Since Les Snead took over as General Manager in 2012, the Los Angeles Rams have had five middle linebackers, James Laurinaitis, Alec Ogletree, Cory Littleton, Troy Reeder, and Bobby Wagner.
Laurinaitis was a solid player who averaged 120+ tackles for some poor Rams teams. Ogletree spent a couple seasons on the weak side, before taking over in the middle and chalked up, even with one season mostly lost to injury, over 100 tackles per season.
Littleton moved in the weak side role next to Ogletree and his pass coverage abilities charged his meteoric rise, making Tree replaceable. In his two years in the middle Littleton averaged 130 tackles. When Littleton became a free agent, the Rams did not re-sign him and he left L.A. for a free agent deal.
Micah Kiser seemed the heir apparent to replace Littleton, but injuries held him back and undrafted free agent Troy Reeder eventually forced him out of L.A. Reeder averaged 86 tackles over his two-year run as a starter and when L.A. drafted Jones in in 2021, the rookie came in and played on the weak side, grooming for the move to the middle.
After Reeder ran out of league minimum options, the Rams let him move on, but it was not yet Jones time to slide inside, future Half Famer Bobby Wagner was signed to patrol the interior. The move has become a head-scratcher for Rams fans since L.A. released Wagner after one season. Now the job appears, after two work-in seasons, finally firmly in Jones’ grasp.
While the Rams, as a general rule, have drafted and groomed their own middle backers, the weak side was often manned by journeyman grade players acquired on the cheap. Rocky McIntosh, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Akeem Ayers, Mark Barron, Ramik Wilson and Kenny Young all had their runs.
If the Rams decide to stock the linebacker room with draftees and/or rookie free agents, there are, as always, no lack of possibilities. Here in part two of potential candidates are second liners who started their college careers as safeties and grew into linebacker roles.
Former safeties/new age hybrids
Trenton Simpson, Clemson - 6’ 2” / 235 lbs. / 10 1/4” hands / 32 3/8” arms @ NFL Combine
Comes out after his true junior season and will turn 22 in his rookie NFL season. Simpson’s production stats were good, but not elite. Over 37 games and 1400+ snaps he totaled 164 tackles, 22.5 for loss, 12.5 sacks, and five passes defended.
Stellar athletic physique and upside. Lined up all over the field for Clemson. In 2021 he spent much time covering the slot and flats or blitzing off the edge. Spent 2022 in the more traditional role behind the front line, but still a prolific blitzer. There are lots of comparisons to Micah Parsons, although he’s not near as physical at the point of attack. He is however a stellar blitzer who can turn his speed to power and very aggressive attacking the pocket. Can certainly open his hips and cover running backs and fast tight ends down the field.
Many experts have him as one of the top two linebacker prospects and a possible Round 1 selection. I’m not so sure. As a matter of fact, if the Rams completely passed on him, they can find equal value later in the draft. Maybe it’s the way he was used in Clemson’s schemes, but he only had five passes defended and 13 of his 23 tackles for loss were sacks. Although he is a twitchy athlete and covers lots of ground, Simpson isn’t going to bring the L.A. defense much physicality. I may be way off on this guy, but late Round 3 is as high as I can go.
#Clemson LB/S Trenton Simpson does it all for their defense. Assisting in the run game, short area zone coverages plus the ability to chase down the football.— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) July 30, 2022
All three are on display on consecutive plays.
Jalen Graham, Purdue - 6’ 2” / 220 lbs. / 9 7/8” hands / 33” arms @ NFL Combine
Suffered a tibia impact fracture in the first game of the season and came back for the final nine games. For his 38 game career, Graham totaled 169 tackles, 12.5 for loss, 16 passes defended, and three interceptions. Just turned 22.
Played more coverage than the other prospects, mostly in zone and showed the instincts for it. Gets good depth, keeps feet moving, and eyes on the quarterback. In man he sticks to tight ends and redirects running backs before they get away from him. Didn’t do a lot of blitzing, looks more like run blitz work and wasn’t used as a spy on active quarterbacks. Aggressive run stopper, good tackler, but will need to wrap up as a pro and not go for the big hit. Doesn’t lack willingness to step in and plug gaps or the edge against bigger players. Not an elite athlete, but plays fast and is always flowing to the ball because of awareness, play recognition and hustle.
I like his game better than most draft experts. While he’s not a right away starter, he is a prime candidate for special teams work. Graham is physical, has a hot motor, and is comfortable playing in zone coverage. Off the top of my head, a role similar to Mark Barron is not out of the question. A long, relatively thin player who has the guts to bang inside and enough athleticism to be of value in space. There’s room for more mass on his frame, if that is in the cards. A nice addition in mid-Round 6 to 7.
