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 linebackers.
The St. Louis Rams have two borderline Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers on their roster that will be cornerstones of their defense. Despite that, the position group is probably the most inexperienced on the roster going into training camp.
Despite the common classification of the Rams’ defense as a “4-3” alignment, it’s probably more accurate to classify it as a 4-2-5, since the Rams had a strong side linebacker on the field for only about 53 percent of their defensive snaps in 2013. Even when they did utilize a three-linebacker alignment, rookie weak side ‘backer Alec Ogletree was utilized many times like a big safety in coverage. With two former safeties being part of the linebacking corps in Ogletree and fellow second-year player Ray Ray Armstrong, it’s clear that the Rams really value quickness and athleticism in their linebackers.
Ogletree will look to take his game to the next level after having a very successful rookie season in 2013. With a team-leading 117 total tackles, he was the first player other than middle linebacker James Laurinaitis to lead the Rams in tackles since 2008. He also showed his playmaking ability, forcing six fumbles, knocking down 10 passes, and running back an interception for a 98-yard touchdown against the Houston Texans. He didn’t contribute a whole lot as a pass rusher, picking up only 1.5 sacks on the season, but he’ll certainly be focusing on improving that area of his game in his sophomore season.
Laurinaitis will continue in his role as the veteran leader of the Rams’ defense and should continue to be a major contributor despite the fact that Ogletree has taken a significant load off of Laurinaitis’s back since his arrival. The 27-year-old had 116 total tackles in 2013, the second-lowest total of his five-year career, but the presence of Ogletree freed up Laurinaitis to become more active as a pass rusher, and he took advantage, registering a career-high 3.5 sacks. He also defended a career-high nine passes. If Laurinaitis and Ogletree build on their 2013 production, the Rams can say that they have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.
When the Rams have a strong side linebacker on the field, six-year veteran Jo-Lonn Dunbar figures to fit into the role. There’s been a strong sentiment among fans recently that Armstrong should move ahead of Dunbar on the depth chart, but there hasn’t really been any indication from the Rams that there’s a possibility of that happening. Dunbar will look to have a bounce back season under Gregg Williams, his former defensive coordinator with the New Orleans Saints.
After having the best season of his career with the Rams in 2012, picking up 115 total tackles and notching 4.5 sacks while running back two interceptions for 63 yards, Dunbar had one of his worst in 2013. He was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing policy and was released by the Rams at the beginning of the regular season, though he was subsequently re-signed once his suspension ended. He did not have much of an impact once he came back, however, participating on only 425 plays from scrimmage and picking up 39 total tackles with no sacks. He received a -8.4 rating from Pro Football Focus which ranked him as the seventh-worst 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL.
Armstrong will be counted on to make further improvements and will likely serve as the primary backup to both Ogletree and Dunbar. The 6-foot-3, 234-pounder flashed impressive athleticism on special teams as a rookie, and he totaled 13 tackles on the year. However, he must be more disciplined, as he had several costly special teams penalties, particularly early in the season, that ended up hurting the Rams.
Daren Bates, a versatile 5-foot-11, 225-pounder who was a solid special teams contributor as a rookie in 2013, will return and provide depth at all the linebacker positions. Ogletree will probably fill Laurinaitis’s role should he get injured, but depth-chart wise Bates figures to be the second-string middle linebacker. It’s easy to envision a scenario where Armstrong and Bates could be the only two backup linebackers to dress on gamedays, much like they did in Weeks 2 through 4 last season.
The Rams will likely carry six linebackers on their 53-man roster, so barring further additions the sixth spot will be up for grabs among Aaron Hill, Caleb McSurdy, Johnny Millard, Etienne Sabino, Phillip Steward, and Tavarius Wilson. With the sixth linebacker facing very long odds to get playing time from scrimmage, special teams ability will likely play a huge role in the decison.
Steward, a 6-foot-1, 235-pounder from Houston, would be the logical favorite for the role, as he was a highly-regarded undrafted free agent last season and got a whole year to soak in the system after landing on injured reserve. He showed the ability in college to contribute as a tackler and playmaker, and he would seem like a good candidate to contribute on coverage units.
McSurdy, a 6-foot-1, 237-pounder out of Montana, also has an edge, as he spent the last month on the Rams’ practice squad last season. He has experience working as a 4-3 middle linebacker, so that may work to his advantage.
Sabino, a 6-foot-2, 247-pounder who formerly backed up Laurinaitis at Ohio State, might be a dark horse candidate to win a 53-man roster spot after signing with the Rams following the conclusion of the 2013 season. As an undrafted rookie, Sabino was said to have been impressive in training camp with the New York Giants last summer, but he ultimately was released at the end of training camp and didn’t catch on with a team for the rest of the year. His size and athleticism, as well as his experience playing both in the middle and on the strong side at OSU, may make him an intriguing possibility.
Hill, Millard, and Wilson will all attempt to assert themselves after arriving as undrafted rookies. Hill, a graduate of Lutheran High School in St. Louis, certainly would be the best story of the group, as was a walk-on at Minnesota, and didn’t really emerge as a starter until his redshirt junior season. He’s viewed as a solid special-teamer, though he’s not exceptionally athletic, so it will be interesting to see if that ability translates to the NFL.
Millard, a 6-foot-2, 232-pounder from Cal Poly who is the son of former NFL defensive tackle Keith Millard, probably sits near the bottom of the depth chart but has a chance to impress on special teams and obviously has an NFL pedigree. Wilson, meanwhile, will need to get up to NFL speed quickly after spending his college career at Division II North Alabama. He has a lot of similar qualities to Bates, as he’s 5-foot-11 and 239 pounds with above-average athleticism. He’ll have to have a real impressive camp to have a chance at cracking the 53-man roster, though.
It’s also worth noting that 33-year-old veteran Will Witherspoon has engaged in discussion with head coach Jeff Fisher about a possible return, though that doesn’t seem to be an exceptionally likely possibility unless the Rams are very dissatisfied with what they see from their young linebackers during training camp.