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Was the Bobby Wagner experiment a success for Rams?

Did Wagner serve as a role model or a hindrance to development of Ernest Jones?

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While signing star Bobby Wagner was out of character for the Los Angeles Rams and how they typically approach the linebacker position, there was still a chance that relocating to LA would allow Wagner to find his second wind. However, a year later the relationship has come to a close as both the Rams and Wagner have mutually agreed to part ways.

Wagner was LA’s most consistent, dependable, and productive player during the 2022 season, but was his tenure with the Rams a success? Should this experiment with a well-known name at linebacker make Los Angeles reconsider how they allocate resources and value certain positions?

My knee jerk reaction to those questions is a pretty safe no.

Yes, Wagner’s presence in the middle of the defense helped fortify the Rams run defense into one of the top units in the league in that regard. Though similar to his time with the Seattle Seahawks, LA gave up a high volume of pass completions in the short, middle area of the field where Wagner and second-year linebacker Ernest Jones were in coverage. The veteran linebacker is not the same player that he was in his prime, but that’s understandable for someone who is 32 - and the Rams didn’t sign Wagner last offseason with the expectation they were getting the best football of his career.

The Rams’ defensive scheme is designed to take away explosive passing plays, which forces opposing offenses to target the short and intermediate parts of the field. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris was wise to often put Wagner in positions to stop the run and get after quarterbacks as an interior pass rusher. When the veteran was asked to drop into coverage, he allowed a completion percentage as the next closest defender of 77% (according to Pro Football Focus tracking data).

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Would the Rams have been better served trading off productivity in the run game for a linebacker that has adept coverage skills? Perhaps by signing Wagner, Morris and the LA defense became more predictable and vulnerable to passes over the middle of the field.

But the more important question is where the Rams go from here, and whether Ernest Jones is capable of manning the middle of the defense full-time heading into his third season.

At the time of Wagner’s signing a year ago, the veteran was advertised as the perfect mentor and role model to Jones - but signing Wagner and keeping him on the field for three downs relegated Jones to a smaller role than he often played as a rookie. We may never know if this was truly the case, but it’s fair to wonder if Wagner’s presence was more of a hinderance to Jones’ long-term development than an overall benefit. As a former third round draft selection, Jones is on a four-year contract. Relegating the young backer to a lesser role does not make the most of his second year of that contract. The Rams still do not yet know what they have in Jones, and it’s a major question whether he’s capable of becoming the full-time start in 2023 or if they need to look for outside reinforcements.

The Rams plan for how they would leverage both Wagner and Jones did not seem clear at the time they signed Wagner in 2022, and a year later the path forward is equally—if not more—cloudy.