Dee Winters, TCU - 5’ 11” / 227 lbs. / 9” hands / 31 5/8” arms / @ NFL Combine
Talented two-way player (wide receiver and safety) in high school. Chalked up 246 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, 10 passes defended, and three interceptions. Produced a solid performance in Senior Bowl workouts and was voted as the outstanding linebacker.
Twitchy, aggressive athlete who wins with both downhill and lateral speed. Tremendous burst through gaps and off the edge, creating a lot of plays at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. Lacks the length and strength to stack and shed or torque blockers, but hits and tackles like a bigger men. In coverage, he has loose hips and ankles to quickly change direction and mirror receivers, as well as good read and react skills.
Those original “Tampa2” defenses that Rams Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris was schooled under were stocked with fast, relatively small linebackers. They were good tacklers and everyone exploded to the ball. This is where Winters could fit into L.A.’s defense. If the Rams want to be faster and aggressive, he‘s a good addition in with one of those multiple Round 5 and 6 picks they often stockpile.
DeMarvion Overshown, Texas - 6’ 3” / 229 lbs. / 32 1/4” arms @ NFL Combine
Spent his first two years as a Texas safety/linebacker hybrid, moved off ball in 2020 season and became a regular starter. Finally lived up to his potential as fifth-year senior with 96 tackles. For his 33 game career, he tallied modest production, 165 tackles, 18 for loss, nine passes defended, and five sacks.
This class is filled with linebackers who do their best work as blitz backers, add Overshown to that list. He’s a plus athlete, not particularly smooth and fluid, kind of gangly actually, but he gets there in a hurry. Good in coverage, both zone and man with his lateral movement and flexible hips. Big enough to cover tight ends and has the speed to stick to running backs. Against the run, he’s a true sideline to sideline pursuer and the burst to beat blockers to the point of attack.
Overshown may very well to turn out to be a fine pro, but he’s another one of those players the Rams should pass on. There are too many other LB’s with better all-around skills. He projects as development venture with an athletic upside. I have a late Round grade on him.
SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh - 6’ 1/2” / 226 lbs / 10 5/8” hands / 32 7/8” arms @ NFL Combine
High school quarterback and Honor Society member who originally committed to the Air Force Academy. Those smarts and hard work helped Dennis go from a true freshman that hardly played to third team All-ACC as a sophomore, second team as a junior, and climaxed with first team honors as a senior. Over his 34 games as a starter, he logged 232 tackles, 36 for loss, 15 sacks, five passes defended, and two interceptions.
Aggressive downhill style, not going to overpower anyone, but willing to take on bigger blockers in gaps or on blitzes. Explodes to the ball and made many plays attar behind the line.
After solid workouts in Senior Bowl, suffered a foot injury and didn’t play in game, nor did he participate in NFL Combine drills. On film, he looks very athletic with good burst, lateral agility, and long speed. Doesn’t look as big as his measurement numbers, but Dennis wins with toughness, instincts, and hot-motor pursuit. His traits fit special teams work and jumbo nickel and dime formations. Has value late in Round 5 or early 6.
Charlie Thomas, Georgia Tech - 6’ 3” / 216 lbs. / 8 5/8” hands / 31 1/2” arms @ NFL Combine
The 23 year-old grew from a skinny high school safety to ACC middle linebacker. Thomas has flashed playmaking skills for a team that struggles to reach .500. Over 56 games with 31 starts, he had 37 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, nine passes defended, seven forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, and four interceptions.
Good tackler in space, not a thumper, just breaks down, turns things inside, and wraps up well. He doesn’t stack and shed well, but slips, dips and feints around tacklers with his agility and lateral movement skills. Almost looks like a jump cut at times. Good ball skills and hand/eye coordination, always ripping at the ball in the run game and closes well in coverage. In coverage, keeps his knees bent and sits, waiting for receiver to make his break in man and quickly gets depth or to the flat in zone.
One of my favorite sleepers, who’s a secret no longer after having a stellar test and workout at the NFL Combine. Where he was likely a Round 7/UDFA before, now might cost little more draft capital. I am a little surprised at his arm length though, it looks better on film. He fits the Rams with zone coverage experience, good delayed blitz ability, and tackling in space. He is a development project, needs some play strength, technique work, but if necessary, there’s room on his frame for added mass.
Best fits for the Rams
Of this group, Trenton Simpson has the biggest upside and after testing well at the Combine, will likely go very high in the draft. When I compare him to linebackers previously taken early in the draft, I continue to think there will be better BPA available at #36.
Each of the others all fit as later round picks with ability to offer value on special teams as they develop. While their individual traits are different, all have cover skills and a good quantity of experience in underneath zone coverage. If I had my druthers, I think Charlie Thomas or SirVocea Dennis would be solid late round additions. Mainly because of their ball skills, but also as pospects with speed, football smarts and leadership qualities.
Coming soon will be the third and final installment on linebackers, “old school thumpers”.