Developing depth becomes Rams' top offseason priority

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Sean McVay saw a lot of wide eyes.

The Los Angeles Rams' second-year coach was running rookies through individual drills before they'd be thrust into team action with veteran players during organized team activities.

A few rookies said after the workout that they felt some nerves. But McVay said he also sensed excitement.

Now halfway through OTAs, if McVay has any of his own nerves about a noticeable gap in experience throughout his roster, he's done a fair job of disguising it.

"We're really just continuing to figure out our team right now," McVay said earlier this week. "It's four days into OTAs. ... We just want to see guys make little improvements one day at a time."

The starting lineup is loaded with veterans and several stars and the offseason brought in more big names, but depth is a real concern. At a number of positions, if a starter goes out, fans would be left wondering, "Who is that guy?"

As the Rams attempt to improve on an 11-win season, repeat as NFC West champions and make a deep playoff run, developing inexperienced players is a top priority.

"That's something that we're extremely intentional about," McVay said. "A lot of this is going to be how do these guys process information above the neck in the meeting room and translate it to the field."

Last season, the Rams were among the healthiest teams in the league, allowing little playing time for backups.

With 10 of 11 starters returning on offense and a defense that added All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters as well as All-Pro defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, it's unlikely that McVay will need to go to his bench unless there's a pressing need. But health can't be counted on.

"You always want to have contingency plans in place and make sure you're developing everybody on your roster," McVay said. "In case they do have to step up."

Nowhere is this conundrum more present than the lines. The Rams return the only group of offensive linemen that started 15 consecutive games last season before McVay elected to rest starters for Week 17 in preparation for the playoffs.

Austin Blythe, a third-year pro, proved as a serviceable backup at guard and center for a group that allowed just 28 sacks.

But with an aging line -- Andrew Whitworth is 36 and John Sullivan turns 33 in August -- the Rams used their first two picks in this year's draft to select Joseph Noteboom (No. 89 overall) and Brian Allen (No. 111 overall) to learn at the veterans' elbows.

"It's a great opportunity to come to a place with good veterans and a team that is expected to be really good," said Noteboom, a three-year starter at Texas Christian University. "It will get you working at that standard already."

Blythe, Noteboom and Allen, among others, also will benefit from additional practice time.

Whitworth, Sullivan -- who has a history of back issues -- and nine-year pro Rodger Saffold are among veterans who take limited practice reps to preserve their bodies.

"That gives a chance for some of these younger guys to get reps that maybe they wouldn't otherwise," McVay said.

On the defensive line, NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and Suh will be backed up by fifth-year pro Ethan Westbrooks and second-year pro Tanzel Smart.

Westbrooks played multiple positions and had four sacks last season. Smart was inserted into the starting lineup during a Week 4 victory over the Dallas Cowboys before playing a limited role.

Dominique Easley, a former first-round pick who in training camp last season suffered the third ACL injury of his career dating back to college, will back up Michael Brockers.

"Just coaching up the little details," Brockers said. "Getting guys to understand the playbook really well, to know where they are, and just have a lot of effort. That's what we really want to see from the young guys. Just have a lot of effort."

While the Rams are expected to have one of the most dominant defensive lines in the league, it will be surrounded by several new starters.

Cory Littleton, Bryce Hager, Matt Longacre and Samson Ebukam could be thrust into starting roles at inside and outside linebacker after the Rams traded Alec Ogletree and Robert Quinn and did not re-sign free agent Connor Barwin.

Morgan Fox, who served as a backup on the line last season and opened OTAs competing at outside linebacker, suffered a torn ACL last week and will be sidelined for the season.

Littleton, a former undrafted free agent, made impact plays when inserted last season, including intercepting a pass in a victory over the Tennessee Titans. Longacre proved a capable edge rusher and collected 5.5 sacks. Ebukam became a key contributor after he was drafted from Eastern Washington and Hager has spent three seasons as a mainstay on special teams.

Their backups could be rookies.

"It's an ongoing evaluation, but those are definitely positions of extreme importance and value in our defense," McVay said. "We want to see those guys continue to develop."

For now, there's plenty of optimism that the offseason program and training camp can help bridge the gap between veteran starters and younger players.

The Rams, however, likely are in no rush to find out.