With 14 selections in the 2023 NFL Draft and adding another 24 undrafted free agents, the Los Angeles Rams have bolstered nearly every corner of it’s roster for the upcoming season. One area that has gone nearly untouched is middle linebacker, where LA is hoping Ernest Jones can take a sizeable step forward in year three. Jones was taken under the wing of veteran Bobby Wagner last season—and now he’ll be put to the test to see what he’s learned.
The first two years of Jones’ career has been volatile, as he’s capable of making splash plays but may not be consistent on a down-to-down basis. Perhaps the most memorable play he’s made came from his rookie campaign during Super Bowl LVI when he defended a Joe Burrow pass to force an incompletion and convert a fourth down stop.
Rookie inside linebacker Ernest Jones played strong & tenacious in Super Bowl. E. Jones is another great example of the Rams making the most out of their draft picks. He was the primary LB in the super bowl (injured since 12/26). A major vote of confidence from the Rams coaches pic.twitter.com/o9eYbaOMfl— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) February 22, 2022
But it hasn’t all been rosy in pass coverage, and that’s really where the Rams need Jones to improve the most. According to PFF tracking data, Jones was targeted in coverage 92 times during his first two seasons and allowed 76 receptions (82.6%) for 630 yards (342 after the catch). A silver lining in the data is that he’s picked off opposing QB’s three times while only giving up two touchdowns—good for a modest traditional passer rating of 88.9. While the yardage seems to be a major point of concern the overall passer rating is encouraging, which speaks to Jones’ apparent boom or bust style of play.
Jones can take a step forward in 2023 by forcing incompletions and making sure tackles before receivers can accumulate additional yards after the catch. Being more consistent on a down-to-down basis would help the defense overall as well.
What’s changed at MLB for Rams heading into 2023?
LA kicked off free agency by “mutually parting ways” with veteran linebacker Bobby Wagner, who has now re-joined the Seattle Seahawks and kept his talents in the NFC West. While traditional statistics and advanced metrics both indicate Wagner performed admirably during his only season in Los Angeles, it’s clear the Rams gave him a limited set of responsibilities: help stop the run and occasionally contribute as an interior pass rusher.
With Wagner’s departure, Jones becomes the man in the middle of LA’s defense.
Rams LB Ernest Jones: "I want to just make sure that when I'm leading this defense, that I am the voice of this defense and making sure that I give them everything that I got, because I know they're gonna do the same for me."— Stu Jackson (@StuJRams) April 17, 2023
The Rams haven’t done much to reinforce the position after losing Wagner, which is pretty par for the course based on their historical approach to the position. Behind Jones on the depth chart are former UDFA’s Christian Rozeboom and Jake Hummel. Los Angeles also signed Kelechi Anyalebechi, a 2023 undrafted free agent, who TST’s Blaine Grisak believes could push for a spot on the initial 53-man roster.
Grisak: A way-too-early 53-man roster projection
Rozeboom played only eight defensive snaps last season, and most of those came in goal line packages. Hummel earned a roster spot last preseason by leading the team in total tackles and impressing in training camp. He was relegated to mostly special teams duties before ending up on injured reserve in November.
The Rams’ base personnel package on defense is a version of nickel, so they will usually only have one off-ball linebacker on the field outside of obvious run downs. This lessens the need for offseason reinforcements, but if Jones were to get injured the depth behind him—and their lack of playing time so far—would be a significant concern.
It’s clear Los Angeles is relying heavily on Ernest Jones to lead the youth movement on the defensive side of the ball in 2023, and he’s one of the more experience players outside of Aaron Donald. Will Jones take a step forward in year three of his career?