Training camp is still six weeks or so away for the Los Angeles Rams, but even already several roster battles are heating up.
Special teams contributions will play an important role in determining who the team decides to keep at the fringes of the roster, and this could impact a number of positions such as wide receiver, running back, linebacker, and defensive back.
The Rams have locked in rookies at the three key specialist spots: kicker (Christopher Dunn & Tanner Brown are competing), punter (Ethan Evans), and long snapper (Alex Ward). However, it’s still a mystery as to who will man the kick and punt returner duties in 2023—so let’s evaluate the options:
Kick Returner (KR)
It’s important to note that recent NFL rule changes will likely decrease the impact of kick returns in 2023, though a high-end returner could still opt to take their chances instead of automatically starting on the 25-yard line with a fair catch. As of now, the Rams don’t have that electric returner that wins the other side of that tradeoff.
With that said, earning the job of starting KR will not guarantee you a roster spot because of the rule changes. That may not be the case for the team’s PR this year.
Punt Returner (PR)
Kyren Williams, RB
LA has often utilized running backs in the kick return game with Benny Cunningham. Returners seem to take bigger hits on kick returns than on punts, so it may be worth putting a more sturdy body on the field in case there’s an opportunity for a return.
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In terms of punts, Williams does have the lateral quickness needed to create space and has the balance to run through arm tackles. He might lack the long speed to become an explosive returner and breakaway often.
Tutu Atwell, WR
A fair catch on a kickoff will start the offensive drive on the 25-yard line, so perhaps the Rams just need a reliable set of hands. In that case, Atwell could be an option—though you don’t want to see him returning kicks often with his slight frame.
If the Rams don’t want to earmark an entire roster spot to a designated punt returner, then Atwell has plenty of job security and could provide some versatility in this regard. LA asked Atwell to handle the return duties as a rookie, though it wasn’t a role the receiver was asked to take ownership of in college. There might be better options from a pure skillset standpoint, but perhaps the trade off of freeing up a roster spot is more important to the team.
Austin Trammell, WR
Trammell is the forgotten man in the wide receiver competition, at least so far. But he was a productive player last preseason and contributed more during the regular season (two receptions, 13 yards) than Lance McCutcheon.
WR#6 or WR#7 could come down to special teams, and that gives Trammell and the next name on the list an advantage over Tyler Johnson, Demarcus Robinson, McCutcheon, and possibly Puka Nacua. There’s no guarantee the Rams keep seven receivers (six might be more likely), but there are five players vying for the last spot or two.
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1 - Cooper Kupp
2 - Van Jefferson
3 - Tutu Atwell
4 - Ben Skowronek
5 - Puka Nacua
In the hunt:
Trammell, Johnson, Demarcus Robinson, McCutcheon, Xavier Smith
Xavier Smith, WR
At 5-9, 174 lbs. Smith has a similar body type to Atwell (slightly larger maybe) and is a rookie UDFA. He played his college ball at Florida A&M and is known for his speed and flexibility as a gadget player and returner.
During his best college season in 2021 as a returner, he averaged 6.7 yards per punt. It’s a steep climb for Smith to make the roster over the veterans Johnson and Robinson as well as the promising developmental players in McCutcheon and Trammell—and he will need to flash skills on offense as a receiver in order to separate from the group.
Who do you think should be the Rams punt returner?
We know that the NFL’s new kickoff rule makes it less likely to have kick returns, but punts could still be an integral part of the game and having a solid returner would be of great help to Matthew Stafford on the offense. Who would you like to see returning punts for the Rams in 2023? Let us know in the comments.