Of all the offseasons for the Los Angeles Rams to have their veterans mentoring, teaching, or just leading by example, this would have been the one. So far, that hasn’t been apparent with regards to Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp, who were excused from mandatory minicamp last month even though both will be vitally important to the success of the Rams offense and defense from the moment that training camp starts on July 25th.
That is, if all is going according to the plans we’ve heard from Sean McVay to stay the course with their three—their only three—star veterans.
Aaron Donald has more experience than the other 43 players on defense combined. A lot more. He also makes a lot more money than the rest of them combined and he has earned the right over a legendary (read: top-10) NFL career of all-time. And yet, Donald not being at a football practice is unheard of and this change in direction (McVay reported that Donald was excused “for family stuff”) has not really been addressed by anyone. Not the media, the Rams, McVay, or Donald.
How will Aaron Donald fit into this defense?
At a time of great turmoil and change for L.A.’s defense, the fact that their one proven good player doesn’t have to be there, and amid daily trade speculation, is somehow not of great concern to anybody. And I do get that, really, because Donald could in theory show up for the first time on gameday of Week 1 against the Seattle Seahawks and still be the best defensive tackle in the NFL.
It’s just that not showing up is the exact opposite of Donald’s character. As noted by Brad Holmes, the area scout who desperately pleaded with Les Snead and Jeff Fisher to draft him in 2014, it was and is Donald’s commitment to practice and unparalleled work ethic that separates him from every other football player in the league. Yes, Donald is 32 and that could have a lot of implications with regards to changing habits or feeling the pressure to make a decision on his future, but based on players of similar skills and Hall of Fame resumes, he could play another five or six years at a high level if he wants to.
Just last year, there were reports that Donald would be “at peace” with it if his career ended right then and there. Then he signed a new three-year, $95 million contract and showed up to mandatory minicamp. Even with younger defensive tackles signing new contracts, including the Jets giving Quinnen Williams a four-year, $96 million deal on Thursday, Donald is heads and shoulders above anyone else at his position.
And basically any position except quarterback.
But for all the excitement to see Donald next to a host of new Rams defensive linemen and players looking for their first real opportunity following the losses of Greg Gaines and A’Shawn Robinson, it has been Bobby Brown III setting an example for Kobie Turner and the others. Brown is entering his third season after serving a six-game suspension in 2022 and then playing a career-high 164 snaps.
That’s why July 25th and the subsequent days and several weeks after that will be the most important time of the year for the Los Angeles Rams: Because finally we’ll know what the Rams intend to be rather than vague and ambiguous statements about what the Rams have been telling us they want to be.
It’s not that it’s impossible to believe that the L.A. Rams, just two years after winning a Super Bowl and still the employers of Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Donald, think that they can compete for a playoff spot in the vulnerable NFC. There’s something to that, getting wins over the team’s five or six most beatable opponents and then managing to split games against the rest.
It’s much more about the fact that the Rams roster continues to have questions that don’t have simple answers. Those answers can only come after the veterans report to camp on July 25th and then seeing how they fit in—and if they’re fitting in and practicing—with the most inexperienced and unproven roster in the entire NFL.
Cooper Kupp also hasn’t made appearance
If the Rams would actually entertain a full-on rebuild before or during the 2023 season, then Kupp might have even more value in trade than Stafford or Donald. It’s perhaps more believable that he has many more years of service left to give, he was extremely productive in 2022 when he was on the field, a deal would facilitate a lot of cap space, and we’ve seen a good number of receivers moved in the last few years for first round picks and more.
Months after trading Jalen Ramsey for a small return, L.A. could field offers for Kupp at a much higher cost and add to their 2024 draft capital.
Like Donald, Kupp was excused from mandatory minicamp for family reasons, his being the birth of his third child. When it came to Kupp’s return for OTAs, if that would happen, McVay showed no concern and instead said that it would let the Rams look at their other options.
“I think we’ll just take that a day at a time,” McVay said. “Whenever he does come back, we’ll be smart with how we kind of onboard him and get him back up to speed. He’s the kind of guy, he’s doing a lot of stuff, keeping himself ready to go. But in his absence . . . you’re getting a lot of these younger guys or some of these guys to be able to establish a rapport with Matthew [Stafford]. We’re talking about whether it’s Van [Jefferson], whether it’s Tutu [Atwell], Puka [Nacua], Ben [Skowronek], guys are getting opportunities, with some of the new tight ends that we have, to just get a feel and for Matthew to be able to establish and develop a rapport that we didn’t get a chance to do last year and those are always chances to be able to improve. So those guys will be ready to go, I know that they’re doing the right stuff on their own and when they’re back with us, we’ll obviously be excited about that as well.”
How much do Rams plan to utilize the “younger guys” in the near future? Seeing Kupp at training camp and taking all the reps with the starters will say a lot more than words can.
Matthew Stafford still heavily involved
If there’s one positive sign that the Rams will not be making any dramatic or drastic changes before the season, it has been the presence of their starting quarterback throughout the offseason. It definitely helps all of L.A.’s supporting pieces to be working with a veteran like him—imagine the chaos that could transpire if it was Stetson Bennett and Brett Rypien exclusively working with all of those new starters—but for now we don’t see McVay hesitating when it comes to a quarterback who is constantly followed by questions of health, arm fatigue, and retirement plans.
Stafford has had to make several overtures in 2023 that he’s not retiring any time soon. Financially speaking, that’s also exactly what he should say and will continue to say until he’s actually ready to call it a career. I don’t expect that to happen in 2023 and I’d be surprised if it happened in 2024. Stafford was a good player last season, despite his statistics, he was playing the most insane level of difficulty he’s had since his toughest years with the Detroit Lions.
But it is no less than a good football discussion between Rams fans to have when debating the merits of putting a 35-year-old quarterback who had multiple concussion scares in 2022 behind an offensive line that hasn’t made decisions yet at left tackle, center, or right guard, with a rookie expected to start at left guard. L.A. has rotated Brian Allen and Coleman Shelton at center, didn’t have A.J. Jackson for minicamp, and couldn’t possibly be sure what they have with Logan Bruss.
“We’re kind of rotating a bunch of guys in there,” Stafford said with a chuckle, referring to the offensive line in general. “We’ve had some new guys in at tackle this week. I know, at some point, we’ll settle into what we want to get to. I’m lucky to play with both of those guys. They’re really great centers. Great command of the offense, what we’re trying to do. Professional snappers of the football.”
We know that the Rams had some of the worst injury luck in NFL history last season. Why do people sound so sure that those worries are strictly in the past? If there’s actually any plan to put Stafford on the trade block under the worst case scenario, why would the Rams play him even one time?
Stafford will be present at training camp and working with the ones, I’m sure. Just as sure that he won’t step onto the field during the preseason. How the Rams might act if a contending team’s starting quarterback gets injured in August or September is another question. Would they possibly see an opening to an even quicker turnaround towards contention in 2024 by making a blockbuster Stafford trade in the other direction?
If that is even up for discussion—and it would seem irresponsible for it to not be on the table given a 5-12 record in 2022 and the fact that nobody could possibly know what shape this defense or offensive line will be in by the trade deadline—how long with McVay put Stafford in harm’s way before making that kind of decision?
I know most fans see the 2023 season as business as usual. There’s been nothing ‘usual’ about the Rams 2023 offseason.