Monday morning of the NFL Combine will be the defensive prospects' turn to lace them up for all eyes to see. Members of the defensive front, linemen and linebackers, will get the first crack at it.
The consensus for all sound minds is the Rams defensive front is the overwhelming strength of the team. There is merit to that. An above average cast is led by emerging NFL superstar, Robert Quinn. Nevertheless as the arms race in the NFC West for the biggest and nastiest defenses continues, I suspect the Rams will be active adding pieces to the front end of the defense this offseason.
Let's take a look at the needs and prospects among the front seven.
NEED LEVEL: LOW
In 2012, this defensive line finished tied for the NFL sack lead. Not bad considering that three-fourths of the starting line was made up of a 2nd-year defensive end in Robert Quinn, a rookie defensive tackle in Michael Brockers, and a guy in Kendall Langford who was learning a new position. Defensive Line Coach Mike Waufle got solid veteran contributions from Chris Long and Will Hayes to round out the group.
The 2013 season saw the Rams finish 3rd in the league in the sack category and it saw Robert Quinn burst into the spotlight, recording 19.0 of the team’s 53.0 sacks. Quinn also added an impressive 7 forced fumbles. So, the best unit on the team returns all 4 starters and its best rotational back up. It must be time to move on to linebackers, yes? Well, not so fast.
WHO TO WATCH AT THE COMBINE?
South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. And we’re done here. No, just kidding. But seriously, if the pre-combine rumors are anywhere close to the truth, Clowney is going to have a combine of epic proportions.
The best of the rest at defensive end will be topped by Mizzou’s Kony Ealy. Auburn’s Dee Ford made a name for himself in the National Championship game. Ford could really do himself a favor with a good workout to show teams that he is indeed scheme versatile. And for what it's worth, I was told by two SEC offensive linemen last week at the South Carolina College All Star Bowl Game that Arkansas’s Chris Smith is one of the players that gave them hardest time this year.
With regards to the interior, there seems to be a cluster of names fluctuating up and down mock draft boards. A name constantly found at the top is Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III. Nix weighed in at 330 this week and best fits in a 2-gapping, 3-4 scheme.
Since the arrival of Fisher and Mike Waufle, the profile of the interior seems to go as follows: tall, long arms, and massive size. Staying along that profile, Minnesota’s RaShede Hageman, Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt, Penn State’s DaQuan Jones, UConn’s Shamar Stephen and California’s Deandre Coleman are must watches. But, that's not to say that Pittsburgh’s explosive Aaron Donald and Florida State’s disruptive Timmy Jernigan won’t catch Les Snead’s eye.
The Rams are certainly set for 2014 at defensive end. However, beyond that things become grey.
The Rams have a team option on budding star Robert Quinn in 2015. At this rate, Quinn is maneuvering himself into Mario Williams-type money. Additionally, the Rams also have Chris Long under contract for another 3 years. But with salary cap hits totaling nearly $25 million in ’15 and ’16 collectively, one has to wonder if Long will still be worth that type of money by then.
The best insurance policy for a departing Quinn and/or Long would be Jadeveon Clowney. The “once in a generation” talk has begun to following him wherever he goes. Whether or not that is warranted can be heavily debated, but what can’t be debated is that he is without a doubt a very special player. There are some reservations about his effort and the notion that selecting him would likely require a position change from RDE to LDE. Clowney didn’t exactly get a glowing report from his former Head Coach, Steve Spurrier, when he called Clowney's effort “okay” this week.
If the Rams were to pass on Clowney, they may not feel the need to add a defensive end until later. For a head coach that so strongly desires pass rushers, Eugene Sims’ 5 sacks in 4 years most likely isn’t preventing the team from possibly upgrading the bottom end of the rotation.
For the defensive tackle position, there was initially a whole lot of action at the beginning of the Fisher era. By the 14th pick of the 2012 draft, the Rams had added two major pieces to the middle of their defense. A 4-year lucrative free-agent deal was given to Kendall Langford and the Rams traded back twice to nab Michael Brockers at 14.
