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Why the Rams should wait until late rounds to draft a linebacker

Profiling prospects that compliment Ernest Jones’ skillset

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 01 Reese’s Senior Bowl Practice
Daiyan Henley stood tall at Senior Bowl workouts
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If the Los Angeles Rams and General Manger Les Snead run true to form, fans should not expect an off-ball linebacker to be selected within the first five rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft. Under Snead (since 2012), L.A. has selected nine off ball linebackers and only two, Alec Ogletree (Rd.1, ‘13) and Ernest Jones (Rd.3, ‘21) in the first three rounds.

Other than Jones, none of those second liners are still with the Rams, Clay Johnston (Rd.7, ‘20), Dakota Allen (Rd.7, ‘19), Micah Kiser (Rd.5, ‘18), Travin Howard (Rd.7, ‘18), Josh Forrest (Rd.6, ‘16), Bryce Hager (Rd.7, ‘15) and Aaron Brown (Rd.7, ‘12).

Looking deeper, a pattern emerges, the Rams start looking to move on their starting linebackers after around four years, basically their second contract. Snead brought Ogletree aboard to replace James Laurinaitis and the startling development of Cory Littleton allowed L.A. to move on from Ogletree without using a top pick. When it became became obvious the Rams were not going to catch “Littleton lightening” in a bottle twice with the Troy Reeder experiment, the Rams used the draft capital to select Ernest Jones. The Bobby Wagner signing was an outlier, a high-profile free agent addition (as is Snead’s style) to a very thin unit and whose contract turned out to be the equivalent of a one year “show me” contract.

Jumping forward to today, Ernest Jones and Jake Hummel are the only linebackers under contract. Whether it be through free agency or the draft, the Rams will certainly have to bring in three or four players, at the very least, just to open training camp. With Jones penciled in as LB#1, hopefully the Rams will find prospects who compliment his skillset.

This article is not about making a case for a player for the Rams to select at #36. While this years top candidates all have stellar traits, production, athletic upsides and high ceilings each has flaws that should push them back to Round 3. Selections in the later rounds of the draft, or as undrafted free agents, can offer value on special teams as they develop, or be cut loose with a major hit to draft capital.

Instead of listing the candidates in order as to their draft grades, the linebacker category will be broken into three sub-groups. Today will start with “chase and drag tacklers”, followed by “former safeties/new age hybrids”, and finishing with “old school thumpers”.

Chase and drag tacklers

Drew Sanders, Arkansas - 6’ 4” / 235 lbs. / 9 3/4” hands / 32 1/8” arms @ NFL Combine

Edge or linebacker? Many experts consider Sanders as the top linebacker in the class and he could easily be a Round 1 pick. Earned a slew of accolades, including being a unanimous All-American in his only season as a starter. Just turned 21, spent his first two college years at Alabama and enters the draft after his true junior year.

Sanders has a lot going for him, physicality, versatility, and athleticism. Good burst into gaps and around the edge and enough long speed to pursue hash to sideline and from behind the ball. Moves laterally fluidly. Can turn speed to power, but lacks play strength to take on blockers or stack and shed. Falls off tackles at times, seems to have good length/wingspan, and getting comfortable using it would upgrade those misses and fighting off blockers.

Sanders has generated a lot of talk about being a first round selection, but I like him better in late Rd.2/early Rd. 3. His game film watches like his highlight reels with most of his splash plays coming from rushing the quarterback. He played in an aggressive college scheme that blitzed often and regularly lined up as a standup edge. Before his 2022 breakout, Sanders had 33 career tackles. If L.A. sees and likes his potential as an edge, cool I'll listen, but at off ball linebacker, let another team spend the first round pick on him and push another top tier player down to the Rams at #36.

Henry To’oto’o, Alabama - 6’ 1” / 227 lbs. / 10 1/4” hands / 32 3/4” arms @ NFL Combine

Jumped south to ‘Bama after two years and 20+ starts at Tennessee. Just turned 22 in January. He has certainly rolled up good tackle stats (355 in four seasons) at the highest college level and 31 tackles for loss. Was named to the Senior Bowl, but withdrew with an undisclosed injury. Called defensive signals and adjustments for the Tide.

Good pass coverage player. Gets good depth quickly, moves with quarterback’s eyes, and has the read and react skills to close quickly. Pretty sticky in man, he has enough size and length to handle tight ends and good enough burst and long speed to cover running backs. Good tackler, but not a thumper. Flows well down the line and navigates through clogged areas. To’oto’o is another prospect who needs better play strength as a pro, too often he cannot fight off blockers.

For the Rams, he fits as the move backer. Either as the one LB on the field in passing situations or part of a big nickel/dime package. I couldn’t find much recorded history of special teams play, but he certainly has the attributes. (coordination, balance, lateral agility) I like him mid/late in Round 3 and getting him in Round 4 would offer real value.

Daiyan Henly, Washington State - 6’ 2” / 225 lbs. / 9 1/2” hands / 33” arms @ NFL Combine

Began his college career at Nevada with two years at wide receiver. Jumped over to the other side of the ball for a season at safety before settling in at linebacker. Over those two years at the second level, Henley had 209 tackles, 25.5 for loss, five interceptions, 10 passes defended, and forced or recovered eight fumbles. How versatile is he? In college he ran, caught, and threw the ball on offense, on defense tackled, intercepted, and recovered the pigskin and finally, played special teams on the coverage and blocking units. Oh yes, he also returned 25 kickoffs.

