Get ready for Michael Hoecht season, Rams fans. In four days, the L.A. Rams travel to Seattle to open the 2023 campaign against the Seahawks and first-time starting edge rusher Michael Hoecht will be one of the most experienced and pivotal pieces on the roster.
That’s how unexpected of a journey it has been for someone who, along with Jonah Williams, has overcome the odds of being undrafted, released, and assigned to the practice squad in 2020, to making the final 53-man roster in 2021, to now being a key part of the Rams defense and someone who Sean McVay is expecting to “model the way” for L.A.’s many rookies and inexperienced players with important jobs.
Sometimes even more important jobs than the ones that Hoecht and Williams will have.
To get refreshed on who the new expected starters are on the Rams defense and who they are replacing after a busy offseason of unloading and reloading, here’s a recap of where L.A.’s roster was the last two seasons to where they are now.
2021 - Troy Reeder, 681 snaps / Kenny Young, 384 snaps
2022 - Bobby Wagner, 1,080 snaps
2023 - Ernest Jones
The Rams drafted Jones in the third round of the 2021 draft with hope that he would develop into a solid starter in the middle of the defense, something that Sean McVay couldn’t quite find out of his 2020 group that included Micah Kiser, Kenny Young, and Troy Reeder. Jones didn’t hit the ground running as a rookie, which is the case for a lot of players. But the Bobby Wagner signing also wasn’t a vote of confidence that Jones was on track for that two-year plan. He played in roughly 60-80% of the snaps in the first three months, then only about half of the snaps in the final four games.
McVay must now feel confident that Jones can handle being ‘the green dot’, as he will call plays from Raheem Morris after the team released Wagner and brought in no significant competition at linebacker. Jones saw his snaps increase from 440 to 723 and his tackles increase from 61 to 114, dropping his missed tackle rate from 6.2% to 5.8%.
The change at linebacker this season is not necessarily about “upgrade” and “downgrade” but instead letting the Rams former third round pick “sink” or “swim” with the duties to run the defense so that the team can find out what they have in Ernest Jones.
2021 - Jalen Ramsey, 1,037 snaps
2022 - Jalen Ramsey, 1,077 snaps
2023 - Cobie Durant
When people say that the Rams could be as good, or even better on defense than they were last season, it does make me wonder what they think about players like Ramsey. If it is so easy to replace Ramsey with a fourth round pick, then why all the effort to trade two firsts and pay a cornerback $20 million per season? And if you say that Ramsey wasn’t that good during his final season in L.A., you are free to make the argument but it wouldn’t be the same as how people were talking about him at the end of his Pro Bowl year or when the Rams “traded him for nothing” to the Dolphins.
If Durant is merely a dependable starter, that alone would make him a steal. He doesn’t have to be Jalen Ramsey to be a valuable player on L.A.’s defense, but odds are that the Rams continue to be in the market for a true CB1, something that won’t likely be found for at least another year or two. I don’t want to get too caught up in positions for this exercise, but Durant is expected to take over Ramsey’s “Star” role and there’s a belief he could be L.A.’s best cornerback for now.
Durant played in 13 games as a rookie out of South Carolina State, playing almost exclusively on special teams until Week 13 against the Seahawks. In the final five games, Durnat played in about 70% of the snaps, with his rookie season highlight being two interceptions against the Broncos on Christmas Day, including a pick-six.
2021 - Darious Williams, 925 snaps
2022 - Troy Hill, 704 snaps
2023 - Ahkello Witherspoon^
Darious Williams intercepted seven passes in basically his first 13 starts with the Rams, starting at the end of 2020 and extending into the middle of 2021. That earned him a key role next to Ramsey on the Rams defense and a Super Bowl ring as a starter, but surprisingly Williams hasn’t had a single interception in his last 44 games. That includes the 2021 season and playoffs with the Rams, plus the 2022 season with the Jaguars after leaving as a free agent.
This isn’t meant to be commentary on Williams necessarily because he’s a good player. However, it might be fair to say that L.A. hasn’t had phenomenal depth at cornerback for the last couple of years anyway so maybe there’s nowhere to go but up from Troy Hill, David Long, Donte Deayon, and Derion Kendrick.
It would still be surprising if that player was Ahkello Witherspoon getting into his groove in year seven.
A third round pick of the 49ers in 2017, Witherspooon has played in just 34 games over the last four years with 19 starts for the Niners and Steelers. He also had a short training camp stint with the Seahawks after which he didn’t make the roster. In four games with Pittsburgh last season, Witherspoon was targeted 29 times, allowing 22 catches for 248 yards and four touchdowns. You can see him out of position on a couple of big plays against the Bengals here:
Whether Witherspoon breaks out in year seven remains to be seen but it appears that without any other options that we’re about to find out.
