The Los Angeles Rams open training camp July 29 on the campus of UC Irvine in Southern California. Here’s a closer look at the Rams’ camp.
Top storyline: Aaron Donald will dominate training camp like he dominates opposing guards. The Rams’ star defensive lineman has spent the offseason hoping for a restructured contract, and nothing has been solidified. It’s complicated. The Rams want to continue to build around Donald, but it’s hard to justify paying him like one of the game’s elite defensive players, as he deserves, for one very simple reason: Donald is still two years away from free agency. That means he is very affordable, set to make less than $9 million in base salary these next two seasons. And it means both sides have a lot of ground to make up. The NFL’s highest-paid defensive player is Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller, who signed a six-year, $114.5 million contract that guarantees him $70 million. But Miller signed that to replace a franchise tag. Among the five largest contracts for defensive players, only J.J. Watt‘s was agreed upon leading up to his fourth season. And that didn’t happen until September. Internally, the Rams extended Robert Quinn and Tavon Austin before their fourth year. But those moves also took place around September. This could take a while.
QB depth chart: Rookie head coach Sean McVay opened the door for speculation during the offseason program when he was asked about competition at quarterback and began his answer by stating the following: “I think what we’ve tried to preach to our players is we’re going to let the best players play. We’re trying to win football games, and whoever we feel like gives us the best chance is who’s going to play behind center.” That prompted some to wonder whether Sean Mannion, a third-round pick in 2015, has a chance to unseat Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, as the starter. Short answer: No. Goff will be given a very long leash. They need to see what he’s all about under this new system. But if his struggles drag on …
Bubble watch: Cory Harkey and Bradley Marquez, two guys whose on-field contributions last season came mostly on special teams, seem to be in danger of losing spots to younger players. Marquez caught only three passes in 2016, and the Rams have 10 other receivers on their roster. Harkey, a 27-year-old tight end and fullback, has been a core locker room leader. But that was under a different regime. The Rams like their three young tight ends — Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett and Temarrick Hemingway — and just used a sixth-round pick on a versatile fullback, Sam Rogers.
That rookie could start: Cooper Kupp amassed 6,464 receiving yards at Eastern Washington, the most by any collegiate receiver at any level. And you can’t chalk that up merely to inferior competition. Kupp is sure-handed with a knack for getting open. He looks primed to solidify a role as a slot receiver, starting alongside Austin and Robert Woods. And he should develop into a reliable security blanket for Goff, who could desperately use one of those.
Up for grabs: Some starting spots remain unsettled heading into training camp. Jamon Brown is the favorite at right tackle, but he’ll have to earn it. Dominique Easley appears set to start alongside Michael Brockers and Donald, but others might enter the conversation. Higbee looks as though he will be the one to soak up most of the tight-end targets left behind by Lance Kendricks, but Everett — the 44th overall pick in April — could challenge him. It’ll also be interesting to see how the pecking order stacks up at receiver.
Changing places: The initial plan called for Lamarcus Joyner to play free safety in base sets and resume his role as a slot corner in substitution packages, but he could simply remain at free safety, too. The decision might come down to Nickell Robey-Coleman, an established slot corner acquired in free agency, versus John Johnson, a talented safety selected in the third round. One of those two might end up receiving a lot of snaps. Aside from Joyner, Rob Havenstein is moving from right tackle to right guard, and Quinn is transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker. Training camp will be crucial for them, too.
Setting the tone: The season of firsts continues for McVay, who, at 31, is the youngest head coach in the NFL’s modern era. First draft, first offseason program, and now, first training camp. McVay has impressed players with his enthusiasm and knowledge, but these upcoming three weeks in Irvine are an even bigger test for him. The Rams begin the 2017 regular season with back-to-back home games, which are followed by a matchup against the rebuilding 49ers (who, granted, beat the Rams twice last season). The Rams have an opportunity to get off to a fast start. But it’s up to McVay to prepare them well enough.
For daily updates at camp, check out the Los Angeles Rams clubhouse page.