With key linebackers gone, Rams need young players and draft picks to fill void
As the Rams prepare for the NFL draft, The Times will examine their roster. Part 3 of 10: Linebackers.
The Rams’ most productive linebackers the previous two years will be playing for other teams next season.
The Rams, feeling the weight of massive contracts they gave other players before the 2018 and 2019 seasons, dropped out of the bidding and watched edge rusher Dante Fowler and inside linebacker Cory Littleton sign free-agent contracts with the Atlanta Falcons and Las Vegas Raiders, respectively. Then they cut 11-year veteran Clay Matthews after one season with the team.
That is a lot of talent and experience to replace.
But save for agreeing to terms with edge rusher Leonard Floyd, a first-round draft pick who underperformed in four seasons with the Chicago Bears, the Rams made no additions to the linebacker corps.
Coach Sean McVay is banking on new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s relationship with Floyd coaxing more production from a player who recorded a career-low three sacks last season. Staley coached Floyd with the Bears in 2017 and 2018.
John Johnson is looking forward to teaming with Taylor Rapp at safety, but Rams need to find depth in the NFL draft.
“You see the versatility, where he can rush, he can play in coverage, he’s got length,” McVay said of the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Floyd. “You’ve been able to evaluate him in a lot of the same things that we’ll ask him to do with us. And then Brandon’s relationship and perspective on him was really important in our kind of pursuit of him.”
Fourth-year pro Samson Ebukam could start opposite Floyd, with Obo Okoronkwo, Natrez Patrick and perhaps Justin Lawler also rotating.
The Rams are counting on third year-pro Micah Kiser to step up and help fill the void left by Littleton’s departure. Kiser was on track to start alongside Littleton last season but suffered a season-ending chest injury during a preseason game, and undrafted free agent Troy Reeder emerged as the starter.
Travin Howard performed well at times last season as a backup. The Rams acquired former UCLA linebacker Kenny Young in a midseason trade with the Baltimore Ravens, but Young did not play a defensive snap.
Now Kiser, Reeder, Howard and Young will be on the spot.
“Losing Cory Littleton is a big blow,” McVay said, “but … those are four players that we have a lot of confidence in that have really, you know, have given us good examples of why you project them to be good football players.
A positionless wonder out of Clemson, Isaiah Simmons has played edge rusher, linebacker, cornerback and safety. He might be the most NFL-ready player in the draft.
“But until you really get a chance to do it, it’s hard to say.”
Under contract for 2020: Floyd ($10 million), Ebukam ($2.3 million), Okoronkwo ($819,000), Young ($750,000), Kiser ($749,000), Justin Lawler ($693,000), Reeder ($679,000), Patrick ($677,000), Jeff Holland ($675,000).
Free agents: Littleton went from undrafted free agent to Pro Bowl selection in four seasons with the Rams, but they could not afford to match the three-year, $35.2-million deal Littleton got from the Raiders. The Rams also let Fowler sign a three-year, $45-million contract with the Falcons. The Rams saved $3.75 million by cutting Matthews.
Draft: With Floyd on a one-year deal, the Rams will be looking for edge rushers in the draft.
Roster decisions: Floyd is on a prove-it contract, so the Rams can make a decision about him after the season. Ebukam is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The Rams otherwise do not have any major financial decisions to make regarding linebackers.
NEXT: Defensive line.
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