The most unexpected 2023 season by a Ram wasn't Puka Nacua's record-breaking season. Puka might have been the very last pick in the 5th round, but he was a very highly touted WR recruit. He was a 4-star recruit and projected to be a future 2nd round NFL draft pick when he was coming out of HS. He was a good player at BYU, he just had trouble staying healthy and on the field. What happened his rookie year shouldn't have been such a shock, he merely was the player he was always projected to become, the NFL scouts just messed up and got distracted by his mediocre college stats and his poor draft testing results, including a slow 40 time.
The bigger surprise was that Michael Hoecht started all 17 regular season games, plus the Wild Card playoff game at OLB for the Rams. When Hoecht was coming out of college, the idea that this would happen would have sounded outlandish. Hoecht was an UDFA in 2020. He was a top 10 overall draft pick... in the Canadian Football League draft. The Rams list him at 6'4'' tall and 310 pounds. Hoecht played DL at Brown and was supposed to become a backup 5-tech 3-4 DE, helping to eventually replace Michael Brockers, who unexpectedly returned to the Rams in 2020 before being traded to the Lions in 2021.
The crazy thing about Hoecht's season is we didn't even really use him as a pure EDGE rusher. We had him play a hybrid OLB/ILB position where he had to split time between being a pass rusher and a pass coverage ILB. That's absolutely nuts. Why would you ever use a 310-pound guy who was supposed to be a backup, rotational 5-tech DE and have him try to carry WRs and TEs across the field or downfield?
If you told me back in 2020 that we would use Hoecht in this manner in 2023, I would have predicted the experiment to be a total disaster. True, Hoecht had very impressive draft testing numbers for a DT. He didn't have a real Combine or Pro Day due to covid, but he posted video purportedly (I was skeptical of all the private workouts that year, because it was easy for the agents to make their own clients look better by fudging the numbers a bit) showing him to run a 4.65 second 40 while weighing 290 pounds. He did the agility drills (shuttle and 3-cone) and the positional drills so well, he moved better than most TE prospects and he caught the ball, so at 290 pounds if he had wanted to play TE he probably could have been an excellent developmental TE prospect. Still, despite his uncommon level of athleticism, how is a 310-pound defender supposed to rush from a wide alignment? How is he going to play in space when he drops back off the LOS?
In the playoffs, the Detroit Lions repeatedly beat Hoecht in coverage for key completions, including to LaPorta for a TD and to Gibbs for a nice gain. Near the very end of the game, Hoecht missed a critical tackle in the flat vs David Montgomery on a short pass. It is easy to focus on such plays and only see the negatives when it comes to Hoecht. In the larger picture, however, he held up pretty well given everything we put on his plate. Raheem Morris and the Rams gave Hoecht very difficult assignments, beyond what 3-4 OLB normally would be asked to do, let alone one who is a former UDFA and was never supposed to be playing OLB in the first place. All things considered, I'm amazed that Hoecht even played as well as he did. On paper, he should have been terrible, he should have failed miserably.
1. Hoecht wasn't really an EDGE defender.
If I'm interpreting the statistics from SIS correctly, Hoecht played 342 rushing plays, 566 passing plays and had 333 pass rushing snaps. If you subtract the pass rushing snaps from the total number of passing plays, I'm assuming that all the other pass snaps are in coverage. Maybe there is some flaw in this assumption but that's what I'm going with to make all of the following calculations.
In 2023, Hoecht was used as a pass rusher on 59% of his passing downs. He was in coverage 41% of the time. That isn't a normal split for an EDGE rushing 3-4 OLB. Byron Young of the Rams was a pass rusher on 78% of his passing plays and in coverage 22% of the time. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka was 1st round pick by the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2021. In his best season (2022) he was a pass rusher 78% of the time and in coverage 22% of the time. Alex Highsmith of the Steelers had a monster 2022 season. That year he was a pass rusher 88% of the time and in coverage 12% of the time.
So, let's say a typical EDGE defender rushes the QB about 80 to 90% of the time. When Leonard Floyd joined us from the Bears, I noted that if you watched his tape, Chicago often used him in coverage much like how we used Samson Ebukam at one time, not as a full-time pass rusher. His final season in Chicago, Floyd was a pass rusher 75% of the time. In Ebukam's 2nd NFL season, he was a pass rusher 68% of the time. If we created a lower tier of a "hybrid OLB" that plays as a slot defender, that guy might rush say 70 to 75% of the time.
