With the abrupt departure of Bobby Wagner, the Los Angeles Rams had three true linebackers—Ernest Jones, Christian Rozeboom, and Jake Hummel—under contract entering the 2023 NFL Draft. The conscription came and went without L.A. adding a single off-ball linebacker.
The Rams made up for it by signing five linebackers as undrafted free agents. With L.A.’s recent history of leaning towards more nickel and dime formations utilizing only one ‘backer on the field, the needs for this unit lean more towards special teams support. Even so, Rozeboom and Hummel both began their Rams careers as UDFAs and have moved up the roster. Let’s take an introductory look at the new second line additions.
Kelechi Anyalebechi - Incarnate Word
Two-time Buck Buchanan finalist as the top FCS defensive player in the nation and twice honored as a third team All-American. Multi-position versatility and coaches have schemed him all over the box, both from 3-point stance and standing. Just want to add this in because it’s kind of interesting, he’s vegan and practices yoga.
Began his Incarnate Word career with two seasons on special teams and in a rotational role the edge. Became a star when he moved to off-ball linebacker. In 48 games and 31 starts, Anyalebechi recorded 285 tackles, 25 for loss, 9.5 sacks, 12 passes defended, and four interceptions. He also forced six fumbles and recovered four others.
His Pro Day supported his on-field production. He measured in at 5’ 11” 230 lbs. with 9 1/2” hands and 31 3/4” arms. He timed a very good forty, 4.62 and 10-yard split, 1.58. In explosion drills he had a nice 38” vertical, 9’ 8” long jump, and pressed 22 on the bench. His 4.39 shuttle was just ok, but 7.01 is a very good 3Cone.
Fiery player who strikes with ferocity, both around the line and out in space. He will need to consistently wrap up as pro, NFL backs and tight ends have the contact balance to bounce off and plow forward. He’s a good pass rusher, nice burst through gaps, uses his low center of gravity and body control to navigate. Generally takes good angles and stays patient when faced with fakes and feints. Plays mostly close to the line of scrimmage, but smoothly drops into zone. Found one man coverage rep on film and he mirrored a tight end down the seam and broke up the pass.
How far he gets into the Rams future depend on his transition up from a lower level of competition. Every thing will come at him faster. Decisions, bigger, stronger linemen, and backs hitting the gaps. He appears to have the physicality and instincts for the pro game, but like most small school players, could use a strength/conditioning program. I’ll root for this prospect, he would bring some attitude to defense or special teams.
Kelechi Anyalebechi is a LB prospect in the 2023 draft class. He scored a 7.92 #RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 552 out of 2652 LB from 1987 to 2023. https://t.co/a4SHesIpGU #Rams pic.twitter.com/ohDgcQB46v— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 30, 2023
Ryan Smenda - Wake Forest
From a military family, the self-disciplined Smenda is a stockily built hustler and was a three-time state champion high school wrestler. The 23 year-old logged 200 of his 355 total tackles in last two years. Over 56 games, he had 24.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, forced four fumbles, and defended nine passes.
At the Hula Bowl he checked in at 6’ 1” 235 lbs., with 8 1/2” hands and 31 5/8” arms. Had to really dig for his Pro Day testing numbers, best that could be found are 4.68 in the forty, a 9” 2” broad jump, and 23 reps on the bench. On film, he’s not a smooth, gifted athlete, with more of a bull-in-the-china-shop play style.
Smenda is a hard-hitting downhill player. A good form tackler who flows to the ball and wraps up in space. Not afraid to take on bigger blockers in the hole, adequate linear burst to shoot gaps, and get slithery/thin fighting through traffic. Looks like a good pass rusher and is certainly a hard charger on blitz attempts. Kind of clunky when backpedaling into zone coverage, doesn’t get great depth. Reads quarterback eyes and reacts well, but has start/stop and change of direction limitations.
In an interview, Smenda said the Rams want him to play at 240+ lbs. Makes one wonder if they want to see him out on the edge as a pass rusher as well as ILB. It’s only a few pounds, but he already seems a step slow at off ball linebacker. One thing is sure, he has the mindset and attitude for special teams and that may get him an extra long look on defense.
DeAndre Square - Kentucky
Slightly undersized prospect that makes up for his moderate athletic skills with plus football instincts and passionate, non-stop play. Played in an aggressive college defense and seems best suited to downhill action.
Four-year Wildcat starter in 44 of 58 games. Put up 300 tackles, 22.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks, 10 passes defended, and three interceptions over his college career. Missed three games late in 2022 with an ankle injury. Was elected team captain in each of his final three years.
While there is no question of his heart or effort, his athleticism is only adequate. At the Kentucky Pro Day he scaled in at 6’ 226 lbs., with 10” hands and 33” arms. He clocked a ho-hum 4.77 forty, 7.26 3Cone, and 4.38 shuttle in speed and short area agility testing. In the explosion drills hopped a 9’ 2” long jump, a 32” vertical and repped 23 on the bench.
