Offensive line wan’t the only Los Angeles Rams positional unit decimated by injuries last season. On the interior defensive line, Aaron Donald, the player everyone raves about, missed six games, A’Shawn Robinson was out seven, and Greg Gaines was in and out, only logging 12 starts. According to Football Outsiders and their AGL (average games lost) metric, the L.A. defensive line had the second most games lost to injury in the the NFL and it wasn’t only the total amount of missed games, but who was out.
“Of course, this is where we can talk about how we need to create an AGL system which adjusts for the quality of the players missing time. There are injuries, and then there are injuries to Aaron freakin’ Donald.”
Why is this important? Because getting after the opposing quarterback and getting him off his timing/spot is crucial for the success of Raheem Morris’ umbrella coverages. It wasn’t just injuries to the interior that led to the Rams under-achieving pass rush in 2022, the edge rushers didn't step up into the void. The starting rotation of Leonard Floyd (9), Justin Hollins (1), and Terrell Lewis (1) combined for 11 sacks in almost 1600 snaps.
Overall, the pass defense was ranked somewhere from mid pack down to a bottom 10 unit. The Rams gave up a big number of completions (12th most) and high completion percentage (4th highest), but there were an overwhelming number of short passes. L.A. had a 6.8 average depth of target (3rd lowest). Generally, the defense did react well, ranking 11th in least missed tackles. Rushing the passer is where the real problems began and continued on throughout the season.
The Rams pass rush finished with 35 hurries (27th) for a 5.7% drop back percentage (26th). L.A. got home for only 38 knockdowns (tied for 26th) at 6.8% of drops(27th). In all, the pass rush had 111 pressures (27th) for a combined 17.9% which led to 38 sacks (22nd). Morris called for the blitz on 26.8% (11th most) of drop backs.
Big problems call for big changes
It’s AD and a cast of unknowns. Building this room is like getting around building code rules by leaving up one load-bearing wall and calling it a remodel instead of new construction. Overall, the group is small, particularly for a 3-4 defense. Will Raheem Morris expand his use of the 4-2-5 instead of the Rams traditional three down base. Many of the candidates are more like defensive ends than tackles, size wise.
The Rams were extremely patient with Robinson. His medical problems and then injuries have limited him to 24 starts and 35 games played over the life of his $18 mil+ contract. As a Ram, he was a very good run defender, but didn’t offer much rushing the the passer (two sacks), nor did he do much on the opposition’s side of the line of scrimmage (two tackles for loss). A good veteran player whose contract value outstretched his on-field value.
I am left to wonder if Gaines hadn’t signed so quickly with the Tampa Buccaneers if the Rams wouldn’t have offered him a similar contract. In mid-March, when Gaines took the Bucs offer, the Rams didn’t really have the money to make an offer. After playing sparingly in his first two seasons, he logged 8.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 19 quarterback hits in final two.
Doesn't seem to be slowing down at 32, last season he was on a typical solid pace before being shelved with injury. That said, he is another year closer to the inevitable end. Enjoy it while it lasts.
At 325 lbs., he’s the biggest Ram in the DLine room and for Brown, the question is the same as last year, is he ready to be part of the rotation? 2022 began with a PED suspension and didn’t progress particularly well, garnering only 164 snaps. He’s still young at 23, but needs to show something. Not a huge cap savings to cut him this year (about $750K), but in 2024, the Rams could pocket $1 mil by letting him go.
Marquise Copeland and Jonah Williams
Came to L.A. as undrafted free agents and have bounced between practice squad and roster. The have proven out as versatile pieces on the interior. Over three years, Copeland has seen action in 25 games with 453 defensive reps and tallied 42 tackles, three for loss and one sack. Williams has 437 snaps on the line and added another 208 on special teams. He’s had 28 tackles, four quarterback hits, and shared a sack.
Claimed off waivers last December. In only 54 snaps he made six tackles, two for loss, and two sacks. Another under-sized interior player who wins on effort, strength, and low leverage.
Got his first action last year after being exiled to the practice squad after each of his two training camps. Saw 136 defensive snaps with nine tackles and one tackle for loss. I thought his limited film showed him to be equal to all the other candidates. He has tweener 4-3 size, but good length and athleticism.
