Coming into the 2023 NFL season, not many expected the Los Angeles Rams defense to be very good. In fact, there was more reason that not to believe that they wouldn’t be very good. During the offseason, general manager Les Snead opted to trade Jalen Ramsey while cutting Leonard Floyd and Bobby Wagner. All three of these players were key contributors on the defense in 2022.
However, it wasn’t just that the Rams got rid of those three players, they also didn’t bring in anyone to necessarily replace them. Yes, they signed Ahkello Witherspoon at cornerback, but he signed just a one-year, $1.08M contract. Sure, they drafted Byron Young in the third-round. However, in the 2022 NFL Draft, there were a combined four sacks by edge rushers that were selected in the third round. Alex Highsmith was selected in in the third round of the 2020 draft. Highsmith is a very good edge player now, but had just two sacks as a rookie. How much could really be expected of these players?
For the 2023 season, the Rams ranked dead last in defensive cash spending with a little over $54M. To put that in perspective, the San Francisco 49ers lead the NFL with $158M. There was a running joke in the offseason that you couldn’t name anyone on the Rams defense outside of Aaron Donald.
To say the least, the Rams defense has exceeded expectations this year. Despite not spending on the defensive side of the ball in the offseason, the Rams rank 21st in defense DVOA, 19th in defense EPA, and 14th in defensive success-rate.
Last year, the Chicago Bears ranked last in the NFL in defensive spending. The finished the season ranked 32nd in all three categories. In 2021, the team that finished last in defensive spending was the Atlanta Falcons. They finished the season ranked 31st in DVOA, 28th in defense EPA, and 32nd in success-rate.
Spotrac’s cash spending data goes back to 2013. Since then, only one team has marginally better than the 2023 Rams. The Carolina Panthers in 2016 ranked 16th in defense EPA and 14th in defensive success-rate. Some teams have ranked better in one stat i.e. the 2018 Indianapolis Colts ranked 9th in defense EPA, but 25th in success rate. In addition, the 2019 New York Giants were comparable in success-rate, ranking 15th but were just 27th in defense EPA.
Taking both statistics into account, the Rams defense has been the second-best overall unit since 2013 while being last in defensive cash spending. We’ll see where they end up, but through 12 weeks, they are exceeding expectations and 11 games of data isn’t necessarily a small sample size.
It really goes back to the coaching job by Raheem Morris and what he’s done with this group that didn’t have any expectations coming into the season. Now, of course a defense that barely ranks inside the top-20 is nothing to write home about. Being in the top-half of the league or inside the top-10 should always be the goal. With that being said, given the resources, he has certainly made the most of the hand that he was dealt. As shown above, he’s done more with the resources that he was given than almost any defensive coordinator since at least 2013.
How many players on the current Rams defense would have started on other teams in Week 1? On another team, Byron Young and Kobe Turner are both likely rotational players. Nobody wanted Ahkello Witherspoon as he was on the free agent market until the Rams signed him in June. Quentin Lake has turned into an important starter at the star position. He’s likely just a depth safety on most teams.
The player starting at edge across from Young is a natural defensive lineman who transitioned to the edge just last season. This isn’t to say that Michael Hoecht has played well, but at the same time, his 4.5 sacks are just one fewer than Aidan Hutchinson who has 5.5. Morris and his coaching staff have gotten the most out of their players. They have maximized the talent on the roster.
Realistically speaking, the only players that you can make an argument for as starters on most NFL teams are Aaron Donald, Ernest Jones, and possibly Jordan Fuller.
Morris and the Rams defense are far from perfect. Again, this is only to show that Morris has gotten the most out of this roster and what he was given this season from a talent standpoint.
If Los Angeles makes the playoffs with this group of players on defense, there’s no doubt that Morris will once again be in contention for head coaching positions. It’s one thing to win with Aaron Donald, Von Miller, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Floyd, etc. To coach group into a playoff caliber defense would be extremely impressive and not something that many would have predicted at the beginning of the season.
Very rarely does a coach take a head coach position where you aren’t forced to maximize limited talent during the initial stages of the team-build. A great example of this is what DeMeco Ryans has done with the Houston Texans as a first-year head coach. Brian Daboll did this last year with the Giants. Morris has worked on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, coached a defense to a Super Bowl, and this year has shown that he can maximize and coach young talent on a roster.
We’ll see if that leads to Morris earning a head coaching job in the offseason, but what he’s done this year with this group of players on the Rams defense certainly deserved to be commended and recognized.