The Los Angeles Rams enjoyed a cozy ride under Sean McVay for the first five years of his tenure as head coach, so it was difficult to question his methods, no matter how far they’ve strayed from the norm. That included McVay’s annual decision to protect any expected starters in the preseason—for the most part—even when L.A.’s starters were not always the most experienced or weathered veterans and may have benefited from more playing time with low stakes.
For example, McVay sat John Wolford for the entire 2021 preseason and gave 100% of the snaps to Bryce Perkins, meaning that the Rams backup quarterback for most the past few seasons literally appeared in two games of any kind between 2020-2021. Perkins does not appear to have an NFL future, especially not with L.A., so it doesn’t seem that extra time benefited the Rams much. Then McVay finally did give Wolford a little bit of unexpected preseason action in 2022, but when the team actually needed him following a Matthew Stafford injury last season, the results were disastrous.
So much so that the Rams eventually benched Wolford and Perkins in favor of Baker Mayfield.
And that’s just an example of a BACKUP who didn’t get enough preseason playing time during his tenure with the L.A. Rams. Few, if any expected starters have gotten preseason action in recent years (including when the 2020 preseason was canceled entirely by the NFL of course), and that includes guys who looked unready for real games when the regular season has started, such as Allen Robinson having no chemistry with Matthew Stafford, Tutu Atwell being saved for the regular season—only to still get no relevant snaps when it started—and 2022’s revamped secondary with Nick Scott, David Long, and Troy Hill.
Said McVay of sitting at least 35 players during the 2021 preseason, his priority is staying healthy for the regular season.
“We’ll get a chance to see a lot of our depth guys because there’s going to be probably about 35 players that are not playing in this game for us,” McVay said, via Lindsey Thiry of ESPN.com. “The goal is always to try to stay healthy.”
That’s a strategy that absolutely has to change for McVay’s Rams in 2023.
Rams can’t determine who starters should be without preseason
If Aaron Donald is the centerpiece of the defense to open the regular season, then he’s the only one who we can have any confidence in as a season-long starter for the Rams. McVay and Raheem Morris have little choice but to appear confident in anybody who has any experience, such as Jordan Fuller, Ernest Jones, Michael Hoecht, and Cobie Durant, but there aren’t many other choices.
Marquise Copeland, Earnest Brown IV, Bobby Brown III, Kobie Turner, and Larrell Murchison are competing for playing time on the defensive line but have little experience or little to show for what time they’ve spent in the NFL. They have to play in the preseason and that should be a big factor in determining the rotation of the defensive line.
If Fuller and Durant are guaranteed spots in the secondary, then they’re the only ones.
Derion Kendrick might have an inside track to a cornerback spot, but he has to hold off Robert Rochell, Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, Shaun Jolley, and new signee Ahkello Witherspoon. It’s the preseason that could help a “depth” player earn his way up to the starting rotation by Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks.
And the edge positions are up for grabs, with rookie Byron Young seemingly having to “screw up” in some way to lose a spot to a fellow rookie or a former UDFA like Keir Thomas, while Michael Hoecht looks to be on the other side. Why should Hoecht be “protected” though? He needs to play as badly as anybody else on defense aside from Donald.
Even the linebacker spots will feature a lot of competition for regular season playing time. McVay can’t assume he knows who his ideal defensive starters should be based on minicamp, OTAs, and training camp. He will need to see how these players perform when the whistle blows against players who are also competing for jobs on other teams...because even these guys themselves, as inexperienced as they are, also need to see how they will perform!
Coaches have no idea. They can’t just play undrafted free agent rookies who are going to be on the practice squad or cut and not picked up on waivers. Those guys are ALSO competing for jobs, for all we know.
The offensive line needs to gel
The L.A. Rams had one of the worst OL experiences in NFL history in 2022 and as badly as McVay may want to protect his five best options, he also doesn’t know who those should be until they get playing time together. Ideally, playing time in games that at least partially matter.
We know Rob Havenstein is the right tackle and we know that Steve Avila is most likely going to start at left guard, although there’s a chance the team may benefit from having him at center.
But we don’t know answers at left tackle or left guard or even at center, where Brian Allen and Coleman Shelton could be competing to start. If the Rams feel like they have a good idea of their starting five going into the preseason, then McVay should play them and not “protect them”. Besides, what good did protecting players from injury do in 2022?
The Rams were the most injured team in the NFL after “protecting” their starters in the preseason.
Few starters should actually sit
You could make an argument for Matthew Stafford getting at least a series or two in the preseason. Tom Brady would do it and he had the longest career of anybody. But it’s most likely in everyone’s best interest to keep Stafford off of the preseason field.
Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald should also be kept on the bench during the preseason, especially on offense as the Rams are looking to see who their best receivers could be after him. That means that Van Jefferson, Tutu Atwell, and Ben Skowronek should not only play in the preseason, they should play a lot. Get Atwell at least 10 targets. Finally give us a chance to see why Tutu Atwell was picked because nothing that McVay has done with him in the regular season has matched the offseason hype and talk of his “dominance” at practice.
You could probably also sit Tyler Higbee and Cam Akers and Sony Michel.
But everyone else? They should play. I’m not going to question McVay’s methods when they lead to success. But given what happened after sitting the starters during the preseason, losing the opener 31-10, fielding one of the worst offenses in the NFL even before Stafford/Kupp’s injuries, and putting that many players on IR, we can’t be so sure this isn’t just “madness”.