday

Chris Daniel

Darrell Henderson will be the starting running back when the Rams open the season against the Chicago Bears. I also expect him to keep the role of RB1 for the majority of the season. After all, he was the highest graded running back in the NFL through the first eight games of the 2020 season. Unfortunately, Henderson has shown the propensity to miss time due to some nagging injuries. If Sony Michel is put in a position to log significant carries during a contract year, there is a possibility that he may keep the starting job going into Week 18. Running backs coach Thomas Brown knows Michel’s strengths and weaknesses better than most. I can see Brown putting his form pupil from the University of Georgia in favorable situations, specific to his running style, as any good.

Kenneth Arthur

I think that if Michel were acquired earlier, he absolutely would be in the conversation to start Week 1. On one hand, the team did trade for Michel and they didn’t keep a fourth running back, so clearly Sean McVay isn’t concerned about him getting up to speed to play immediately. On the other hand, Michel was only ever a situational running back with the Patriots — he played in all 16 games in 2019, with 14 official starts, but he only appeared in 37% of New England’s snaps — and he dropped from first on the depth chart to being the first running back that Bill Belichick was ready to move on from.

More than anything, I wouldn’t necessarily overrate the word “starter” at running back. I don’t think that either Darrell Henderson or Sony Michel have proven to fit the description of a “three-down back,” which is probably what people think of when they think of starters, so it may be more about having two running backs who are good for two different roles in the offense.

To say that Henderson is a starter and Michel is a backup is the same as saying Robert Woods is a starter and Cooper Kupp is a backup. Instead of comparing targets for wide receivers, just compare snaps for running backs. “Oh, Jake Funk got 15 snaps this week” is the same as thinking “Tutu Atwell got two targets. Two. Two targets.” Last season was truly a running back by committee by the time we got to Week 12, which is around when Cam Akers was filling the traditional role of “starter.” It doesn’t appear the Rams have one of those this season. Whoever starts in Week 18 might just depend on who fits the best description for the player they need on their opening drive that day.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Training Camp John McCoy-USA TODAY Sports

JB Scott

Darrell Henderson will get most of the playing time early in the season, but the key questions with him are durability and availability. Sony Michel offers a more sturdy build at a position that takes such a high physical toll. Considering this is the first 17-game season, I’d put my money on Michel being the Rams’ strongest runner down the stretch and heading into the playoffs. Henderson in recent seasons was considered by the coaching staff as a change of pace back. I think this is the role he will play deep into the 2021 season as well.

Evan Craig

I think it makes the most sense to start Darrell Henderson as the Rams RB1 at the start of the season. McVay has already mentioned he has big plans for him and hopes to incorporate him quite a bit in the offense. I don’t see Sony Michel playing a major role early on as he’s getting accustomed to the playbook and scheme. Eventually, I can see both him and Henderson functioning as a two-headed monster by the end of the season.

There will still be limited roles of some degree for Xavier Jones and Jake Funk. I believe that if they are included in the plans, it’ll become running back by committee. Whoever has the hot hand, McVay will ride them, a similar approach the 49ers took during their 2019 Super Bowl run. If Michel can remain healthy throughout the season and Henderson can carry the load as the feature back, this rushing attack could become a great asset to a team aiming for a deep playoff run. Probably not what was expected after Cam Akers’ season-ending injury.

2 - What are the expectations for the OL? Is there reason for optimism?

Chris Daniel

With sliding Austin Corbett back to his natural position of right guard, Brian Allen becomes the only major question on a unit that is fairly top heavy. If Allen does prove to be a starting caliber center, LA’s offensive line may bully some teams. There are certainly reasons to be optimistic. However, the lack of proven depth behind Joseph Noteboom is a bit concerning.

Read: Chris’s evaluation of the OL performance in the most recent preseason game against Broncos

Holden Cantor

I feel optimistic about the starting offensive line but they need to stay healthy because when it comes to the reserves, I don’t have much confidence in them. My expectations for the starting OL is they’ll be a solid top 10 unit. My only real concern is Brian Allen but McVay said he’s a player who has had one of the best training camps on the team. A player who I believe will take a huge step forward is Austin Corbett, I am expecting a big year from him.

Kenneth Arthur

If people re-set their expectations of what a “good offensive line” is, then yes, the Rams will continue to have a good offensive line. There will be more sacks allowed probably, because Matthew Stafford traditionally has taken more sacks in his career than Jared Goff has. Those numbers tend to normalize and follow a QB around no matter the team or the players blocking for him. So I expect there to be a few more sacks, and maybe because Cam Akers is injured, the run game could suffer a bit from that. But if Andrew Whitworth is healthy, I believe he’ll continue to be a valuable left tackle. Rob Havenstein and David Edwards are good players compared to others at their position. Austin Corbett appears to play well at right guard. The big question is with Brian Allen, and nobody seems to really know the answer there, so we’ll see.

