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Rams enter camp with plenty of questions to answer, including who starts in backfield

Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, left, talks with head coach Sean McVay during a June practice.
Raheem Morris, left, was brought to the Rams by coach Sean McVay, who hopes the defensive coordinator can take over where Brandon Staley left off. After one season with the Rams, Staley is now the Chargers’ head coach.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

As they did three years ago, the Rams made bold offseason moves to set themselves up for a Super Bowl run.

Though not as numerous as the star-driven trades and free-agent signings of 2018, the Rams still paid a premium: They acquired veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford in a trade for Jared Goff and two first-round draft picks. They also signed veteran wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

Coach Sean McVay also hired Raheem Morris as defensive coordinator to replace Brandon Staley, architect of the one of the NFL’s top units in 2020 before the Chargers hired him as their head coach.

Now, as the Rams open training camp at UC Irvine, the pressure is on to return to the Super Bowl, which will be played in February at SoFi Stadium.

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 Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford fakes a pass during a June practice.
The Rams are hoping quarterback Matthew Stafford is the guy who can lead the team to the Super Bowl.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Here are six questions facing the Rams as they begin preparing for their Sept. 12 regular-season opener against the visiting Chicago Bears on “Sunday Night Football.”

Is Stafford ready for his L.A. moment?

Stafford, the top overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, eagerly embraced McVay’s quarterback-friendly scheme during offseason workouts.

Stafford, 33, has demonstrated during 12 NFL seasons that he can complete passes into tight spaces from all angles. But he has not won a playoff game in three tries. The Rams are confident that streak will end this season.

Stafford has many pass-catching weapons, including receivers Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Jackson — one of the NFL’s premiere deep threats when physically sound — and tight end Tyler Higbee.

Who replaces Cam Akers at running back?

This only became a question — and a major one — last week when Akers suffered a ruptured Achilles while working out. McVay was depending on the second-year pro to continue the ascent that began during a rookie season that included two 100-yard performances.

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If Matthew Stafford is going to bring excitement to the Rams this season, it won’t be from the podium. Where could he use some help? A running game.

Third-year pro Darrell Henderson started 11 games in 2020 but suffered a season-ending ankle injury for the second season in a row. The undrafted Xavier Jones, Raymond Calais and rookie Jake Funk also are on the roster, but the Rams could be in the market for a veteran addition.

Whoever is in the backfield will share responsibility for protecting Stafford with an offensive line that is in transition.

During offseason workouts, McVay and new offensive line coach Kevin Carberry moved guard Austin Corbett from guard to center to replace Austin Blythe. Fourth-year pro Brian Allen has not shown that he is fully recovered from a 2019 knee injury.

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Will Aaron Donald show signs of slowing down?

Donald, 30, was voted NFL defensive player of the year for the third time last season.

But he also suffered a rib injury during an NFC wild-card playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks, a condition that slowed him in the divisional-round loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Rams safety Jordan Fuller runs a camp drill.
The Rams will need safety Jordan Fuller to help compensate for the departure of veteran John Johnson.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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Given his work ethic and supreme conditioning, Donald probably will report to training came in the best shape of his career. But this will be the first time he plays without veteran tackle Michael Brockers by his side. Brockers, a respected team leader, was traded to the Detroit Lions in a cost-cutting move. A’Shawn Robinson steps in for Brockers.

Donald is within 14½ sacks of reaching 100 for his career.

Which player steps up to replace safety John Johnson?

Jordan Fuller impressed coaches and teammates with his intelligence and skills as a rookie last season, when an injury suffered by Taylor Rapp opened the door for Fuller to start alongside Johnson.

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Johnson cashed in as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns, so Fuller, Rapp, Nick Scott and second-year pro Terrell Burgess will work to replace the leadership void left by Johnson’s departure.

The group will benefit from playing in a secondary with cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams, who is playing on a one-year restricted free-agent contract.

Can punter Johnny Hekker bounce back?

Hekker, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, acknowledged that last season’s performance was not up to his lofty standard. And the Rams appeared to do the same by signing free agent Corey Bojorquez.

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NFL players need to wake up and get vaccinated. Those who don’t put their teammates in jeopardy in more ways than affecting the outcome of a game.

In April, McVay attempted to diffuse the situation by saying Hekker was the punter. But Hekker, who’s entering his 10th season and is the highest-paid player at his position in the NFL, knows league economics. He said he was looking forward to a return to form.

Who are the rookies to watch?

Tight end Jacob Harris, a fourth-round draft pick from Central Florida, impressed McVay during offseason workouts. Now he must show he can execute in full-speed contact situations.

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Wide receiver Tutu Atwell, defensive linemen Bobby Brown III and Earnest Brown IV, linebacker Ernest Jones and cornerback Robert Rochell are other first-year players competing for rotational roles.

Funk, receiver Ben Skowronek and outside linebacker Chris Garrett might get their first opportunities on special teams.


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