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2023 Breakout Candidates: Rams' Veterans

Over the coming weeks, we'll divide the Rams roster into experience tiers and mine for candidates who could be poised for breakout campaigns in 2023.

With training camp underway in Irvine, each day delivers a new data point to inform these opinions. So perhaps by the time we get to the largest rookie class this franchise has ever seen, we might actually have roster (and role) projections for many first-year Rams.

For the time being, let's start with veterans – defined here as those who are beyond their rookie contracts.

With Los Angeles on track to be the least experienced team in the NFL, they'll be heavily dependent on this subset of proven pros. If Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Tyler Higbee, Rob Havenstein, and Aaron Donald are the household names, who can level up to join them as leading contributors?

The short list:

Demarcus Robinson – For someone who has a Super Bowl ring, over 2,000 yards receiving and 16 touchdowns in his career, what would constitute a breakout season for the former fourth round pick?

Going into his age 29 season, Robinson's best statistical year was either 2019 with the Chiefs or 2022 with the Ravens. Cherry-picking his top totals, we get a line of 48 receptions – 466 yards – 14 yards per catch – 4 receiving touchdowns.

Plugged into a Sean McVay offense that has targets for the taking, could Robinson average three catches and 30 yards over the course of a 17-game season? Seems like a modest pace and perhaps even a realistic expectation for someone who wasted no time impressing early in Rams Camp and is responsible for some of the biggest highlights thus far.

Ahkello Witherspoon – I said this on Between the Horns last week, but Witherspoon stands out for three reasons.

First, he's started in the league and in the NFC West. Second, the Rams added him after the offseason program, once they had time to assess their various position group needs and remaining resources. And thirdly, that they prioritized a 6-foot-2 corner who quite literally stands out among his peers (Robert Rochell is the only other Rams corner who measures up), is also informative.

Witherspoon's career-best totals include 14 games and 12 starts in San Francisco in 2018, three interceptions in 2021 as a Steeler, and a Pro Football Focus grade of 80.2 in 2020 as a Niner.

Does Raheem Morris see the 28-year-old as a potential starter with a frame and resume that no one else in that room can match, or merely an insurance policy in case other developmental options aren't ready for a schedule that starts with four Super Bowl contenders in the first five weeks?

We should find out more as Witherspoon returns from a hand injury suffered on the front end of training camp.

Coleman Shelton – Having just celebrated his 28th birthday, Shelton stands out as a prime candidate for a breakout season. His "ifs" are hardly rocket science.

If Shelton can win the starting job at center over Brian Allen, I believe he'll find himself in the middle of a much-improved unit under new leadership, in a familiar but reimagined system, surrounded by the depth and talent to give him a favorable chance to thrive.

If he's fortunate enough to play a full, healthy season, there's no reason why 2023 couldn't go down as Shelton's best. Though he's yet to have a PFF season-grade in the 60s, Shelton wouldn't still be competing for the right to start if the organization didn't believe his best days are ahead of him.

Joe Noteboom – Of the candidates I've listed, Noteboom is the one the Rams drafted. And he's the one who they've openly projected to be the future at his position.

Further, he's the one who has put it on display definitively, in a Rams uniform, when the season was on the line.

He started in Tampa Bay in the 2021 NFC Divisional Round and stifled a vaunted Bucs pass rush with an 86.3 PFF pass block grade. He kept things quiet in a Monday Night Football victory at Raymond James Stadium the year before, too. When Andrew Whitworth got carted off the field at SoFi Stadium just before halftime in Week 10, 2020, Noteboom came out of the bullpen to close that win out.

Another slight edge for Noteboom is the possibility of playing guard even if ultimately the decision is made that Alaric Jackson should be the starting left tackle. (Shelton could also play guard, but given his push for the starting job at center, we don't yet have reason to believe he'd be ahead of Tremayne Anchrum, Steve Avila, Logan Bruss, or Noteboom in the pecking order at guard.)

Final answer: I started this exercise with the intention of going with a receiver (Robinson), but wrote myself into a lineman (Shelton or Noteboom). I firmly believe that despite the debacle of 2022, the Rams strongest position group going into 2023 is their offensive line.

For someone whose starting gig is far from guaranteed as of this writing, and with a checkered injury history, it's a boom or bust pick. But I believe in Noteboom because I've seen him do it. And if he prevails at left tackle, the upside value that he could provide to the 2023 Rams is unlike any other veteran candidate.

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