It could be easy to define outcomes for any player as a “surprising breakout” candidate next season. I suppose there is some absurd circumstance in which Aaron Donald has yet another gear that we don’t know about. (And I don’t mean that we don’t know about from Donald as he’s already at the pinnacle; I mean it would have to be something we never thought we’d see in the game like when Brendan Fraser was in The Scout.)
Instead, let’s focus on players who’ve yet to really see success in the NFL. Among those members of the LA Rams on defense, who could have a surprising breakout season when football resumes?
Inside linebackers - Micah Kiser, Troy Reeder, Kenny Young, Travin Howard
The position was manned by one of the ultimate surprise breakout players in Cory Littleton and obviously Les Snead was comfortable with revolving this position based on the fact that he did extend so many players who weren’t Littleton. Part of the reason for that may have been Kiser’s ascent under Wade Phillips that nearly led to his starting in 2019 if not for injury. Littleton is gone, Phillips is gone, and Kiser is returning from his pectoral injury.
With four career tackles on his resume we have nothing of real substance to confirm that there’s reason for optimism with Kiser and yet also, “Sure, why not?” The opportunity will be there for Kiser just as it will be for the other names.
Reeder’s opportunity came when Kiser got injured and he made 58 tackles while playing in 27% of the defensive snaps and 65% of the special teams snaps. By Pro-Football-Reference’s standards, Reeder allowed 17-of-18 throws his way to be completed and that resulted in 246 yards and two touchdowns. He also missed nine tackles, which is a high mark for anyone, not just part-time players.
What you’ll often hear about Young is “speed” and yet his results with the Baltimore Ravens and Rams aren’t too different than what we’ve seen from Reeder. This is not to discount any of these linebackers are potential breakout stars on the defense, quite the contrary, but it is important to layout what causes the “surprise” aspect of this exercise.
Littleton didn’t have much of a resume after two seasons and he was a former undrafted free agent. The presence of several candidates like this is what made Littleton expendable, in Snead’s view. Howard is only 24 and has only had one regular season to start to prove himself.
Rookies such as Clay Johnston, it’s impossible to say right now and the lack of these offseason camps, we just don’t know what impact that will have.
Edge rushers - Terrell Lewis, Samson Ebukam, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
I think in the case of almost anyone on the defense other than Leonard Floyd, I think it should be considered “surprising” if the Rams have a player with double-digit sacks. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but there are plenty of surprises in this group and that’s why LA is spending much less on edge rushers than most NFL teams.
Lewis has plenty of potential but playing a full season falls under “surprising” for him right now. This is also a player who didn’t have much experience at the college level and who will be missing out on an entire first offseason because of the pandemic.
Ebukam played in 69% of the defensive snaps in 2018 and still only managed three sacks. Perhaps he will get in on more pass rushing opportunities next season but I’m not sure many people are projecting Ebukam to cash in when he becomes a free agent in 2021. Look at the list of edge rushers who are still available today and you have to wonder if teams are willing to use up space on underwhelming veterans.
Okoronkwo is doing the “best shape of my life” routine this offseason and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But a lot of NFL players are in great shape that’s why they’re NFL players. Will more playing time equate to more sacks for the former fifth round pick?
Yes, I’d be a bit surprised if Floyd hit 10 or more sacks, but as a former top-10 pick I have to disqualify him from being in the same category as these other players.
Cornerbacks - Troy Hill, David Long, Darious Williams, Terrell Burgess
Finally, I’ll address the cornerbacks. Yes, it would be surprising if a player had a breakout season on defensive line because that unit is pretty well spoken for by veterans right now. The safeties are young, but it shouldn’t be too surprising if Taylor Rapp improves his coverage skills and becomes a highly regarded player.
Hill is well known by Rams fans but could he become a nationally-recognized figure with a full season opposite of Jalen Ramsey? Perhaps it could be something similar to the breakout that A.J. Bouye experienced during his first year with Ramsey.
Long was a third round pick a year ago and Williams has plenty of fans at PFF and in the comments section here. Certainly Williams would qualify as one of the biggest surprises on the defense and yet he may have the most support from some based on that six-week sample size. Which could be entirely justifiable.
PFF first recognized Williams in college when he was playing at UAB in 2017. He was undrafted, signed with the Ravens, released by the Ravens, and now he’s hoping to be the starting nickel in LA next season.
Like Lewis, Burgess is a rookie and losing previous learning time on the field. Perhaps that is compounded by the fact that he is also potentially learning a new position after playing mostly safety in college.
My pick: Kiser. He may have the clearest path to an opportunity that could bear the most fruit to whoever wins that job.
In weeks 12-17, there were no NFL CBs with better Overall Defensive Grades than #LARams Darious Williams (1st) and Jalen Ramsey (2nd) pic.twitter.com/EgOTPBxGQB— PFF LA Rams (@PFF_Rams) May 22, 2020
Who on this list is most likely to be the surprise breakout player on defense?
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