As the roster continually changes, the Rams will look to build around the best defender in football.
(Authors Note: If you haven’t please check out the other positional breakdown pieces that have been done by us here at Downtown Rams. They are definitely a must-read.)
Throughout the whole breakdown series here at Downtown Rams, the defensive line one has to be the most anticipated one of them all. It’s been fun doing them all but, to be doing one of the last two especially when featuring some really skilled guys at this position group is beyond phenomenal. Before I get into it, I want to thank Michael Brockers for everything he’s done for the Rams. If you haven’t seen his farewell video, I recommend you do so. He will be missed but, he will always be a Ram and well-loved from the fans. Without further ado, let’s breakdown the defensive line:
2022: Opt-Out with $8M dead cap
When it comes to the Los Angeles Rams, one of the few names that always gets brought up is defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald is on a whole other level when it comes to NFL players no matter the position. In 2019 alone, he had 12.5 sacks, 20 tackles for losses and a safety. That’s not including 48 combined tackles, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Furthermore, he was selected for his FIFTH STRAIGHT NFL All-Pro team.
The man is a living cheat code for when it comes to DL guys. In a year where he was double and even triple-teamed, he still managed high numbers for a player in his position. Although, for some reason, he got only ONE vote for Defensive Player of the Year. How can a guy who’s been dominating since joining the league only get one vote? He led the league in tackles for loss with 20 and had 12.5 sacks while being focused on every play. The Rams hit a home run when drafting AD and it showed when they locked him up until 2025. Expect Donald to keep up his dominant performance as he leads the team into the 2020 season with a goal of winning his third DPOY.
In thirteen games for the Rams, Smart only accumulated seven combined tackles. Grant it when you have Aaron Donald as your starting defensive tackle in a 3-4 scheme, it’ll be hard to get reps. Smart who’s been with the Rams since 2017 has played in only 31 games and has 21 combined tackles over that span. He is going into the final year of his contract and it seems to be that unless he takes advantage of playing when Donald gets to rest, this might be his last year as a Ram. Although the Rams did see something in him to give him a four-year deal back in 2017, with Donald, he’s sitting in the wings waiting to get the chance to start for a team and get reps.
Sebastian Joseph-Day had a 2019 season that has Rams fans split on how they feel about him. Some would say that he is a pretty solid nose tackle when lining up next to Aaron Donald. When you’re 6’4 310 pounds one would think he would dominate one-on-one matchups with Donald being double and tripled teamed. In all sixteen games during the 2019 season, SJD only had two sacks and 44 combined tackles along with five tackles for losses.
Some would say those are good numbers but, only managing two sacks while a guy who gets doubled up a lot gets 12.5 doesn’t help a cause that says he should get a bigger contract. Grant it SJD is a good nose tackle but, he still hasn’t lived up to what people thought he would do once he joined the league. He doesn’t take up a lot of cap room which helps the Rams going into next season. The 2020 season needs to be a breakout season for SJD since his contract is up after the 2021 season. If not, he could be on the way out after this season, maybe even during it.
The 2019 season for Greg Gaines would be considered a good one for a rookie despite only playing in ten games. In those ten games, he managed a half-sack along with 13 combined tackles. During the middle of the season, he did get a rise in playing time during weeks 6, 10, 12 and 13 where he saw 36-40% of the defensive snaps. He could see more playing time in 2020 since Sebastian Joseph-Day had a mediocre 2019 season and is getting closer to the end of his deal. The Rams have Gaines locked you until 2023 so they will be shifting towards him to possibly becoming the starter in the next couple years depending on how SJD does next year.
If there was a guy who got people’s attention on the defensive line in 2019 other than Aaron Donald it has to be Morgan Fox. Grant it, 2019 was Fox’s third season in the NFL, all with the Rams. But, from week 13 against the Arizona Cardinals and on, he emerged to be considered taking over the starting defensive end role since Michael Brockers seems to be on his way out the door for free agency.
There were weeks when Fox accumulated over 43% of the defensive snaps especially in week 17 when Brockers got hurt and Fox took over for the rest of the game. Last year, Fox had two sacks and 18 combined tackles. If given a full-season slate of stating you could see a rise in tackles, sacks and so much more. Fox is a restricted free agent but all signs point to him staying with the Rams going into the 2020 season.
Possible Free Agent Acquisitions
Javon Hargrave (2019 Pittsburgh Steelers)
$778K 21st Ranked DT (Free Agent Forecast)
Even though he’s considered a defensive tackle, Hargrave mainly has played nose tackle in all four years that he’s been in the league. Last year in 16 games he had 4 sacks and 50 combined tackles (career-high in tackles combined and solo-35). In the four years, he has 14.5 sacks with 2018 being his highest with 6.5. If the Rams aren’t ready to pull the trigger on Gaines being the starter if they move on from Sebastian Joseph-Day, Hargrave would be an excellent option for a nose tackle.
He’s played in 63 games in four years all at DT so he has experience at the position. He could use that experience to help solidify the defensive line and mentor Gaines in the process. To have a guy like Hargrave next to Donald would be a nightmare for an offensive line compared to SJD and Donald with the focus mainly on Donald.
D.J. Reader (2019 Houston Texans)
$638K 22nd Ranked DT (Free Agent Forecast)
If the Rams aren’t sold on Tazel Smart being the backup to Aaron Donald they could look into bringing in a guy with some experience to help give Donald some rest. In 2019, DJ Reader had 28 tackles and two sacks in 15 games for the Texans. Texas split his time between nose tackle and defensive end but putting him in his natural position at defensive tackle to backup Donald might get him to that next step.
At 6’3 340 pounds, he’s only 25 years old and has been in the league since 2016 so he does have experience. Reader is a UFA this year so the Rams could potentially sign him to a decent contact to backup Donald if they want someone with experience unlike Smart and could also give Donald some rest during the season as well.
Shaq Lawson (2019 Buffalo Bills)
$3.27M 26th Ranked DE (Free Agent Forecast)
When you have the nickname of Sack Daddy or Sack-a-Shaq how can you not be looked at? In 2019 while playing in 15 games Shaq Lawson had 6.5 sacks (career-high) and a combined 32 tackles along with a forced fumble to boot. After getting his fifth-year option declined he is now a free agent that the Rams could potentially pick up to replace Michael Brockers to be a 1-2 tandem at DE with Morgan Fox.
Lawson has played all four years with the Bill racking up 16.5 sacks and 108 combined tackles in the process. He brings experience to the position and could be the guy to have in the trenches alongside Sebastian Joseph-Day and Aaron Donald giving the offensive line a hard time. Furthermore, he could be someone who Rams lean on in case Fox is slow out the gates to start the year to carry the bulk of defensive snaps. Plus, being 25 doesn’t hurt either to sign a guy like Lawson to a 2 or 3-year deal.
When it comes to the defensive line, one thing for certain is that Aaron Donald will be the main guy to watch out for when it comes to gameplans for opposing teams. He will continuously get double and tripled teamed every game but will still produce at All-Pro levels. Although, with Michael Brockers going on his way out it leaves a spot for either Morgan Fox to take over at defensive end unless the Rams go out to sign a starter or a backup in that position to work with Fox.
Furthermore, the Rams need to have a hard look at nose tackle if they want to stick with Sebastian Joseph-Day long term or potentially move him with Greg Gaines waiting in the wings. There’s potential to bring in a backup to help Aaron Donald as well if the Rams think Tanzel Smart cannot pick up the help if Donald needs rest during the game. A lot of question marks that need to be answered this off-season on the defensive line for the Rams. Definitely another position to keep an eye on for potential moves from the front office.