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L.A. Rams position battles: Settling the edge

The Rams could have an all-rookie edge rushing unit

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The L.A. Rams were led in sacks last season by outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, but the reality is that Floyd never lived up to his billing as a top-10 edge rusher pick in the 2016 draft. Maybe that is the fault of the media or the Chicago Bears, because Floyd’s strengths were never “blows up the offensive line and gets to the quarterback”, but he did manage to accumulate 29 sacks in three years with the Rams.

But not all sacks are created equal and Floyd was always more of an opportunistic edge rusher than one who blew up plays on his own, which was never more clear than the brief period of time when the Rams had Von Miller.

If you don’t believe me, take the NFL’s word for it: How many guys do you know who can average 10 sacks per year and still be free agents in May?

And yet, Floyd was the Rams best edge rusher last season and it wasn’t even particularly close. Bobby Wagner had six sacks from the interior linebacker position, Aaron Donald had five sacks in 11 games from his usual spot, and the next-closest were defensive tackles Michael Hoecht and Greg Gaines.

The very closest example of an edge rusher or outside linebacker getting any sacks on L.A.’s defense last season, that would be one each by Justin Hollins and Terrell Lewis, both of whom are now off of the team. That’s it: 11 sacks by edge rushers and none of them are on the Rams anymore. I’ve seen Hoecht listed among “edge rushers” and even “outside linebackers” and yet the team’s website lists him as a 310 lb defensive tackle so that’s as clear as it can get.

When looking at some of the NFL’s strongest 3-4 defensive alignments of last season, you’re looking at the likes of the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers.

In Philadelphia, edge rushers include Haason Reddick (230-240 lbs), Josh Sweat (265 lbs), and Brandon Graham (270 lbs).

In San Francisco, there was Nick Bosa (265-270 lbs), Samson Ebukam (245), Charles Omenihu (280), and Drake Jackson (270-275).

The L.A. Rams have parted with Floyd, Lewis, and Hollins. I can’t imagine the 310 lb Hoecht is going to take over their roles or the 300 lb Larrell Murchison. Instead, the Rams made draft pick after draft pick after draft pick in hopes of finding maybe one sleeper at the edge rushing position who can become a starter.

And they’ll need him very soon. There isn’t anybody else in their way.

OLB Byron Young, 77th overall pick

Young has the size and athleticism to match up with these great edge rushers that I’m referencing: 6’2, 250 lbs, 4.43 in the 40-yard dash and 1.54 in the 10-yard split with a 38” vertical and 11’ broad jump. He was also productive at Tennessee, totaling 23.5 TFL and 12.5 sacks in the past two seasons.

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Rare is the opportunity for a third round rookie to instantly be a defense’s best edge rusher, but who else is standing in his way at this point? Byron Young should be a Week 1 starter unless something goes wrong for him or incredibly “right” for a couple of other players on the roster.

The concerning news is that it’s not often that you find a rookie who is a combination of old and inexperienced. Young is 25 and yet very raw and will need time to develop and clean up the holes in his game.

This preseason will be an interesting test of Sean McVay’s unwillingness to play starters before Week 1 because almost all of L.A.’s starting roster needs more experience and game reps before the real deal. Byron Young should win a training camp battle and if he doesn’t, that could be a bad sign because he’s already atop the depth chart despite being the 77th overall pick last month.

EDGE Nick Hampton, 161st overall pick

Despite being taken late in the fifth round, Nick Hampton could also be in heavy rotation for L.A.’s edge rushers from the onset of the season. At 6’2, 236 lbs with great length at 33.5” arms, Hampton is one of the Rams best options to put out there right now.

He ran a 4.58 but with only a 1.65 10-yard split despite weighing only 236, which is light for an edge rusher.

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Hampton missed three games due to injury in 2022, but finished with 39 tackles, 9.5 TFL, and seven sacks in nine starts. He also forced three fumbles. He doesn’t have the same athletic gifts as Young and he could be a liability against the run, so it’s hard to envision Hampton as a three-down linebacker next season. The pick seems like adding the next Ogbonnia Okoronkwo or Ebukam, more so than maybe the next Floyd or Miller.

Which isn’t surprising in the fifth round and yet...the Rams need to play him anyway. There aren’t many other options out there.

EDGE Ochaun Mathis, 189th overall pick

The 24-year-old Mathis had 5.5 sacks and nine tackles for a loss over the past two years at TCU and Nebraska and yet he could be on the field for the Rams defense in Week 1 against the Seahawks. He might even need to be on the field for a lot of playing time.

Mathis has a 6’5, 250 lb frame with 35.25” arms and nearly 11” hands, that rare size combination you look for, but he only ran a 4.74 with a 1.64 split, so the athleticism leaves a lot to be desired. As does the production in college.

He seems very much like a “this size doesn’t come around often” pick but will need to be put in the right place, at the right time, and combined with outstanding coaching. You might think, “Well, he won’t play a lot right away” but where else do the Rams turn to for snaps off the edge? Surprisingly, he was picked higher than any of L.A.’s “veteran” options.

OLB Daniel Hardy, second year

A seventh round pick out of Montana State in 2022, Hardy’s impressive production at a small school program didn’t translate to much playing time during the Rams rough season last year despite him already being 24 and needing help anywhere they could find it. Hardy played 41 defensive snaps and registered four tackles in six games. He is so far just a special teamer and will be 25 this year.

Hard is 6’3, 223, so extremely light for an outside linebacker or edge rusher. Well, let’s just put it this way: If he’s 223, that’s too light.

EDGE Keir Thomas, second year

Despite not being drafted, Thomas was more of the standout linebacker for L.A. last season, at least in the preseason. In the regular season, he matched Hardy’s four tackles with no sacks or pressures and did so over 71 snaps. He is also 25.

Thomas is 6’2, 275, so it’s almost like he has the opposite weight issue of Hardy.

OLB Zach VanValkenburg, second year

Also a UDFA from last year. Spent the year on the practice squad.

Who wins the starting jobs?

It would be remarkable and concerning if Byron Young wasn’t starting for the L.A. Rams at edge this season, and doing so right away. Who else do they have? Barring any other additions, Young is the best option that the Rams have right now.

Opposite of him, I have no idea. Raheem Morris may need to change up his defense a little bit to come up with a solution because there isn’t a clear option in terms of what teams typically look for in 3-4 outside linebackers and defensive ends. Sure, the defensive line could be happy if Aaron Donald is in there, but the linebackers unit from one side to the other, that remains a huge mystery.

Young, Ernest Jones, and then what? It could be Mathis, Hampton, and Thomas just switch out one snap after the other, but what advantage will that give opposing offenses?