THOUSAND OAKS, Calif .– The Los Angeles Rams stayed on track when they struck a blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
After making a Super Bowl appearance in 2018, the Rams front office believes they will continue to compete to play another deep playoff, maybe even the Super Bowl. And they hope Stafford is the quarterback to lead them in his 13th season.
During his first training camp in LA, Stafford praised his teammates for his leadership and ability to pass the ball.
“I’m just watching him work, the balls he throws and get them to these receivers,” said three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald. “I’ve never seen it like that before.”
With expectations rising for 33-year-old Stafford ahead of a week 1 kick off against the Chicago Bears on September 12, check out Stafford’s supporting cast on the offensive here.
The offensive played a quick round of musical chairs in the middle of the camp.
Initially, it seemed like fourth year pro Austin Corbett won the starting job at the center and that third year pro Bobby Evans would play the right guard. But after training together against the Dallas Cowboys for 10 trainings through camp, Corbett moved to the right guard, fourth year professional Brian Allen took over the center and Evans became the weird man.
“Brian did a great job and Austin does a great job getting back to the station,” said Stafford. “It was pretty seamless.”
Allen was a fourth-round pick in 2018, starting nine games at the center as a sophomore before undergoing knee surgery towards the end of the season. He didn’t play last season and is now entering the final season of his rookie contract.
“He’s a really good communicator, a smart guy,” said Stafford. “He’s played center for a long time. It was good to work with him.”
If everyone proves stable, the line could be in good shape. Last season, centered on Austin Blythe (who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as a Free Agency), the line ranked seventh in the NFL with a pass block win rate of 62.6 percent.
Stafford’s blind side is guarded by left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who is entering his 16th season and will turn 40 in December. The seventh year pro, Rob Havenstein, returns with the right tackle and the third year man, David Edwards, returns to the left guard.
The depth inside the line might be an issue, but fourth year pro Joe Noteboom, who also goes into the final season of his rookie contract, has proven over the past season that he is capable of at when needed To jump in as needed.
Tyler Higbee, a sixth year pro, is returning for his fifth year as a starter. After catching 44 passes for 521 yards and five touchdowns last season while playing through multiple injuries, Higbee appeared healthy at camp while connecting with Stafford.
“He’s been a productive player for so long,” said McVay. “I think he feels good. He really struggled through a lot of different things last year, it’s really down to his toughness and resilience.”
But the depth behind Higbee could be an issue after the Rams failed to offer to renew free agent Gerald Everett, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks.
Johnny Mundt, an undrafted free agent from Oregon in 2017, has stepped into the backup role after playing as a third tight end mostly used as a blocker. Mundt has caught nine passes for 84 yards in four seasons.
“I think Johnny Mundt is ready to take on a bigger role,” said McVay. “And then the guys really work to establish themselves behind these two.”
The Jacob Harris fourth round pick flashed throughout the offseason program, but rookies have struggled to break into McVay’s offensive over the past few seasons and Harris doesn’t seem destined for a big role.
Brycen Hopkins, a 2020 fourth round election, has yet to get into the conversation about players who could make a meaningful contribution.
Losing Cam Akers to an Achilles tendon rupture at the end of the season before training camp was a blow as the second-round selection was expected to beat last year.
But the third year pro, Darrell Henderson Jr., stormed for 624 yards and five touchdowns last season and has proven to be an effective back when he’s healthy, and the Rams have the fourth year pro, Sony Michel, one former first round pick, added via a trade with the New England Patriots in exchange for a selection for the sixth round in 2022 and a selection for the fourth round in 2023. Michel provides the reinforcement needed, and his downhill style matches Henderson’s agility and passing ability .
“He’s a nice addition to what we already have,” said McVay of Michel, “when you look at the confidence we have in Darrell Henderson and what he could do when he was available for us.”
Despite the inclusion of Michel, McVay said the round seven rookie pick, Jake Funk, stayed on schedule, citing his “great maturity for a rookie player”.
Field Yates and Matthew Berry both like Cooper Kupp this season with Matthew Stafford as his new quarterback.
The offense lacked a deep threat in 2020, which limited their ability to take advantage of the full field.
The Rams hired DeSean Jackson as a free agent to bolster the defenses, and that’s exactly what he did at camp as he was linked to Stafford on deep passes on a daily basis. The challenge is to keep Jackson healthy after missing most of the last two seasons due to various injuries. The Rams have implemented a careful training plan to keep the 14th year professional available.
“Speed guy, aged 34, but 35 [old]“Said McVay when asked why he recently rested 34-year-old Jackson while exercising. “It’s amazing how he can still walk. He knows his body very well. “
Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp’s chemistry with Stafford seems to be off-season, and the two will certainly be his main targets. Van Jefferson’s connection with Stafford has steadily improved, and the sophomore appears on the way to a significant increase in production from his rookie season.
“Every time we step on the field, he tries to get better,” said Stafford of Jefferson, who caught 19 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown last season. “I’m trying to get better with him, with all the guys. We’re just trying to maximize our chances. That’s what he has to do and what he continues to do.”
Tutu Atwell, the second-round pick, could step into action if Jackson is unavailable, though due to the preseason it looks like the rookie will look like returnees mostly on special teams.