Sustainability is defined as a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. On the Rams defensive side, things are complicated, L.A. has to replace eight starters. It’s up to Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris to use the three holdovers, Aaron Donald, Ernest Jones, and Michael Hoecht as building blocks to a sustainable defense.
These three are certainly a good starting base, Donald affects the game as much as any player in NFL history, Jones is the “green dot” captain/playcaller, and Hoecht has been named as a Rams player to watch by a national sports publication. But there is more needed. Allow me to to introduce the seven R’s of Rams defensive sustainability going into the preseason slate.
The need for a lineup filled with high-priced players. Yes, a lot of defensive production must be replaced in such a purge. 18 players from 2022 are gone. Even in the transitory NFL, that’s a lot. It wasn’t just typical bottom of the roster churn, the Rams moved on from eight starters and two co-starters. The departed take 8000+ defensive snaps and another 900+ on special teams. Also gone are 60+ percent of tackles, sacks, and turnovers.
E Michael Hoecht, CB DeCobie Durant, CB Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, S Quentin Lake, S/ILB Jaiden Woodbey, and CB Timarcus Davis
Much has been made about Hoecht and how important his ascension is at edge. One thing about the Ivy Leaguer, he’s going to play ball’s out whether a starter, backup, or on special teams. If he’s active in preseason, watch how he handles play in space and what that will look like going forward.
It now appears that Durant and Hodges-Tomlinson are set to replace Jalen Ramsey at the hybrid safety/slot corner/ linebacker “Star” position. It will likely be a different version than Ramsey played, both are smaller players and regularly putting them into a overhang ‘backer role is not really their best use.
Lake and Woodbey could fill the physical presence that Ramsey had around the line of scrimmage. Both came to L.A. as safeties (Woodbey is now listed at ILB) and during camp, have have taken snaps at linebacker with the 1st team. While both are a step slow in deeper coverage areas, they have plus short area quickness.
Davis is a rookie to keep an eye on in preseason games. Late in camp, he was rotated in on 1st team snaps and while I can’t flesh it out with any context, it’s something to note just the same. I also saw him as gunner on team special teams work.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon (Pittsburgh Steelers), S John Johnson (Cleveland Browns), DT Larell Murchison (Tennessee Titans), S Richard LeCounte (Cleveland Browns), CB Vincent Gray (New Orleans Saints) and E Zach VanValkenburg (Las Vegas Raiders)
Cornerback Witherspoon and safety John Johnson are solid low-cost additions. Maybe not game breakers, but these two veterans have proven they can start and contribute at the pro level. While their roles and value going forward into next season and beyond may be questionable, the signings show the Rams plan to be competitive right now. Reports are that both were signed at the veteran’s minimum, that leaves L.A. with enough cap space for further dips in to the recycling bin.
Although he’s listed as AD’s backup on the depth chart, its been quiet about Murchison’s training camp play. He came to L.A. in mid-December last year and came off the bench to provide six tackles and two sacks in three games and 54 snaps. Those are really good numbers if you extrapolate them out over a full year.
LeCounte, Gray, and VanValkenburg are of practice squad grade, although I guess anything could happen with the new ST coordinator. Gray had a tough camp in 1on1’s, when having to turn and run on deep patterns.
DT Aaron Donald, S Jordan Fuller, ILB Jake Hummel, CB Derion Kendrick, CB Robert Rochell, CB Shaun Jolly, and E Ochaun Mathis
Even though he missed the first games of his career with injury, Donald is back and reports he is in the best shape of his life. It was wasn’t major, a high ankle sprain repaired by minor surgery, and the lost season allowed him plenty of time to convalesce. He told Haute Living that he was up to the challenge of returning to form and leading a young defense,
“I feel like I need to restart all over again, make a name for myself all over again, and that’s how I’m going about this year...“I’m planning on leading by example. “Obviously, you need to be vocal at times, but I feel like the best way to lead is by showing the guys how I work — from what I do in the weight room to the football field. When you tend to do things the right way, at a high level, and guys know who you are, know what you’ve accomplished, they’re going to try to replicate what you’re doing. Those are the kind of guys I want out there with me, playing with me, and that’s what we need to have any kind of success.”
Fuller will take a bigger overhaul. Due to injury, he missed 14 games last year, the 2021 playoff run to the Super Bowl title, and four games in rookie year. When healthy, he makes up for ordinary athleticism with football awareness and IQ. As a rookie, he impressed Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris enough to earn the “green dot” as captain and defensive play caller.
Last year, Hummel was shelved with a practice, non-contact hip injury. He was only active on Special Teams before being struck down. Reports are that his camp play matches his draft projection, solid and workman-like. It’s too close to call in his position battle.
Rochell has seen a few 1st team rotations in camp and worked out as the gunner in punt coverage. He was nicked up but only missed one practice. He did earn five starts as rookie, but nagging injuries have been a bit of a thing with him over his two years. He’s battled hand, chest, knee, and ankle woes.
