The Los Angeles Rams concluded their training camp at the University of California Irvine campus on Sunday, and the reigning NFC champions made progress over the weeklong camp as they seek to avenge their Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots back in February.
There were many differences between the previous Rams camps and this one: Firstly, the team stayed in the luxury of a nearby Newport Beach hotel instead of college dorm rooms.
Secondly, two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald was at training camp for the first time since 2016 after holding out the past two seasons.
Finally, despite the majority of familiar faces on the Rams roster, there were plenty of fan favorites that left in the offseason, and a number of new additions that folks were able to see for the very first time.
Now that training camp has concluded, the Rams prepare to practice against the Oakland Raiders in Napa Valley before beginning their four-game preseason schedule. That gives us plenty of time to look back at some of the storylines during training camp, giving fans something to keep their eyes on as we march towards the first game of the season on Sept. 8.
1. Dante Fowler Jr. Ready for Return
One face that was not at training camp in 2018 was Rams' defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. The 25-year-old was acquired at the trade deadline from the Jacksonville Jaguars and after struggling in his first few weeks with his new team, made a tremendous impact in the playoffs.
Fowler Jr. was a free agent at the end of last season, but opted to return to the Rams on a one-year, $14 million deal. After the acquisition of free agent linebacker Clay Matthews in the offseason, many though that Fowler Jr. was in danger of losing his starting spot. However, Fowler played well during training camp and appears to be the starting outside linebacker moving forward.
Running back Todd Gurley also noticed Fowler Jr.'s play during camp saying, "He's getting to the ball as fast as Aaron Donald." That's high praise for the former Florida Gator.
2. Two Tight Ends
Tight ends that can block and receive are like a rare unicorn in the NFL and the Los Angeles Rams might have two of them. The reigning NFC Champions saw firsthand just how much of a game-changer a dynamic tight end is when the now-retired Rob Gronkowski burned them in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
After mini camps, tight end Gerald Everett was the talk of the town. Now that training camp has wrapped up, head coach Sean McVay has had nothing but high praise for both Everett and Tyler Higbee. Both players impressed during camp, with neither pulling away from the other with the starting job.
Higbee is considered the incumbent starting tight end, but Everett appears ready to make strides in his third NFL season. Both players can block, and catch the ball well. Everett might be a little bit more athletic, and can run the ball if need be. That could mean he serves as more of a swiss army knife for the Rams this season.
3. Hold The Line
The Rams lost two starters on the offensive line in the offseason when veteran left guard Rodger Saffold went to the Tennessee Titans in free agency and the team did not exercise their option on center John Sullivan.
That means that two new players need to step up and fill those holes. Insert second-year players Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen.
Noteboom was drafted in the third round out of TCU in 2018, and Allen was taken a short time later in the fourth round out of Michigan State. Now, after just one-year to watch and learn, both players will be thrust into the spotlight in 2019.
So far, both players have impressed through training camp. Needless to say, trying to contain two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and Dante Fowler Jr. is no easy task, but there's still a vast difference from practice and real game action.
4. Save the Day
Another name a lot of fans might not have heard of is Sebastian Joseph-Day. Three rounds after Noteboom was taken by the Rams, the team drafted Joseph-Day out of Rutgers. Ordinarily, a sixth-round draft pick rarely sees the field so soon, but count Joseph-Day in the same rarified air as Tom Brady.
After Ndamukong Suh left Los Angeles via free agency in the offseason, the Rams were looking for a new defensive tackle to line up opposite Donald. Before training, camp, most expected that role to be filled by Greg Gaines, but after an impressive week at UC Irvine, Joseph-Day might put a damper in those plans.
Joseph-Day dazzled during training camp and earned the praise of both defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and head coach Sean McVay. Joseph-Day still has a ways to go before stealing the starting job from Gaines, but he's definitely put himself in the conversation after a successful camp.
5. Wide Receivers Everywhere
The Los Angeles Rams offense certainly missed WR Cooper Kupp in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. Kupp's absence was evident by quarterback Jared Goff's 50-percent completion percentage and 3-for-13 on third down conversions.
However, the silver lining in Kupp's season-ending ACL injury is the ascension of WR Josh Reynolds and return specialist JoJo Natson. Reynolds stepped up terrifically in Kupp's absence and was "outstanding" in training camp. The 5-foot-six-inch Natson took over as the return man on the Rams after All-Pro Pharaoh Cooper went down with an injury. Natson won the job even after Cooper's return, and appears poised to have a breakout season in 2019. Throw in Mike Thomas and the Rams have a lot of talented players at the wide receiver position.
Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Kupp are the starters, but beyond them is a talented corps that all could start on other teams. Kupp looks great after ACL surgery, and even his head coach took notice saying that Kupp "looks more explosive" than before the surgery. Needless to say, McVay and Les Snead will have some difficult decisions to make come September.
The Rams will square off with the Oakland Raiders in both team's first preseason action on Saturday, Aug. 10 at 5:00PM PST.