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Rams ‘model the way’ on how to draft players into immediate opportunities

The Los Angeles Rams had no first round picks, but have 3 rookies playing like first round picks

NFL: Preseason-Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

“F them picks” is misleading. The only reason the Los Angeles Rams earned the reputation of not caring about draft picks is simply because Les Snead hasn’t actually used a first round pick on selecting a prospect since trading up for Jared Goff in 2016. Admittedly, that is a long time to go without using a first round pick as intended or expected. But the Rams have actually used a lot of draft picks under Snead, including 14 rookie prospects in 2013, and the strategy is proving that you don’t need a day one pick to find a day one player.

In fact, the Rams have three players who are playing like they should have been first round picks, they just didn’t go that early.

What L.A. has proven through the first four weeks of the 2023 season is that sometimes what you need is not an actual first round pick, but a first round opportunity for players who are up to the challenge. The Rams are using the catch phrase “model the way” to build a storyline around the 2023 roster and it fits with how Sean McVay and Snead have constructed the team to be 2-2 going into Sunday’s game against the undefeated Eagles.

The L.A. Rams once “modeled the way” to prove how a franchise can rebuild from one year to contention the next when McVay arrived and turned a 4-12 team into an 11-5 playoff berth.

The Rams “modeled the way” to turn first round draft picks into immediate returns who would help L.A. reach two Super Bowls in four seasons.

Now, the Rams are “modeling the way” on how to find and activate first round talents without needing actual first round picks.

G Steve Avila

In the most recent episode of The Athletic’s Prospect to Pros show with Nate Tice and Dane Brugler, the pair gave special shoutouts to all three of L.A.’s standout rookies even though they were hardly the top players picked at their positions. That includes second round guard Steve Avila, a rookie who has thus far played like someone who could have easily gone top-25, if not earlier.

It’s not enough to say that a player will excel at guard or center just because a team decides to start him. The Rams have found this out the hard way with players like Joe Noteboom, Bobby Evans, and Logan Bruss, all day two picks.

But Avila has mastered the challenge of starting at left guard, even in spite of inconsistency at left tackle due to injuries. A problem the Rams hope is stabilized on Sunday if AJ Jackson is able to return and start.

Avila was technically the first interior offensive lineman off the board, although others like Peter Skoronski, who has missed the last three games, kicked inside. Even as the draft’s top guard, Avila has so far outplayed a lot of prospects who went ahead of him and he’d be justified in the first round. The coaching of new offensive line coach Ryan Wendell can’t be overstated. Or it could, but I don’t feel like it.

OLB Byron Young

Forget rookies alone, Byron Young is one of the top edge rushers in the NFL of any experience level. His eight QB hits are tied with Micah Parsons and Denico Autry for the seventh-most in the NFL and Young’s played well against the run, an issue some felt he would have at the next level.

But Brugler noted in the podcast that Young’s far exceeded expectations. He has two sacks and 16 tackles and the Rams can feel confident that at least one of their rookie edge picks is off to a hot start. L.A. looks to add Ochaun Mathis into the rotation for the first time this weekend, potentially giving the Rams two rookie edge rushers to be excited about.

It’s not all roses for Young, who has the worst combination of Pass Rush Win Rate and Double Teams in the NFL:

But the Rams have put a heavy burden on his plate for a rookie third round pick and he’s picking up experience that most Sean McVay rookies have never had the chance to learn through.

WR Puka Nacua

He’s unlike almost any post-second round rookie we’ve seen since...Cooper Kupp.

It’s not enough to say that Puka is excelling just because Kupp is out. The Rams desperately needed players like Van Jefferson and Ben Skowronek to step up in the 2021 playoffs because of injuries and nobody really did. In fact, Van, Tutu Atwell, Skowronek, Lance McCutcheon...Puka Nacua is clearly different. He has the opportunities and he’s making the most of it, so it would be shocking to see him fade away because Kupp is back.

It’s interesting to consider if McVay would have ever know what he had in Puka if not for Kupp’s injury, the Allen Robinson trade, and anything that else that typically puts veterans in between Rams rookies and the field. Is it that hard to imagine that Puka would have been buried on the depth chart if not for these circumstances out of his control?

Shout Out: DT Kobie Turner, P Ethan Evans

Turner has more snaps than Jonah Williams, Bobby Brown, and Larrell Murchison. Evans is 13th in yards per punt and he can boot it as far as anybody.

Rookies who could have opportunities in the future include Tre Tomlinson, Nick Hampton, Mathis, Desjuan Johnson, Davis Allen, and Zach Evans. Tomlinson has the second-most special teams snaps on the team.