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John Johnson signing is another indictment of Rams ‘scatter shot’ drafting strategy

A day ago, Russ Yeast was apparently ‘prominent’ member of secondary. On Monday, he seems to be a backup

NFL: JUN 06 Los Angeles Rams OTA Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams made eight picks in the 2022 NFL Draft and half of them were defensive backs, including two who were expected to play safety. Rams general manager Les Snead also drafted six defensive backs in the previous three years, with four of those being safeties. That’s six safeties drafted between 2019 and 2022, plus a seventh this year, all of whom were selected with at least some hope that they could be the next John Johnson III.

On Monday, Snead gave up trying to find the next JJIII and instead brought back JJIII after a two-year absence.

When is it going to be safe to say that L.A.’s draft strategy needs Sean McVay’s favorite word, a “reset”, based on how many picks haven’t been able to find roles with the offense or defense?

Snead likes to boast that in spite of his reputation for “f-ing picks” that all but one or two teams has actually made more draft picks than the Rams during the McVay era. Since 2017, not including this year, Snead has overseen 54 draft picks. Then this past spring, L.A. had a 14-player draft class, the franchise’s largest such group since drafting 14 players in 1992.

Shout out for the old heads:

Because the 2023 class has yet to even play in a preseason game, let’s give them a pass for this exercise today. I’ll do that even though we know that of the 14, at least a couple have to have huge roles with the team in 2023. And then there are the current 22 undrafted free agent rookies who are also in training camp.

But two potential starters on the Rams defense going into Week 1 will be Johnson, a signing that comes on August 7th after rookie minicamp, mandatory minicamp, and two weeks of training camp, and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. In fact, Witherspoon has often been praised as the best cornerback at Rams camp this year.

Ahkello Witherspoon jumps over Snead’s CB draft picks

This comes after Snead spent a fourth round pick on Robert Rochell in 2021, and fourth and sixth round picks on Decobie Durant and Derion Kendrick in 2022. Mid-round cornerbacks who don’t become immediate starters are hardly worthy of being labeled as “busts”, so if only Durant turns into a quality player for L.A., I’d say that’s actually a decent haul.

That’s only if it happens.

Remember that in Snead’s tenure as GM dating back to 2012, the Rams have drafted eight cornerbacks (not including sixth round rookie Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, who may actually become an immediate starter) and we’ve yet to see anyone resembling a hit since Jackrabbit Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson in 2012. Lamarcus Joyner’s breakout only came as a safety.

Instead, Snead’s best cornerbacks have all been trade acquisitions: Marcus Peters, Jalen Ramsey, Aqib Talib. Or an unexpected pickup like Troy Hill.

Now here we are two weeks into 2023 training camp, having watched former third round pick David Long leave in free agency after a disappointing four years in L.A., and spending four picks on cornerbacks in the last three years, but Witherspoon is leading the charge. Injuries play a role in that. However, Witherspoon seems like the Rams best cornerback right now regardless.

Said McVay, “(Witherspoon) is a man’s man and a pro’s pro.”

As a gentle reminder, Witherspoon has never made more than 12 starts in a season and he has made just 11 starts in the last three years, jumping around from the 49ers to the Seahawks to the Steelers in that time. He is also the third-most experienced player on the defense in terms of career snaps played behind Aaron Donald and Johnson.

Given the players currently listed on the depth chart, if Rochell isn’t a starter in his third season (healthy for all of 2022, Rochell played in 26 total defensive snaps) then he’s probably never going to become one. If Tomlinson leaps over Kendrick on the depth chart this season, will L.A.’s sixth round pick of 2023 be the demise of L.A.’s sixth round pick in 2022?

With Long’s departure this offseason, the remaining players for Snead’s 2019 draft class is: Nobody.

Snead drafted 11 players in 2018 and the two remaining players from that class are Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen, both of whom could be losing competitions to start in 2023. There were nine players drafted in 2020 and there is a wide range of potential outcomes for their potential contributions:

Cam Akers is set to start at running back, less than a year after L.A. unsuccessfully tried to trade him. Van Jefferson is hoping to not be pushed out of a starting role, but he’s getting regular “rest days” while other receivers are giving McVay reason to start them. Brycen Hopkins has played 234 snaps in three season, with the majority of those snaps coming in 2022. Tremayne Anchrum is being touted as a potential answer at right guard, which are remarkable expectations for a player averaging 1.3 snaps per season so far.

