The move came as a mild surprise as Wagner’s one year with the Rams went well from an individual performance standpoint despite the team finishing 5-12. Wagner finished with a career-high six sacks and was named a second-team All-Pro. He was also Pro Football Focus’ top-rated linebacker.
After being released by the Seattle Seahawks as a cap casualty, Wagner came home to Los Angeles to prove that he had something left in the tank. He did just that. Throughout much of last season, the Rams had one of the top-rated run defenses in the NFL and a lot of that was credit to Wagner.
With Wagner gone, the Rams certainly have a hole at the linebacker position. However, that doesn’t mean that they will or necessarily should spend big or use a premier draft pick on another linebacker.
Prior to signing Wagner, the Rams and Snead hadn’t spent big on the linebacker position. Alec Ogletree was the last linebacker they heavily invested in, drafting him in the first round in 2013 and then signing him to an extension. It hasn’t been apart of their team-building philosophy. Since then, the Rams have made due with undrafted free agents such as Cory Littleton and Travin Howard. Kenny Young was included in the trade with the Baltimore Ravens for Marcus Peters and Micah Kiser was a fifth round pick.
Let’s also not forget, the Rams won the Super Bowl with Troy Reeder and a third-round rookie in Ernest Jones. One of the most controversial moves of the 2021 season was releasing Young.
Releasing Wagner gets the Rams back to the basics with their team building strategy. Unless a team has a linebacker such as Fred Warner who turns quarterbacks into Daniel Jones when targeting the middle of the field, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest a hefty price into the position in the modern NFL.
To add to this great thread on the Dolphins O vs. 49ers D matchup.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 1, 2022
Opposing QBs pass attempts from 6-15 yards & between the numbers.
Vs. other opponents/Fred Warner off-field:
Success rate - 63.2%
EPA/Att - .4
Vs. Fred Warner on-field:
Success rate - 45%
EPA/Att - .08 https://t.co/9oKPif86gv
In an era where teams are spreading defenses out and teams play more nickel and dime packages to match the offense’s personnel, very rarely are there ever three linebackers on the field at the same time. A lot of the time, defenses are playing with one linebacker and at most two. When it comes to positional value, inside linebacker is very low on the totem pole.
Sure, there are linebackers like Warner who make a difference. However, those players are far and few between. Most of the league sees the position as interchangeable and are using linebacker by committee.
Pass rushers and pass defenders are where teams are and should be using their resources. This is likely a direction that the Rams will be heading towards once again next season. Outside of Leonard Floyd, Rams edge rushers had a combined 6.5 sacks last season. It’s worth noting that 4.5 of those came from Michael Hoecht who the Rams transitioned to an edge rusher late in the season. The other two sacks came from players who were cut midseason in Terrell Lewis and Justin Hollins.
The need for a pass rusher is there.
After going 5-12, changes were going to be made. While injuries and offensive line issues were a part of the Rams’ downfall in 2022, there were other issues beyond that.
Ernest Jones will be expected to take a leap forward after a career-high 114 tackles in 2022. Heading into year three, it will be time for the Rams to see what they have in Jones as a full-time starter. It’s fair to say that Jones has earned that opportunity.
Last season, among linebackers with at least 450 snaps, Jones had the sixth best tackling grade according to Pro Football Focus. His run defense grade also ranked 16th. Additionally, in coverage, Jones gave up just 8.7 yards per reception which ranked 18th and his 243 yards after the catch allowed finished 13th.
Behind Jones is where the Rams don’t have a lot of depth. Still, that doesn’t mean they need to go out and invest heavily in the position. Christian Rozeboom has been on the roster for much of the last two years. As an undrafted free agent, Jake Hummel also showed some promise during the preseason as a rookie. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Rams use one of their sixth or seventh round picks on a linebacker. However, it shouldn’t be expected that they go out and sign a linebacker in free agency for $5M+ or draft one with the 36th overall pick.
The Rams will take the money saved on Wagner and use that to help bring in a pass rusher to compliment Floyd or on another position that is more valued.
Releasing Wagner is likely one of several moves that the Rams will make over the next few weeks in order to get under the cap. If one thing is for sure, the 2023 Rams squad will look much different that the one that entered the offseason. The 2023 offseason may not be a rebuild, but this is the beginning of the remodel or retool that has been promised.