Since the Brockers pick, there has not been much done to the position. There is something to be said about the progression of both Brockers and Langford and also Will Hayes’ ability to jump inside and provide a healthy dose of interior pressure. But, Les Snead has also noted on many occasions that it is always nice to have those big bodies fresh late in the game.
This is the draft where the Rams will find themselves another defensive tackle. Luckily for them, this is a pretty good year to do it. ReShede Hageman is a guy that is really intriguing. One of the best pass rushers amongst his peers inside, Hageman lacks some consistency in the run game. Even at 6’6, 320, Hageman can get caught watching which results in him getting pushed around some.
A guy that the Rams could be a match with in terms of profile, fit, and where they can find him in the draft is Penn State’s DaQuan Jones. A projected Day 3 guy, Jones started 23 games over the last 2 seasons and is a stout run defender.
NEED LEVEL: MEDIUM-HIGH
The Rams' run defense was shaky early in the season, surrendering big rushing totals in consecutive weeks to the Dallas Cowboys (Week 3) and San Francisco 49ers (Week 4). But with the return of suspended veteran Jo Lonn Dunbar and the progression of 1st-round pick, Alec Ogletree, the Rams run defense would pick up fast. The defense ended up finishing in the top 10 in rushing defense. However, with the potential departure of veterans Dunbar and Will Witherspoon, the Rams will be looking to add to the linebacking corps.
WHO TO WATCH AT THE COMBINE?
Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, and UCLA’s Anthony Barr lead a class of dynamic, scheme-versatile linebackers who have a knack for getting to the quarterback.
Teams that don’t find one of these guys in the 1st round will be in luck as Day 2 will provide some serious NFL talent as well. UConn’s Yawin Smallwood, Wisconsin’s Chris Borland, Stanford’s Shayne Skov and Florida State’s Christian Jones are all very talented inside guys, while Ohio State’s powerful Ryan Shazier, BYU’s polished Kyle Van Noy, and Georgia Tech’s explosive Jeremiah Attaochu are all guys to watch out for.
The interest here should be fairly high. Yes, Alec Ogletree is in place and did make a series of splash plays last year that allowed for us to look past his spotty tackling. Ogletree, the converted safety, is still very much in the developing stages. Additionally, Jo Lonn Dunbar and Will Witherspoon are both free agents. If they were both to depart, the Rams would be left with very little. Undrafted free-agent rookies Daren Bates and Ray-Ray Armstrong made strong statements with their play on special teams, but it remains to be seen if either one of those two can be more than special teams contributors.
In a chat this week on stltoday.com, Rams beat writer Jim Thomas didn’t necessarily agree that the pending vacancy at outside linebacker was all that much to be worried about, stating that the position only sees about 35-40% of the snaps.
I tend to disagree with Mr. Thomas. The NFC Championship game featured two teams from the NFC West in the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers that finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively, in rushing attempts. Another common trademark between the two is their mobile quarterbacks. In the event that Dunbar does not return, I think adding a premium outside linebacker is very important.
To me, Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier is a perfect fit for this Gregg Williams defense. He’s a grown man who plays with absolute speed and violence. Shazier is similar to Ogletree in that he is a converted safety with great athleticism and runs extremely well. But, unlike Ogletree, Shazier is a great tackler and finisher.
Buffalo’s Khalil Mack would also be extremely exciting in this defense. He could take on a Von Miller-type role. Also, during the all-star bowl circuit, the Rams were linked to a few middle round inside guys like Chris Borland and Michigan State’s Max Bullough.
The Rams have really never had a solid back-up in the middle for James Laurinaitis. Perhaps, they could go a "2 birds 1 stone" route and grab versatile Florida State linebacker Christian Jones. Jones is a 6’4, 240 lbs monster who runs very well for his size. Jones has played inside, outside, and even put his hand in the dirt from the end position at times last year.
Next up: defensive backs.