In recent seasons the weakest link of the defense for the Los Angeles Rams has been in the middle at inside linebacker. Since Sean McVay joined the team in 2017, the Rams have plugged players in at MLB that haven’t had much success in their respective careers outside of Los Angeles.
Cory Littleton was probably the best of the bunch during his two years in the starting lineup, as he excelled in coverage and was an important part of the 2018 defense that earned a Super Bowl berth. Littleton left as a free agent after the 2019 season and lasted only two years on the Las Vegas Raiders’ roster.
After Littleton there was Micah Kiser, Kenny Young, Troy Reeder, and Travin Howard - all later round draft picks or undrafted players effectively cut from the same cloth.
Sure, these guys had their highs. There were NFC Defensive Player of the Week awards and interceptions that clinched NFC championship games, but week-to-week on a consistent basis these players were targeted by opposing offenses instead of going after stars like Aaron Donald or Jalen Ramsey.
But the tide seemed to change when Les Snead and the Rams a third round draft choice, premium draft capital for them, to shore up the middle of the defense - drafting Ernest Jones from South Carolina in 2021.
Jones has impressive length given his 6-2 frame, and he was surprisingly good in pass coverage as a rookie despite this being a criticism of his college tape.
Perhaps the highlight of his rookie season came during Super LVI against the Cincinnati Bengals - using his length to clog passing lanes and knocking down a Joe Burrow pass on fourth down.
Former Gamecock Ernest Jones with the 4th down stop on the Bengals first drive of the game pic.twitter.com/uqXGJ2BsbY— Cam Gaskins (@CamGaskinsTV) February 13, 2022
The Rams seemed to be well positioned for the future with Jones at middle linebacker, but then Bobby Wagner found himself out of his decade-long job with the Seattle Seahawks.
LA courted Wagner for weeks before he decided to return home and join the defending Super Bowl champs. Now LA is faced with a problem, albeit a good one to have: how do you fit two great inside linebackers on the field at the same time?
It’s a question that Raheem Morris will try to answer, though it could be a work in progress over the course of the 2022 season.
Morris, whose defensive foundation comes from vaunted NFL coordinators like Monte Kiffin and Dick LeBeau, ran a continuation of the Brandon Staley/Vic Fangio scheme with the Rams last season. This is a defensive system that is spreading around the NFL like wildfire, and even if you don’t have a playcaller from the Fangio lineage you are still incorporating many of their principles into your scheme.
The more we tweeted week after week talking down on this guy the better he got week after week.. let’s give credit where credit is due.. Coming from Brandon Staley we had high expectations of course. but Raheem Morris stepped up to be a top 3 DC in the league, playoffs proved it. pic.twitter.com/Kc853LvjKh— Rams Tapes (@RamsTapes) July 31, 2022
But something these Fangio/Staley schemes have in common that is also at odds with the Rams’ strategy at MLB - they all try go minimize how many off-ball linebackers they have to put on the field. Staley deploys nickel, which substitutes a defensive back in for a linebacker, as his base personnel. These schemes also pivot to using numbers games on the defensive line as a means of stopping the running game and getting pressure on the quarterback - and this usually means taking another linebacker off the field.
So while the NFL is headed in one direction - taking linebackers off the field as often as possible - the Rams are taking a contrarian approach by pairing up Wagner and Jones.
Wagner is expected to be LA’s “green dot” signal caller, which means he’s probably not going to leave the field much. This leaves Jones as the rotational piece that the Rams will use situationally, though he seems to be a rising star on the team and someone Morris wants to make room for on the field.
While Jones still has to prove his worth in the NFL, his talent is unquestioned. Wagner is a bonafide Hall of Fame talent with as much production as any defender over the last decade.
So what do you get when you mash these two together, and what is the ceiling for the dynamic duo in 2022?
There aren’t many of elite MLB pairings in recent NFL history, but perhaps the most relevant instance came from the NFC West - Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman who were fearsome for the San Francisco 49ers for the better part of three years.
Patrick Willis X NaVorro Bowman forever ❤️ pic.twitter.com/OkuR5KOmke— OurSF49ers (@OurSf49ers_) July 28, 2020
Willis and Bowman set an extremely high bar with their production between the 2011 and 2013 seasons - recording six interceptions, 45 pass deflections, 15 forced fumbles, 8 fumble recoveries, 14.5 sacks, and 571 total tackles. Both posted elite PFF grades during this time span as well.
It’s unfair to hold Wagner and Jones to that level of standard, and doing so would inevitably set them up for disappointment regardless of how well they hold up in the modern era of the NFL.
But we have over a month until we see the Rams take the field for a game that actually counts, and it’s the season to feel optimistic reflect on what is possible for Morris’ defense with two great players fortifying the middle.
It may not work out: Wagner may only play for the Rams for a single season, though it’s also possible he and Jones form the best inside linebacker duo since 2013.
The sky is the limit.