Rams Draft Battle: Should LA favor LB Damone Clark or LB Malcolm Rodriguez?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Inside linebacker is one of the draft needs for the LA Rams this year. Here is an introduction to two LB prospects currently in the "sweet spot" on draft boards, in that they are ranked low enough to have a reasonable chance to be available to the Rams, but are still good enough that draft experts think they could become starters in the NFL.

The buzz is that both of these prospects are rising up draft boards. My NFL comp for the first player is Chris Borland and my comp for the second player is Kwon Alexander.

Malcolm Rodriguez (Oklahoma State)

How many of you are familiar with Rodriguez? His name either doesn't appear on some boards or he's only a late round to UDFA prospect on others.

DraftCountdown boards: 283rd overall (UDFA), 247rd (7th round)

ESPN 197th overall (6th round)

Tony Pauline 221st (late 6th)

Ian Cummings and Oliver Hodgkinson: not ranked

So, why am I writing about him if he's a potential UDFA? His draft sleeper status could be in major jeopardy after he woke up the Combine with strong testing numbers. He was one of the top-5 fastest LBs, running 4.52 sec in the 40.

Lance Zierlein has a shockingly high draft grade on Rodriguez at 6.20. This is how that grade compares with some LBs in recent drafts:

Rodriguez 6.20 (2022 Draft)

Davion Taylor 6.18 (3rd round 2020)

Pete Werner 6.15 (2nd round 2021)

Chazz Surratt 6.14 (3rd round 2021)

Willie Gay 6.13 (2nd round 2020)

Ernest Jones 5.99 (3rd round Rams)

If Rodriguez is going to be a 7th rd to UDFA, his draft grade should have been closer to Clay Johnston (5.64), who the Rams drafted in the 7th round two years ago.

Rodriguez jumps out on tape. He is flat out a really good football player. At least at the college level. The problem in terms of translating it to the NFL level is he's very, very small. Not tall enough and short arms. He also isn't good at man pass coverage. Still, the guy is a tackling machine, flying around with a nose for the ball, getting off blocks, very instinctive, wrapping up runners, great angles, plays hard and physical, team captain. While some NFL teams might be willing to give him a chance, I imagine others won't include him on their board at all, deciding that he doesn't meet the size requirements and simply won't be able to hold up at the pro level.

This is how Rodriguez and Borland compare in size and combine testing:

Rodriguez: 5'11'' tall, 232 pounds, 30 1/8'' arms, 9 5/8'' hands, 72 5/8'' wingspan

4.52 sec (40 time), 39.5'' vert, 10' broad jump

Borland: 5'11 1/2'' tall, 248 pounds, 29 1/4'' arms, 9 7/8'' hands, 72 3/4'' wingspan

4.83 sec (40 time), 31'' vert, 9'6'' broad jump

Borland weighs more, but Rodriguez has better Combine numbers. Borland was a 3rd round pick in 2014 and had a very good rookie season before he suddenly retired after playing just one year in the NFL.

Rodriguez was very lightly recruited. Wyoming and OKST were the only two division SH offers he received. He was a QB and S in HS. At QB, he passed for over 6,000 yards and ran for about 2,500 yards in his career. He was a 2-time state wrestling champion and also played baseball. He credits his wrestling experience with helping his tackling ability.

Initially a safety at OKST, he played on ST as a freshman. He climbed up the depth chart as a sophomore, but was hampered by injuries that year. As a junior in 2019, the team moved him to LB. He weighed about 215 pounds at the time. He was a true senior in 2020 and a team captain, then took advantage of the covid rules to stay an extra season and had a monster year in 2021. In 13 games he had 129 tackles (76 solo), 16 TFLs, 3 sacks, 4 FF, 2 FR, one INT and 4 PBU. He turns 23 years old in March. He studied agricultural communications.

Alex Kozora over at Steelers Depot just did a great scouting report on Rodriguez the other day, with video clips, so check it out if you want to see a more detailed breakdown. Kozora gave Rodriguez a 5th round draft grade and compared him to Grant Stuard, who was the final pick in last year's draft.

Damone Clark (LSU)

Clark is essentially the exact opposite of Rodriguez. Clark is raw and unpolished, but his length and athleticism fits the mold for being a 3-down LB in the modern NFL.

Draft boards generally have Clark in about the late 3rd to 4th round range, but once again Lance Zierlein appears to be higher on Clark than most of the other boards.

ESPN 88th overall (3rd rd)

Tony Pauline 153rd overall (5th rd)

Ian Cummings 90th overall (3rd)

Oliver Hodgkinson 125th overall (4th)

PFF 99th overall (3rd)

Draftcountdown 117th (4th) and 78th (3rd)

Lance Zierlein 6.32 grade. This is almost exactly the same grade LZ gave to Nick Bolton 6.33 (2nd round 2021) and Logan Wilson 6.33 (first pick in 3rd rd 2020, Bengals LB in Super Bowl). The grade is higher than Baron Browning 6.27 (late 3rd rd 2021), Jabril Cox 6.26, Jordyn Brooks 6.29 (1st round 2020), Darious Leonard 6.30 (early 2nd round 2018) and Fred Warner 6.10 (3rd round 2018).

If an NFL team likes him as much as LZ does, Clark could be long gone by the time the Rams are on the clock. If he's still available and you think LZ has him evaluated correctly, Clark would be an excellent value pick.

