After a year of exceeding expectations, the Los Angeles Rams are right back to championship expectations in 2024.
Before we get to an unprecedented off-season for the franchise – one that will feature double-digit draft picks and the most salary cap space of the Sean McVay era – let's look back on a 10-win campaign, a second half surge for the ages, and another trip to the postseason.
Here are my picks for the 2023 End of Season Awards
I chose to start here, because to the extent that there's any chronology to the awards, or the success that L.A. enjoyed in 2023, I saw the June signing of a veteran receiver as the first hint that something might be in the works.
Not because the Rams envisioned a featured role for Robinson. On the contrary, even with Cooper Kupp starting the year on injured reserve, Robinson essentially served as an insurance policy for the first half of the season – the type of policy L.A. sorely lacked in 2022.
However, by season's end, the 29-year-old had scored in four straight games, matched a career best with those four touchdown receptions, established a new high-water mark with 14.3 yards per reception, and became entrenched in the base three-receiver formation.
Robinson has been privileged to play with Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and now Matthew Stafford as his NFL quarterbacks. But equally, his streak of making the playoffs in all eight of his professional seasons was extended because of his contributions to the Rams second half surge.
Free Agent Signing - Ahkello Witherspoon
As with Robinson, on the verge of Rams Camp 2023, the front office was signaling to perceptive followers that they intended to make good on their promise to compete for a playoff spot.
After trading Jalen Ramsey to Miami, was it a development year in the secondary? Certainly.
But to survive in the NFC West, they needed length and experience at corner. Witherspoon delivered both, in an 18-game season in which he led the defense in snaps played. Especially early on, when the Rams were struggling to get takeaways, the 28-year-old stole a possession three weeks in a row to help keep them afloat (he lists the interceptions against the Bengals and Eagles as the best of his career). Witherspoon finished with a career-best five takeaways.
Accord to NextGen Stats, Witherspoon was targeted 105 times in the regular season (tied for second-most in the NFL), and yet his completion percentage allowed (50%) was the lowest among all qualifying players. He was also underrated in run support on the perimeter.
And if the addition of Witherspoon before camp was one bracket, the other was the day veteran safety John Johnson III showed up in Irvine and signed a one-year contract shortly thereafter. Those veteran free agents signaled the Rams weren't just holding tryouts for their future secondary in 2023.
Newcomer of the Year - Kevin Dotson
The final preseason maneuver proved to be the most instrumental.
For much of the summer, the Rams felt like they had six starters for five roles along their offensive line. But again, the pro personnel department won the offseason by monitoring other rosters with more starting caliber players than starting jobs. When Pittsburgh settled on their arrangement, and made it through the preseason in good health, trade discussions that began during the Allen Robinson transaction produced another exchange between the franchises.
In late August, after the preseason finale, and just ahead of the 53-man roster deadline, L.A. agreed to move back a round on Day Three of the next two drafts for the opportunity to bolster their interior line – hedging against the catastrophic finish to 2022 they'd just endured.
Dotson was entering a contract year and was arriving just in time to watch the Rams install their Week 1 game plan. This was a higher-risk move than was portrayed in the moment, but the reward was even greater than could have been expected.
Inactive for the first three weeks, Dotson made his first start for L.A. in Week 4 at Indianapolis and never looked back. His 2023 was not honored with either a Pro Bowl nod or All-Pro recognition, which is a shame because Dotson was the highest-graded player on the Rams offense and the second-highest graded guard in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Position Group of the Year - Offensive Line
When Dotson joined the starting lineup, the offensive line went from good to great. And while it took another month (and required a very important thumb to heal) for the offense to fire on all cylinders, I contend that the Rams offensive line was the NFL's most improved position group.
A year ago, right tackle Rob Havenstein was the only member of the unit to make every start. 14 individuals made at least one.
In 2023, rookie Steve Avila played every snap at left guard and Coleman Shelton started all 18 contests at center. In total, only six Rams made starts along the offensive line (the original five plus Dotson).
Continuity was the most important ingredient, but the line benefitted from new leadership, from the scheme influence of offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur to day-to-day guidance of position coach Ryan Wendell. Credit also belongs to assistant offensive line coach Zak Kromer, offensive assistant Nick Jones, and Hall of Famer Mike Munchak acting as a consultant and sounding board.
The number one reason the Rams overachieved in 2023 is their offensive line made a quantum leap.
Utility Player of the Year - Joe Noteboom
Joe Noteboom was supposed to be Andrew Whitworth's heir apparent at left tackle, but an early-2022 Achilles tear disrupted those designs. By the time he was back to competitive health, Alaric Jackson had dropped anchor at his position.
