THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Too slow. Too small. Didn't play at a big enough college.
The reasons they weren't considered among the elite NFL prospects were endless. But for several members of the Los Angeles Rams' 2017 draft class, they all had a trait in common.
"We're all smart," safety John Johnson III said. "We're all students of the game."
It was a characteristic the Rams would not overlook.
The Rams are 10-1, and could clinch a second consecutive division title with a victory over the Detroit Lions (4-7) at Ford Field on Sunday (also if the Seattle Seahawks lose to the San Francisco 49ers).
And while MVP front-runner Todd Gurley leads the NFL with 17 touchdowns and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald leads the league with 14.5 sacks, it's the growing contributions of younger players, including five from the 2017 draft class, that have rounded out a dynamic lineup of playmakers and have solidified the Rams as Super Bowl contenders.
"You see a lot of smart football players," coach Sean McVay said. "Guys that have continued to grow, guys that like being around football."
The Rams navigated the 2017 draft without a first-round selection after they dealt their first-round pick, among others, to the Tennessee Titans a year earlier in order to make a historic jump from the 15th pick to the top overall and select quarterback Jared Goff.
But as it turns out, the Rams didn't need that first-round pick. Rounds 2-4 proved to be fruitful enough.
Receiver Cooper Kupp, a third-round pick from Eastern Washington, made an immediate impact his rookie season, but established himself as a go-to playmaker in Year 2, before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 10 against the Seahawks. Prior to Kupp's injury, he was on pace for a 1,000-yard receiving season.
Everett not a fantasy play just yet
Despite a productive fantasy line, Matthew Berry doesn't think you can count Gerald Everett every week.
In Kupp's absence, Josh Reynolds, a fourth-round pick from Texas A&M, has stepped up.
The Rams had long thought that Reynolds was a starting-caliber receiver, but McVay's system -- which favors 11 personnel and often utilizes the same three receivers -- yielded little opportunity for him to demonstrate it.
That changed in Week 11 against the Kansas City Chiefs, when Reynolds made a seamless transition from seldom-used backup to a sought-after target. The second-year pro caught six passes, including a 27-yard reception, for 80 yards and a touchdown.
"I definitely got stuff to work on, but I definitely think it's a good stepping stone for me showing the league what I can do and this team what I can do," said Reynolds, who has caught 13 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns this season. "So it's good being able to step in and fill in for a role like that."
When the Rams selected tight end Gerald Everett in the second round from South Alabama, he figured to play a prominent role in McVay's offense, which previously favored tight ends when he served as offensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins the previous three seasons.
But Everett made little impact as a rookie, and was slow to integrate this season after he was sidelined during training camp because of a shoulder injury.
Against the Chiefs, Everett proved his worth. He caught three passes for 49 yards and two touchdowns -- including a 40-yard reception for a touchdown in which he tight-roped his way down the sideline to give the Rams a go-ahead score to secure the victory.
"He's certainly maximized his opportunities that he's gotten," McVay said. "Especially over the last couple weeks."
Playing behind Tyler Higbee, Everett has caught 18 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns this season. "I said that when I got drafted that we were going to make plays, specifically at the tight end position," Everett said. "And I just want to be a man of my word."
On defense, Johnson, a third-round pick from Boston College, and outside linebacker Samson Ebukam have been consistent contributor. But Ebukam, a fourth-round pick from Eastern Washington, elevated his profile after a dominant performance against the Chiefs that included two defensive touchdowns.
"He's a hard worker. He's athletic, he's fast," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. "He's a young guy, but he plays hard all the time and it paid off for him."
Ebukam, the only starter to play during the preseason, recovered a strip-sack forced by Donald and returned it for an 11-yard score. Later, he intercepted a pass by Patrick Mahomes and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown that sent the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum into a frenzy. He also applied pressure to Mahomes late in the fourth quarter that forced an errant pass that Marcus Peters intercepted.
"I don't know how it fell into place but it just kind of all happened," Ebukam said. "It's pretty cool."
The Rams elevated Johnson to a starting role five games into his rookie season, and he has continued to flourish a year later. Johnson has a team-best three interceptions and ranks second in tackles (74) and pass deflections (eight). He also has a forced fumble.
Each second-year pro cited veteran teammates and coaches who have been instrumental in their development. And even though a few of them were passed by in the first couple of rounds nearly two years ago, they're pleased to be in the situation they are, as major contributors on a likely playoff-bound team.
"I wouldn't say we're steals," Johnson said. "But I think a lot of us think we could've gone higher."
For the Rams' purposes, they're happy they didn't.
"I think we've seen guys that if you redrafted, a lot of those guys would be taken a lot sooner," McVay said. "We feel fortunate to get some of those guys when we did."