Fluid, twitchy mover in space, backward, forward, and laterally. Very good in coverage, both man and zone. Had solid Senior Bowl week, with excellent reps in coverage. He could get better depth when backpedaling into zone, but I’m not sure if that was part of the scheme of a weak spot that needs to be shored up. He spied quarterbacks as a regular part of his game. Although a good form tackler In the run game, he sometimes looks a little slow to react. Again I’m not sure if it’s his inexperience in reading keys or being patient because of his downhill burst. Again, he is still learning the position and does read and react well in pass coverage.

Has gotten as much buzz as any other prospect in the draft process. He has all the tools. An older prospect, turns 24 as a rookie and with only two years on the job, is still growing as a linebacker. What would he bring to the Rams? Henley’s a prospect that was All-Pac12 at both linebacker and on special teams, has good speed, and pass coverage ability. Another mid Round 3 grade, but in this linebacker class that doesn’t have real “can’t miss” candidates at the top, if he tests well he could easily go earlier.

Owen Pappoe, Auburn - 6’ / 225 lbs. / 9 1/8” hands / 31 3/4” arms @ NFL Combine

Consensus five-star recruit out of high school and started all four years at Aubrn. Suffered an ankle fracture in 2021, finished the game on it and tried to bite the bullet in practice before having it diagnosed as needing surgery. He missed eight games. There are reports of his play on the field as not living up to his recruiting pedigree. His stats are not great, but he is a four-year SEC starter and two 90+ tackle seasons. Missed the Senior Bowl with a shoulder injury.

Plays much better in space, with the burst and long speed to cover sideline to sideline and the short area agility to spy nimble quarterbacks. Pappoe is a good tackler, and takes decent angles to close ground well. He gets engulfed in line congestion and even though he has good length, he is neither skilled in using it to his advantage nor strong enough to stack and shed. In zone coverage, he gets good drops, reads the quarterback and has the twitch to break on the ball. He’s as fast as running backs and tight ends, so he matches up fairly well in man.

He would be a nice late addition to the Rams at will linebacker, to make best use of his athleticism. He’s made the Feldman’s Freaks list and rumored to run in the high 4.3’s, so he will likely test out of this world at the NFL Combine and be overdrafted. I like his value late in Round 4. He’s got SEC pedigree and production, but needs to work hard on play strength and technique work.

Dorian Williams, Tulane - 6’ 1” / 228 lbs. / 10 1/4” hands / 33 3/4” arms @ NFL Combine

After spending his freshman year on special teams, Williams earned a starting role and over his final three seasons had 306 tackles, 27 for loss. 9.5 sacks, and 14 passes defended. In his Tulane finale, Williams made 17 tackles in the Green Wave’s upset victory over USC in the Cotton Bowl. Played in the Senior Bowl.

The most physical of this group. Not afraid to charge downhill and take on blockers in the hole or on a blitz. But generally tries bounce off or avoid blockers at the second level. Better burst and short area speed than long, projects better with midfield to sideline pursuit ability. Good tackler, form and aggressiveness. Willing blitzer who doesn’t give up when stymied. Although not known as an elite pass defender, he has the traits for success and showed them off with a solid showing in coverage during Senior Bowl workouts.

Williams tallied up big stats in small conference and will face a steep learning curve in the pros. Prospects who pile up stats, play fast, explode to the ball and have 700+ college special special teams snaps are very good low risk/high reward candidates. Particularly in Round 6.

Micah Baskerville, LSU - 6’ 1/2” / 221 lbs. / 9 5/8” hands / 31 1/4” arms @ NFL Combine

At a school like LSU, every recruiting season brings in a crop of top recruits. Baskerville has not only fought his way up to a starting role, but has stayed relevant over his career with hard work. Over 30 SEC starts in five years, he racked up 260 tackles, 22.5 for loss, and 14 passes defended. A point in his favor is 550+ snaps on special teams.

Very sticky in man coverage. Patient waiting on running backs to make their in/out cuts and has the burst to follow. Backpedals well and gets good depth and although he’s not a really physical player, doesn’t tight ends bully him. Needs real lower body to buildup and live inside as a pro. Not a great blitzer or gap shooter, comes in too high and cannot turn speed to power. Better as a guy who funnels runners back inside where there’s help.

Fits into L.A. as a sizable, fast special teams player. He has the athletic traits and could develop into a coverage backer in zone and to spy nimble quarterbacks. Maybe more, if he works on play strength. An SEC starter without baggage late (Round 7) in the draft? Nice possibility of roster value.

Which prospect should the Rams select?

With Ernest Jones as the heir apparent as the “Mike” linebacker, the player next to him should compliment his skillset. Jones is tough, physical and has football IQ. Plays downhill, a good tackler, and disciplined, but lacks the speed and athletic upside for stellar pass coverage.

All the prospects in this category are athletic and played well in college pass coverage. Because of the thinness at the top of the linebacker class, the highest rated players have a good probability of being overdrafted.

I lean strongly towards the idea of the Rams using their top picks in deeper positional units. Draft a couple athletic linebackers late and nab a couple more as priority free agents with the skillset criteria being good in coverage and special teams play. Which segues into the next group of profiled linebackers, former safeties/new age hybrids.