LA Rams draft: Will they feel the need for speed in the return game?

As of today, the Los Angeles Rams do not have one position filled on the specialty units. Special Teams Coordinator Joe De Camille’s was purged earlier this week, place kicker Matt Gay is an unrestricted free agent, as are punter Riley Dixon, long snapper Matt Orzech, and primary kick returner Brandon Powell. While it is still very early in the process of going about retaining them, it is not too early to start speculating about possible replacements. Especially about who will return punts and kickoffs.

LA could use a mid/late draft pick to fill the kick return role, save some money, and add a developmental player that brings top end speed and youth to the roster. Selecting a kick returner might also answer two burning draft questions, “Should the Rams have immediate or long-term plans?” as their draft strategy. A returner could pay off right away in 2023 AND develop into an offensive contributor after seasoning.

On one side of the coin, re-signing Powell would make sense. He’ll only be 28 next fall and in return for his modest $1 mil salary, the Rams received 290 offensive snaps to go along with his normal special teams duty. He totaled 1018 all-purpose yards at 10.7 yards per touch. He probably won’t generate a ton of interest on the open market, so a small raise, say up to $1.75 mil, would likely be enough to keep him.

On the flip side, wide receiver injuries put Powell in line for those offensive reps and odds are that unit will not be decimated two straight years. 2nd round pick Tutu Atwell is in line for a bigger role in the offense next year as well. If salary cap money gets lean, a rookie could fill Powell’s role at a substantial discount.

If the Rams decide not to bring Powell back, in theory, Atwell could be used as the primary returner. But in reality, although he has the skillset, with only 19 total returns over his five years as a college and per player, he does not have a long history in the return game.

Keeping those options in mind, let’s take a look at three kick return prospects that, according to @RAanalyticshad some of the top speed numbers in the 2022 college season.

round 5

Trey Palmer, Nebraska wide receiver- 20.6 mph

Palmer could very well be snatched up before the Rams choose in the fifth, but with depth of this year’s wide receiver pool, he could easily fall here. His consensus draft position is #154. At 6′ 1” 190, he has that long, lanky look and should test very well at the NFL Combine. The 21 year old will be showcasing his talent at the Senior Bowl.

A five-star high school recruit, Palmer had a 100 meter and four 200 meter state championships to go along with his football exploits. Originally signed and played three seasons with LSU before transferring to Nebraska for the 2022 season.

Over 34 college games, Palmer rolled up 2256 all-purpose yards on 164 touches, 13.7 yards per touch. It should be stated that 1501 of those yards came on pass receptions, but he did corral 27 punts for a 8.3 average and 18 kickoffs for 25.3 yards per return. He totaled 14 touchdowns.

While speed and athleticism are his premium assets, Palmer has good hand/eye coordination, ball tracking skills, and plays under control for a speedster. He is more than a deep threat, getting a lot of his reps out of the slot. Opposing defenders have to respect his ability to run right past them and he takes full advantage, looking comfortable in the short and mid levels of the field.

In reality, he doesn’t have a lot of game experience and does need a lot of technique polishing. His route running needs refinement so that he can be more consistent in creating his own separation and he did have some drops.

On film, because of his game breaking speed, he gets a lot of cushion and makes a lot of plays in the middle of the field. He appears to have a nice feel for settling down into zone coverages and although not a physical player, seems very willing to catch in traffic. He doesn’t look like a tackle breaker and he is not a jitter bug in space. He gets loose with subtle moves, the ability to stack them, and burst off of them.

If the Rams continue to primarily use the long-developing vertical pass attack, Palmer could fit as the field stretcher and if he is given too much cushion, quick bubble screens and drag/crossing routes. In a full, healthy Rams wide receiver room, he should be looked at as an athletic tools prospect with a high upside. He has a history of special teams play (aside from the returns), so he can pay his way while working on technique shortcomings and gaining experience.

round 6

Derius Davis, TCU wide receiver- 22.7 mph

Opposing defenses have to mind their gaps and angles when Davis has the ball in his hands. Besides the speed, he uses twitchy zigs and zags to motor down the field. He is not a wild jitterbug, rather blessed with the gift to see the field as it opens up in front of him and the burst to exploit the smallest of openings.

A mighty might at 5′ 9” 165 lbs. In high school, Davis was the Louisiana state 200 meter champion and joined TCU in 2018. He has worked his way up the depth chart to a starting role on a squad that has gone from a predominantly running team when he began to a wide open passing attack in 2022. Along the way his production increased year-to-year and culminated with Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year Award.