Practice squad may be his ceiling, but L.A. brought him back for 2023. They must like something about him.
Kobie Turner, DesJuan Johnson, Taron Vincent
Many think Turner’s draft pedigree and the Rams OTA love have him locked onto the roster. I think his relentless pursuit and pro grade hand work are his ticket. I don’t project him as a star, but rather a player who can defend the run and clean up the pocket with second effort sacks. Johnson is sneaky quick and strong and like Turner, he has good hand fighting skill. Can he translate his strong points from the MAC to the NFL? Likely a seasoning year away, but Rams line coach Eric Henderson really knows how to get these smaller guys playing ready. Vincent needs development but comes out of a strong college program, he has a low center of gravity to build on.
Another total teardown and rebuild. By triple-dipping in the draft, the Rams obviously tipped their hand that manning the edge was a worry. The three rookies have as good a chance as any of the returnees to earn a roster spot and get some play time. It is a good mix of play styles and sizes, but after Hoecht (408 snaps), there’s only 112 pro reps amongst the other six candidates.
Floyds best role is that of solid, contain edge, not as the primary pass rusher. He was a true pro, tough and durable. His numbers weren’t bad, averaged almost 10 sacks and 62 tackles per annum. He can still play, just not up to the value of his contract
Justin Hollins and Terrell Lewis
General Manager Les Snead didn’t wait for the offseason and jettisoned the pair in the late fall. In 2022, they combined for 39 tackles and two sacks, that’s just not enough for a combined 640 defensive snaps.
Hoecht’s versatility and effort was a breath of fresh air when he took over the edge opposite Floyd. He should show good growth with last year under his belt. He may be a more natural hand in the dirt lineman, but I think he can handle the edge if they limit him to the short side of the field and out of coverage.
Daniel Hardy, Keir Thomas, and Zach VanValkenburg
Hardy has a high athletic upside but lacks desired size and struggled to stay healthy as rookie, charting 41 defensive snaps. I like Thomas’ play style, a tough guy who plays all-out and wins against bigger foes. I question his athleticism to succeed as a long term edge. Van Valkenburg was on the practice squad guy last year and has limited measurables, but those Iowa guys are tough.
Byron Young, Nick Hampton, Ochaun Mathis
Everyone knows the odds of rookie success right out of the gate are long for all but the most talented. The Rams yearling trio have athletic and measurable upsides. Young is a twitchy athlete who build and measurements are similar to those go Von Miller. Hampton needs polish, but can get after the quarterback. Likely a special teamer while he develops, don’t rule out a specialized role as a pass rusher. Mathis needs a lot of work, but his size/length combo doesn’t come along that often and needs to be explored.
Will the power of incumbency be enough to hold space for the returnees? A realistic reckoning would show that none of the veterans have shown much more than mediocrity and fit better into backup and rotational roles. As a group, they are mostly late round draft picks and undrafted free agents.
As for the rookies, Byron Young and Kobie Turner have the draft pedigree but remain unproven. The good news for the pair and the rest of the yearlings as well, is that the Rams, during the McVay era, keep about 8 of 10 drafted rookies on the opening roster.
If improving the pass rush is key, then there could be a lot of changes. Whether or not L.A. trends away from the 3-4, at most there will be 11 open roster spots between defensive tackle and edge. After Aaron Donald and Michael Hoecht, competition should be wide open. It may likely boil down to inopportune injuries and/or who the Rams think they can sneak through waivers and onto the practice squad.
Yes, it’s early for roster predictions, but since I brought up the subject— here goes.
Of six total defensive linemen, to go along with Aaron Donald and Kobie Turner. Larrell Murchison’s production late last year deserves another longer look. Bobby Brown gets a last chance somewhat by default, he’s the only true nose tackle in camp. The final two are Marquise Copeland and Jonah Williams, both are versatile role players and Williams can help out on special teams.
For five edge spots, after Michael Hoecht and Byron Young. I like Nick Hampton and Daniel Hardy, their athletic ability makes them prime candidates as designated pass rushers and more importantly, for special teams. I think I would give the fifth and final role to Keir Thomas, as a DT/E swing player.
11 on the front line may seem like a lot. If you think so, let it be known.