With the NFL Draft approaching in April and limited cap space left to their name (about 11 million), it has been reported that the Los Angeles Rams will likely stay quiet for the remainder of the free agency period, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
About a month ago, I wrote about how the Rams front seven would look in a new defensive scheme under newly hired coordinator, Wade Phillips. Much of the article was based purely upon speculation, because since then, there have been both additions and subtractions to their defensive personnel. The reason the primary focus is on the front seven is because of the base defensive change from the 4-3 to the 3-4. The defensive backfield, will undergo some personnel changes, but will not have to adapt as much to new responsibilities.
Departures: The key losses for the Ram’s defense include WIlliam Hayes and Eugene Sims. To no one’s surprise, I originally slated William Hayes to be one of the starting defensive ends. Hayes was traded to the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a 6th round pick in this year’s draft. Eugene Sims, another defensive end, had played out his career with the Rams as a solid rotational player who added quality depth.
Additions: New Los Angeles Rams added in 2017 who will bolster the front seven are Connor Barwin (OLB) and Tyrunn Walker (DT). Barwin played last season with the Philadelphia Eagles as a defensive end in their 4-3 scheme, while Walker played in the same scheme as a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions as a rotational guy. Barwin was productive as an outside linebacker in Philly’s 3-4 notching 11.5 sacks in 2014, but saw his numbers take a hit when they switched to a 4-3 last season and moved to an end with his hand in the dirt. Barwin has previously played for Coach Phillips and should find a more natural role as an outside rusher again.
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Now, speculation aside, the Rams recently released their “way too early” pre-season depth chart a few weeks ago. As I previously wrote, Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron will man the two middle linebacker spots. Some commented that Mark Barron would be better suited to play on the outside, but I don’t see it. He was originally drafted as a safety, and to make a permanent move to be an outside pass rusher would be a difficult transition given his skill set and his smaller frame.
Robert Quinn will have to adapt the most as he is penciled in as the other outside linebacker across from Barwin. Quinn will, most likely, play a similar role to that of Demarcus Ware in Phillips’ defense and probably won’t be asked to pass drop often, Vonn Miller did more of that for Denver on the outside than Ware did. Along the defensive line, Aaron Donald and Dominique Easley are the current starters at the end positions. Both players, last year, played defensive tackle in a 3 technique predominantly, so the transition will not be too daunting for them.
Finally, giving them three 1st round picks along the line, Michael Brockers will play the nose. He too, will not undergo much change, as he played the 1 technique throughout his career for the Rams.
Looking solely at the front 7 personnel in the new scheme, there is reason for optimism that the defense will carry a hopefully improved offense. They are talented across the board and have a proven coach implementing a proven system for LA. Worth noting: Free Agent safety T.J. McDonald has been suspended 8 games for the 2017 season and will almost certainly not be returning to the Rams. The depth chart currently lists Maurice Alexander, who had an impressive 2016 campaign, and former nickel corner, Lamarcus Joyner as the two starting safeties.