I think it’s a good offensive line, but as we saw in 2019, these things are difficult to predict.

JB Scott

It’s fair to have high expectations for the starting five offensive lineman in 2021, but my real concerns are in regards to depth. I have a substantial amount of confidence in LT Joseph Noteboom should Andrew Whitworth have to miss a game or two at some point. However, what if Brian Allen misses extended time? Would Austin Corbett switch from guard to center, leaving Tremayne Anchrum or Bobby Evans at right guard? There seem to be more questions than answers here, and I think I’d start to lose sleep at night should such circumstances arise.

3 - Why did the Rams select WR Tutu Atwell over other receivers available? How did his preseason performance affect confidence in the selection?

Kenneth Arthur

Al Davis used to catch a lot of criticism for his affinity for speed, but I think that Les Snead must have always been a Raiders fan because he is obsessed with speed. It’s not always the speed that shows up in a 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine; Snead has mentioned that over time he learned to prefer the analytics that provides game speed, especially at the Senior Bowl. He has also drafted and signed a number of players who posted incredible 40-yard dash times at their pro days, including Jonah Williams and Michael Hoecht, the two defensive linemen who made the 53-man roster after going undrafted last year. Both of them would have been the fastest players over 265 lbs at the 2020 NFL Combine. Likewise in the NFL draft this year, players like Jacob Harris, Robert Rochell, and Atwell were ridiculously fast (as were the big men that Les drafted) and the “freak” label has clearly impacted how Snead chooses prospects. To a fault.

The fastest players who Snead has ever drafted: Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Isaiah Pead, Brandon McGee, Janoris Jenkins, followed by Rochell and Atwell.

To answer the question as honestly as I possibly can: Les Snead chose Atwell over those other receivers because he liked Atwell the most. To a large degree, I think that a good general manager sees a pool of players at the position that he wants to draft, and then when he’s on the clock, he listens to his gut because there is no way to know if you’re making the right decision or not. I think you have to do as much homework as you possibly can, then you leave it to chance and know that you’re gonna get some picks wrong. But speed had to have some influence on that pick.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Denver Broncos C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Craig

The Rams drafted Tutu Atwell with hopes that he was going to function as a vertical threat the team has been searching for. His strong performance against the Broncos inspired confidence that LA made the right call in taking a risk on a heavily undersized but dynamic player. He won’t play much this season as Jackson has better chemistry with Stafford and is the top deep threat at the moment. Atwell could step into action if one of the four pass catchers ahead of him is sidelined. Preseason results don’t usually mean anything, but if he can translate his skillset into something on the field this season, the pick will pay off.

Read: Former Rams coach Dick Vermeil finally nominated as finalist for the Hall of Fame

Holden Cantor

That is a great question and while I was confused about the pick when it happened because I thought they would have drafted a center with this selection, I understand why it was Tutu Atwell opposed to the other wideouts. In order for Sean McVay’s offense to run on full cylinders they need a burner who can take the top off the defense so they can keep the defense honest while trying to get the run game going. For example we had Brandin Cooks, this year we have Desean Jackson, and the future will be Tutu Atwell. McVay loves to have that burner speedy threat on the outside for deep balls and he’s able to use them on jet sweeps which is a big part of his playbook. His preseason gave me a ton of confidence, he had a ton of targets, minimal drops, was winning on his routes, and showed toughness after taking some hard hits.

Chris Daniel

I’m definitely in the minority here. I was happy with the TuTu Atwell selection, as he’s a perfect mold for the jet sweep portion in Sean McVay’s offense. I can’t wait to see a personnel package with both DeSean Jackson and Atwell on the field on the same time. Almost all of his production during the preseason came on catches close to the line of scrimmage, and I’m ok with that for now. He showed the ability to get open and was a target magnet with very good hands. His preseason performance was exactly what I needed to see, even though I continually screamed to get him off the field after seeing him take some big shots. To his credit, he always found himself back in the game.

4 - Can the Rams improve their scoring outcomes in the red zone?

TST reader Freeze2813 asks whether we can expect the Rams to be better in the red zone this year.

JB Scott

The LA Rams are among the most run-heavy teams in the NFL when in the red zone, which makes the team’s running back sought after commodities in terms of fantasy football. Given that Sony Michel is more of a grinder and a bigger build than Darrell Henderson, I’d lean towards Michel being the primary short yardage and goal line runner for the Rams this season.