The fallback plan was for the former third-round pick out of TCU to plug in at right guard, fortifying the interior size and athleticism. Again because of an array of injuries, that plan barely survived first contact.
Ultimately, Noteboom had to give way to Dotson at right guard for the room to reach its highest potential. But rather than fade into the background, he continued to pave the way for a playoff berth, all the way until what proved to be the clinching Sunday in New Jersey.
Against the Giants in Week 17, Noteboom was back in the lineup last-minute, due to Jackson being a surprise inactive. He posted a 90.6 PFF grade in pass protection against the prolific blitz package of New York defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.
At season's end, the 28-year-old had played over 600 snaps on offense and special teams, including complete games at left tackle, right tackle, and right guard.
Though it hasn't worked out as a full-time starter for Noteboom, his versatility – and yes, even his availability – were essential to the 2023 Rams.
Most Improved Player – Tutu Atwell
Just as the offensive line was the most improved position group, receiver Tutu Atwell was the most improved individual.
This is something we actually forecasted during training camp as part of our Breakout Candidates series, and indeed Atwell surpassed his career totals early in his third season.
From his electric performance in the opening win at Seattle, you could tell this year would be different – that he'd earned the trust of his quarterback, as well as head coach and play-caller.
But what about when Cooper Kupp returned to the lineup? Or how about when Demarcus Robinson had a career resurgence? Or even when Atwell was knocked out of the Week 14 thriller in Baltimore? Had we stopped the voting then, the third-year pass catcher still would have been a deserving recipient of this honor.
What I really appreciate about Atwell's season, though, is that it was far from linear. And I'd argue that he returned from concussion protocol having saved his best for last. He rescued the regular season finale in Santa Clara with three critical conversions in the fourth quarter (a third down, a fourth down, and a two-point). And his contested touchdown catch in Detroit kept the Rams in a one-point Wild Card contest.
In my estimation, Atwell is an essential component to the Rams operation moving forward – no other player brings his specific skill set to the offensive huddle. I'd be thrilled if he and the Rams came to terms on a modest extension this spring, in fact, and continued to grow his opportunities together, perhaps even as a punt returner.
Ironman - Ernest Jones IV
Atwell was L.A.'s first selection of the 2021 Draft. The second pick of that class is another prime candidate for some offseason contract dialogue.
Linebacker Ernest Jones authored a record-setting season while serving as a first-year captain in the middle of the Rams defense.
Despite missing a game due to injury in Week 9 and another in the regular season finale while resting for the playoffs, Jones racked up 145 tackles to pass James Laurinaitis for the single-season franchise mark. Among linebackers who played at least 900 snaps this season, he received the eighth-highest PFF grade in the NFL. And his ability to play on both sides of the line of scrimmage, as evidenced by his 37 pressures, six sacks, and 83.1 pass rush grade are a great fit for the Rams defense and the modern NFL.
Moment of the Year – Puka Nacua's Overtime Touchdown vs. IND
Yet, the rookie hadn't found the end zone. And the Rams hadn't found a way out of Indianapolis.
Then in overtime, from the 22-yard line, Nacua delivered the Moment of the Year.
The sideline emptied, the football was flung into the stands (and eventually retrieved by the best social staff in the game), Nacua was celebrated on the field and again in the victorious locker room, then at last was given the space to FaceTime his mother.
I do have to include a sentimental runner-up for this award. Because while Puka's walk-off touchdown was a signature moment for his legendary debut campaign, the snapshot (or GIF, if you prefer) that summarized the 2023 Rams best was fellow rookie Kobie Turner skipping off the field at SoFi Stadium with future first-ballot Hall of Famer Aaron Donald, after the defensive tackle tandem shoved Joe Flacco out the back of the end zone.
The rejuvenation the Class of 2023 delivered, combined with the renewed sense of joy that the pillars of the franchise found along the way, were all perfectly encapsulated in that celebration.
Offensive Rookie of the Year - Puka Nacua
If ever there was a wire-to-wire victory for an individual honor, this was it.
From his first game to the regular-season finale, Nacua was record-setting.
Then he raised the bar again in the playoffs.
As a franchise, the Rams have been home to some of the best seasons and careers that NFL receivers have ever authored. And after one year, the 20th receiver selected in this year's draft now keeps company with Cooper Kupp, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Elroy Hirsch.
Even though Nacua wins this in a landslide, special runner-up recognition belongs to the first pick of the rookie class, Steve Avila, who also would have been worthy of the Ironman award. Big Steve was the only offensive player to take every snap in 2023 andperformed at an exceptional level.
