How you view the 2023 Los Angeles Rams is likely to be correlated with your opinion of their third-year players – probably more than any other class.
When I looked down the list of candidates to have a breakout season, I kept saying "yes." They all should have the best year of their careers. There's no reason any of them wouldn't be poised to outperform their track record to date.
But is that an indictment of their contributions through two years, particularly for a 2022 team that could've used much more? Or is it a sign that their moment is now, and that we have seen enough to know they're capable of assuming larger roles?
In some instances, it's a matter of opportunity. In others, health. Or position change. Or even a change of scenery.
For all the reasons, these are players the Rams are counting on if the team is going blow past external expectations.
The Short List:
Ben Skowronek – Can last year's most improved Ram take another step in the right direction? One reason for skepticism could be the crowding of the receiver room, with new draft pick Puka Nacua and veteran free agents Tyler Johnson and Demarcus Robinson. But that would pigeonhole Skowronek as a receiver, when we know he's so much more.
Robert Rochell – This feels like a make-or-break moment in Rochell's career as a Ram. Either he steps through that open door and locks down a starting role at corner for a defense that desperately needs him to do just that, or…
No one ever said he was going to be the next Jalen Ramsey. But we did compare his physical toolkit to that of Ramsey. And now that the All-Pro corner is rehabilitating a preseason knee injury with the Miami Dolphins, it's understandable why there are a lot of eyes on Rochell this month.
Hunter Long – In return for Ramsey, the Rams acquired the services of Long. Perhaps a change of coast will ignite his pro career. The front office in Los Angeles clearly was interested in him as a tight end prospect coming out of Boston College in 2021. A summer injury meant a late start to training camp. But once Long's off the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, it won't take many snaps or targets to surpass his NFL totals through two years.
Ernest Jones IV – When he started at times throughout his rookie season and sacked Joe Burrow in the Super Bowl, it looked like Jones would be the Rams primary inside linebacker indefinitely. Through no fault of his own, that plan was postponed for a year-long apprenticeship under future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner. (Jones still played 66 percent of snaps in 2022.)
Now Jones is the man in the middle. He's wearing the green dot for the Rams defense and set to make up for lost time. I wouldn't be surprised to see him voted captain at the end of the summer, and told us on Inside Rams Camp how much that honor would mean to him.
Tutu Atwell – Picked a round before Jones in the Rams 2021 NFL Draft, it's equally Tutu's time. Why it's taken this long is a conversation for another space, but there's ample optimism that it will be worth the wait in the end.
If training camp is any indication, it's clicked for Atwell and the Rams. He's becoming a more complete threat.
I expect Tutu to surpass his career receiving totals this season… hopefully, before the bye week.
Alaric Jackson – In word and deed, Jackson has been a man on a mission. He got a taste of starting at two positions last season – guard and tackle –and his performance left all of us wanting to see more. Unfortunately, his heath did not cooperate.
Thankfully, the blood clotting scare that truncated his 2022 has been resolved as he wages one of the summer's best position battles. Whether or not he prevails versus Joe Noteboom at left tackle, Jackson will figure into the Rams offensive line plans this season. If his game is as bold and brash as his social media feed, L.A. will be mauling opposing defenses again in no time.
Michael Hoecht – The biggest question mark on the entire roster is on the edge, where the Rams are set to throw numbers at the problem. Thankfully, math has always been Hoecht's strong suit. You name the role on the defensive front, he's solved for it. Now the Ivy League-educated calculus tutor will try his hand at outside linebacker and has grown the biceps to look the part.
Hoecht checks a lot of boxes: he's experienced, sharp, athletic, and motivated to capitalize on a new challenge. And based on his prior positions, he should be equally adept at stacking up perimeter runs as pinning his ears back to get to the quarterback.
Bobby Brown III – It dawned on me this spring that the most overlooked player on the Rams roster happens to be 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds.
On the few occasions we've seen Brown in the middle of the defensive front, he's looked like a human forklift. And there's an A'Shawn Robinson-sized void in the middle of the Rams defense this year.
They're going to need an early-down run-stuffer right away with this schedule: Seattle, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Indianapolis (we'll see about the Colts running back situation, but look out for their rookie QB for sure), and of course, Philadelphia… buckle up on the interior.
Final Answer: Again, it feels almost unnecessary to single out one of these men when the Rams need them all to break out to unlock the team's full potential. But that's the drill.
Jones is the surest bet as an entrenched starter, so I shouldn't take him.
Tutu's got the explosive highlight reel potential. Hoecht has at least temporarily filled the biggest need on the roster. Jackson's got just the right disposition to help this Rams offensive line bounce back in a big way, and would be a nice hedge on my prior pick of Joe Noteboom.
But ultimately, I have to go with Ernest Jones.