The countdown is on to the Rams season opener, which is also the NFL season opener Thursday, Sept. 8 at home against the Buffalo Bills.
The 53-man roster is set, at least for now, and there are all the familiar names from last year’s Super Bowl championship: quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Cooper Kupp and stud defensive lineman Aaron Donald.
This is not a list of those players.
In a football season, you expect your stars to be stars and play like it. They are important to a team’s fortunes, but are they the most important? I’d argue that the NFL season is a grind and you need steady, consistent play from a lot of guys who aren’t as well known. They might be role players or complementary players, but you need them to win.
In that vein, here are the 10 most important players in the Rams locker room in 2022. Whether or not you know them well is irrelevant. The Rams will need them to step up if they’re going to defend their Super Bowl title.
10. Alaric ‘AJ’ Jackson – tackle
When Logan Bruss suffered his season-ending knee injury in the pre-season, it took a big chunk of the Rams depth on the offensive line.
No one likes to think about this, but offensive linemen get hurt a lot. It’s part of the job. Having quality depth is key for any contender. Jackson is what they call a swing tackle, meaning he can play both tackle spots, or at guard if (and when) someone gets hurt. The odds are he will be called on to play in a big game this season.
9. Ernest Jones – linebacker
I know we’re all excited to see what Bobby Wagner can do in a Rams jersey, but a part of me was wondering when the Wagner move got made if that meant we’d see less of Jones.
The third-round pick in 2021 showed the ability to make big plays last year, and when he suffered an ankle injury at the end of 2021 it was noticeable. Jones now becomes Wagner’s partner at inside linebacker.
8. David Long Jr. – defensive back
We all know that the Rams have a good secondary led by Jalen Ramsey, one of the most unique talents in the NFL, but you can never have enough guys who can cover. Ramsey can take away one receiver, but guess what? NFL offenses throw three good wide receives on the field now – and a tight end. Long Jr.’s role will be important as one of the Rams cover guys. He made Ram fans happy with his pick six in the playoff game against the Cardinals. He needs to continue to make plays.
7. Allen Robinson II – wide receiver
The veteran wide receiver didn’t play in the preseason, so we didn’t get a look at how he fits into this offense. Listen, the Rams are a pass-heavy team. We know that Kupp is going to get at least 150 targets, but it’s crucial that Robinson II be good enough to keep defenses from rolling their coverage to Kupp over and over.
Robinson II is in his ninth year after four years each with Jacksonville and Chicago. He’s been super productive in the past with 102 catches in 2020. He doesn’t need to have 102, but if he makes 75, this offense will fly.
6. A’Shawn Robinson – nose tackle
The last three years, the Rams had Sebastian Joseph-Day at nose tackle to ease the pressure off of Donald. You couldn’t always double team Donald, I mean, not always, even though people did.
Joseph-Day is now in the Chargers locker room, which means that Robinson has to step up and be a factor in the middle of the line. Last year he started 14 games and had six tackles and a sack in the Super Bowl.
If Donald is going to have a good year, Robinson needs to have one too.
5. Jordan Fuller – safety
NFL football is all about match-ups. Offenses try to dictate the type of players defenses have on the field with formations and personnel groupings all to see if they can get a tight end on a linebacker, or a running back covered by a safety.
So defenses have responded by putting more combo-type players on the field like Fuller. He’s the Rams’ jack-of-all-trades. He’s still a player on the rise but is coming off a season-ending ankle injury last year. His contributions are invaluable.
4. Matt Gay – kicker
Here’s the thing with NFL kickers, you don’t notice them unless they’re bad. Last year, Gay was nearly perfect. Remember, the Rams won three playoff games all by three points. Gay had the game-winner in the playoffs against the Bucs and against the 49ers (technically, with 1:46 left).
He finished 32-34 on field goals and 48-49 on PATs. He made the Pro Bowl. I put him on this list because it’s hard to believe he’s going to maintain this level of success in 2022.
3. Cam Akers – running back
Even though the Rams are a pass-first team, you still need to be able to run the ball in today’s NFL. And the jury is still out on Akers. He missed a big chunk of training camp with what was called a “soft tissue” injury.
In the world of NFL coachspeak and deception, that could mean anything from a torn hamstring to a bruise. Akers was a great story last year, coming back for the playoffs after popping his Achilles tendon last July. When healthy, he’s a difference maker, but running backs who are injury prone don’t last long in the NFL.
2. Tyler Higbee – tight end
The secret to what makes an NFL offense extraordinary is the number of weapons they can put on the field. Defenses can’t just take one player away when so many others can hurt them. Think of what the Chiefs do with Travis Kelce. It always seems like he’s open. He is, because defenses can’t account for all of the Chiefs’ weapons.
Higbee has the chance to be that same type of player for the Rams. We expect the Rams offense to be brilliant with Kupp working his way free and moving the chains, and Robinson II is a pro. Higbee is the key to unlocking this offense’s full potential.
1. Joe Noteboom – tackle
Noteboom is the most important player on the Rams because it’s his job to protect the franchise quarterback on the left side. The Rams showed they believed in his ability by signing him to a big three-year $40 million dollar deal. In his four years, he’s played in 47 games, starting 17. He’s taking over for NFL legend Andrew Whitworth.
But can he do it? This is a huge step up for Noteboom We’re going to find out right away because the Bills are going to throw Von Miller right at Noteboom. If he can’t block his former teammate, Stafford is in trouble, and that means the Rams are too.