Hoecht in 2023 was way below even the Floyd/Ebukam level. It is almost misleading to call Hoecht an EDGE defender. He was almost 50% OLB and 50% ILB the way he was being used. The career high for Highsmith is 74 tackles. In his monster 2022 season when he had 14.5 sacks he had 63 tackles. Hoecht in 2023 had 81 tackles. He missed a bunch of tackles per SIS (22%, though PFR only gives him 7 missed tackles for a very reasonable 8.6% missed tackle rate) but part of his role was to make tackles. Hoecht had 133% the number of tackles as Byron Young.
2. The Alternative in Coverage Wouldn't Have Been Better
Per PFR stats, opponents completed 77% of their targets vs Hoecht for 7.5 yards per target and a total of 232 yards. Those are really lousy coverage stats for a 3-4 OLB. Remember, however, that Hoecht isn't just dropping into shallow zone coverage to take away the curl/flat area. He's running like a mad-man all over the field at different angles. So, if we didn't give those assignments to Hoecht, which defender would have been covering those receivers?
In 2022, Ernest Jones per PFR allowed a completion rate of 79.2%, 333 total yards and 6.3 yards per target. Per SIS, Jones allowed 7.5 yards per target, tied for the 11th worst among all NFL LBs who faced a minimum of 20 passing targets in 2022. In 2023, Jones was used much more frequently as a pass rusher, 22% of the time vs 7% of the time in 2022, with an outstanding 25% pressure rate. If you're going to use Jones as a pass rusher, then those coverage snaps have to either go to an OLB or you need to take the OLB off the field and give them to the other ILB, Christian Rozeboom. In 2023, Rozeboom per PFR gave up a 79.6% completion rate, 296 total yards and 6.0 yards per target.
We can take the PFR pass coverage stats and divide them by the SIS total pass coverage snaps played to calculate a yards allowed per coverage stat number. Ernest Jones in 2022 allowed 0.925 yards per coverage snap. Hoecht in 2023 allowed 0.996 yards per coverage snap. Those 2 numbers aren't too far off from each other.
Michael Hoecht got torched in pass coverage in 2023, but at the end of the day I don't think it would have mattered which LB we used in that role. None of our LBs would have held up in coverage. Ernest Jones isn't a fast or quick player to cover in man. Rozeboom is a former UDFA who I see as mostly a ST guy and backup. We don't have a true "cover LB" on the roster. Hoecht "took one for the team" and did the best he could. He's very fast and athletic for a 310-pound defender, but in some cases we're asking him to run with WRs, RBs and TEs who were 1st and 2nd round draft picks. That's a tough ask.
3. The Overall Results were Okay
As a pass rusher, Hoecht had a 9.9% pressure rate (SIS has it at 10.4%), 6 sacks and a 5.4% hurry rate. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (remember he's a former 1st round pick) in his best season (2022) had a 10.5% pressure rate, 4 sacks and a 7% hurry rate. So, while Hoecht had one of the worst pressure rates among starting EDGE rushers in 2023, he wasn't too far off from JTS's pass rushing productivity in 2022. In 2023, JTS's numbers declined. He only had a 8.8% pressure rate, 5 sacks, and a 5.1% hurry rate. Hoecht was a better pass rusher in 2023 than Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Yes, you're reading that correctly, our UDFA was better than their former 1st round draft pick. If we hadn't traded away our 1st round pick that year, JTS would have been one of the top candidates to take at that draft slot.
Hoecht had a 60.7 PFF regular season grade in 2023. JTS had a 65.5 PFF grade. Since Hoecht was half an EDGE and half a LB for us in 2023, consider that Ernest Jones in 2022 had a 63.6 PFF grade.
Hoecht was an UDFA in 2020. This was the same draft class as Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Terrell Lewis, Terrell Burgess, Brycen Hopkins, Jordan Fuller, Clay Johnston, Sam Sloman and Tremayne Anchrum. Out of all of those players, if we ranked them in terms of contributions to the Rams in 2023, the top 2 guys are Fuller and Hoecht, not necessarily in that order. If we did a "Rams redraft" where can't pick any other players, just change the order of our own draft picks, doesn't that make Hoecht a 2nd round pick for us? Chew on that thought for a second. He's playing the position that Terrell Lewis was supposed to fill. If we didn't have Hoecht, who would we have used at OLB in 2023? Most of that 2020 draft wasn't even on the roster last year. Hoecht and Jonah Williams (also an UDFA in 2020) helped to salvage an otherwise very poor draft by Snead.
Hoecht was an exclusive-rights free agent in 2023. He is a restricted free agent in 2024. I'm not saying that we should sign him to a long-term deal, but I think there was more good than bad from Hoecht in 2023 and it was a good thing we had him on the roster last season. We would have been in even worse shape if he hadn't been on the team.