2021 - David Long, 461 snaps / Donte Deayon, 461 snaps
2022 - Derion Kendrick, 483 snaps
2023 - Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson* / Derion Kendrick
In shouting out four rookies who would contribute a lot this season (Steve Avila, Byron Young, Kobie Durant, Puka Nacua), Sean McVay didn’t mention Tomlinson. For now it could be Kendrick or even post-cuts pickup Duke Shelley getting more snaps than the sixth round rookie out of TCU. Maybe not or maybe his stint on the bench doesn’t last long, but Kendrick could remain L.A.’s third-most utilized cornerback to start the season.
That would be a source of concern for some Rams fans. Kendrick was targeted 59 times, allowing 40 catches for 516 yards and two touchdowns, which comes out to 13 yards per completion and almost 9 yards per target.
Derion Kendrick steps into his 2nd year with an opportunity to start at Cornerback. Kendrick had some ups and downs as a rookie but played plenty of reps that he can use to step up in year 2.— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) May 30, 2023
Do you expect Kendrick to start this season? pic.twitter.com/NIw1AchVlA
2021 - Taylor Rapp, 1,114 snaps
2022 - Taylor Rapp, 977 snaps
2023 - John Johnson^
Most Rams fans are happy to see John Johnson back in L.A., many Rams fans are equally happy to see that he’s replacing Taylor Rapp. The Rams don’t necessarily split “Free” and “Strong” at safety, so it’s choose your poison a bit here and I can’t say for sure how much Johnson will play to open the season as compared to Russ Yeast and Quentin Lake.
What I can say is that the Browns released John Johnson because they felt like they had to upgrade the safety position next to Grant Delpit. Cleveland didn’t release him in order to save money, they did it because the Browns think that replacing him will get the team closer to winning a championship. You could argue that Cleveland doesn’t know how to win championships, but that was still their reasoning nonetheless.
Johnson was attributed with as many as 17 missed tackles and some complaints of subpar effort.
#Browns plan to released John Johnson III on March 15th to save 9.75 mil unless they find a trade partner— Mac (@tha_buffalo) February 28, 2023
Hard to bring back a Safety with a big price tag that missed 17 tackles last year
(21.5% missed tackle rate)
That’s one reason why Johnson may start on the bench in favor of Yeast. But at times in training camp, we saw Johnson next to Yeast, so it’s anyone’s guess at the point who McVay will choose to be the top-two safeties and it could come down to a rotation and best matchups for now.
John Johnson III starting alongside Russ Yeast at safety. Shaun Jolly at star/slot.— Stu Jackson (@StuJRams) August 20, 2023
2021 - Jordan Fuller, 1,029 snaps
2022 - Nick Scott, 984 snaps
2023 - Jordan Fuller
Is Jordan Fuller a “better” safety than Nick Scott or are they maybe equal, at worst? Fuller was voted as a team captain this season, but it’s not guaranteed that McVay won’t eventually settle on a combination of safeties that includes Yeast, Lake, and Johnson ahead of the fourth-year player out of Ohio State. Given that he’s a 2024 free agent and McVay’s history with not retaining safeties (including Johnson, Rapp, and Scott), this is most likely Fuller’s last season with the Rams. That might be another reason to get a longer look at the players on rookie contracts.
2021 - Von Miller, 434 snaps / Leonard Floyd, 932 snaps
2022 - Leonard Floyd, 933 snaps
2023 - Michael Hoecht
During the Super Bowl run, we got to see just how wide of a gap there is between Floyd and a top-tier edge rusher. So for a while Floyd was L.A.’s number one edge, and then during the most important part of the season and playoffs, Von Miller stepped up and to quote Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects, “Showed these men of will what will really was.”
Still, there’s the drop-off from Von to Floyd, and then we’ll see how significant the drop-off is from Floyd to Hoecht, a former 300+ lb defensive tackle being asked to play the edge. Floyd had 29 sacks in three years with the Rams, but they came in about 38% of his starts. In the other 62%, Floyd had no sacks. Compare that to Miller during his short run with the Rams: He had a sack in seven of his last eight games with L.A., including two games with two sacks.
Now the focus turns to Hoecht, an undrafted free agent in 2020 out of Brown who spent his first season on the practice squad and his second season getting 110 snaps (10%) over 17 games. Hoecht had 408 snaps, 4.5 sacks, and 12 pressures last season.
