There are plenty of pertinent questions about the 2021 Los Angeles Rams that’ve yet to be answered. Such as how will Sean McVay update his offense with the change at quarterback? How will Matthew Stafford respond and perform in light of his offseason move? And will Raheem Morris be able to come close to the top-ranked defensive effort that was led by his predecessor a year ago?
But with final cuts and a “55-man” roster now set for the Rams as of Tuesday, we can answer some of the questions that were left lingering through free agency, the draft, and training camp.
Who will replace John Johnson at safety?
Answer: Taylor Rapp
No, it is not a 1:1 replacement and they won’t play the same position or have the same role, but ultimately what we’ve found out is that Sean McVay plans to hand over a starting safety position to Rapp this season. It is probable that McVay and Morris will find opportunities for Terrell Burgess and Nick Scott, to say the least, but Rapp has been a regular with the ones throughout training camp and it doesn’t seem like there’s any reason to expect a change in that decision unless the coaches are forced into one during the season.
Rapp appeared in 15 games and played in 74% of the defensive snaps as a rookie in 2019, then appeared in nine games and played in 36% of the snaps in 2020. Injuries to rookie Jordan Fuller gave way to opportunities to start for Rapp last season, but then he finished the year on IR with a knee sprain.
Burgess may have seemed the obvious choice to grab Johnson’s spot headed into the offseason, but instead it is Fuller who will grab the ‘green dot’ duties and Rapp who will get the starting safety snaps.
Who will replace Troy Hill at nickel?
Answer: Probably David Long, Jr
One thing to keep in mind with regards to Burgess is that he didn’t become a starter at Utah until his senior season, which means that he’s now sat on the bench in four of the last five years of playing football.
Four of the last five years.
That’s a difficult reality when you come out of high school as a top-100 recruit in the state of California, but now you’ve mostly practiced except in 2019. Now consider that Burgess played strong safety that year and while versatility was considered a strength of his going into the draft, it’s still really difficult to learn how to play cornerback in one year and without preseason games in 2020.
So what options did the Rams really have to replace Hill other than:
a) re-sign Hill, a player who will be remembered fondly for his three touchdowns last year but not one without a couple flaws at cornerback
c) Robert Rochell, a fourth round rookie who has made 24 starts for the University of Central Arkansas over the last three years
d) acquire somebody else
Les Snead decided not to do a or d and once they saw enough of Dont’e Deayon and the other choices at cornerback the decision came down to b or c.
We don’t know yet how Long will perform in the regular season. We do know that he has played in 225 defensive snaps in two years, but nothing in those plays has given us reason to believe that the Rams are necessarily comfortable with the position yet. It’s just that with the current roster, LA seems to have no other choice.
Who will be the center?
Answer: Brian Allen
It’s another answer that won’t be satisfying to many Rams fans until they see Allen prove in a game that he’s improved from his play as the starting center for nine games in 2019. Allen didn’t take a single snap in 2020 and we never got to see him appear in a preseason game, but McVay has insisted throughout training camp that he’s been a “stand out” and that LA is now comfortable at center.
They might have to be, as backup Coleman Shelton has little experience at the position: he switched to center as a junior at the University of Washington in 2016, then started 27 games there before going undrafted in 2018 and signing with the 49ers. He spent his rookie year on the Cardinals practice squad, then has spent the last two years with the Rams. But these last three preseason games were really his first opportunity to get into a game in two years and he’s only played 23 regular season offensive snaps in the NFL.
And yet, it was only a few months ago that Allen was with the third-string and Shelton was with the backups.
Interesting: Coleman Shelton taking 2s snaps at C with John Wolford; Noteboom at LT and second-year OL Anchrum at RT. Allen taking 3s so far. Depth here will be interesting to monitor.
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) May 27, 2021
Will the Rams continue to look for center help before the season?
Who will be the starting linebackers?
Answers: Leonard Floyd, Justin Hollins, Kenny Young, and Troy Reeder
There has been massive churn at the linebacker position under McVay and that continued this year with perhaps the biggest surprise being that the Rams actually found the money to re-sign Leonard Floyd. And that they finally wanted to keep a linebacker from leaving in free agency.
So we knew then that Floyd would be a starter, but who would win a competition between Micah Kiser, Young, Reeder, rookie Ernest Jones, and the returning Travin Howard at inside linebacker? And who would replace Samson Ebukam at outside linebacker after he signed with San Francisco?
It turns out that Reeder may have solidified himself as a starting inside linebacker at the tail end of 2020 and that Kiser’s fate may have also been sealed around that time; LA reluctantly released Kiser on Tuesday, ending his bid to be in that rotation.
Young has been the wire-to-wire starter alongside Reeder inside, while Hollins has also maintained his lead with the ones since the beginning of camp. Jones and Howard will be waiting for their turns behind them.
Which players from the 2020 draft class would get cut?
We knew that Cam Akers was safe from being cut, but not from injury. We knew that Fuller was going to be a starter again.
