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Rams Roster Profile: Is Ernest Jones ready to lead the defense?

Can Ernest Jones fill Bobby Wagner’s shoes on the defense at middle linebacker?

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Rams experienced a lot of turnover on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. One of those changes was releasing all-pro linebacker Bobby Wagner who signed with the team prior to 2022. With Wagner’s absence, it will be up to third-year linebacker Ernest Jones to fill in his shoes.

It can be argued that Jones was ready to grab the bull by its horns last year before the Rams signed Wagner. Jones had a strong finish to his rookie year and seemed poised to take that next step. Of course, spending a year behind one of the best linebackers of all-time doesn’t hurt, but this year will be Jones’ time to shine.

Between now and the Rams’ first preseason game, I’m going to preview approximately 45 players on the roster. The goal here will be to highlight players looking to take that next step in 2023 as well as players who will serve as key depth on the roster. I may expand into the occasional star or roster-bubble player, but for the most part we’ll be looking at the players who will truly make or break the Rams season. Last week we looked at some players on the offensive side of the ball. This week, we’ll move over to the defense.

If you missed any of the profiles from last week:

Today, we’re looking at Ernest Jones.

2022 Season in Review

It was a minor surprise last year when the Rams signed Wagner as they hadn’t invested in the linebacker position under general manager Les Snead in the past. The expectation was that Jones would take the reins in year two and he looked ready.

Instead he took a backseat and had a year to learn from Wagner. That doesn’t mean that he still didn’t perform. He graded as the 14th-best linebacker in run defense last season and had the fifth-best tackling grade according to Pro Football Focus. His 5.2 percent missed tackle percentage was also the fifth-lowest.

The Good/Best Case Scenario

Jones is a player that the Rams have really liked ever since they drafted him in the third-round in 2021. From Weeks 8-14 as a rookie, Jones had the 16th-highest tackling grade among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus. His grade in coverage was also inside the top-25. In fact, his 81.1 quarterback rating allowed ranked 13th.

Jones’ showed up in a big way in the Super Bowl with six tackles against the Cincinnati Bengals which led the team. He also had a sack and a key stop on fourth down early in the game.

While part of cutting Wagner may have been to get his salary off of the books and do right by the player, another part of it may have been because the Rams wanted to get Jones on the field more. Given the production, it’s clear to see that he is ready for a larger role.

The best case scenario for Jones is that he fills in and performs well in place of Wagner. It would be unrealistic to expect him to play at ann-pro level. However, the Rams need Jones to prove that he is in fact ready to take that next step in his career.

The Bad/Worst Case Scenario

It’s hard to say anything bad about Jones. At this point in his career, he’s done everything that the Rams have asked of him and even took a secondary role last season when he was probably ready for more.

Jones did spend some time hurt as a rookie, but was healthy all of last season. One part of his game that he needs to improve is in coverage. He allowed just 8.7 yards per reception last season which ranked 16th. However, his 85 percent completion rate was among the highest in the NFL. While Wagner was one of the best linebackers in zone coverage in 2022, Jones ranked inside the bottom-10. This isn’t to say that Jones is bad in coverage as he has three career interceptions. Another year in the defense should help.

Biggest Question: Is Ernest Jones ready to lead the defense?

Outside of Aaron Donald and maybe Jordan Fuller, Jones is one of the most important players when it comes to the success of the Rams defense in 2023. He’ll be one of the more experienced players, therefore needing to step up both on the field and as a leader.

It won’t be easy to fill the shoes of Wagner and that shouldn’t be the expectation for Jones. The Rams simply need their third-year linebacker to show that he is ready to take that next step in his career and continue to be solid.

Everything up to this point shows that Jones is ready for this moment. As a rookie, he earned a prominent role and showed up in a big way during the Super Bowl. Last season he still produced despite playing behind Wagner. This year will be the true test, but the expectation is that he’ll rise to the occasion.

Roster Battle

Given the current depth at linebacker, Jones is the guy and definitive starter. The competition at linebacker will take place behind Jones with Jake Hummel and Christian Rozeboom.

2023 Outlook and What to Expect

The 2023 season will Jones’ year to show that he can be the starting linebacker in the Rams defense. As mentioned, it’s unrealistic to expect an all-pro level and for Jones to replace Wagner. However, the Rams don’t need Jones to replace Wagner. They just need him to continue to be himself on the field and remain the solid player that he has become.

Jones will be expected to take the next step. However, nothing to this point in his career has shown that he isn’t ready to do that. Jones will be the leader of the defense and will likely be wearing the green dot and making all of the pre-snap checks. This is a player that the Rams are excited about and it’ll be interesting to see what he can in year three.

Chances of Making Final Roster

There’s little doubt that Jones makes the roster given the current depth at linebacker position.

Final Roster Confidence: 10/10