When the St. Louis Rams drafted defensive tackle Aaron Donald with the 13th overall pick this May, the team added to a defensive line that was already one of the most fearsome in the NFL. At the same time, however, they created an overflow of depth at the position, and it will now be interesting to see who survives come cutdown time in August.
The Rams already parted ways with Jermelle Cudjo, who had served as the third defensive tackle for the past few years. There was speculation that they could also release incumbent starter Kendall Langford, who is owed $5 million this year, but he’s stuck around through OTAs, and all indications at this point are that he’s in the plans for 2014. Assuming that Langford, Donald, and Michael Brockers are going to be the top three defensive tackles, that leaves one or maybe two spots on the 53-man roster for offseason free agent acquisition Alex Carrington, third-year player Matt Conrath, and undrafted rookies Ethan Westbrooks and Deantre Harlan.
Of all those players, Carrington’s case should be the most interesting to follow. The Rams gave him a one-year, $1.5-million dollar contract in March, with $1 million guaranteed. At the time, he was lauded as an interior pass rusher who would provide a needed boost as a rotational player with Brockers and Langford. Since the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder was one of the Rams’ few free agent acquisitions this offseason, it would seem logical to think that he’d be a shoo-in to make the team, but after considering a few factors, that proposition seems to be more up-in-the-air.
First of all, Donald is going to fill the pass-rushing specialist that Carrington was projected to fill when he signed. The Rams admittedly did not believe that Donald would fall to pick 13, and when he was there they jumped at the chance to get him. With Donald’s status as a first-round pick and track record of great pass-rushing production (29.5 sacks and 66 tackles for loss during his college career), he’ll certainly be more highly-regarded than Carrington, who is quick and athletic but has only four sacks over his first 44 NFL games.
In addition, he’ll be facing a game day roster crunch. Through Jeff Fisher’s first 32 games as the Rams’ head coach, they’ve dressed four defensive tackles on game day 10 times. In 11 of the final 12 games of 2013, the Rams had only three active DTs: Brockers, Langford, and one of either Cudjo or Conrath. They’ve used defensive ends William Hayes and Eugene Sims as interior pass rushers when needed, so the positions have always been covered.
Assuming health, Brockers, Langford, and Donald figure to fit into those roles this year. Hayes and Sims will be around as well, though their duties at defensive tackle will likely decrease with Donald being an adept pass rusher who can contribute in sub packages. For that reason, Carrington’s spot may not be totally secure. If the Rams maintain their same roster composition as in years past, it wouldn’t really make sense to waste a roster spot on a five-year veteran like Carrington and have him as a game day inactive for two-thirds of the season when they could be developing a younger player instead.
With that said, there’s not really anyone standing out as a clear alternative to Carrington. Conrath has flashed some nice skills through his first two years and has size on his size at 6-foot-7 and 306 pounds, but he hasn’t done much thus far (7 total tackles and one sack in 2013) and can’t really be considered a “developmental” player anymore with two full seasons under his belt.
Westbrooks has a decent shot at making the roster, considering that he received a signing bonus of $20,000 and has a $30,000 guarantee on his rookie salary, but it’s doubtful that he’d be ready to contribute from scrimmage if needed in 2014. Westbrooks, who played both end and tackle at Division II West Texas A&M, is currently listed at 6-foot-4 and 267 pounds, and he’s going to need to add at least 15 pounds to that frame before he can be expected to contribute as a defensive tackle in the NFL. If anything, he’d probably be pushing Michael Sam for the ninth defensive lineman job.
Though Carrington doesn’t have the projectability that Westbrooks or even Conrath has, he is a proven vet that can provide good depth and could also be a helpful special teams contributor. So while his spot probably isn’t totally secure, he figures to have the edge going into training camp.