Rams coach Sean McVay racing to get rookies up to speed in OTAs
Sean McVay is taking a different approach to this season than in years past, leaning on younger players in key roles as the Los Angeles Rams dive headlong into a rebuild for 2023.
The Rams lost 16 veteran players in free agency. And with a league-high 14 draft picks and a total of 40 first-year players currently on the team’s 90-man roster, the seventh-year head coach is embracing an offseason focused on teaching and developing young talent.
“You got a lot of guys that are eager and excited about their opportunities,” McVay told reporters this week during organized team activities. “I think there’s a handful of guys that played last year that could develop some confidence and say, ‘OK, I’ve been here.’
“And then we were able to really reestablish how do we want to operate. What are the ways we’re teaching these things to make it as digestible as possible for the players? What are the solves? How can you get a little bit ahead of it? I can’t say enough about the job our coaching staff has done, and we know we want to continue to do that every single day from here on out.”
With a roster built around young, developmental players, McVay, his coaching staff and the team’s veterans are emphasizing getting this green group to learn new systems and schemes quickly to better compete come September.
“I got 6-year-old daughters and I think to myself, ‘Some of these guys were 6 when I started playing in the NFL,'” joked 35-year-old Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford. “So it’s kind of hard to sit there and think about that.”
Stafford, who was unable to throw during much of last offseason because of a balky arm, says he’s fully healed from a bruised spinal cord injury that cut short his 2022 campaign. Having the ability to participate during offseason work should help the Georgia product develop a rapport with young players in the lead-up to training camp.
“It’s nice to be able to go out there and throw and get work with the guys,” Stafford said. “At this point last year, I wasn’t throwing at all. I wasn’t really doing much, so I love playing. I love being out here.”
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One young player expected to make an impact early for the Rams is second-round pick Steve Avila, the team’s top selection in the 2023 draft. Los Angeles liked the interior offensive lineman’s flexibility — the TCU product is able to play both guard positions and center.
O-line was one of L.A.’s top areas of need heading into this offseason because of the litany of injuries the Rams experienced last season. Avila is penciled in to start at left guard.
“For me, I know the transition from high school to college was tough,” Avila told reporters this week. “But I feel like you kind of get a taste of how things are a little bit [in OTAs], so this transition is a lot easier. It’s actually my first time being away from home. But it’s California, a great place, so this transition has been awesome.”
Another rookie who has turned heads during offseason work is cat-quick receiver Puka Nacua. The BYU product selected in the fifth round has flashed potential during team drills for the Rams. Nacua finished with 48 receptions for 625 yards and five scores in his final season for the Cougars. He also added 209 rushing yards and five rushing TDs.
With No. 1 receiver Cooper Kupp sitting out OTAs as he works back from a season-ending ankle injury and Van Jefferson dealing with knee issues last season, the Rams could use some added depth in the receiver room.
“Every time I look up, he’s running around somewhere,” Stafford said of Nacua. “He’s done a nice job, made some catches for us.
“But it’s really just trying to develop all these guys. Let them see what an NFL practice looks like, what it feels like, how to stay off the ground, all those kinds of things. And that’s what this time is for and then just trying to get out there and execute our offense.”
The Rams have also added to the quarterback room with fourth-round selection Stetson Bennett and free agent Brett Rypien. Los Angeles signed the four-year veteran because of his familiarity in a similar offensive system with the Denver Broncos, so Rypien provides some added experience along with Stafford.
As for Bennett, he’ll be tasked with quickly learning McVay’s complex offensive scheme and the unique way the Rams do things at the team’s Thousand Oaks practice facility.
McVay said he’s leaning on new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Zac Robinson to get young guys like Bennett ready to play.
“Zac and Mike have been instrumental really in a lot of the young guys, not exclusive to just the quarterback position,” McVay said. “Mike sees the game through a great lens. … He’s got a great ability to understand the game from an all-22 perspective. He’s a great communicator. He and Matthew established a real quick rapport.
“I think Mike came in and it’s a lot of the same foundational principles but little tweaks here and there that can only help us be better offensively.”
After a 5-12 season, the Rams have to be better on both sides of the ball. They’re counting on young players to help get them there.
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.