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2023 Breakout Candidates: 4th Year Players

Welcome back to our training camp series, where we attempt to forecast which Los Angeles Rams are poised for peak performances in the year ahead.

If you missed the first installment, we looked at the team's veterans and nominated offensive lineman Joe Noteboom as our "pick to click."

Now, we turn our focus to fourth-years. Seniors. Many of whom are entering the all-important contract window, where their outcomes on the field will almost certainly impact their fortunes come free agency.

There wasn't much to like about the spring of 2020, as I recall. But among the select silver linings was the NFL Draft. By most accounts, and in my mind's eye, it was an uplifting and reassuring success as we acclimated to a remote environment.

For the Rams, those three days (two, really) produced a particularly notable group. Five of their nine selections are still with the team. They're forever Super Bowl champions. They've all made meaningful contributions. And to a man, they're either entrenched starters or in fierce competition to be atop the depth chart going into 2023.

And yet…

Those of us who've followed every snap of their careers know they haven't yet attained their full potential. Sometimes, that inconsistency can be maddening. In this context, I consider it tantalizing. Because of all the analyses we'll undertake in this Breakout Candidates series, this could be the most difficult to decide – for all the right reasons.

Let's proceed according to draft order.

The Short List:

Cam Akers – It's unlikely you even need me to fill in this section, because in just three years, he's lived an NFL lifetime. 

The patience required of a rookie; the explosive promise of a record-setting performance in prime time; playing through pain for playoff glory; the agony of injury and a rehab for the ages; a confounding fumblefest that's been scrubbed from our collective conscience for the most part, but only because it didn't cost him or his franchise a ring; strife and fracture; humility and mended fences.

Okay, I filled it in as succinctly as possible. All that's left is what comes next for Akers.

Van Jefferson– Jefferson's one of the most likeable athletes I've had the privilege of covering. And while the Rams have always liked him, too, might this be the season their game plans show him the love?

As a rookie, he slotted in behind Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Josh Reynolds.

As a sophomore, the franchise layered in Desean Jackson, Tutu Atwell, Ben Skowronek, and eventually Odell Beckham, Jr.

Last season should have been his time, even with the addition of Allen Robinson. But Jefferson's knee wouldn't cooperate (and neither would the Rams offense nor quarterback position). Nonetheless, he caught touchdown passes from John Wolford, Bryce Perkins, and Baker Mayfield – authoring the season's signature moment with his first game-winning touchdown grab at any level.

Because of Kupp's presence and prowess, Jefferson's never been asked to be a true "Number One" in this league. But if he arrives as the Rams second option in the passing game this fall, his stat line will almost certainly be a career-best.

Brycen Hopkins – Considered a luxury pick at the time, because the Rams had Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett leading the tight end room, it's looking more and more like Hopkins is becoming a necessity in 2023 for this offense.

The Rams got Hunter Long back from Miami in the Jalen Ramsey trade, but he started training camp on the PUP list.

They drafted Davis Allen out of Clemson to fortify that position, but his growth curve's been flattened by a hamstring injury.

Higbee's now 30 years old and has played 78, 92 (!), and 87 percent of offensive snaps the past three seasons.

Whenever Hopkins has been pressed into duty, particularly in Super Bowl LVI, he's delivered. What might he be capable of when deployed by design and not just by necessity?

Jordan Fuller – The Rams center field safety has already put together two terrific seasons, had another compromised by injury, and served as a team captain. For a player drafted 199th overall, that's more than you can expect from anyone not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.

As I see it, there are three primary reasons to be optimistic about the 2023 Rams defense – Aaron Donald, Ernest Jones IV, and Fuller. The spine of this defense is championship-caliber, even though the rest of the cast is unproven.

So if Fuller has a breakout season in store, with more interceptions than the three from his rookie season or a PFF grade above the 74.3 he earned while setting the Rams up as 2021 NFC West Champions, so be it. I just want to see him make 17 starts and finish his fourth year on the field in good health. He deserves it.

Jonah Williams – Here's an undrafted, dark horse candidate from the Class of 2020. Williams has matured from a practice squad resource to a 16-game contributor and six-game starter last season. With the Rams having to replace snaps from Greg Gaines and A'Shawn Robinson up front, the Idahoan should be in line for regular work and perhaps his best NFL season at age 28.

Tyler Johnson – The more options there are at receiver the less likely that a pass-catcher puts up the best numbers of his career (and there are far more receivers in camp than there are roster spots, much less targets). Nonetheless, because he was a 2020 fifth-round pick of the Buccaneers, let's also explore Johnson's chances.

His lack of a 100-yard game is reason for skepticism (his highwater mark is 65 yards).

Then again, his humble statistics to this point make for a lower hurdle to clear. If Johnson gets the opportunities he never could quite carve out in Tampa or Houston, then production in the range of 40 grabs, 375 yards, and 2 touchdowns could legitimately be considered a career year.

Final Answer – It needs to be Akers. The Rams have other options at receiver and tight end. Drafted, experienced ones. They've shown they can plug and play safeties reliably, from John Johnson to Fuller to Nick Scott and even Eric Weddle two years into retirement, when necessary.

But the running back room is heavily reliant on Akers. And if the Rams are to return to their early-McVay, LaFleur-influenced roots schematically, they need a back who can do it all – carry, catch, and pass protect.

So what if the zeitgeist is that running backs don't move the needle? Let Los Angeles be the exception that (dis)proves the rule.

If the outcomes that Akers was able to muster in the depths of 2022 are at all representative of what's in store, he has NFL Comeback Player of the Year potential and the Rams can ride his resurgence to exceed expectations.

Plus, Akers has an ambitious vision for his 2023.

"My goal is, personally, to prove myself right," he told us on Inside Rams Camp. "To prove I'm one of the best backs in the league."

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