LZ says that Clark is athletic, tough, a good tackler, physical, has exceptional football character, is average in zone coverage, his play recognition and instincts are erratic, should start out as a backup, but projects to be a starter within his first 3 seasons. The draft grade translates to "will eventually be plus starter" on their grading scale.

6'2.5'' tall, 239 pounds, 33'' arms, 9 3/4'' hands, 78 1/8'' wingspan. Notice that his arms are nearly 3 inches longer than Rodriguez's.

Clark was a Butkus Award finalist and 2nd team All American in 2021. Degree in sports administration. Wore LSU's honorary number 18 jersey, which is given to a player who represents the team the right way both on and off the field, Was 2nd in the nation in tackles per game last season.

Family displaced by Hurricane Katrina, moving from New Orleans to Baton Rouge (Clark was 5 at the time), then was impacted by Baton Rouge flood in 2016. Has a young daughter, says that becoming a father helped motivate him and sharpen his focus out of desire to provide for his daughter. 4 star recruit. Had 4.2 GPA in high school and aspired to play football at Stanford.

In 12 games last year, had 135 tackles (78 solo), 15.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 2 FF, 3 PD, INT, FR. Opted out of bowl game to prepare for draft.

Stood out in training camp in 2019, but climb up depth chart was slow. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron in 2019 said he was always the 1st player in sprints and was a monster in the weight room. Expected to breakout in 2020, but was benched in middle of 2020 due to poor performance. Clark said he was second guessing himself on the field in 2020. Had 3 different DCs in 3 years.

Took constructive criticism from coaches to heart and worked to improve his game. Said to be dedicated to film study and hard worker in weight room. High school coach raves about his football IQ. Notices opponent tendencies on film. Has muscular build and filled out frame. Wants to play for the GB Packers. Voted as the best practice week LB at the Senior Bowl for the American Team.

My evaluation of his game is very similar to what LZ had to say.

Too upright when in pass coverage, gets caught flat footed, not smooth flipping his hips. Defaults to passively waiting for OL blockers to climb to him instead of attacking downhill. Lacks high level read and recognition to anticipate where RB is going to run. Gets stuck on blocks or shoved out of the way, unable to fight over the top of blocks. In zone coverage, delays in driving on shallow routes to close down space, allows too many easy completions in front of him. Sometimes steps in the wrong direction on pass and run plays, going backwards unnecessarily or fooled by fakes. Average play strength, not aggressive or physical to attack blockers. Not a big striker or heavy tackler.

High volume of tackle stats misleading, because he collected a bunch of soft tackles downfield or clean up type tackles that had very little positive impact on team defense. Hesitated when scraping against wide zone run, resulting in OT driving him backwards 2 yards. Has some hip stiffness, not elite COD in space. Passivity in middle led to a number of 10+ yard runs when LB played very soft and weak in his gap. Doesn't anticipate hole on inside zone and results in 15+ yard gain. Man coverage limitations, not great at carrying TEs down seam, very sloppy penalty colliding with RB in flat. Grabby, restricting TEs and RBs with 2 hands on route. Poor decisions leaving receivers to chase after QB, allowing for easy throws when QB extends the play. Steps in wrong direction on some play fakes. Doesn't have advanced pass rush moves or juice to defeat pass blocks. Got surprised when he had to switch from one receiver to another in zone pass coverage. Appeared to blow coverage on a RB, resulting in huge gain. Motor not turned all the way up. Not an alpha playmaker on the field. Might already be close to being maxed out physically.

Long arms and strong grip reliably wrap up runners and wrestle them to the ground. Good open field tackler. Fluid pedal. Flashes ability to shed blocks and has speed burst to knife into backfield for TFLs. Great job stacking and shedding G, then throws RB down to ground. Corrected DT who was lined up in wrong gap. Attacked read zone and blew up play in backfield for TFL. Stacked and shed block by pulling G, then stuffed the RB. Very good at avoiding traffic and rubs, anticipates screens and wheel routes, then disrupts the play. Excellent pursuit range. Sees QB start to scramble, LB triggers and accelerates, running down the QB at sideline. Takes disciplined angles. At full sprint, chases down RB from behind with burst of speed. Patient, staying in assigned gap on runs, doesn't take silly gambles and get out of position. Times blitzes well, speed to crash into pocket and harass QBs. Dangerous on green dog blitzes. High ceiling prospect.

I think Clark has a high floor. Due to his strong football character and athleticism, he should at least be a good ST player and backup. He's too inconsistent right not to be an immediate starter. Has developmental upside to be a solid starter, but just like in college his progress might be slow and uneven and there is a risk that he'll hit a ceiling and never be more than a backup.

Kwon Alexander was a 4th round pick out of LSU. Alexander was a bit more physical and aggressive in college compared to Clark, but Clark has more length and I'd say has the higher ceiling. The draft profile for Alexander said he played too upright, lacked play strength, lacked field awareness, lost sight of the ball, took false steps, overran his run fits, had high character, was rangy and athletic, had adequate hand usage, and would be a core special teams player. Alexander quickly became a starter for the Tampa Bay Bucs, then got a lucrative FA contract with the Niners. After piling up tackle numbers early in his career, Alexander has had a series of injuries and has struggled to stay on the field. He played for the Saints in 2021.

If you had to choose between one of these 2 linebackers for the Rams, which one would you prefer?