Each weekday from now until Rams rookies report to training camp on July 21st, we’ll be profiling a Rams position group. Today we look at the defensive ends.
Though they certainly need their offense to work in order to get wins in the brutal NFC West, there’s little doubt that the defensive end position is the most important for the St. Louis Rams if they want to be effective in 2014. Defensive end Robert Quinn was the Rams’ most impactful player during 2013, and he’ll attempt to do that again this season.
The 24-year-old Quinn, who picked up 19 sacks, forced seven fumbles, and had 57 tackles during 2013, was named Defensive Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of American following the season and was recently ranked 13th on the NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players of 2014”. His combination of fantastic speed and deceptiveness gives left tackles a real challenge on a weekly basis. He’s without a doubt the key to the Rams’ season this year.
The Rams also have a fantastic left end in 29-year-old Chris Long; in fact, NFL Media’s Bucky Brooks ranked Long and Quinn as the second-best pass-rushing duo in the league in an article last month. Because of a combination of Quinn’s emergence and an early-season injury that limited his effectiveness, Long’s numbers fell off a bit in 2013, as he picked up 8.5 sacks and 40 total tackles. He’ll look to return to his previous form in 2014 and try to replicate the numbers he put up in 2011 and 2012, when he registered 24.5 total sacks. Regardless, though, the powerful presence he provides at 6-foot-3 and 270 pounds will provide a nice counter to Quinn’s speedy rush off the right side.
Beyond Long and Quinn, the Rams have a few more very intriguing pass rushers. The most proven of them is 29-year-old William Hayes, who has been very effective over the past two years in relief of both Long and Quinn and as an interior rusher on obvious passing downs. Hayes missed two games due to injury in 2013, but he still picked up five sacks and 28 total tackles on 354 snaps from scrimmage. If Hayes stays healthy, he’ll aim to put up the kind of numbers he did in 2012, when he had seven sacks and 35 total tackles on 378 snaps.
After those three on the depth chart will likely be 6-foot-6, 269-pound Eugene Sims, who has been a steady presence since being drafted by the Rams out of West Texas A&M in 2010. After picking up three sacks and 20 tackles in 13 games during 2012, Sims was looking to take a major step forward last season. He didn’t quite get there, increasing his tackle total to 27 but only getting two sacks. With that said, Sims was still highly effective for being the Rams’ fourth defensive end. He should fit in as a backup to Long and Quinn again in 2014, though his previously significant duties as a pass rusher will likely be decreased this year with the presence of rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Rookie defensive end Michael Sam figures to have a shot at landing a spot on the 53-man roster as an extra defensive lineman. The 6-foot-2, 260-pounder was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 while racking up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a senior. Though the general excuse from those in NFL personnel circles has been that Sam fell to the seventh round of the draft because of poor athleticism and a bad combine performance, many speculated that he dropped because of his homosexuality, which he acknowledged to the public prior to the combine.
The Rams will likely have a spot available for Sam, considering that they kept undrafted rookie defensive end Gerald Rivers on the active roster for 13 games last year as an extra defensive end. It will help Sam’s bid for a spot if he can show the ability to perform on special teams, though he may end up being a gameday inactive anyway. The most important step in his battle will likely be putting together a strong performance during training camp practices and preseason games.
Third-year defensive end Sammy Brown, who possesses a skill set rather similar to Sam’s, could fit into the equation if Sam doesn’t impress during the preseason. Since being converted to end from linebacker midway through his rookie year, Brown has spent some time on the active roster in each of his two seasons but has been on the practice squad for the majority of the time. This preseason will be the defining moment for Brown if he wants to be part of the Rams’ roster.
Though the Rams list him as a defensive tackle, undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks may see some time at end during training camp. Westbrooks, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 267 pounds, played all across the line during his college career at West Texas A&M, received a $20,000 signing bonus and $30,000 guarantee on his base salary upon signing with the Rams, and they may try to utilize him at end this year if he hasn’t bulked up to be a contributor at tackle by the time training camp rolls around. Since the Rams probably don’t have space for ten defensive linemen, Westbrooks seems to be battling for a 53-man roster spot with Sam and Brown. If that doesn’t work out, he’s a strong practice squad candidate because of the team’s strong financial commitment to him.