OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: 10/10
OLB Samson Ebukam: 9.5/10
OLB Matt Longacre: 9.5/10
OLB Ejuan Price: 8/10
OLB Trevon Young: 6.5/10
OLB Justin Lawler: 6/10
OLB Brian Womac: 3.5/10
OLB Ryan Davis: N/A
ILB Mark Barron: 10/10
ILB Cory Littleton: 9/10
ILB Bryce Hager: 9/10
ILB Micah Kiser: 9/10
ILB Tegray Scales: 5.5/10
ILB Ramik Wilson: 5/10
The Los Angeles Rams’ defense is reminiscent of a trip to Taco Bell with about four bucks in your wallet (how’s that for a metaphorical hard cap?).
Do you go for quantity? Maybe you buy a crispy taco, a soft taco, those lame nachos with no meat, and maybe a Frito burrito. Or maybe you feel a little splashier so you cop a Mexican Pizza in all of its cheesy spender. You still have a dollar left after ordering, so you add a little filler, probably a bean burrito.
The Rams have a bunch of Mexican Pizzas on their defensive line and secondary, and then filled out their order with a bunch of bean burritos at the linebacker positions. That sounds harsh, but hear me out.
Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips will be leaning heavily on Barron and a flock of unproven talent to play at a level that matches or surpasses last year’s linebacking unit that included proven name-brands like Robert Quinn, Alec Ogletree and Connor Barwin.
Can Ebukam match Quinn’s 8.5 sacks from last season? He should be able to get it done. Due to the Rams’ strong push up the middle against passers, quarterbacks rarely take deep drops against them. With the exception of Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, who Quinn frequently tortured, teams generally run plays that develop quickly, before DL Aaron Donald punctures the gut of the pocket. Quinn’s deeper, looping paths to the quarterback were simply not a great fit to combat the plays that the Rams are facing most often. Ebukam will look to travel in more direct routes to the point of impact this season, and may just flourish.
Can edges like Longacre, Okoronkwo, Lawler or Young match what Connor Barwin did last season? As far as leadership goes, perhaps not. As far as production, Longacre already had more sacks than Barwin in a limited role last season. If any of the rookies beat out Longacre, then we can expect that they will take the position to an even higher level.
Inside, Littleton will replace departed team captain Ogletree. He will be asked be a more reliable tackler than Tree was last season. We will have to wait to see if he is up to the task, but if not, rookies Kiser, and vets Hager and Wilson will get a shot. Rookie Scales is also looking to make the roster and is worth keeping an eye on.
So you see, a bunch of bean burritos are only a few green onions, and tostada shells from actually being Mexican Pizzas, or linebackers that will produce at a cost effective rate. And with that, the Taco Bell analogy is thankfully over.
Ebukam and Barron seem locked in as starters. Littleton is a starter as well, though they may write his name in pencil rather than pen. Micah Kiser, who was a ridiculously productive tackler at Virginia, may end up getting the job if the Rams are having any trouble stopping the run.
At the other edge, Longacre seems to be the incumbent, but the team will be giving extensive auditions to rookies Okoronkwo, Lawler and Young to see if any of their talent really pops early on.
You have to believe that Wade Phillips knows what he’s doing. He seems to have tons of confidence in Ebukam to not only be adequate, but to actually become a weapon for the defense. It also speaks to the Rams belief in Mark Barron that they kept him around, despite his bulky contract. Wade will put these guys in positions to make plays. If they don’t, expect a midseason shuffle. My guess is that this season’s group will actually outperform last season’s group.
Impact on Final Roster
The Rams should carry about 9 linebackers. The safe bets to make it are Barron, Ebukam, Littleton, Kiser, Longacre, and Okoronkwo. After that they should have 3 spots left, so there’ll be fierce competition between Hager, Scales, Wilson, Young, Lawler, Price and Davis. This audition should provide a decent reason to pay attention when preseason starts.
There may just be a couple Mexican Pizzas in that bunch.