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Is it possible for a defense with Aaron Donald to be worst in NFL?

Rams are projected to have the worst defense in the NFL

Los Angeles Rams v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that when it comes to the Los Angeles Rams defense, it has been voided of talent this offseason. Leonard Floyd and Bobby Wagner were cut while Jalen Ramsey was traded away to the Miami Dolphins. Greg Gaines and A’Shawn Robinson were both left to sign with other teams.

This has essentially left Aaron Donald and a bunch of sidekicks on the Rams defense. Earlier this week, Arif Hasan from Pro Football Network ranked the NFL defenses from one to 32. The defense to come in last was the Rams. Here’s what Hasan had to say,

“The Los Angeles Rams are projected to have the worst defense in the NFL. It’s a shame, given that the Rams have the single-best defensive player on their team, but no one player can swing outcomes, especially when surrounded by talent that might be on par with their extraordinarily large undrafted free agent class starting. Byron Young should help with the pass rush, but he’s paired with Michael Hoecht, a virtual unknown. Next to Aaron Donald are Bobby Brown III and Marquise Copeland, unless a seventh-round pick outplays them. The linebacker unit has been raided, and the cornerback group is unrecognizable. It’s a difficult defense to project outcomes for, but it makes sense to err on the side of caution in this case.”

When it comes to the Rams defense, there are a lot of unknowns and a lot of that has to do with the young players that they have outside of Donald. Donald is the only proven player among the starting 11.

On the defensive line, Copeland and Brown have both been role players or depth throughout their careers. Now, they’ll be expected to step into a full-time role. At linebacker, Ernest Jones will be expected to take that next step. Jones is a former third-round pick and played well next to Wagner in 2022. He played well in spots last season, ranking 14th in run defense among linebackers that played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps according to Pro Football Focus. Still, Jones is a virtual unknown.

Where things to get scary is in the secondary. Cobie Durant will be the team’s top cornerback and behind him, the Rams will be relying on Derion Kendrick and Robert Rochell to play on the other side. It’s hard to say whether either of those players are ready for a full-time role. Jordan Fuller has shown some promise in his career, but hasn’t been healthy. Russ Yeast and Quentin Lake are both unknowns at the other safety spot.

At the end of the day, this defense is just very difficult to evaluate because of all the unknowns. Still, a ranking of 32 seems a little harsh. Somewhere in the 25-30 range seems more fair. This is a defense that still has Donald who is the best defensive player in the NFL. We talk about the ‘Aaron Donald affect’ and that is a very real thing. For a defensive tackle, Donald has an effect on the players around him like very few other players in the NFL. Patrick Mahomes with the Kansas City Chiefs might be the most comparable and he plays quarterback.

A defense with Aaron Donald has never ranked lower than 18th in DVOA and that was last season when he spent the back-half of the year hurt. Last season, the Rams ranked 21st in defense EPA which was the lowest ranking in Donald’s career. However, from Week 1 to Week 11, the Rams defense ranked 13th. Without Donald from Week 12 to Week 18, the Rams defense ranked 28th. The worst full season under Donald was in 2016 when they ranked 20th in defense EPA and 17th in DVOA.

Since Aaron Donald entered the league in 2014, the Rams defense ranks tied for second in EPA behind only the New England Patriots during that span. They have six top-10 seasons in both defense EPA and DVOA with Donald.

Out of Donald’s nine seasons, the Rams defense has ranked in the top-10 in advanced analytics six times.

It can certainly be argued that the talent around Donald is the worst that it’s ever been. He’s also coming off of an injury and will be 32 years old at the beginning of the season. Still, given the history with Donald on the Rams, it’s much more likely that the Rams defense ends up in the middle of the pack than being the worst unit in the league.

The Rams defense is a group of unknowns. Because of that, they are going to be underrated by the national media until they prove themselves. Even still, there’s one piece on the Rams defense that is proven and he’s arguably the greatest defensive player of all-time. As long as Aaron Donald is playing for the Rams, it’s very difficult to see the defense being the worst in the NFL.