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Can the LA Rams “build” a linebacker corps in the NFL Draft?

Thee college safeties that fit the linebacker mold for Les Snead to consider

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 05 Reese’s Senior Bowl Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What are the physical measurements of a Los Angeles Rams prototypical linebacker? Looking ahead to the 2022 roster, with only Ernest jones, Travin Howard, Christian Rozeboom, and Jake Gervase currently under contract, 6’ 2’ and 225 lbs would be about right.

Offensive football in the NFL has been transitioning to the passing game for decades and transitioning physical safeties into linebackers has been going on for just as long. Gone are the days when teams consistently ran the ball on first and/or second down. Nowadays, fans are just as likely to see four wide receivers on first down as a power-I formation.

Last season, only three teams, the Philadelphia Eagles (52.7%), Tennessee Titans (50.7%), and New Orleans Saints (50.3%) ran the football more than passed. Six teams threw the ball over 60% of snaps. The Rams moved through the air at a 59.1% clip and their opponents threw a whopping 61% of plays.

Transitioning safeties into linebackers is not new. In the recent past, these hybrid safety/linebackers have become standard parts of NFL defenses that must match up with the spreading of offensive sets and playmaking skills of wide receivers and tight ends. Isiah Simmons, Kyzir White, and Keanau Neal, are good examples. Last season, the Rams put some weight on Jake Gervase and moved him down from the secondary, Travin Howard played safety in college and of course, LA fans remember Mark Barron. Barron was pound-for-pound, as tough as they come and played at under 220 lbs.

Yes, there are plenty linebackers coming out in the draft, but it is doubtful the Rams will use a third round pick on a linebacker two years in a row, particularly with pick #104 being their first. Late rounders are always a mixed bag and finding LB draftees that can make a difference, with the Rams draft capital, is just not realistic. With solid starting unit bases, LA has the luxury of being able to grab some developmental players who have the low risk/high reward tag. With that in mind, here’s look at three college safeties who may project into a linebacker role.

Sterling Weatherford- Miami of Ohio 6’3’’ 230 lbs. @ Senior Bowl

Got a jump on the transition by working out at the Senior Bowl as a linebacker and by all reports showed very well, so the move isn’t a stretch. Weatherford had a lot of snaps in the box while in college, where he was very strong fighting off blocks and setting an edge. He has the physical attributes to reroute tight ends and the speed to run with backs.

At the Miami of Ohio Pro Day workout, he ran a 4.57 forty, 6.98 in the 3cone and 4.28 in the short shuttle. He also had a 36” vertical jump and pushed 21 reps on the bench press. His length is not extraordinary, but certainly proportional at a 76 1/2” wingspan.

He won’t be a thumper, but is a good form tackler, he strikes low and wraps up well. He pursues very well, his long strides and non-stop motor aid when trailing the play. Shedding blockers in the NFL will be a completely different story, but he did a stellar job versus MAC competition.

Playing in coverage is his plus trait, over his college career he had experience experience as both a single high and two-deep safety. He also covered out on the slot. His blend of size, length, and athleticism would seem to make him a natural covering playmaking NFL tight ends. As for fitting into the Rams zone coverage, Weatherford can operate while keeping his eyes in the backfield, has the instincts to quickly read and react, and has great burst when moving forward.

Having a versatile prospect like Weatherford could help the Rams in three areas. He could play as a linebacker who has coverage skills, remain a hard-hitting, hard charging safety, or become a special teams daredevil.

Tariq Carpenter- Georgia Tech 6’ 2” 225 lbs. @ Senior Bowl

Playing in both the Hula and Senior Bowls, Carpenter got considerable post season exposure after enduring a 3-9 season in which Georgia Tech had a bottom 10 NCAA defense. Capitalizing on his solid performance in the Hula Bowl, the Senior Bowl issued a late invite because scouts wanted to see more. Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy told the Atlanta Journal Constitution,

“After a great week down there at the Hula Bowl, we got a lot of good reviews from our friends around the league,” He was a guy they wanted to see more of, so it was really an easy decision once we had a roster spot open up.”

At the GT Pro day, Carpenter measured in a shade under 6’ 3” and 230 lbs. He ran the forty in 4.52, had a 39” vertical, and a 11’ 4” broad jump. Another publication, the Coastal Courier, reported his 40 time at 4.45. Either way, that is a stellar size/speed/athletic profile.

He is a physical presence against the run. He has downhill burst and plays more like a linebacker than a safety. Early in his career he showed good form and wrapped up well. This past season he made more highlight reel hits , but in the NFL where contact balance is in such supply, runners will bounce off and gain yardage. He has good motor and pursues well.

He played a lot of two-deep zone in college, so he understands the process. When near the line of scrimmage, his backpedal is fairly low and smooth. Didn’t see a lot of pure man coverage, but he has long arms (33 1/2”) and wingspan (80 5/8”) to help in this area. That reach also helps him stack and shed blockers.

If Carpenter is going to offer more than special teams value, he will need the transition to linebacker. In the defensive secondary, his size advantage does not outweigh the fact that almost all traditional-sized safeties have comparable athleticism, superior lateral agility, and better ball skills. At linebacker, his athletic ability would stand out, Although he has drawn interest from NFL scouts for his versatility and performances in college showcase games, he will most likely be a late round pick in the draft.

D’Anthony Bell- West Florida 6’ 1” 211 lbs. @ Pro Day

Small school long shot that has drawn NFL interest because of his physical traits. Bell’s solid performance in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl earned him an invite to the East-West Shrine game. He took the circuitous route from Albany State College to Iowa Central junior College to West Florida University, becoming a Division II National Champion and First Team All-American.

He flashed his athleticism at the the West Florida Pro day. He clocked a 4.45 forty, 4,29 in the short shuttle, and 3cone in the 6.9’s. Add in a 36” vertical, 10’ 9” broad jump, and 18 reps on the bench press.

Not a lot of tape of this prospect. What’s there is mostly low angles and hard to decipher, but Bell does show out as hard hitter with good tackling form. He strikes low, wraps up and drives through. Whether deep in single safety or closer to line of scrimmage, he reads and reacts well in zone, driving with good angles to play on the ball. In limited views, he shows the ability to open his hips and run down the field with receivers, at least on wheel route and out-and-ups. When making moves on the ball he does a good job of reading the quarterback, timing his breaks, and has what seem to be good ball skills. Sticky when in close coverage, he uses his length (32 5/8” arms) to advantage.

Bell is generating some draft noise and looks to be a late round prospect. He fits with the Rams at both box safety and linebacker. Being from a small school, a year in a professional strength and conditioning program could easily put 15 good pounds on a frame that looks lean and lanky. While his ceiling as may be rotational and special teams, he is certainly athletic and physical enough to handle NFL tight ends.

If they aren’t good enough to play safety, why draft them?

The idea of moving these players to new position is not prompted because of positional weaknesses, but rather their strengths. Weatherford, Carpenter, and Bell are not heavy-footed box safeties who offer little support in coverage. All three can adequately cover from sideline to sideline, but their real strength is moving forward.

Nor are they lacking in size and need to put on a bunch of weight. Carpenter and Weatherford are both as big as the Rams current linebackers and Bell is not far off. They all have the frames to put on another 10-15 pounds of muscle.

Not every NFL team is willing to take on developmental projects. During the Snead/McVay regime, the Rams have a history of bringing their rookies along slowly. Showing the willingness and patience to invest enough time, effort, and money to let young players advance their skills enough to provide a return on investment.