Quick to trigger downhill and pursue the ball and takes good angles. With his size, he can be clamped down and/or washed out by bigger blockers. He does do a good job of sifting through larger traffic around the line of scrimmage, ducking under, bouncing off, and leveraging his length. Pursuit is relentless and his strength, length, form make him a solid tackler. In zone pass coverage, Square moves smoothly in space, gets good drop depth, and hustles to cover his flat responsibilities. Turning and running with pass catchers is not a strong suit. He is a good tackler in space.
The kind of UDFA the Rams love. He is a hustler, has coach-on-the field smarts, and projects as a special teams warrior. Just a real good complementary football player. With the Rams leaning more towards one linebacker formations, to get extra defensive backs on the field, It is very hard to project Square into a defensive role.
Jaiden Woodbey - Boston College
Woodbey was a five-star recruit out of high who excelled in football and track. He originally signed with Florida State over many top schools. In his sophomore year, he suffered a horrific knee injury, tearing his ACL, MCL, meniscus, and posteromedial capsule. Over his three years in Talahassee, he recorded 105 tackles and 11 passes broken up. He earned his degree and became a graduate transfer to Boston College and spent his final two seasons on Chestnut Hill.
In 24 games at BC, he sheeted 131 tackles, 5.5 for loss, two interceptions, and seven passes defended. His primary role was at box safety. Most of his passes defended where knockdowns on blitzes, rather than coverage. In both seasons, he was honorable mention All-ACC.
Solidly built and proportioned at 6’ 1” 231 lbs., with 9 3/4” hands, 32 1/4” arms and 80” wingspan. The knee injury maybe the cause for his substandard 4.84 forty, but he kept his quick feet and short area agility. He scored 6.97 3Cone and 4.14 shuttle. In his explosion testing he leapt a 35” vertical and a 9’ 6” broad. He pushed 20 reps on the bench.
Woodbey has the ball, read/react, and change of direction skill to play in zone coverage, but will struggle in man. He’s a good form tackler, has a physical nature, and strong enough to take on blockers. Listed as a college safety, his poor long speed makes him a possible liability the farther he gets away from the line of scrimmage.
He fits the safety/ linebacker hybrid role, or an overhang defender. He has the lateral agility to play in the second line, but his lack of speed makes him a long shot. In his favor, he has history of special teams play.
Matthew Jester - Princeton
Jester is a little different than the others, he lines up primarily outside as an edge. He did run a few reps from the middle, but was a fixture spread wide. Big, strong, fast prospect likely drafted for his athletic upside. Played in a rotation over college career and was not a regular starter.
He showed very well at his Pro Day measuring in at 6’ 3” 252 lbs. with 9 3/8” hands and 31” arms. His speed testing stood out, 4..66 in the forty with a fine 1.60 10-yard split. In the agility and short area quickness he timed a 7.44 3Cone and 4.24 shuttle. He put up 27 reps at the bench, a 37.5 vertical, and 10’ 1” broad in the explosion category.
As one would expect, there’s not a lot of film on Jester, or Princeton for that matter. He has good burst both off the snap and in pursuit. He is very raw with technique, wins by being a better athlete than the player across from him. Sometimes he used a little outside feint and counter inside, but the cupboard seems bare for other moves. His arms are a little short and he doesn’t really hand fight or stack and shed. He is a hustler and has tackle power.
His coach points out his leadership, work ethic, physicality and work in the weight room is contagious. Real long shot to stick, but a typical Rams UDFA, high football IQ, total hustler, and “we, not me” player.
All these prospects share qualities. They are all high-effort, instinctual, physical, and can rush the quarterback. They are all a step slow, also.
With the logjam at edge/OLB, Matthew Jester seems like a camp body unless the Rams have a plan for him. Sure, a guy his size running down the field covering/blocking on kicks would be fierce, but there is not a lot on film to project him as being ready to add any other value.
Jaiden Woodbey is an L.A. kid and has that five-star pedigree. So many top schools wanted him, he has to have innate talent, but holy moly, that forty time is hard to get over. If the NFL stage is not too big, maybe he can supplement special teams with rotation work in jumbo or big nickel formations to help out in run support in the box.
Lacking in size and athleticism, Square would seem odd man out. But, he was a tough character in the SEC. That toughness and his pursuit ability could get him on the field. A teammate you can count on to man up his responsibilities and is simply a good football player never goes out of style.
If Ryan Smenda could channel ex-Ram Troy Reeder, there’s a lane as a thumping two-down “Mike”. His ability to blitz and willingness to bang heads with blockers would be a nice complement in the Rams bend-but-don’t-break style. Top wrestlers have that built in win-or- die attitude.
The wildcard in this group is Kelechi Anyalebechi. He has a lot of plus traits and now it’s about seeing how they hold up against NFL competition. His versatility is key, if can stand up to pro size, strength, and speed, being a moveable defensive piece would enhance his special teams core.
At this early stage, I like Smenda to crack the opening 53, although I’ll also be watching out for Anyalebechi. Both have the requisite size, aggressive nature, and are good tacklers.