Pass catching tight-end Jacob Harris and receiver Ben Skowronek present a “different genre” (general manager Les Snead’s words) in terms of body type and skill set than the Rams have historically had on offense. Offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell has also mentioned multiple times during press conferences that he appreciates TE Tyler Higbee returning to health after dealing with nagging injuries during the 2020 season. Harris and Skowronek figure to be active most game days, thanks to their prowess on special teams. It makes sense that their first opportunities on offense would come in the red zone.

Read: JB’s 5 Fun Facts about the LA Rams final 53-man roster this year

Holden Cantor

I think it’s highly likely with Stafford at QB this season. The Detroit Lions were a top 10 team in red zone efficiency in 2020

NFL Football Stats - NFL Team Red Zone Scoring Percentage (TD only) | TeamRankings.com and I can only imagine Stafford will bring that kind of efficiency to the Rams as well; Especially working with a mastermind like Sean McVay.

Chris Daniel

The Rams can improve in the red zone and they will have to if they are to compete for the Lombardi trophy. LA regressed in red zone efficiency every year since losing Sammy Watkins. He and Jared Goff had something that could have been special, given more time for that relationship to grow. Matthew Stafford will undoubtedly be an upgrade once the Rams get in the red zone. Add the fact that there may be an additional threat of some zone reads for John Wolford and/or Bryce Perkins and the potential for McVay to break out the wildcat as he did against the Packers in the playoffs. The Rams should get a lot more touchdowns in the red zone this year.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams Joint Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kenneth Arthur

I think this is an area that can be improved on both sides, the Rams and Matthew Stafford. My hope is that both are uplifting one another — McVay to Stafford, Stafford to McVay — and that there’s going to be tons more opportunities for the receivers and tight ends and whatever Jacob Harris is. This is absolutely the area of the field where at least 10 more passing touchdowns can be achieved (Goff had 15 red zone TDs last season, whereas Tom Brady had 28 TD, 0 INT in the red zone; Josh Allen had 25:0).

Read: 12 Questions about the 2021 LA Rams that remain UNANSWERED as we enter the season

5 - Who will be the primary option at nickel corner?

Chris Daniel

That nickel role will probably go to Terrell Burgess. I think he will rotate with David Long to start the year but after the bye week, I would hope to see Robert Rochell to slowly eat into Long’s snaps before outright replacing him.

Holden Cantor

They’ll be switching guys in and out of that role throughout the season on defense as there’s a ton of moving parts. In my opinion they’ll have David Long as the primary with Terrell Burgess lining up in the slot a bunch too. Burgess gives you that versatility to where he can play safety or nickel corner.

Kenneth Arthur

I think it will depend on matchups. As noted earlier about how there are different types of running backs just like there are different types of receiver, it pretty much needs to get to the point where fans and media refuse to label anyone as a “receiver” and instead calls them a “wideout” or a “slot” or something even more specific than that. And due to the nature of that position changing so much over the years and becoming more valuable — slot receiver — it means that the slot cornerback position is also more valuable than it’s ever been before. Some teams put their BEST receiver in the slot. Which is why Jalen Ramsey will play a lot of nickel this year, just as he did last year. We also saw Darious Williams in the nickel at times, as well as Troy Hill sliding outside way more than we talk about him sliding outside. I expect all three cornerbacks to being open to slide around. I have no idea if Robert Rochell will see the field on defense this year. It might be that Nick Scott, Terrell Burgess, and J.R. Reed get onto the defense more than Rochell.

Read: Nine things we LEARNED about the Rams already this year!

JB Scott

I hate to answer a question with another question, but in this case I think the best response would be “who are the Rams playing?” If the opposing team has an elite outside receiver (i.e. DK Metcalf, DeAndre Hopkins, etc.), it’s fair to expect Jalen Ramsey to mitigate the threat by following that individual around. Against teams where there may not be an elite receiving option, such as the San Francisco 49ers, Ramsey will likely play most of the game in the slot. Playing the “star” position allows the Rams’ shutdown corner to play closer to the line of scrimmage and affect the play in a number of ways. If he’s on the outside the entire game, teams can effectively ignore one side of the field and reduce Ramsey’s impact on the game.

When Ramsey is on the outside I expect Terrell Burgess to be the primary option in the slot corner role. David Long can also help here at times, but it seems the Rams are planning for Long to play mostly outside. LA benefits from having a number of versatile defensive backs that can play multiple roles, and this allows the team to stress offenses and take advantage of personnel matchups.

So, what would your answers be to these questions?

1 - RB committee

2 - Offensive line quality

3 - Tutu Atwell

4 - Red zone improvement

5 - Nickel/slot cornerback role

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