ATLANTA — There are many key pieces who have made an impact in Los Angeles' run to Super Bowl LIII. The first that usually get brought up are — rightfully — head coach Sean McVay, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, running back Todd Gurley, or quarterback Jared Goff.
But when you think about the reasons why the Rams have reached the final game of the 2018 NFL season, the talented players L.A. acquired in the 2017 draft are undoubtedly among them.
The Rams didn't have a first-round pick last year after trading it as part of the package to move up to No. 1 overall to select quarterback Jared Goff back in 2016. But Los Angeles was still able to acquire five major contributors — four of whom can be considered bona fide starters — from rounds 2-4 who have helped put the club in position to compete for a championship.
The most obvious of these contributing draft picks is wide receiver Cooper Kupp — but he won't even be playing on Sunday. Still, Kupp made an immediate impact as a third-round pick out of Eastern Washington last year, with polished route running and strong hands, finishing the 2017 leading the Rams with 869 yards receiving.
And despite playing only eight games in 2018 before suffering a torn ACL that prematurely ended his season, Kupp finished the year tied for the team lead with six touchdown receptions.
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Kupp going out, however, opened a door for wide receiver Josh Reynolds, a fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M. He played sparingly on offense as a rookie, making 11 catches for 104 yards. But with Kupp going down to injury, Reynolds stepped into a starting role and caught 29 passes for 402 yards with five touchdowns. Reynolds started eight games, proving that he is — as head coach Sean McVay had previously termed him — a starting-caliber receiver.
"I had all the confidence, it's just experience — that's all I was missing," Reynolds said. "Experience in the NFL, how [much faster] the game went than college. And playing that every play. So I think that's about it."
On the offensive side, tight end Gerald Everett has also been a heavy contributor in his second season — becoming a sort of Swiss army knife in the scheme. Everett has lined up as an in-line tight end or split out wide. He's taken jet sweeps and made deep catches on fly routes — perhaps none more notable or memorable than his go-ahead, 40-yard touchdown reception against the Chiefs in November.
And he's received more playing time as the year has gone on, playing at least 57 percent of snaps in three of the last four games. He only broke 40 percent once in the season's first 12 weeks.
Check out photos from practice as the Los Angeles Rams prepare to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Everett sees reaching the Super Bowl in just his second year in the league as the realization fo a dream he's head his whole life.
"It definitely opens up doors for us — along with working with coach McVay will open up doors," Everett said. "But just being able to experience this with guys that I truly enjoy being around and enjoy working with, it's great. I'm glad I'm here."
Defensively, safety John Johnson made his way into the starting lineup in Week 5 of last year and hasn't looked back since. He's displayed a strong in both defending the run and the pass in 2018, recording 119 tackles and also leading the team with four regular-season interceptions.
For him to reach the Super Bowl so soon, Johnson said, is simply a blessing.
"I look at a guy like Rodger [Saffold] — we've got the same agent so he talks to me all the time, like, 'Yeah, you're just blessed. You're lucky,'" Johnson said. "I mean, a lot of guys haven't even touched the playoffs and they've been in the league forever. So I mean, it's indescribable. Hopefully I can keep it up throughout my career."
Outside linebacker Samson Ebukam didn't move into a full-time starting role until 2018, but he's certainly made his share of impact plays — like his two defensive touchdowns against Kansas City in November. Ebukam had a qyuarterback hit that forced an interception late in the fourth quarter of the contest as well. He finished the year with 40 tackles — six for loss — with 3.0 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, six quarterback hits, and an interception.
Ebukam said he noticed some of the negativity surrounding him and his performance from the public, while noting that the private perception within the team was pretty positive.
"I don't think they were expecting me to have a big impact like Gerald, Cooper Kupp, and Josh Reynolds … 'cause the fans kind of switched around to my favor," Ebukam said. "But like, earlier this year…you know? So they weren't expecting me to be making such plays as I am right now. Cause there's a lot of negative feedback and all that, but I was just like, 'Alright, that's fine. I don't really care — they're not playing the game, you know?
"The team knew what I was doing, because if I wasn't doing good they would've told me. So I wasn't stressing about it at all," Ebukam added.
Check out photos of the Rams taking on the Patriots through the years.
Still, to make it to a Super Bowl in just your second year in the league — that's a timeframe that each of those players certainly appreciate. And for each of these players in the 2017 draft class to contribute as they have is a credit to general manager Les Snead and the rest of the front office.
"That's what we wanted initially," Everett said of being a significant part of the franchise's turnaround. "We intended that — specifically my draft class, along with Samson, Josh, Cooper, and I, and along with the other guys. We wanted to make a statement. Our draft class came in, and we wanted to put an exclamation point that we were going to have some key roles here and we wanted to win, and we wanted to show that."
"It's just special that my class can be doing it so young. It didn't take long for us to get acclimated," Johnson said. "So it's just a special group and I tip my hat off to the organization for bringing us here."
"That just shows you Snead and them up in the front office, they knew what they were doing," Reynolds said. "And you've seen it with this year's offseason — the pieces we added as well. So it just shows you, they knew what they wanted and they picked great guys for it."