2021 - Leonard Floyd / Terrell Lewis, 367 snaps
2022 - Terrell Lewis, 332 snaps / Justin Hollins, 308 snaps
2023 - Byron Young*
Like cornerback depth, edge depth hasn’t been a strength for McVay’s Rams of late. Perhaps that is something that could be upgraded as soon as this season, even if L.A. is missing someone like Von at the top.
Which rookies stand out to Sean McVay? "I'm really excited about Steve Avila, Byron Young, Kobie Turner, Puka Nacua, those are guys that come to mind as guys that we count on being immediate contributors for us who have earned the right to be those types of immediate contributors pic.twitter.com/Rqde7S7ab6— Bridget Condon (@BridgetCondon_) August 31, 2023
But we still need to see what Byron Young can prove during his first year in the NFL, and as a 25-year-old rookie who made it to the middle of the third round as basically about the 12th or 13th edge rusher off the board. We didn’t see much of him in the preseason, so Week 1 against the Seahawks will be the first good look we’ve had of Young yet.
2021 - Greg Gaines, 780 snaps
2022 - Greg Gaines, 732 snaps
2023 - Bobby Brown III / Kobie Turner*
Brown, a fourth round pick out of Texas A&M in 2021, played just 22 snaps as a rookie. He was suspended for the first six games of 2022 for violating the PED policy, then played in 164 snaps over nine games. Brown recorded eight tackles and had three pressures.
Rams Roster Profile: Is Bobby Brown ready for a larger role on the defensive line? https://t.co/RRI2nk3LIB— TurfShowTimes (@TurfShowTimes) June 21, 2023
We knew more about Gaines when he assumed the starting role in 2021 after playing in 384 snaps in his first two seasons, but maybe not a lot more. It’s going to be a leap of faith on Brown and rookie Kobie Durant heading into the season, which is a little less scary when you know that Aaron Donald is the guy playing next to the defensive tackles.
2021 - Aaron Donald, 1,041 snaps
2022 - Aaron Donald, 616 snaps
2023 - Aaron Donald
We’ve seen a lot less of Aaron Donald than usual over the last 10 months. It’s not usual for him to miss six games. It’s not usual for him to be out of OTAs, minicamps, joint practices, and maybe a few more excused absences than in the past. We can acknowledge that “veteran Aaron Donald” has maybe not been around as much as “younger Aaron Donald” without it necessarily meaning that he can’t be the same Aaron Donald.
It’s just a fact that everybody knows: There are two different types of Rams defenses, the one that has Aaron Donald and the one that doesn’t. We know how much better the former is than the latter, so it should be nothing unusual if AD dominates the Seahawks on Sunday.
2021 - A’Shawn Robinson, 516 snaps
2022 - A’Shawn Robinson, 359 snaps
2023 - Earnest Brown IV / Jonah Williams
Maybe because he was a fifth round pick in 2021 and is on the 53-man roster now, people forget that Earnest Brown didn’t make the Rams as a rookie or as a “sophomore”. Brown has been a practice squad player for two seasons, only getting elevated for five games in 2022 because of injuries and then recording nine tackles with two pressures over 136 snaps.
There hasn’t been much talk of him in training camp, but it appears that it’ll be him and Jonah Williams, a 2020 undrafted free agent who has spent some time on the practice squad with Brown, responsible for replacing the work of A’Shawn Robinson. Williams played in 341 snaps last season and had 23 tackles with five pressures.
2021 - Ernest Jones, 440 snaps
2022 - Ernest Jones, 723 snaps
2023 - Jake Hummel / Christian Rozeboom
Hummel is an interesting wild card in the equation of the Rams defense because maybe there’s some chance that the 2022 undrafted free agent was wrongly overlooked last year. Whether he will be able to have a significant impact on L.A.’s defensive value in 2023 is another question because if Ernest Jones is good, then aren’t those already big shoes to fill? How much better could Jones and Hummel be than Jones and Wagner?
Defensive Tackle Depth
2021 - Sebastian Joseph-Day, 341 snaps
2022 - Michael Hoecht, 408 snaps / Marquise Copeland, 342 snaps / Jonah Williams, 341 snaps
2023 - Brown III, Brown IV, Jonah Williams, Turner
2021 - Robert Rochell, 234 snaps
2022 - David Long, 288 snaps / Cobie Durant, 281 snaps
2023 - Duke Shelley / Tomlinson
A snapshot of some of the changes with regards to depth. Now some recent depth has risen into larger roles, will that be the case for the likes of Larrell Murchison, Nick Hampton, Desjuan Johnson, Zach VanValkenburg, or maybe Jason Taylor II?