In the 2020 offseason, the Rams lost both of their starting inside linebackers from the previous year in Cory Littleton and Bryce Hager. While this was a big blow to an already weak unit, the Rams had young players with the potential to fill the void. Now, the linebacking corps takes another blow after the news of Travin Howard. Head coach Sean McVay announced Tuesday that Howard will miss the 2020 season with a torn meniscus in his left knee. Howard was expected to start for the Rams, and now the team is faced with the task of replacing the former seventh-round draft choice. LA has 3 other candidates to step into Howard’s spot, but they may sign a free agent to take the job instead. Who gives the Rams the best shot at winning? Let’s go over a few options.
The Rams currently have seven other inside linebackers on the roster: Micah Kiser, Kenny Young, Troy Reeder, Clay Johnston, Christian Rozeboom, Daniel Bituli & Derrick Moncrief. Kiser looks to snag one of the starting spots, but the other six players will be fighting for the other one.
Kenny Young was traded from Baltimore last season. He was graded at a 53.8 by PFF after a quiet and relatively unproductive year. He does have more experience than the rest of his competition, and likely boasts the most athletic upside.
Troy Reeder started a few games for the Rams last year, but played poorly when given the chance. PFF graded his season as a 28.6, one of the lowest ratings in the NFL among qualifying players. While limited play in a rookie season isn’t a great sample size, his performance last year doesn’t bode well for the future.
Clay Johnston was selected from Baylor in the 7th round of the 2020 NFL draft. He was off to a great start in 2019, with an 83.1 PFF grade through 6 games. Unfortunately, he injured his knee and missed the remainder of the season. While he is a fan favorite on HBO’s Hard Knocks, he has a way to go before securing a starting job.
Christian Rozeboom is one of this year’s undrafted rookie linebackers that hails from South Dakota State. Rozeboom led the team in tackles all four years in college. He’s a four-time All MVFC First Team selection and a three-time All-American. PFF graded him as the sixth-overall linebacker in the country and is the all-time leading tackler in school history. It’s worth mentioning Rozeboom has worked with the 2nd-team defense as of late.
Daniel Bituli is the other undrafted rookie linebacker that went to Tennessee. He was originally signed to the Rams roster and cut early on due to the numbers game. Bituli is back as Les Snead mentioned last night on Hard Knocks that the team was looking for a bigger-bodied linebacker. Bituli stands at 6-foot-3 and around 250 pounds. He’s a stout thumping run defender that will be vying for reps as cut day closes in.
Derrick Moncrief was just signed to the roster this past week. He’s a former strong safety that was converted to linebacker. Moncrief spent some time in the CFL before ultimately coming over to the NFL. He’s a very athletic but smaller linebacker around 6-foot-2 and 226 pounds. He will be trying to cling onto the roster as cuts loom.
Free agent candidates
If the Rams decide they aren’t comfortable with any of the above players to start at ILB, many free agents could get the job done. Nigel Bradham, Wesley Woodyard, and Darron Lee are all available and are still capable of getting the job done.
Nigel Bradham will turn 31 just before the 2020 season starts and has declined in recent years. Still, he’s a solid coverage linebacker, and he’s an experienced veteran with a Super Bowl ring in Philadelphia. Bradham made some key plays last year, including a game-winning interception of Aaron Rodgers to seal a win in Green Bay. He was recently signed then released by New Orleans and has yet to sign with anyone.
Wesley Woodyard is 34-years old, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him never return to football. Bradham has 12 years of experience with the Broncos, Titans, and has proved to be a good run stuffer. However, he’s poor against coverage, and his age won’t help him in this matter. If the Rams went this route, they’d be saying they’re comfortable with the coverage abilities of Micah Kiser and Kenny Young.
Darron Lee is the youngest of this group at 25 and boasts the most potential. The former Ohio State star was drafted in the 1st round by the Jets back in 2016. He never lived up to the hype, but he made the occasional highlight play. He was traded to Kansas City in the 2019 offseason, and was a member of the Super Bowl-winning team, although he was inactive for the game. Still, Lee contributed with 31 combined tackles and started twice for the champs last season.
While none of the options are amazing, the Rams can still be fine after Howard’s injury if they go with the right guy. I think Bradham is the best man for the job. His coverage ability and playoff experience would make him a fine addition to a weak linebacker unit. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if McVay and company go with Kenny Young. Time will tell, and a decision will need to be made soon. The Rams play the Cowboys in LA in less than 2 weeks from now.