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Rams need him to be their next great linebacker

Ernest Jones is at a critical point in his career going into year three

Dallas Cowboys defeated the Los Angeles Rams 22-10 during a NFL football game. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams have had a plethora of great middle linebackers, from names like London Fletcher and James Laurinaitis to Jim Youngblood and Jack Reynolds, that position has had a massive effect on the franchise as a whole. If not for a game-saving tackle at the one yard line as time expired by middle linebacker Mike Jones in Super Bowl XXXIV, the Rams very well may not have won their first Lombardi trophy in team history.

Can Ernest Jones, going into his third year as a pro after being a third round pick in 2021, and one of the few defensive players on L.A. roster besides Aaron Donald to have starting experience, take that next step towards joining the group? Or will he be at risk, as Kenny Young and Troy Reeder and even Pro Bowler Cory Littleton found out, of being an ex-Rams linebacker when his contract runs out?

Jones was selected by L.A. in the third round of the 2021 draft out of the University of South Carolina and his level of play in big games seems to parallel what Mike Jones did for the Greatest Show on Turf’s defense in the 1999 era. In Jones’ rookie season, he found himself starting Super Bowl LVI where he totaled seven tackles, six solo, and a sack in the championship game.

If not for Jones, who knows if the Rams would have been in a position to stop Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals on fourth down to secure LA’s second Super Bowl victory.

Jones has been stellar in his first two seasons wearing the horns. In his first year, he was able to total 61 tackles along with two interceptions and a sack in only seven starts. In 2022, under the mentorship of offseason acquisition Bobby Wagner, Jones’ play became one of the bright spots in a tough season. He was able to record triple digit tackles with 114 total, along with a forced fumble and an interception.

However, Jones had a season-high of 91% snaps at a position that often asks the best linebackers to play every single down, and he saw a dramatic reduction in playing time over the last four games. In total, Jones played in 66% of the snaps in 2022, but now the Rams are relying on him to replace an All-Pro that was cut by the team in the offseason to save cap space.

With Wagner returning to Seattle after a year long stint with LA, Jones is now taking over full control of the middle. Having more opportunities on the field should help Jones improve on his solid 2022 numbers. Even as just a third-year player, Jones has already become a veteran leader in the locker room out of necessity and will be taking on more responsibility this season, wearing the green dot and making the defensive play calls.

Las Vegas Raiders v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Rams seem to be excited about his development thus far in the offseason.

When talking about Jones, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris shared his confidence in the young player.

“Right now, Ernest is our green dot going out throughout the process doing some of those things, so he’s certainly developed. Being with Bobby last year certainly helped him from off-the-field standpoint, and certainly an on-the-field standpoint. Those two guys being together and within that room, having a couple different position coaches going from (Chris) Shula back to Shula again. Getting more information from (Chris) Beake and being even more involved in the system I think only helps him. Really fired up to see where he can go this year. Really fired up about Ernest and what he can become.”

The Rams have two more years of his rookie contract to find out what Ernest Jones can become and if he’s a long-term answer in the middle of the defense. As a rookie, he showed a lot of promise in spite of being the 103rd overall pick in the draft. But then the team felt compelled to spend a lot of money on Wagner and how much of that All-Pro season rubbed off on Jones in year two has yet to be seen; Jones got a mid-ranked grade from PFF for his performance in 2022. Said Jones of his own play last season, “I don’t feel like I (was great)”.

“Individual goals, I just wanted to play great,” Jones said, via the LA Daily News. “I don’t feel like I did that this year. I don’t feel like I lived up to what I know I’m capable of. For me, I’m ready to get in with Seattle (this week), but I’m also ready to get back to work and go do what I know I’m capable of.

“I feel like I’m capable of being one of the best linebackers in this league. I just know I am. So, all I gotta do is go be everything that I say I am, which I will do. Next year will be better.”

Morris has little other choice than to put veteran pressure on Jones in 2023 because the next-best options at linebacker are Christian Rozeboom, Jake Hummel, and a handful of undrafted free agents. Even with Littleton reaching the Pro Bowl and being named as a second-team All-Pro in his third year, Sean McVay and Les Snead still decided to start fresh at the position in 2020 and a year later they were able to win a Super Bowl with the majority of those inside linebacker snaps going to Reeder, a rookie Jones, Young, and Justin Hollins.

The Rams would like Jones to be great because that would be one more player than they have right now proving to be a worthy starter, and McVay can’t be sure how many of those he has at the moment. If Jones doesn’t do that, then the churn at the position will continue for another year. If he does, Morris and McVay have one less position on defense to worry about for the next two seasons, at least.