While the 2023 version of the Los Angeles Rams may lack star power relative to recent years, the offense has a chance to be as versatile as they’ve ever been under Sean McVay.
The theme of the offseason so far has centered around a nostalgia for the 2017 season when McVay took over a hopeless Jeff Fisher offense and helped the Rams return to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. McVay’s heavy usage of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR’s) moved offensive innovation forward to a point where almost every team in the league has attempted to pull from his coaching staff or adopt his schematic principles in some way. But even when the LA offense under McVay was firing on all cylinders, it focused around the same core of players that stayed on the field snap after snap.
Todd Gurley was a true every down back until his knees failed him, and Los Angeles has been unable to replace him ever since. Gurley could take over a game on the ground and contribute the occasional explosive catch through the air—spelled only momentarily by Malcolm Brown for a few plays once fatigue set in. The 2017-2018 offense went as Gurley did, though sometimes to the point of overreliance.
Cam Akers is certainly not Todd Gurley. The jury is still out whether Akers is a true starting-caliber NFL running back. But the Rams will see positive regression along the offensive line in terms of injuries and have added reinforcements like Steve Avila that should bolster the running game. If there’s a year for Akers to take a step forward, this should be it.
LA had chased the idea of a third-down or chance of pace back in the past with Darrell Henderson—who was on a snap count and struggled with injuries for almost the entirety of his Rams career. Returning for his second season Kyren Williams who flashed some ability in the passing game as a rookie. Williams will probably never be a full-time starter in the NFL, but he can hold up in pass protection to spell Akers and is a serviceable receiving option. The Rams’ running game is no longer a one-man show, and the pairing of Akers and Williams on paper seems appealing.
Another mainstay at his position over the McVay era is Tyler Higbee, who for most of his career has been “the” Rams tight end instead of “a” tight end for the Rams.
That changed this offseason. Brycen Hopkins is a year removed from his flashes in Super Bowl LVI and looking to prove that he deserves a regular role in a contract year. LA acquired Hunter Long, a player they valued as a third round prospect back in 2021, as part of the return compensation from the Miami Dolphins for Jalen Ramsey. Davis Allen from Clemson is a work in progress, but he should be able to contribute in the short-term as a willing blocker.
All four tight ends have different types of skillsets, which should allow McVay to diverge from a monolithic utilization of 11 personnel—if he wishes. Even if the team just dabbles in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE’s, 2 WR’s) it should be even to keep defenses on their toes and feel obligated to game plan for a new cast of characters.
They have the horses, and now it’s time to give them some run.
In McVay’s first offense with the Rams Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp were the primary three receivers without much deviation. The following year the team swapped out Watkins for Brandin Cooks, and it wasn’t until Kupp was injured that Josh Reynolds became a regular contributor. LA used the draft pick they received in trading away Cooks to draft Van Jefferson, who has carved out a role as the team’s third receiver.
But Woods and Allen Robinson now gone as well, Jefferson will get the first chance to be Kupp’s right hand man.
The third receiver spot when the team is in 11 personnel is intriguing for the first time in a while, as it seems the Rams’ best bet is to rotate a swath of receivers that have very different skillsets:
Tutu Atwell demonstrated last year that his speed and ability to get behind the defense translates to the NFL, though he’s best used on play action concepts instead of the true drop back sets LA has used more frequently. His size will also prevent him from being an every down player.
We’ve seen Ben Skowronek play fullback and take on defensive ends as a receiver/tight end hybrid—and he seemed to be coming on as a physical receiver towards the end of last season.
Lance McCutcheon displayed during the preseason that he’s not afraid to fight for the ball. He might be LA’s best jump ball receiver on the roster, though Skowronek has flashed in that department too.
Some draft analysts consider rookie Puka Nacua as a younger version of Robert Woods, meaning he wants to help in the running game as a blocker and can be used as a runner on gadget plays as well.
It’s a pick your flavor type of receiving corps this season for the Rams. The third pass catcher they roll out onto the field in 2023 will likely depend on opponent, offensive game plan, and who they think can take advantage of individual matchups. It’s a significant departure Sean McVay’s historical plan for the position.