Over his five seasons and 52 games, Davis galloped for 3499 yards on 236 touches, for 15.0 yards per rep. He found paydirt 16 times. I couldn’t find how many fumbles he had, but he had a bad one in the NCAA Championship Game. He was running on a reverse and did not transfer the ball to his outside arm, a Georgia defender had the angle, an open shot at the ball in Davis’ inside arm, and stripped the football.

Davis has spent time in an offense with a lot of playmakers and in rotational situations, so it would not be a huge step down with limited offensive opportunities as a pro. His value is on special teams, not only as a returner, but as a gunner on coverage teams. An appearance in the upcoming Senior Bowl could open up eyes to the value he can contribute to a professional offense.

What fans, draft experts, and scouts will see is a receiver with soft hands, a quick transition from catch to run, and a myriad of juke, hesitation and spin moves. If Davis can apply the vision and burst he shows on film, he’ll really open some eyes. He is a bit under the radar because of the firepower of TCU’s offense and shadow of teammate and possible top ten draft pick Quintin Johnson.

How much extra value could Davis add other than as a returner? He’s a lot like Brandon Powell in that he has great moves and vision, but his size and play strength mean arm tackles are enough to deter him. What he does have over Powell is the explosive ability to find a crease and make chunk plays. The 6th round is a place for niche players, special teamers, and risks on athletic upsides. Davis fits into all three of those categories.

round 7

Jordan Byrd, San Diego State running back- 21.2 mph

Obviously, he is wicked fast and was a four-time New Mexico State Champion at 100 meters and added three more in the 200. Over his college career, Byrd has been one of the nation’s top all-purpose yardage specialists. Among his accolades were being named Paul Hornung Award watch list (for versatility and special teams) three straight years and 2022 Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the Year. His name is at the top of many school record lists.

On 76 kickoff returns, he averaged 25.5 yards per return with three touchdowns. As a punt returner, Byrd returned 66 boots for 442 yards and a touchdown. Over his 57 game Aztec career, he averaged a shade under 70 all-pupose yards per game at 8.0 yards per touch.

The big question about Byrd is whether or not he can contribute to the Rams with snaps other than as a returner. At 5′ 9” 170 lbs., he’s not cut like the typical NFL running back and while LA has had a recent history of employing smaller backs, none have been as diminutive as Byrd. San Diego State used him in a rotation and over his tenure ran for 1352 yards at a 5.1 clip. His didn’t have much production as a receiver with only 45 catches for 212 yards.

On film, he looks to have some upside as a receiver. The Aztecs lined him up in the slot at times and in the limited reps seen, looks like he has good ball tracking skills, hand/eye coordination, and soft mitts. It is surprising that his coaches did not get him the ball on quick screens, flat routes and sweeps more often, considering his open field running abilities.

Byrd is a willing inside runner in SDSU’s mid zone and gap schemes, he runs low behind his pads and has stellar burst. He is patient and although it’s more of a downhill scheme, he reads blocks well. He doesn’t have much power, but squirts through tight spaces and arm tackles. As a backfield blocker he seems to be willing and has decent face-up technique, although size does matter and I wouldn’t say his blocking skill is much more than mediocre.

When you look at the Rams 7th round draft history during the Les Snead/Sean McVay regime, it’s a mixed bag as one would expect. They have done rather well with Nick Scott and Bennett Skowronek, while Russ Yeast, Daniel Hardy and AJ Arcuri all got rookie year reps. Injuries have limited Travin Howard, and Tremayne Anchrum, but Dakota Allen and Justin Lawler were still knocking around NFL rosters in 2022. Jordan Byrd would be an excellent risk/reward value addition.

Why should the Rams draft a kick returner?

You can never have enough elite speed and in today’s NFL atmosphere of spread out offenses and umbrella defenses, speedsters are highly valued. It is not a panacea and should not be the sole factor deciding a player’s worth, but having that extra gear can give smaller or flawed players a chance to contribute and makes skilled players great.

All three prospects, Trey Palmer, Derius Davis, and Jordan Byrd can offer the Rams more than kick return ability. Their speed and open-field elusiveness can be applied to sub packages and/or specifically designed offensive plays. Palmer or Davis would complement the contested catch portion of the Rams receiver room with their burst and long speed. Byrd is a tougher fit in the backfield because of his size, but it would be a tremendous matchup advantage to get him space covered by a linebacker or box safety.

LA will have more than enough late round picks to pick up some hot-motored, overachievers. Spend a couple of those picks on upgrading team speed and athleticism.

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