NFC West Writer
Which NFL teams have the best young cores? FOX Sports took a deep look at the group of players every team has that are still playing on their rookie contracts to see which franchises have the most promising base of young talent. Our writers ranked all 32 individually, and the final result is an aggregate of all those lists. We’ll count them down for you before the start of the 2023 NFL season, starting with the worst (No. 32) all the way up to No. 1.
It’s easy to understand why the Los Angeles Rams finished last in our NFL young talent list.
Because of the organization’s “F*** them picks” approach to team building, the Rams have not selected in the first round since taking Jared Goff No. 1 overall in the 2016 draft. And while that approach eventually netted L.A. a 2022 Super Bowl victory in their home stadium, this past offseason the Rams focused on getting their salary cap back in order after trading premium players for picks by moving on from nearly 20 veteran players by trade, outright release or letting them sign with other teams in free agency.
The result: nearly 40 players on the team’s 90-man roster are first-year players. According to NFL Verse, the Rams’ average age of experience on the team’s current roster is 1.78 years, the lowest amount of any team in the league.
“I would say that they’re a notch behind everybody else,” said FOX Sports NFL Analyst Bucky Brooks, a former player and scout in the league. “Just because without first-round picks it’s hard to get blue-chip talent. They’ve done a good job in the past when they kind of had that star system with Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald and those guys, they did a good job of identifying role players in the third, fourth and fifth rounds.
“The problem is, this league is a league of stars. And when you go and look, typically the guys that make the All-Pro list and are perennial Pro Bowlers, they come from the first and second round. So, because they’ve been without the ability to take those players in those rounds, they just don’t have the high-level talent to compete with everybody, particularly young guys.”
The Rams rebounding from last year’s disappointing 5-12 season will hinge on head coach Sean McVay and his experienced coaching staff’s ability to mentor this young team built around foundational players in defensive tackle Aaron Donald, quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Cooper Kupp.
“As ugly as some might perceive it to be, I think the foundation is already there to rebuild the team,” said FOX Sports NFL draft analyst Rob Rang. “It’s just whether you want to rebuild for a one- or two-year adventure, or you want to rebuild for the long-term. And it looks like at this point, they are probably going for the long-term approach.”
Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, Justin Fields are Colin’s QBs under the most pressure
RB Cam Akers
ILB Ernest Jones
WR Van Jefferson
CB Cobie Durant
S Jordan Fuller
OL Steven Avila
With Bobby Wagner returning to the Seattle Seahawks, the South Carolina product takes over as the team’s defensive play caller. Jones is tasked with becoming more of a vocal leader with Wagner no longer on the roster.
Selected in the third round of the 2021 draft, the Rams liked Jones’ speed and athleticism coming out of college. He finished second on the team in tackles last season (114) and can get home consistently as a blitzer. More will be expected of Jones by defensive coordinator Raheem Morris as the Rams attempt to replace more than half of the defensive starters from last season during training camp.
The fourth-round selection out of HBCU South Carolina State earned a job as slot defender during his rookie season, finishing with 22 combined receptions, five pass breakups and three interceptions in 281 defensive snaps.
With Jalen Ramsey now in Miami, Durant is penciled in to take over L.A.’s playmaking “star” position, meaning he will line up all over the field. Ramsey spent time mentoring Durant in 2022, which should help with the transition.
“Star (position) is a lot more mental than being on the outside,” Durant said. “A lot goes on, a lot of moving. But at the end of the day, I’m ready for it. I’m ready to take on that challenge. Just go out there and play fast, play smart and be a playmaker.”
Contracts to consider
The Florida State product is in the final year of his contract, scheduled to make $1.45 million in total compensation for the 2023 season. While Akers has shown flashes, he’s totaled just 1,414 yards and nine touchdowns in his first three seasons, missing 18 games since he’s been in the league due to injury.
Last season, Akers did not play in three games because of a disagreement with the coaching staff over his role and was almost traded. But heading into the 2023 campaign, Akers remains L.A.’s lead back, and has put on more weight to better endure the marathon NFL season.
Akers said he’s aware of the devalued running back market as he enters the final season of his rookie deal. “If you ask me, do I agree with what’s going on with running backs? No,” Akers said. “I do think we have value in the league, but our hands are kind of tied at this point. You just have to keep playing football. Prove it.”
L.A.’s 280.5 total yards per game was the worst in the league last season.
From Week 13 on, Akers led the NFL in rushing with 512 yards, including at least 100 yards in the final three games of the season.
The Rams lost their 12 games by an average of 10.75 points per contest.
WR Van Jefferson
“When he was coming out of Florida, I wasn’t crazy about him. I thought he was good, but I didn’t see elite skills. He wasn’t the most gifted guy. His speed was OK. Size was OK. I thought he was more of a middle-round guy. But he’s progressed. He works at it and he’s smart. His dad’s a coach and he grew up with it. So, he just understands the game, and he understands how to get open.” —NFC scout
QB Stetson Bennett
“He’s a winner, but some of that is aided by the fact in college he was older than everybody. It’s one of those things where people won’t talk about it, but that age and maturity in college is big. When you’re 23 or 24 playing against 18 years olds, there is a level of maturity that you can get by.”
“I love the moxie, love the leadership. I don’t know if his game really translates to the pros, but time will tell because many didn’t think he would be the player he was at Georgia. Sometimes, winners win. So, it will be interesting to see if he can be what they thought Baker Mayfield would be when they signed him last year.” —National scout
“You can’t count out guys like this … I know he’s not very big, but he’s got a good arm for his size. He’s smart. He’s mobile and productive. You discount these guys because of their size, but a lot of these smaller guys are playing pretty well. Brock Purdy is only a shade over 6-foot.”
Is Stetson Bennett one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history?
“If you watch him play, you’d never know he’s 5-11. He’s got an arm. He’s got a quick release, he’s accurate and he’s smart. So, I think he’s got a really good chance to make it. And he’s confident, so McVay probably loves a kid like this.” —NFC scout
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.
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