By: Vince Hulett
Identifying the Rams’ two current starters at the linebacker position is fairly easy. James Laurinaitis will play his pro bowl level at middle linebacker, and newly- signed veteran Jo-Lonn Dunbar will man either the weak or strong side linebacker position. Dunbar comes over from his "bounty gate" days in New Orleans with experience to play all three linebacker positions. Preferably, in a defense with proper linebacker depth and skill, Dunbar is better suited to play a piano- type player who spells tired or injured starting linebackers. Additionally, he will fill the void left by Chamberlain in the special teams department. However, with the depletion of linebackers on the Rams’ roster, it looks as though Dunbar will have to increase his level of play to become a factor in 2012 until the Rams can utilize one of their two 2013 first round draft picks on a tenacious linebacker.
This situation this leaves the Rams’ front office with the dilemma: who will be the third starting linebacker to wear the blue and gold? Returning players include Josh Hull and Justin Cole. Josh Hull, being the more appealing player of the two, was a former walk- on at Penn State and 7th round selection in 2010 for the Rams. Hull is known for his hard work and blue -collar attitude both on and off the field. Hull played special teams and ended his season with an ankle injury against the Cincinnati Bengals last year. At best, Hull will provide depth and good special teams play while continuing his development as an NFL linebacker. Justin Cole is an undrafted, former San Jose State defensive lineman who is making the transition to linebacker in the NFL. To insinuate Cole as a "project" is an overstatement. Cole will be lucky to make the final 2012 Rams roster. Between the two wild card linebackers left over from last year, Josh Hull presents the only real possibility as a starter. More realistically, at the most, he is a special team’s leader for the Rams this year.
With the first selection in the 7th round, the Rams selected linebacker Aaron Brown, linebacker, out of Hawaii. Aaron Brown joins the "Bad Boys Club", or better known as the St. Louis Rams, with a very productive stat line in college. Brown’s combined junior and senior stat line includes: 186 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 20 tackles for a loss, and six interceptions. A ball- hawking, undersized linebacker, —6’1 220lbs., —he may find a hard time transitioning to the NFL because he played in the skill- lacking WAC conference. He was arrested and suspended the first game of the year in 2012 for fighting in a bar. These are some red flags that should warrant suspicion when evaluating this player’s potential to solidify himself as a starter in the Rams’ 2012 linebacking core. Brown seems to be another project that has potential at prominently being a role player in the future for the Rams’ defense.
The Rams made some moves by signing a group of talented, undrafted free agent linebackers over the past couple days. These players include Sammy Brown of Houston, Derrick Choice of Stephen F. Austin, Alex Hoffman-Ellis of Washington State, and Noah Keller of Ohio.
The two most attractive players out of the bunch are Hoffman-Ellis and Brown. Sammy Brown has NFL size at 6-2, 240 lbs. and led college football in tackles for loss last year while showing off his pass rushing skills with 13 ½ sacks for the Cougars. Brown also possesses great speed running a 4.6 40- yard dash at Houston’s pro day. However, Brown played in a non- BCS conference and may have trouble, initially like Aaron Brown, transitioning to the NFL. Moreover, a lot of his plays in the offenses backfield could be inflated because Houston was regularly blowing teams out and forcing them to become one dimensional and passing heavily. Altogether, Brown is a player who was used primarily as a pass rushing specialist and would need proper coaching in the NFL to convert into an every down linebacker.
Hoffman-Ellis is a player who is very inexperienced, but plays the game with great passion. His technique and ability to play in space needs a lot of improvement. Ellis is undersized, but can lay the wood when engaging his target. Ellis isn’t a tackling machine, contributing just 178 tackles in three years, but he hits hard and has potential at improving his game with technique and experience. Both of these players are, "again," projects.
Altogether this leaves the Rams with many projects and only two NFL starting linebackers on the roster,: Dunbar and Laurinaitis. The tactful plan of drafting a kicker and parting ways with Josh Brown’s 2.7 million dollar caps hit in 2012 indicates that the Rams have plans to sign a veteran free agent.
There are some legit 4-3 linebacker names in the free agency pool that could draw some attention from the Rams. These players include, Gary Brackett, Omar Gaither, Ernie Sims, Mike Peterson, and Ben Leber. All players are comfortable playing in the 4-3 Jeff Fisher system and are all former starters in the NFL. However, the Rams cut Leber after a disappointing 2011 season; Gary Bracket and Mike Peterson seem to be at the tail end of their careers. Not to mention Bracket and Peterson have had serious injury problems over the last two years. The signing of any prior three players seems unlikely. This leaves the Rams with two possible young linebackers to choose from: Omar Gaither and/or Ernie Sims. With the Rams’ salary cap situation, it is more likely that they can afford to sign only one of these players.
Analyzing Ernie Sims is a tough task. He is a former first round selection out of Florida State who is undersized and many compared him to Derek Brooks coming out of college. In his first three seasons with Detroit, he tallied 372 tackles and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. His last two out of three seasons were decimated by injuries, and in 2010 with the Eagles, he didn’t fit their scheme. While playing for Philadelphia, Sims was asked to take on fullbacks more than he did in the Lions’ defensive scheme (when he was quite effective). Sims isn’t a great when engaged by blockers and suffered with a career low 55 tackles while playing his worst full season with the Eagles. Sims is a fast linebacker who can make plays in space by using his 4.5 40 speed and would fit perfectly in the weak side linebacker position wearing blue and gold. Worst case, Sims could experiment at strong safety during running downs and supplement as a nickel linebacker in coverage on passing downs. Moreover, at least he could contribute during his one- year contract and provide better play than the young work in projects that the Rams currently possess at linebacker. Sims is an NFL starting linebacker, and on the right team, especially (e.g., playing behind double- team, attention- drawing lineman like Long, Langford, and Brockers, and Along with the offensive line keying on star linebacker James Laurinaitis), Ernie Sims would thrive by running free for the Rams at their weak side linebacker position.
The other possible candidate is linebacker Omar Gaither. Ironically, enough Gaither was Sims’ back up during their time together at Philadelphia in 2010. Gaither finished an injury- riddled 2011 campaign with the Carolina Panthers after they projected him to start at their weak side backer. Gaither has started and played many games at both the middle linebacker and weak side linebacker positions. Gaither isn’t as fast as Sims who plays with more awareness, but could be a huge improvement over the current Rams’ linebacking core. Gaither doesn’t show as much upside as Sims at the weak side linebacker position but he has great versatility with a lot of special team experience.
Altogether, both Sims and Gaither are in their late twenties, and at least one should be signed to a one- year contract. Both of these players have the experience and talent to start at weak side backer for the Rams. Sims or Gaither would improve the Rams’ defense, and neither would require a large or long contract. Keep in mind, they both would be fighting for their NFL careers and could be strongly motivated players. Preferably, Sims should be the choice for the Rams to sign because of his former pro bowl potential and cornerback- caliber speed. Sims is similar to Keith Bullock and Bullock thrived in Fisher’s Defense in Tennessee. Look for the Rams to sign one of these players in the next couple weeks.