Jun 17, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams defensive lines coach Mike Waufle talks with defensive tackle Aaron Donald (99) during minicamp at Rams Park. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Rams Training Camp Countdown: Evaluating the Defensive Tackles

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 tackles.

The St. Louis Rams already had an impressive collection of defensive tackles, and they only made it better with their offseason activity. If everyone in the unit can stay healthy, they should contribute heavily to a defensive line that could be the NFL’s best in 2014.

The defensive tackle group is headlined by 6-foot-5, 326-pound Michael Brockers, who will be heading into his third season. Though Brockers technically plays the “nose tackle” position in the Rams’ defense, he’s by no means limited to stuffing a gap against a center and in fact is a very good pass rusher and run stopper. In 2013, his first full season, Brockers had 5.5 sacks and 46 total tackles. While the evaluators at Pro Football Focus weren’t fans of Brockers’ 2013 performance, giving him a -7.1 overall rating, most people who consistently observed Brockers’ play would probably tell you that he’s a rather impactful player on the interior of the defensive line. If anything, he should be able to get even better in 2014 as defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long continue to give offensive lines fits and first-rounder Aaron Donald joins the mix.

Donald, the 13th overall pick this year out of Pittsburgh, was one of the greatest college defensive tackles of all time and will look to carry his production to the professional level. Some evaluators were concerned by Donald’s lack of size, as he measured in at just 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. For that matter, it was somewhat surprising that the Rams chose to select him, since they’d previously only brought in defensive tackles that were 6-foot-5 or taller since head coach Jeff Fisher and defensive line coach Mike Waufle arrived in 2012. But Donald’s raw pass rushing ability was too much to overlook, as it enabled him to pick up 29.5 sacks and 181 tackles, including 66 tackles for loss, which ranked him third all-time in Division I football since the stat began being widely recorded in 2005.

During his rookie season, Donald figures to fit into a pass-rushing specialist role, coming in to provide extra pressure in the nickel package and any other situation where the Rams feel they need extra quickness on the interior. He should take away some of the responsibilities that backup defensive ends William Hayes and Eugene Sims have had in recent seasons.

At least at the start of the season, six-year veteran Kendall Langford is expected to fill the other starting tackle position. The 6-foot-6, 313-pounder hasn’t exactly been the impact player that many thought he would be when the Rams gave him a four-year, $24 million-dollar deal in 2012, but he had a career year in 2013 and will look to continue that positive trajectory this season. Langford led Rams defensive tackles with 49 total tackles last season, and he picked up a career-high five sacks. While he’s historically been regarded as more of a pass rusher, Langford proved himself as a reliable run stopper in 2013, and that will be his primary gateway to playing time this season. While the Rams certainly will want to get Donald integrated in all different types of situations, they’ll likely have Langford on the field a whole lot against big, physical NFC West backs such as Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore.

6-foot-5, 301-pounder Alex Carrington signed with the Rams as a free agent over the offseason, and he’s expected to serve as the fourth defensive tackle. While you wouldn’t think the odds would be in Carrington’s favor, considering that he’ll be heading into his fifth NFL season and that the Rams have only had four active defensive tackles for 10 of the 32 games in Jeff Fisher’s Rams tenure, but Waufle spoke very highly of Carrington in a June St. Louis Post-Dispatch article and insinuated that he would have a spot on the roster.

It’s unknown how frequently there will be room for Carrington on the Rams’ gameday roster, but he could make himself more attractive by being able to contribute on special teams, which he’s shown the ability to do in the past, particularly on the field goal/extra point block unit. Though his speciality is also as a pass-rusher, Carrington’s size could also be useful as the Rams frequently rotate defensive linemen.

Attempting to push Carrington for a job or perhaps stick around as a fifth defensive tackle will be third-year player Matt Conrath. Conrath, a 6-foot-7, 306-pounder who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia in 2012, has shown signs of legitimate potential when he’s gotten on the field but has been held back by injuries in his first two seasons. Conrath was only active for one game as a rookie, and he came out of the lineup with a concussion last season before passing up veteran Jermelle Cudjo on the depth chart and getting back in for a few games near the end of the season. Conrath picked up seven total tackles and one sack during 2013.

Conrath is in a tough situation because of the presence of the top four tackles and the fact that it’s no longer as practical to continue to develop him now that he has two years in the league. If he doesn’t make a great impression during training camp and the preseason, it’s likely that his time with the Rams will come to an end.

Beyond those five players, the Rams also have undrafted rookies Ethan Westbrooks and Deantre Harlan. Westbrooks, who played at West Texas A&M, is very much a developmental prospect and needs to add a rather significant amount of weight to his 6-foot-4, 267-pound frame. However, it’s clear that the Rams have high hopes for him, as they gave him a $20,000 signing bonus and $30,000 guarantee on his base salary for 2014 to entice him to join the program. Westbrooks, who played all across the defensive line in college, probably won’t be developed enough to serve as anything more than a pass-rushing specialist on the interior this year, but he may see some action at defensive end as well. There’s a decent chance that Westbrooks could end up making the 53-man roster and serving as a healthy inactive for his first season. If there isn’t room for him, he’s a definite practice squad candidate.

Harlan, a 6-foot-4, 281-pounder from Bacone College, probably comes into camp ranked somewhere between 80th and 90th among the 90 players on the Rams’ roster. He’ll have a definite chance to prove himself during camp and preseason games, though, and we could certainly see him defy the odds. Unfortunately, Harlan will have a whole lot of ground to make up if he wants to make it any higher than seventh on the defensive tackle depth chart.

Tags: 2014 NFL Training Camp Aaron Donald Defensive Tackles Kendall Langford Michael Brockers St. Louis Rams

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