And then there’s Jordan Fuller.

John Johnson III ends up being the next John Johnson III

Snead’s 2017 draft had enough goodwill in it to trust that the Rams front office was comfortable going into April without a first round pick. Maybe to their own detriment at times.

Cooper Kupp is one of the all-time great third round picks. Johnson was a solid addition for a third round pick, starting four seasons with the exception of missing 10 games in 2019. Gerald Everett played the role of “high-end TE2”, especially since we’ve seen how dysfunctional the situation behind Tyler Higbee has been since L.A. let him walk. Josh Reynolds is a nice fourth option at receiver, but nothing more than that. Samson Ebukam is a revelation compared to most day three picks since then.

Even Tanzel Smart is still fighting for a job in the NFL six years later.

But Snead drafted Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott in 2019, then Terrell Burgess in the third and Fuller in the sixth round in 2020 as obvious efforts to form a 1-2 safety bunch after Johnson would be let to leave in free agency. The Rams made no effort to keep Johnson—and to their credit, won a Super Bowl that year with Eric Weddle at safety—but if the position is that fungible, what else could have been done with those day two picks?

Let’s give Rapp credit for what he’s good at, but regardless, he’s gone now. At any point, should the Rams hope that they’re drafting players worthy of second contracts?

Only two players from 2018 got second contracts, Noteboom and Allen, and they have combined for 55 career starts in five years.

Zero players from the 2019 draft class got second contracts.

Entering their “contract years” (technically Akers has an extra year left because he missed virtually all of 2021), there are no extension candidates from the 2020 draft class.

And entering their first year of eligibility for an extension, nobody from the 2021 draft class looks worthy of those talks.

Remember, you could have extended Cooper Kupp from the moment he stepped onto the field. It was that obvious in his first year that the Rams had found a diamond on day two. The only thing immediately obvious about these four classes, including 11 picks on day two (four of whom taken with selections higher than Kupp’s), was that L.A. was in store for long-term development plans.

Well, a “long-term development” plan should, you know, be for long-term results, right? It’s not like drafting players on rookie contracts so you can extract the most valuable possible from them while they’re cheap because look at how few snaps these players actually got on their rookie contracts.

There was no patience for John Franklin-Myers. There was no commitment to Sebastian Joseph-Day or Greg Gaines once they started showing results from three years next to Donald. Then the player that L.A. does commit to, Noteboom, has literally never spent ONE season in the NFL as a full-time starter. He’s fighting for a job against undrafted free agent A.J. Jackson and at this point seems to be losing.

In fact, adding in the 2022 draft class and add up the total number of years as a “starter” since 2020:

No starters yet from the eight picks in 2022.

Two total seasons as a starter in two years from the nine picks in 2021 (one for Ernest Jones, one for Ben Skowronek because of injuries last year).

Five total seasons as a starter in three years from the nine players picked in 2020 (two for Van Jefferson, one for Akers, two for Fuller, which would be three if not for his injury last year).

Six combined years worth of football, 26 players selected in the draft, seven combined seasons as a “starter”.

We can lower the expectations on these picks because none were taken in the first round and 16 were picked on day three. But if the end result from your draft classes is that you’re struggling to find starters, unable to pick players worthy of either long-term plans or short-term solutions, and having to bring back and bring in veteran castoffs to take the place of your strategy to find “cost-controlled players” to help pay for your expensive stars...the strategy clearly needs to change.

L.A. clearly had no choice in 2023 though.

The Rams 14-player draft class—including 10 players picked after the fourth round and add on 22 undrafted free agents—was a necessary move of a team having to fill a 90-man roster that couldn’t get under the salary cap without them because of dead money and three players accounting for over 50% of what’s owed.

Some of these rookies will start. What other choice does McVay have? It’s not a question of will they start. It’s only a question of, “Are they starters?”

For most, we can only find out when the games begin. For those competing at safety and corner, apparently the Rams weren’t entirely convinced.