The Rams head into off-season workouts armed with eleven new players as a result of the Draft, plus a host of undrafted free agents (some of whom may go on to find a spot on the roster). The hope is that these will represent the final pieces of the puzzle the front office has been steadily assembling over the past few years and will finally push the franchise towards a winning season and beyond. But, out of all these new faces, who is likely to have the biggest impact in his rookie season as a Ram? Just who will stand out in this crowded field on which all the hopes of Rams nation are pinned?
To make a significant impact in a rookie year, one would ideally be a starter. Three clear starters emerge from the list of the Rams’ newest additions: offensive lineman Greg Robinson, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner. As early round picks, it is only right that these should make immediate contributions to the team, and, in the case of Robinson and Joyner, they both fill a need and represent improvement in positions where there are no clear incumbent starters (left guard and free safety). Donald is also an improvement on Kendall Langford, who could be out of St Louis by training camp. These are the rookies who are perhaps best placed to make the biggest impact on the team.
Considered by many the best offensive prospect in the 2014 Draft, it would be criminal if Robinson did not make an impact in his rookie year (see Jason Smith). Robinson has already been pegged as the team’s starting left guard, but may even find himself book-ending the offensive line should Jake Long’s injury troubles recur. However, it is difficult to assess the individual contribution of a player working as part of a collective. Robinson should strengthen the running game and open holes for running back Zac Stacy, but he will do this as part of a group. Offensive linemen do not have statistics that will make their contribution clear, while factors such as rushing yards and sacks allowed can be attributed to the unit as a whole. Besides, in the frenzied activity of an offensive play, one’s attention easily moves to the quarterback’s throw, the receiver’s catch, or the back’s carry rather than to the dirty, mauling business of the trenches. It takes a trained eye to identify the key individual blocks that contribute to a team’s success and, sadly, Robinson’s impact is likely to be overlooked, however sizeable it might be. In fact, if the offensive line as a whole gels and helps to carve paths for the backs and keep Sam Bradford upright, the vital role Robinson will play in this may go unnoticed; offensive linemen are noticed more for missed assignments and whiffed blocks rather than for positive play.
Donald, for his part is considered a steal, even with the thirteenth pick, thus demonstrating his potential. He should make a big contribution to what is already an overwhelming defensive line, but, in terms of measuring individual impact, the strength in this unit could work against him. There are simply too many good players around Donald and he will find it difficult to stand out of the crowd. Like Robinson, his work will revolve around the bruising clashes of the front line and, as an interior lineman, his contribution will be mainly to plug up the middle and collapse the pocket, pushing unfortunate players out into the hungry clutches of Robert Quinn and Chris Long. The latter two will get the gaudy figures, but Donald will do a great deal of the unsung dirty work to make it easier for them.
Joyner, on the other hand, is in a stronger, though riskier, position. As either nickel-back (virtually a starter in today’s passing game) or filling the chasm at free safety, Joyner will be part of a defensive backfield group, but will be individually responsible for a larger space. It also places him in a position to make the big plays that will make fans aware of his presence, such as big hits or ball-hawking interceptions. While Robinson and Donald’s contributions are just as vital, these are likelier to have more on an impact on fan perception, making the highlight reels and showing up more prominently on stat sheets. The opposite, however, is also true: Joyner’s deficiencies may be more exposed due to the more solitary nature of his role. Luckily, though, Joyner possesses the speed, agility and instincts to indicate that he will make the kind of impact that the Rams so desperately need at the deeper end of the field.
This is not to say, however, that none of the other Rams rookies will make an impact. Tre Mason, E. J. Gaines and Mo Alexander are all likely to see significant playing time next season, and while they may have fewer opportunities than those mentioned above, a few key performances could help them push for a starting role. Mason will be sharing carries with Stacy, but could make an impact from the backfield, particularly if Stacy struggles with injuries. Gaines will form part of a secondary that could reap the takeaway rewards from having such a strong front-seven, while it could be Alexander rather than Joyner who could find himself manning one of the safety spots come September, with the same potential for impact.
With so many candidates, it is obvious why Rams fans are excited about their new rookie crop. If all goes according to plan, it will be the class as a whole that could find itself making a massive impact on the team and its prospects for post-season football.