When you are the defending Super Bowl champions and getting a lot of publicity as one of the best teams in the league, any reports, big or small are viewed under a microscope. Recently, much of the talk about the Los Angeles Rams has been centered on their defensive line. More to the point, on Aaron Donald trying to secure a new contract that makes him the highest paid defensive player in the NFL. But there is much more going on in the trenches.
Behind the stellar starting trio of Donald, Greg Gaines, and A’Shawn Robinson, there are as many questions about the rotation as there are candidates to fill those roles. Seven players are vying to line up in defensive coordinator Raheem Morris’ three-man front. The questions are about their professional experience, their best fit into the scheme, and the contractual futures of almost almost the whole unit (not just AD’s).
The entire group of rotational candidates have amassed only 336 pro snaps and the modest production that would come along with that few snaps. It also remains to be seen that positional fits can been translated from potential into actual on-field activity.
Of the 10 players in the unit, only Donald, Bobby Brown, and Jonah Williams are signed past the upcoming season. Gaines and Robinson are unrestricted free agents and could hit the open market, and while the rest are tied to LA as exclusive rights free agents, in reality, anything could transpire.
Aaron Donald- 6’ 1” 285 lbs., on contact through 2024
Simply one of the best defensive tackles to ever play the game. There is nothing to add that hasn’t been said over and over.
Greg Gaines- 6’ 2” 313 lbs., unrestricted free agent after 2022
Thrust into a starting nose tackle role after the injury to Sebastian Joseph-Day, Gaines responded with 55 tackles, 4.5 sacks 13 quarterback hits. His hustle, effort and pursuit stood out on film. Although a little undersized in both mass and length for a nose tackle in today’s NFL, his success shows that low leverage and a hot motor never go out of style in the trenches.
A’Shawn Robinson- 6’ 4” 320 lbs., unrestricted free agent after 2022
Robinson was really an immoveable object versus the run. Amassing 67 tackles in only 516 snaps. He also cleaned up a couple of sacks and QB hits. His ability to stonewall the line opened up others to apply pressure. It will be fun to watch Bobby Wagner attack the ball with the luxury of lining up behind Rob. Injuries have always been a concern with Robinson, hopefully his weight loss and a new conditioning program can keep him on the field.
The returning backups
Bobby Brown- 6’ 4” 325 lbs., on contract through 2024
Marquise Copeland- 6’ 2” 290 lbs., 2023 exclusive rights free agent (ERFA)
Michael Hoecht- 6’ 4” 310 lbs., 2023 ERFA.
Jonah Williams- 6’ 5” 275 lbs., on contract through 2024
Earnest Brown- 6’ 5” 270 lbs., 2023 ERFA
The new guys
Elijah Garcia- 6’ 5” 290 lbs., on contract through 2024
Keir Thomas- 6’ 1” 255 lbs., on contract through 2024
So, what will 2022 rotation look like?
Donald has played well over 80 percent of snaps and as many as 90 in his career. Gaines played 67 percent last year, even while starting the season as a backup. Robinson played 44 percent of snaps, and when healthy, should be expected to play 60 percent. Barring injury to one of the starters, about 875 snaps over the season will need to be picked up to keep the first string fresh and pressure applied to opposing offenses.
There are not a lot of NFL snaps amongst the returning backups. Garcia and Thomas are probably headed to the practice squad. Copeland and Hoecht had the most snaps last season, but both played only a handful over 100. Williams had just under 100, but was released mid-season and reclaimed later. Of the only two players with a draft pedigree, BBrown had 22 snaps and EBrown didn’t chalk up one. You read that correct, besides the two Browns, all the Rams defensive line backup candidates are UDFA’s. One player that won’t get a role is Dion Novil, a UDFA rookie out of North Texas. He was released by the Rams before the offense and defense were brought together for phase three of OTA’s.
Can one of the rotational candidates have a comparable breakout to Greg Gaines? Even without much draft pedigree, they all have traits that give them upside. While they all have been cross-trained up and down the line, there are zero sacks and less than 25 pro tackles between them. One of the biggest Rams camp battles will be who will be the first defensive lineman off the bench.