I don’t want to sound despondent when discussing the future of two 25 year old linebackers, but the time of greatest optimism for Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Samson Ebukam seems to be in the past. The LA Rams placed Okoronkwo on injured reserve on Tuesday with an elbow injury and expect him to miss 4-6 weeks. If he doesn’t return this year, Okoronkwo will have generated 2.5 sacks since being drafted in 2018.
This doesn’t sound all that surprising for a former fifth round pick, but Okoronkwo did draw the label of “steal” for the Rams and Wade Phillips defense. Specifically as an edge rusher.
The NFL let Ogbonnia Okoronkwo fall the Rams in the late 5th round? Dear Lord. PERFECT edge rusher for Wade Phillips' scheme and ideal complement to what is already on the roster.— Joe Marino (@TheJoeMarino) April 28, 2018
Okoronkwo started his rookie season on PUP with a foot injury and was activated in Week 10 of that year, but was never active on gameday. There was hope before his return in 2019, but Okoronkwo finished with seven tackles, four QB hits and 1.5 sacks in 10 games. There was little reason to believe at that point that Okoronkwo actually was a great fit for Wade Phillips’ defense.
His next opportunity came this season with a new defensive coordinator, Brandon Staley, who is also a “pass rushing linebackers” specialist who worked with Khalil Mack and Von Miller, among others. Okoronkwo had not been dealing with any notable reported injuries, but was not heavily utilized in the early going of the season even though the Rams have a need for a second presence as a pass rusher other than Aaron Donald.
To be fair, Okoronkwo played in a season-high 44-percent of the snaps against the New York Giants in Week 4 and had his first and only sack of the season. He also had a pass defensed. Perhaps Staley is beginning to like what he sees from Okoronkwo, but unfortunately he will now miss significant time while recovering from elbow surgery.
Okoronkwo will be in the fourth year of his rookie contract in 2021 and making just under $1 million, so there’s no reason to think that he won’t be in training camp next season. But Okoronkwo’s increase in playing time was partly influenced by LA’s needs at the position because of injuries to players like Travin Howard and Terrell Lewis and offseason losses like Dante Fowler, Cory Littleton and Clay Matthews without the financial resources to replace all of them.
If Staley is back at defensive coordinator, he may want to continue bringing in his own linebackers, such as Lewis in the draft and Justin Hollins from the waiver wire.
For Samson Ebukam, it may not be a matter of if he is back with the Rams next season but more like what other team will he be playing next season because he seems unlikely to return. Unfortunately, he too has failed to reach expectations and as a 2021 free agent could be looking for a team to simply give him a chance if he doesn’t improve upon his early season returns.
This was not necessarily the expectation after PFF ranked him as the second best pass rusher on the team in 2018, when he was only 23.
Edge Defender Samson Ebukam had the highest Pass Rush grade for #Rams not named Aaron Donald in 2018— PFF LA Rams (@PFF_Rams) April 10, 2019
He looks to step into his 3rd year by improving on his impressive Run Stop & Pass Rushing abilities to find time in a rotation that now includes Clay Matthews & Dante Fowler Jr. pic.twitter.com/RdFsBQOZGT
Ebukam, a fourth round pick out of Eastern Washington in 2017, didn’t have the same health issues holding him back like Okoronkwo has. And in his second season, Ebukam put up 40 tackles, three sacks, six QB hits, three forced fumbles and an interception. Not fantastic, but numbers will be deceptive, especially for a 3-4 inside linebacker.
Then Ebukam did have knee surgery following the 2018 season and while his numbers improved last year (48 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 10 QB hits and four passes defensed), he couldn’t hold off 33-year-old Clay Matthews for playing time and his playing time went down from 69-percent to 51-percent of the defensive snaps from the year before.
Through six games in 2020 in Staley’s defense, Ebukam is playing in 42-percent of the snaps. The lowest amount since his rookie season. Ebukam played in 53 snaps in Week 1 but has played in 47 snaps over the last three weeks combined.
Donald leads the NFL in sacks with 7.5 but nobody else on the defense has been a consistent presence as a pass rusher. This does not mean there’s no hope for those around him and who knows which players have their best 2020 games ahead of them and not behind them. Trey Hendrickson and Haason Reddick are among the NFL sack leaders this season and they had both recently turned 25 without much production up to that point.
Anything can happen, but the time for it to happen in Los Angeles with Okoronkwo and Ebukam seems to be running out.