Rams have more support for Aaron Donald than expected, but is it enough?
As the Rams prepare for the NFL draft, The Times will examine their roster. Part 4 of 10: Defensive line.
It looked as if the Rams would be short on experienced interior linemen to play alongside star Aaron Donald.
Michael Brockers, the Rams’ longest tenured defensive player, agreed to terms on a free-agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens. In seeking a replacement, Rams coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead sought a player who possessed similar size, athleticism and versatility.
They decided A’Shawn Robinson fit the profile.
“He was a guy who, originally, you said, ‘OK, this is somebody you hope can be like what Michael has been for us,’” McVay said.
Rams no longer have three productive linebackers from last season on the roster, meaning young players and NFL draft picks will have to help fill that void.
On March 18, the Rams agreed to terms with Robinson, a former Alabama star who played four seasons for the Detroit Lions. Nine days later, after Brockers’ deal with Ravens collapsed because of the team’s concerns about an ankle injury, the Rams re-signed the eight-year veteran.
Now new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley has a surplus to combine with Donald, a two-time NFL defensive player of the year recently named to the league’s all-decade team.
Last season, Donald’s appetite for disruption helped free edge rusher Dante Fowler to record a career-best 11½ sacks. Linebacker Clay Matthews had eight sacks — and almost certainly would have amassed more had he not been sidelined for three games because of a broken jaw.
Fowler parlayed his success into a rich free-agent contract with the Atlanta Falcons. The Rams cut Matthews to save salary-cap space.
But the Rams are of the mind that opponents’ focus on Donald will produce similarly positive effects on new edge rusher Leonard Floyd and others.
John Johnson is looking forward to teaming with Taylor Rapp at safety, but Rams need to find depth in the NFL draft.
Defensive line coach Eric Henderson developed Sebastian Joseph-Day into a starting nose tackle last year. Henderson’s challenge this season will be to raise the profile of Greg Gaines, a fourth-round pick last year. Tanzel Smart also provides depth.
End Jachai Polite could be a wild card. Polite slid to the third round of last year’s draft and was released by the New York Jets before the season. The Seattle Seahawks signed and released him before he joined the Rams’ practice squad.
Under contract for 2020: Donald ($25 million), Robinson ($7.4 million), Brockers ($6 million), Smart ($866,000), Gaines ($832,000), Joseph-Day ($789,000), Polite ($610,000), Marquise Copeland ($610,000).
Free agents: The Rams added Robinson and did not re-sign Morgan Fox, an undrafted free agent who came back from a knee injury to play his fourth season with the team in 2019.
Draft: The Rams have relied on Donald and outside linebackers to disrupt quarterbacks but could use more linemen that apply consistent pressure. So they will mine the draft for players to serve as apprentices.
Roster decisions: The Rams were not planning on Brockers’ return, and though he signed a three-year deal, they likely consider it a short-term luxury. Smart is in the final year of his contract.
NEXT: Special teams.
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