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Rams 2023 NFL Draft: L.A. must look at second round wide receivers again

Despite picking Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell, the buck can’t stop here

Los Angeles Rams during a scrimmage NFL football game a SoFi Stadium.

I hate to say I told you so, especially when it comes to the NFL devaluing or moving on from some of their greatest stars, but when it comes to age-30 wide receivers ... I at least warned you so.

For the last three years, I’ve noticed that wide receivers over 30 are disappearing from the NFL. Almost exactly a year ago today, I wrote that “turning 29 is not kind” on this very website.’

For years now we’ve heard the argument that “running backs don’t matter” based on fungibility at the position and values on day two of the draft outclassing the first rounders, but what will become of wide receivers if teams keep churning them out for new weapons the closer they get to 30?

Of the 15 wide receivers on PFF’s preseason list from this year who were over or nearing 30 (Davante Adams was ranked first and coincidentally today is his 29th birthday), I would argue that at least 12 have been disappointing for one reason or another. What’s perhaps most interesting is that in addition to the names above, there were also quite a few other disappointments (Corey Davis, Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper, DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Will Fuller, Courtland Sutton) and who knows, we might see more than 20 new names in PFF’s rankings to open next year.

Finally, we have to talk about Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Odell Beckham, Jr.

Today, Kupp is 29, while Woods and OBJ are 30. Allen Robinson is 29.

The main thing I always want you to take away from these articles is NOT that players just “get slower” when they turn 29 or 30. That the reason for decline or their exit from the league is due to a degradation of athletic skill.

That ain’t it.

What’s working against wide receivers even more than a decline in athletic abilities (although this is important when comparing them to the 21 and 22-year-olds entering the league every year) but it is that any injury could be their last or second-to-last. Not only because the injury changes their athleticism, but because 30-year-old wide receivers are paid like veteran wide receivers.

And rookie wide receivers are paid like wide receivers. If a team has a choice between paying a 30-year-old wide receiver $20 million or paying a 22-year-old wide receiver $4 million, then what they have to decide is “How much less production am I willing to get for 20% of the cost?”

If you could even get 50% of the production of a $20 million wide receiver for $4 million, would you do that?

Don’t get distracted by these less important ideas like, “Well, OBJ can still do it!” Sure, maybe OBJ can still do it. How much better can OBJ do it than the average second round pick?

OBJ has not played at all this season. He tore his ACL about a month after I wrote that article. The latest rumor is that he won’t return at all. Veteran players tend to take longer to rehab than players of a younger age and then teams do not really know what they’re getting when he returns. What is OBJ at this point? He’s not the same OBJ that was on the Giants or even the one who was traded to the Browns.

Next season, Cooper Kupp will have a cap hit of $27.8 million, the fourth-highest in the NFL after Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins, and Michael Thomas.

The 30-year-old Hopkins is still clearly good. But by the end of this season, teams will see that Hopkins had 572 yards in 2021 and less than 1,000 yards in 2022 (Hopkins is at 653 after having served a six-game suspension) and the Cardinals have to evaluate how much longer he’s worth as much as a mid-tier quarterback.

The 29-year-old Thomas has 609 receiving yards since the start of 2020. And 29-year-old Brandin Cooks, due to make over $26 million next year, has a season-high of 82 yards for the Houston Texans, which came back in Week 1. Cooks is on pace for 884 yards and two touchdowns.

Cooper Kupp contract breakdown:

Kupp has a $15 million base salary in 2023 and 2024, with a $5 million roster bonus in each of those years. He then has a $12.5 million salary in 2025 but a $7.5 million roster bonus. The Rams almost have to pay Kupp in 2023, but the odds of him getting his next three roster bonuses would be much lower.

The Rams can’t just sit back and tell themselves, “Well, haha, we think that Cooper Kupp will probably be worth $26 million per year from age 30 to age 32. Haha.” Especially given that the Rams have no other valuable weapons on the entire roster yet.

That’s why Les Snead’s first pick in 2023 might be a wide receiver. Again.

The Rams selected Van Jefferson in 2020 and Tutu Atwell in 2021, both with the 57th overall pick, as well as tight ends Brycen Hopkins in 2020 and Jacob Harris in 2021, Ben Skowronek in 2021, and running backs Cam Akers, Jake Funk, and Kyren Williams in each of the last three drafts.

Snead has picked eight skill players in the last three years and nobody can confirm if any of them will become legitimate NFL starters. As depressing as that might be, it doesn’t mean that the Rams stop trying. It means the opposite.

Or the Rams will have to trade a valuable draft pick for a veteran wide receiver, but hopefully not one who is almost 30.

TCU’s Quentin Johnston has been touted as the top wide receiver in the 2023 class, potentially even as high as a top-five pick, but without a clear consensus there’s a chance that no wideouts go in the top-15 selections. It doesn’t appear yet that the 2023 receiver class will be as loaded at the top as the last few, with names like A.J. Brown, Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman, Brandon Aiyuk, Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, Amon-Ra St. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Chris Olave, Drake London, and Garrett Wilson entering the league since 2019.

Most of those players were first or second round picks.

When drafting next year, you can’t make the mistake of thinking that the Rams must simply look at their present roster, identify some holes, and then think “Well, draft players who play that position and by 2023, L.A. will have solved their issues.” Typically, the NFL and the draft has not worked this way.

Instead, the Rams must consider which positions of great value they could add through the early part of the draft, which prospects play those positions, and then decide which of them will impart the most amount of help on the team from 2023 through 2026, if not beyond when things work out well.

Matthew Stafford is signed through 2026. Cooper Kupp is signed through 2026 and I am as hopeful as you are that he’s productive into his late-30’s like Larry Fitzgerald, even if that is the exception instead of the rule. And Fitzgerald is a monumental exception.

Who else is going to help the Rams do the one thing that the NFL has rewarded more than anything else in the last decade: Throw the damn ball well, complete passes, and score points.

The Rams have been going hard after weapons under Sean McVay for this very reason. Since 2017, no team has been more aggressive in adding receivers than the Los Angeles Rams. From Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Sammy Watkins to Cooks, OBJ, Robinson, Jefferson, Tutu, and so on.

Snead and McVay aren’t stopping now.

After Johnston, USC’s Jordan Addison, Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, UNC’s Josh Downs, Penn State’s Parker Washington, and Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt will be among the first names called in the draft at wide receiver. Even though the Rams have picked receivers with two of the last three second round picks, even though the Rams have a lot of issues to resolve and a “deep” room of wideouts (parentheses because L.A.’s lack of good weapons is a huge reason for their 4-9 record), every Rams fans has to expect that a wideout is up for discussion with Snead’s first pick. If not a trade up. If not a trade for a veteran.

A veteran younger than OBJ, Robert Woods, and Allen Robinson.