The Los Angeles Rams report to training camp on Tuesday, welcoming a roster full of fresh faces. Contrary to popular belief, the Rams do still have some veterans left as well. However, after a bad 2022, most will need to prove they still have what it takes or risk losing their job to one of the new younger players.
LA is in a retooling season and it’s making for the most interesting training camp since the Rams move from St. Louis.
Veterans like center Brian Allen, a starter plagued by injury, is in danger of losing his job to Coleman Shelton. Could he earn it back back with a great August of practice or could Shelton run away with it? What about wide receiver Van Jefferson, who has been serviceable, but also has not had a standout season in his first three years and has missed time due to injuries. Could he silence some doubters with a strong training camp showing?
These are just two examples of the many questions LA looks to find answers to starting on July 25th. Here are the three players I believe have the most to clear up heading into day one.
Matthew Stafford - Quarterback
When talking about the success of a team, it begins with the player touching the ball on every play offensively. Unfortunately for the Rams, quarterback Matthew Stafford is coming off one of his worst statistical years of his 14 year career thus far.
Stafford started last offseason behind the ball after having elbow surgery and it effected his entire season. Stafford looked to have lost the arm strength that made him one of the best deep ball throwers in the league. His season was cut short due to a neck injury after being sacked 29 times in just nine games, a large increase compared to the 30 sacks through a full slate of 17 games in 2021.
He’s an older player and each one of those 29 sacks puts more wear on his body than it did just a few seasons ago. The Rams hope to have upgraded the offensive line, adding rookie guard Steve Avila, getting 2nd year player Logan Bruss back, as well as competition at left tackle and center.
There is reason to be excited about Stafford’s return to the field.
"Matthew Stafford is in a great place. Has gotten a lot of work done that he hasn't been able to do over the last two off-seasons. His competitiveness and his toughness are his two best traits, and we want to do a much better job of keeping him upright. He has a look in his eye"…— Rams Brothers (@RamsBrothers) July 25, 2023
Starting with the obvious, Stafford is only one season removed from a Super Bowl title, almost 5,000 yards passing and 41 touchdown passes. If Los Angeles has improved their offensive line at all, along with a more consistent run game to take some pressure off of the quarterback, it’s possible he could return to his 2021 form.
Stafford had an extended offseason to heal up after injury ended his 2022 campaign early in November. If you remove the 2019 season, where Stafford only played 8 games, it’s the first time he hasn’t played the full season of games since 2011 and his body may have been due for some extra time off.
On his return, Stafford said “I feel like more people were less confident in that than I was [in his return to the NFL this season] but I was ready to go, ready to play, as soon as I was cleared. And I feel great, I feel healthy.”
Stafford ended by saying “I’m not 25, but I definitely feel good.”
Head coach Sean McVay has echoed similar confidence in the quarterback and his health saying “I think this is the first offseason in a long time that he’s actually feeling good. He’s been able to throw, he’s been able to kind of start his rhythm and routine a little bit earlier than previous years. He’s got a good look in his eye and I’m glad he’s leading the way for us.”
Stafford has a chance to either make his case why he’s a hall of fame worthy quarterback or potentially risk losing his starting job late in the season to incoming rookie, Stetson Bennett.
Cam Akers - Running back
In an NFL devaluing the running back position more and more, it’s interesting to see how the Rams handle Cam Akers going forward. Akers has had a very up and down relationship with Los Angeles, cultivating to him eventually asking for a trade midseason last year.
Akers looked to have never recovered from Achilles surgery that took away his 2021 season. Miraculously, he somehow managed to make it back on the field for the Super Bowl LVI victory in just 5 months, but after only 21 yards gained in the championship game, some wondered if he returned too early.
Akers started 2022 a shell of himself, losing his starting job to Darrell Henderson to start the season. Akers did not have a game over 65 yards rushing for the first 11 weeks of the season.
Late in the season though, LA cut Henderson, leaving the majority of the carries to Akers and he did not disappoint. Akers looked like a completely new running back, totaling 345 yards and 3 touchdowns in just the three games.
It looked as though the key to unlocking Akers might be giving him more bulk carries to get in a flow, rather than rotating him with backs like Henderson or Sony Michel where he’s coming in cold over and over.
The Rams look to be focusing on the run game again, bolstering the size of the middle of their offensive line through the draft. If Cam Akers plays like he did at the end of 2022, it will not just help him secure his role on the team but also make life easier for Matthew Stafford and the passing game as well.
If Akers falters, Los Angeles has rookie running back, Zach Evans, waiting in the wings to show what he can do. The TCU running back was once considered a day one pick but fell in the draft after injuries his senior season and off the field issues. If he proves to have first round talent in training camp, Akers leash might be even shorter.
Joe Noteboom - Left Tackle
Joe Noteboom signed a 3 year, $47.5 million extension following the 2021 season and Andrew Whitworth’s retirement. He was viewed as the left tackle of the future but after only one season, Noteboom already looks like he may have been the wrong choice, giving up 5 sacks in just 6 games along with 3 penalties as well.
This is an extremely important position on the offense, blocking the blind side of Matthew Stafford who, as mentioned previously, has questions surrounding his health and age. Noteboom was already at a disadvantage, filling the big shoes left by potential hall of famer and fan favorite in Whitworth, and would have needed his play to have been stellar to not be seen as a decline at the position, which it was not.
Undrafted left tackle AJ Jackson looked much more consistent and stable at left tackle in his limited time playing last season and now goes into camp locked into battle with Noteboom for the position. Given Noteboom’s contract, the Rams are going to give him every opportunity to win the job from Jackson.
Noteboom played well enough in relief of Whitworth in 2021 to earn the contract extension, he will need to prove that 2022 was an anomaly and not a vision of his future play.