Kendrick, Jolly, and Mathis have all missed most of the first two weeks of camp. Kendrick and Jolly are out with soft tissue injuries and Mathis tweaked a knee. No reports yet on any of their returns.
Jordan Fuller bats a Stafford pass intended for Tyler Johnson into the air, and Quentin Lake corrals it for the pick. Nice awareness by Lake there to get the takeaway.— Stu Jackson (@StuJRams) August 8, 2023
DT Marquise Copeland, DTJonah Williams, DT Bobby Brown, DT/DE Earnest Brown, S Russ Yeast, E Daniel Hardy, DE Keir Thomas, and E Zach VanValkenburg
Are any of the returnees ready for the prime-time spotlight? Copeland, Williams, and BBrown have all been around awhile and received NFL starts and snaps as rotational players. Two will now likely be starters on a rebuilt defensive line.
Or maybe Earnest Brown will surpass one or more and win a role. Last year, EBrown got into the Rams final five games, starting slowly, but eventually starting three games and playing 77% of snaps in Week 18. I thought he played surprisingly well, not great, but certainly solid. He’s built on that during camp and has been rotating snaps with the 1st team.
Starting roles are still within the grasp of Yeast and Hardy, but new additions to their positional groups will make for tough competition. A solid slate of preseason game play could help them both compete. Even if they don’t win starting roles, expect them to be an integral part of rotations/packages.
Thomas and VanValkenburg may get caught up in a numbers game. The Rams defensive front has lot of options at a very similar caliber of talent. Personally, I like Thomas’ game and a bit surprised he doesn't get a look at 5/7T when the Rams use 4 man fronts.
E Nick Hampton, DT Desjuan Johnson, ILB Kelechie Anyalebechie, ILB Ryan Smenda, ILB DeAndre Square, S Rashard Torrence, S Quindell Johnson, S Tanner Ingle, CB Tiyon Davis, CB Jordan Jones, CB Cameron McCutcheon, DT TJ Carter, and DT Taron Vincent
These players have to refuse to buy into their long odds. There are going to 2-4 roster spots that will be decided by special teams play and preseason games. The speed of special teams play cannot be reprised in practice or the Rams upcoming three controlled scrimmages.
Hampton is the highest on the depth chart of this group. He’s a lot like like Daniel Hardy last year, a fairly athletic guy who’s a shade on the small side. In what could end up being a mean roster bubble battle between two hard-hitting safeties, Torrence and Ingle have both gotten shout outs from coaches for good plays in camp. Mostly quiet about the others.
ILB Ernest Jones, ILB Christian Rozeboom, E Byron Young, DT Kobie Turner, and S Jason Taylor
Jones will have his hands full replacing Bobby Wagner. Even in the winter of his career, Wagner played 100% of snaps and was the Rams leading tackler, primary blitzer, and was lined up all over the defensive fornmations. Although Jones is taking over as play caller, it will be interesting to see if he has the versatility to do all the things that Wagner did.
Not sure if the Rams call it the “will” linebacker or not, but this coverage backer role was on the field 66% of the time last year with Jones manning it. His successor, either Christian Rozeboom or Jake Hummel, are both stronger box players and could easily be a smaller part of the defensive rotation.
Expectations are high for rookies Young, Turner, and Taylor, but the truth is, expectations should be measured. Only the truly special rookies come into the pro game and are outstanding right away. Young is almost certain to start, Turner should be a big part of the rotation, and Taylor will bide his time on special teams until injuries propel him forward. While all three should see a good amount of snaps over the course of the season, mistakes and struggles will part of the learning process.
What to look for in preseason games
In a normal preseason scenario, you want to keep things pretty vanilla, but with all the youth and inexperience, it may be in the defensive unit’s best interest to get reps in a pared down version of the “real” scheme.
And that whole scheme could look very different. While the Rams will likely keep the 3-4 base, expect more four-man fronts supported by nickel and dime coverages. At this early point, it looks like the latter suits the roster best. The lack of size on the interior might make them susceptible to the inside run game and the lack pass rush inexperience at the edge may force stunts/loops to create pressure.
The secondary has shown itself to be an emotional, high-energy group in workouts. It might make sense for Raheem Morris to be play aggressive/tighter and let his young ball-hawkers try to make plays on the ball. I could understand if he wants to play it closer to the vest during the season and try to limit big plays, but it’s preseason, let’s see what’s under the hood.
Just a couple of individuals I will watching on defense are Daniel Hardy at edge, Earnest Brown at defensive tackle, and Timarcus Davis at cornerback. Hardy now has a year of pro strength work to go with his athleticism and motor. EBrown has earned everything he’s got and it will be interesting to see if he’s developed enough to be a difference maker. When a UDFA like Davis is getting 1st team reps, my interest is piqued and needs more information.
Anyone else who help build a sustainable defense?