But Van Jefferson, Brycen Hopkins, Burgess, Terrell Lewis, and Tremayne Anchrum were all mostly afterthoughts during the 2020 season. That’s fine, it happens sometimes, but then they were also not heavily discussed throughout the offseason or much of training camp except when we were talking about how we weren’t talking about them.
Jefferson’s name came up a few times, but it turns out that his lack of playing time in the preseason was simply an indication that he’s going to have a major role in the offense this season.
Anchrum played well in the preseason and he’s listed as the third-string left tackle on the team website, having made the 53-man roster.
Burgess, we discussed.
Hopkins and Lewis were the biggest questions and while both got reps in the preseason, neither stood out. But depth at tight end is a concern and Hopkins may just have a steep learning curve worth waiting for, while Lewis may just be the type who the team is okay with keeping around for 300 timely snaps this season.
But all of them made it.
(LB Clay Johnston, a seventh round pick by LA last year, made the Panthers 53-man roster; K Sam Sloman, was released by the Steelers.)
Who will replace Michael Brockers and Morgan Fox on the roster?
Answers: Michael Hoecht, Bobby Brown, and Jonah Williams
While I won’t say that it was more surprising than the Jared Goff trade, I will say that Snead then later dealing Brockers to the Detroit Lions certainly feels like it caught me just as off guard. To have some sort of buyer’s remorse one year into a three-year contract with a player who you drafted and already spent eight seasons with, it just doesn’t happen quite like that very often.
But Snead also had to make sure that all of his contract puzzle pieces would fit into the 2021 picture and the roster math must have told him that there was no other choice — and Brockers was able to sign a new three-year deal with $11 million guaranteed.
Those new pieces include Hoecht and Williams, two defensive linemen who will make $660,000 each if they stay on the roster for the entire season, which is a stark contrast from the contracts of Brockers and Morgan Fox, the outgoing free agent who got a two-year, $8.4 million deal with the Carolina Panthers.
Bobby Brown III’s cap hit comes in around $849,000, while Greg Gaines makes just over $1 million. Though the Rams must pay a $2.6 million dead money cap hit for Brockers, it’s still a lot less than what they would have had to pay with him and Fox.
How they will perform is anyone’s guess but not even Fox really turned it on until the end of his fourth season with the team. The Rams also know that having Aaron Donald means that you can take more risks with the players around him sometimes.
Who will replace Josh Reynolds?
Answer: Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson, and Tutu Atwell
It’s unexpected, even for me, to write that three players replaced Reynolds, but that is kind of what seems to have happened. Though I would not consider Reynolds to be as significant of an offseason loss as Brandin Cooks one year before him, he did serve as LA’s number three wideout and number one deep threat in 2020. It’s what the Rams lacked in a deep threat that also somewhat led to his departure in free agency.
It’s difficult to project how much more deep passing the Rams will do with Matthew Stafford replacing Goff, but it absolutely has to be somewhere in the vicinity of more. A lot more. And I think that will make for more deep targets for Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, but is also what led to the signing of Jackson and the selection of Atwell in the second round of the draft.
Those two players make compete for deep targets throughout the season, and yet it’s Jefferson who might end up as the number three wideout. It seems that the team has been high on him for each of the last two training camps and perhaps the lack of buzz is because they’re even attempting to keep him as one of the best kept secrets headed into the season.
Who will be the TE2?
Answer: Johnny Mundt
This certainly does not seem like it was the plan when the Rams drafted Brycen Hopkins in the fourth round a year ago. But there is a clear disconnect between the progress of Jefferson in that time and the progress of Hopkins, who is not likely to see the field very often for as long as Tyler Higbee and Mundt are both healthy.
Maybe that’s nothing to be concerned about, as the tight end position can be a difficult one to master at the NFL level. The fact that LA protected Hopkins over Kendall Blanton speaks loudly to their optimism, because Blanton seems to have potential too.
There is little chance that Mundt will see the 60 targets that Gerald Everett was getting over the last two years, perhaps not even half of that, but the team wasn’t rolling six-deep at receiver a year ago either.
Who will be a surprise on the final roster?
Answers: S J.R. Reed, OLB Chris Garrett, RB Jake Funk, WR Ben Skowronek, OT A.J. Jackson, C Brian Allen
I think these are all honest answers that many people would give, depending on when you were asking.
A couple of months ago, Allen was third on the depth chart and many fans expressed dismay over his roster spot not going to a draft pick or free agent signing. Now he is the starting center.
Seventh round picks should always be given the benefit of being known as a “long shot” but consider that this year was especially difficult to gauge with regards to the NFL draft. The full draft process has been re-organized over the last two years and many players missed games or entire seasons in 2020. And yet, all three of LA’s seventh round picks made the final roster, with Funk especially looking like a key player entering Week 1.
That means Jackson making it as an undrafted free agent was even less likely, while Reed, a practice squad pickup from the Jaguars a year ago, has established himself as a key special teams contributor.