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LA Rams 2022 draft: 3 hybrid linebackers to keep an eye on in NFL Scouting Combine

Should Rams target talented players who don’t fit into traditional roles?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Wake Forest at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every draft season there are a handful of prospective defensive players who don’t fit into traditional NFL positional roles. In the past ten years, these “hybrid” types of players have taken on important roles in the ever-changing pro game.

Defenses in the NFL have been forced to re-think their strategies, in recent years, to counter the league’s move towards spreading the field, four wide receiver sets, and quick passing schemes. The old size-and-strength model has given way to smaller, faster players who can handle the speed and playmaking abilities of modern skill position athletes.

Every NFL team is searching for defensive draftees that can match up with these wide-open offenses. Defensive coordinators have installed a myriad individual packages and rotations built around the skill sets of their players to try and gain a tactical advantage.

The nickel (five DB’s) defense has become the league’s base defense and dime (more than five DB’s) packages are on the rise. According to Football Outsiders, in 2020 the Los Angeles Rams played 85 percent of snaps in these two sets (59% nickel and 26% dime). Coverage and tackling ability is at a premium for defensive backs and in today’s NFL, linebackers as well. LB’s must have the strength to jostle with tight ends and the speed to keep up with running backs.

Currently, the Rams have three off-ball linebackers under contract, Ernest Jones, Christian Rozeboom, and converted safety Jake Gervase. Certainly, this unit will need to be bolstered before training camp, either through free agency or the draft. There will be a lot of solid line backer prospects available for LA’s earliest pick, if they so decide to go that way, and Turf Show Times will review some of those players later on in the process.

With the NFL Scouting Combine running next Tuesday, March 1 through 7, fans and draftniks will have ample opportunities to identify draft risers-and-fallers. Armed with this knowledge, they can make a case for how each player would fit into LA’s future plans.

Although the Rams official draft positions have not yet been made official, it is safe to say the lion’s share of their picks will be in rounds five through seven. Today, we’ll consider some late-round hybrid linebackers, that will participate in the Combine. They are all on the small side, but have some plus traits that could offer LA value as role players.

Darien Butler-Arizona State 5’ 11” 221 lbs.

Consistency and toughness best describe the Sun Devils three year captain. In 2021, Butler was a Butkus Award (top college linebacker in nation) semi-finalist and Arizona State’s defensive MVP. He finished his career with 243 tackles in 40 games, 24.5 tackles for loss, and three interceptions.

Butler has a non-stop motor with good burst, long speed, and lateral movement. He covers the field sideline-to-sideline, but really excels reacting to the plays flow and charging downhill. He is really stellar inside the tackles, considering his size.

Against the run, Butler shows good contact balance as bounces off and navigates through blockers. He is not limited to chase-and-drag tackles, he is a good form tackler. He often eludes bigger, would-be blockers with small, deft moves and good hand fighting. Sometimes it actually looks like he hides amongst the big bodies and, keeping his eyes on the ball, hops into the hole and makes the play.

Very smooth and fluid backing up into coverage, Butler can also flip his hips open, turn and run. His average length may show up when called upon to cover NFL tight ends, but he has good hand/eye coordination and gets his arms in the catch zone. He played a lot of zone coverage at ASU, his eye discipline, recognition, and reaction skills will transfer to the pro level.

I had Butler with a 6th round grade, mostly because I thought he offers stellar special team value. But after digging into his game for this article that is going to change, I have become a fan and really think he can play defense in the NFL. A thumper, who can cover. In the LA Rams zone schemes, he could bring the hurt underneath and in the middle of the field.

Baylon Spector-Clemson, 6’ 1/2” 229 lbs.

Relentless pursuer who lined up all over the defense for one of college football’s top programs. Whether on the blitz, plugging run gaps or dropping into coverage, Spector attacks his responsibilities with ruthless aggression.

This kid’s skill set and attitude are a stellar fit for NFL special teams and played on both return and coverage units at Clemson. He has good straight line speed and the ability to react and pursue. He was a high school quarterback for a state championship team and All-ACC Academic team.

Spector is a very good tackler, he gets into good form and wraps up. In the run game, he is willing to take on bigger blockers and let teammates cleanup. Reacts to RB moves and anticipates their routes. Seems to have good length and uses those arms to keep blockers at bay. He can follow a plays flow, react, and charge into run lanes. Like most aggressive players, he can overrun plays and take some bad angles.

In pass coverage, his athleticism and game acumen give him a good upside. In zone coverage, he moves well laterally, smoothly back pedals, reacts quickly, and has enough short area quickness to close. In man, he has enough speed to get out to the flat on swing passes and turn and run down field.

Used as a jack-of-all-trades defensive tool at Clemson, Spector flashed next level potential. He has ball skills, did a lot of, and was successful blitzing, and won a Walter Camp National player of the Week Award. I have a priority free agent grade on him, but he’s a two-year starter on one of the nation’s best programs with an athletic upside.

Malcom Rodriguez- Oklahoma State, 5’11” 227 lbs.

He flies to the football and goes head-on with whoever is in between. Rodriguez brings a load to tackles and if he not there first, he is clawing and stripping at the football. Not known as a speed guy, he still gets sideline-to-sideline on hustle and instinct. Will have to wrap up better in the NFL, he often goes for the big hit instead of form tackling. Even though he can be engulfed by bigger offensive linemen, he’s a fierce battler and blitzes like his hair’s on fire.

Rodriguez started at Okie State as a safety, so he has good grasp of coverages. He has the instincts and football IQ to play in zone. He keeps his eyes in the backfield and back pedals well, getting good depth. He bursts forward to cover or tackle underneath. He didn’t play a lot man coverage but neither do the Rams. His ability to diagnose and pursue hints that he can be successful in single coverage.

If the Rams decide to sign Rodriguez, it would follow their formula of adding college linebackers who weren’t highly coveted, but had highly productive college tackle numbers. Rodriguez’s tackle numbers rival recent LA’s recent linebacker picks Travin Howard, Micah Kiser, Dakota Allen, and Christian Rozeboom. He began his college career on special teams and all his athletic and play traits scream.

I have his grade right on the edge of round7/undrafted. I like his game and am just waiting to see if he tests well at the Combine to raise his grade, but have no doubt he could offer value to the Rams as a special teams contributor.