Like Nacua, Turner burst onto the scene in Seattle with a sack in his NFL debut. But his emergence as the defensive rookie of the year had more to do with an elite second half of the season than anything else.
Leading the defense in sacks, from the interior, while playing alongside the greatest of all-time, Turner's season is rivaled only by his backstory – he once crashed his high school teammate's official visit just to talk his way into an FCS walk-on opportunity.
Any other year, this might have been edge rusher Byron Young, who matched Donald with eight sacks. But in 2024, Defensive Rookie of the Year goes to The Conductor.
Offensive Player of the Year - Kyren Williams
While technically not a rookie, Williams put together one of the greatest redshirt-freshman seasons in Rams history.
Williams closed out the year with seven straight games of 100+ yards from scrimmage. He became the first player in NFL history to miss five or more games and still finish top three in total rushing. He joined Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk as the only Rams to lead the NFL in rushing yards per game.
Williams also handled nearly 100 pass protection reps, establishing himself as one of the premier three-down backs in the NFL. When he played, L.A. went 8-4 and averaged 27.2 points per game.
From free agency through the draft, across the summer and into the season, 2023 was the year professional football devalued the position.
Then Williams went to work, dispelling the notion that running backs don't matter.
Defensive Player of the Year - Aaron Donald
For the first time in his career, Donald did not force or recover a fumble. His sack total was the lowest of any complete season he's played.
And yet, 2023 was another reminder that basic box score statistics always fail to capture Donald's dominance.
His PFF grade was the second-highest in the league at his position. His 87 pressures led all interior defenders, and so did his win rate. Donald was deservedly honored as an All-Pro for the eighth time, joining Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Bruce Smith for the most by any defensive player.
From Turner to Young, Jonah Williams to Bobby Brown III, and that career year for Jones, it all ties back to Donald. He has always elevated those around him. This year, he did it with a less-heralded group than ever before.
Donald epitomized the three-word motto for 2023, "Model the Way."
Most Valuable Player - Matthew Stafford
Historically, we've had to create separate categories for Rams honors – ones that exclude Donald for competitive purposes. Otherwise, this exercise would get redundant.
One way of distilling the success the Rams had across a 10-win playoff campaign would be this: Donald played at his All-Pro level again. He didn't miss a game due to injury. And yet this year, the most valuable player was undoubtedly the quarterback.
Matthew Stafford's December stretch could go down as the most consistent and brilliant of his career (hopefully surpassed only by what he does next).
In Weeks 13 through 16, he passed for 10 touchdowns, took just six sacks, and distributed 170 throws without a turnover.
Stafford dropped back to pass over 600 times in his 13th season, including the Wild Card game, and did not fumble once.
He was elite on money downs, earning 13 touchdowns against just one interception on third and fourth downs, the best ratio in the NFL.
After guiding the Rams to a victory in Super Bowl LVI, Stafford legitimately entered the Hall of Fame conversation. But what he did this season might ultimately be what gets him to Canton. Because not only was it a Pro Bowl season, it was one that did so much to enhance his legacy.
It proved he could elevate a roster most pundits tossed aside during training camp and left for dead at the bye.
It captured the imagination of the football world with trick shot artistry and jaw-dropping derring-do.
It affirmed his status as among the toughest to play his position – let's not forget how close his season, and that of the Rams, was to being over after that thumb injury in Dallas suffered on a two-point reception of all things.
It seems that the ethos of the 2023 Rams deferred Stafford's thoughts of retirement for at least another season and hopefully several more.
The same can be said of the head coach. The through-line from January of 2023 to January of 2024 is the choice that Stafford, Donald, and McVay made to forging ahead together.
After seven years, he's no longer the youngest coach in the NFL. Thus, we're in need of a new moniker for McVay.
And I'd like to be ahead of the wave of consensus that will inevitably follow with a few more wins, records, and seasons.
Sure, he still needs six regular season wins to pass John Robinson.
But with two conference championships and a Lombardi Trophy, with a franchise-record 11 playoff games and seven postseason triumphs, it can be said definitively:
2023 cemented Sean McVay as the greatest coach in Rams franchise history.
Setting aside the accolades, what McVay did this year illustrated his unique brilliance – reinventing himself first, then retooling his coaching staff, replenishing his roster, and reimagining the offense he commands.
Is there still room for growth? Absolutely. McVay always has said as much.
That, too, is part of the reason this feels like the appropriate moment to acknowledge what is more apparent than ever.
Now, let's all get back to work on chasing the best that's still to come.
Who do you think was the Rams MVP this season? What about Most Improved Player? Make your picks below: