The Los Angeles Rams sported the league’s top defense by the end of the 2020-21 season. The NFL season ahead could see them making their case to be the year’s most explosive scoring team. Yes, even more explosive than the 2018 Rams offense that outscored the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs are still the peak of the AFC mountaintop. Meanwhile, the Rams have descended the NFC summit, due in part to a lack of a true deep threat. By introducing an offensive weapon upgrade to the team, McVay and the Rams could return to form (or even surpass it) in 2021.
Los Angeles Rams 2021 Offensive Weapon Upgrade Prospects
Credit where credit is certainly due, no one has to tell Sean McVay how to create an explosive offense. That said, Rams fans are chomping at the bit for what figures to be an exciting season ahead in 2021-22.
Admittedly, the loss of Austin Blythe—who signed with Kansas City—dulls the excitement. The Chiefs will look solid next year and figure to be the team to beat in the league yet again. The arrival of a new sheriff in the NFC West (top-tier quarterback Matthew Stafford) creates an opportunity for a long-awaited rematch with the Chiefs. A rematch, perhaps, on a grander scale some three years later than at any other point since the instant classic in 2018.
Need for Speed Upgrades
The rest of the NFL world focuses on the defending Super Bowl champions bringing back key players. As such, it is important to remember when the Rams played the eventual champions last season, and how convincingly they beat them. To reclaim the NFC crown, the Rams will need to upgrade at no fewer than three positions. Of these three, the most glaring need is no secret to opposing defensive coordinators last season.
It is the need for speed.
This need is most notable at the wide receiver position. Stretching defenses in 2021 with offensive weapon upgrades at receiver could offset what the offense lacks on the offensive line. With the addition of Matthew Stafford and his elite arm, there has been no better time under Sean McVay than the 2021 off-season. By addressing their receiver needs within their means in the 2021 NFL Draft, the offense can take that next step. Of these receivers, three names stand out above the rest: Marquez Stevenson, D’Wayne Eskridge, and Jaelon Darden
Marquez Stevenson (University of Houston)
6’0″ — 190 lb. — ~4.4-4.5 40-Yard Dash (Pro Day: April Ninth)
This is the definitive must-see prospect at Friday’s pro day. Marquez Stevenson admittedly comes with numerous question marks, including his will to play every down. However, as a late-round projection with his natural ability and trained talent, finding answers could prove worth the effort.
The tape suggests Stevenson plays bigger than he measures and shows he routinely runs past cornerbacks. Reports characterize the wideout as weaker against more physical players, contending he prefers to simply run around them. This is likely not a sustainable strategy at the professional level. On a team like the Rams, however, he may prove the perfect fit by commanding double-teams, stretching the field, and executing crisp slants.
With McVay’s scheme in place and a far stronger arm under center than in years past, simply running around a top-tier corner might not prove as futile as expected. He possesses better-than-average ball-tracking skills (for an incoming rookie) and catches overhead throws well. Should he land on a team with a breakaway passer, his ability to get free when the play breaks down would help him build confidence.
If the Rams were to make Stevenson one of their offensive weapon upgrades, he would have the opportunity to learn behind the team’s veteran deep threat, DeSean Jackson. This would afford Stevenson a year to grow and learn before taking over the role as the primary deep threat. That said, if Jackson’s 34-year-old frame breaks down as it has his last two seasons, Rams fans could see a Stafford-to-Stevenson combination sooner than expected.
Projection: Sixth Round
D’Wayne Eskridge (Western Michigan University)
5’8″ — 190 lb. — 4.38 40-Yard Dash (at Pro Day)
Eskridge felt that the cooler weather may have slowed him down on his pro day, but contends he is capable of running his 40-yard dash in under 4.3 seconds. This is not unbelievable, as he explodes off the snap and away from defenders with surprising ease at times. In fact, ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Todd McShay called attention to Eskridge’s explosiveness during January’s Senior Bowl practices:
Western Michigan WR D’Wayne Eskridge is a name to get to know. He’s eating some really good DBs alive during practice today. He’s a potential top-50 pick in another loaded WR Class. pic.twitter.com/R8n30VH9XV
— Todd McShay (@McShay13) January 26, 2021
Don’t let his size fool you, this kid should crack a starting lineup somewhere in the NFL if he does not land in Los Angeles. His speed and fluidity translate to big-play ability at the professional level. Versatile enough to play out wide or in the slot alike, Eskridge runs good routes, has soft hands, and makes excellent adjustments in mid-air.
At the next level, however, he will need to sharpen his routes and refine discipline and technique against physical defenders. Nonetheless, if Eskridge becomes one of the team’s offensive weapon upgrades this off-season, it should surprise nobody. His time with Western Michigan, albeit brief, concluded with 34 catches for 784 yards and eight touchdowns in a mere six games. He added 467 return yards and a touchdown, earning his conference’s designation as Special Teams Player of the Year.
Projection: Second to Third Round
Jaelon Darden (University of North Texas)
5’7 1/2″ — 174 lb. — 4.47 40-Yard Dash (at Pro Day)
Jaelon Darden will likely face an uphill climb on draft day. He measured a full inch and a half smaller than he is commonly listed, which created concerns about his longevity and ability to compete with significantly larger, more physical defenders. That said, his overall ability is likely too good to ignore and he should still prove the first North Texas alumnus drafted to the NFL since 2004.
He posted respectable 6.65-second three-cone drill and 4.07-second 20-yard-shuttle times. These numbers reflect well on Darden’s agility to pair with his straight-line speed. His footage calls to mind Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
Yes, Darden is a wide receiver by name, but he is also versatile enough to serve as a gadget player. Unlike former Ram receiver Tavon Austin, Darden would have the chance to be utilized adequately in L.A.
He is not a bonafide number one wide receiver, fitting more into a decoy, change-of-pace, or gadget role. His speed would also allow him to fill a deep threat receiver role. For the Rams, he would offer even more mismatch opportunities in three- and four-receiver sets. Additionally, he could contribute substantially on special teams. Arguably the least severe offensive weapon upgrade of the three listed receivers, Darden would still be able to contribute in multiple phases.
Projection: Sixth to Seventh Round
A Method to the Madness
Outside of the initial splash of a trade at quarterback, the Rams have been relatively quiet this off-season. After earning a reputation for being aggressive, if not outrageous, in the off-season, this year’s madness is not of their own making. Pandemic concerns continue to prove obstacles in the NFL’s way and the subsequent adjustment to the salary cap forces teams into tight financial situations. As a result, teams are allowing considerably impressive talent to walk. The Rams took several such hits, but primarily on the defensive side of the ball.
McVay is nobody’s fool. He may believe his team does not need to lead on defense to be more successful in 2021. With the team’s core still in place in all three phases of the game, an offensive weapon upgrade is in order. It is not unreasonable to argue the NFL has yet to see what McVay is capable of with the right pieces in place. If the team were to add Marquez Stevenson, D’Wayne Eskridge, or Jaelon Darden to their receiving corps, the sky is surely the limit.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images