It almost sounds outrageous to claim the the Los Angeles Rams defensive line is small, but relatively speaking, it really is not a hulking group. While the 2022 season started with two 300 lb. starters, of the 15 players (including edges) who saw action on the front line, only four tipped the scales at 300+. Of those four, three are not under contract for next season.
Starters A’Shawn Robinson (330 lbs.) and Greg Gaines (312 lbs.) are unrestricted free agents and versatile backup Michael Hoecht (310 lbs.) is an exclusive rights free agent. In theory, the Rams could re-sign all three, Robinson would likely be in the $6 to $8mil range and Gaines will be in line for a nice raise, up near those same numbers. Hoecht’s status for next season is tied to L.A.’s whims, only needing to be tendered a contract, usually at/near the league minimum, to be retained.
Some of the lack of size can be explained away by the preferences of Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris, who likes smaller, more athletic players over the big bruisers. But actually, since 2017 when Sean McVay took over the reins, the Rams have had scant few 300+ pounders on the line. In fact, this years starting lineup of Robinson, Gaines, and Aaron Donald was the largest in mass during the McVay regime.
If Morris stays on to helm the L.A. defense, fans should expect the schemes to continue the trend of using four-man fronts, lining up two down linemen inside along with two edge players. In the Rams 4-2-5 defense, two linemen position inside and are flanked by two edge players. This creates a scenario where the nose tackle in a traditional 3-4 formation becomes a sub package and magnifies L.A.’s lack of size.
Here are L.A.’s current defensive front and edge units with their weights according to the Rams official website.
Down linemen under contract- Bobby Brown (325), Larell Murchison (297), Aaron Donald (280), TJ Carter (289), Jonah Williams (275) and Earnest Brown (270).
Free agents- A’Shawn Robinson (330), Greg Gaines (312) and Marquise Copeland (287).
Edge players under contract- Keir Thomas (275), Zach VanValkenberg (263), Brayden Thomas (260), Leonard Floyd (240) and Daniel Hardy (240).
Free agents- Michael Hoecht (310).
Do the Rams really need more size on the defensive line?
Obviously, the pass rush needs an upgrade and just adding more size is not the answer. The best answer to improving the pressure would be the addition of a quality playmaker on the edge. Setting that topic aside for another time, it is not a huge step to think that supplementing the front with a nose tackle capable of compressing the pocket could easily loosen things up for Aaron Donald to do his thing.
Year to year, the are plenty of free agents of differing quality grades and price points, but nose tackle is one position where teams can prospect some draft value. It’s a role where you don’t need a high-priced superstar, just a functional space eater who can give you early down push or anchor, before giving way to rotational packages.
As has become the standard, the Rams will have the bulk of their 2023 draft picks in the later rounds and while details are not yet official, overthecap.com speculates that L.A. will have as many as eight selections from rounds five through seven. There are a couple of nose tackle prospects that could add some value in these later areas.
Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin- 5th round
Benton could easily wriggle out of the Rams grasp. There’s a lot to like about the 21 year-old 6’ 4” 317 lb. Badger. His aggressive play style, hot motor and strength at the point of attack are coveted traits in line play. But his proclivity in 2022 for making plays behind the line of scrimmage could bump him up onto late Day 2 of the NFL draft.
In collecting his 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks during 2022, Benton uses a combination of brute power, balance and continuous effort. He has 34” arms, a well-proportioned body and was champion wrestler in high school. He is very sudden with his hands, punch, and fighting skills. He generally plays with good pad level, applies leverage and has the lower body strength to set a solid anchor. He’s got brains to go with brawn as an All-Big 10 academician.
Even though Benton has sack production, it more because of relentless pursuit and not because of a bevy of pass rush moves, he has more of a run-through-a-brick-wall style. He must work on keeping his pad level low when pass rushing. He has the versatility to play up and down the line, but his best reps come on the nose. Does not seem agile or fast enough to be a stellar 3T or 5T, he’s not a slug by any means, just better served in confined areas.
As a run stopper with some pass rush upside, Benton fits the Rams similarly to previous nose tackles Greg Gaines and Sebastian Joseph-Day. He combines SJD’s size and length with Gaines’ lunch pail effort and adds a modicum of violence. The risk/reward quotient on Benton is good and Rams defensive line coach Eric Henderson has done a stellar job of building up late round players into NFL contributors. With a some polishing, Keeanu Benton could shine on the L.A. line.
PJ Mustipher, Penn State 6th round
Not a true nose tackle in college, he normally shaded the opposing center. But his specialty is fighting off blockers, holding his gaps, and stopping the run. Mustipher spent five seasons with the Nittany Lions and was a multiple-year team captain. Even while missing most of 2021 with a knee injury and the COVID19 shortened 2020 season, still played in 51 college games.
At 6’ 4” 321 lbs., Mustipher has the ideal mass, length, and lower body strength to be an NFL run stopper. He is not a flashy guy who makes a lot of splash plays, he’s more of hand fighter who bullrushes straight ahead. A gap plugger who you can blitz off of, or twist around. He stays wary of where the ball goes and pursues adequately over short spaces.
He had a major knee injury in 2021 and reports are that he played last season at over 330 lbs. His conditioning needs work and at times he plays too high, being in better shape may help that. Mustipher does need extensive technique work, he needs to consistently use that strong punch and upper body power to keep blockers at bay.
Mustipher is the type of player who could play as a rookie, just on his play strength and anchor ability. He fits with the Rams because of that ability to clog up the line and free up the linebackers to make plays on the ball. NFL defenses have begun to go back to deeper umbrella zone coverages to stymie vertical passing games and force opposing offenses into disciplined drives. When offenses adjust by attacking the prevent coverages with the run game, players like PJ Mustipher can carve out a role.
JJ Pegues, Ole Miss- 7th round
Smallest of the group at 6’ 2” 315 lbs. Only 21 years old with three seasons in the SEC, two at Auburn and one at Ole Miss. Athletic for his squatty size, he came to college as a tight end. Pegues is not a diamond in the rough with a high ceiling, just the opposite, he’s a SEC-tough competitor who has a decently high floor and some developmental traits.
On the nose, he’s willing to do the dirty work and eat up double-team blocks with a good anchor. It appears he does lack anymore than proportional arm length and does not have a great punch. Lack of experience may be a problem, Pegues has only played in 21 college games as a down lineman (another six as a freshman tight end) and needs a pro workout/conditioning protocol.
He was on the 2021 Feldman’s Freaks list and you can see his athleticism on tape. Pegues has stellar get-off, and moves freely on light feet. He has nice swim moves and is very balanced with his spin moves. He shows good lower body drive by staying low and behind his pads, is able to leverage his lower center of gravity and plays with a good motor.
How much could he contribute as a rookie? Considering how long it took Sebastian Joseph Day, Greg Gaines, and Bobby Brown to get on the field, probably not much. Pegues is a raw, athletically gifted, and has good film at college football’s highest level. Draft JJ Pegues with an eye to the future, but if he takes to being coached up on technique and conditioning, his preseason game performance could lead to regular play time.