The Los Angeles Rams will have a few holes to fill in the NFL Draft come April. One of those holes is at linebacker where the Rams started players like Micah Kiser, Troy Reeder, and Kenny Young last season. There’s little doubt that the Rams could use an upgrade at linebacker in the middle of their defense.
However, the question that remains is whether or not the Rams will actually select a linebacker early in the draft. Under Les Snead’s command, the Rams haven’t seemed to place much value on the linebacker position. While a Dylan Moses or Jabril Cox would be nice and would appease fans, it just seems like an unlikely scenario given the team’s history.
Since Snead took over in 2012, the Rams have selected six linebackers. Four of those linebackers were selected in either the sixth or seventh round. The lone linebacker selected earlier than day three was Alec Ogletree in 2013 who was taken with the 31st overall pick. Micah Kiser was taken in the fifth round.
Instead, the Rams have tended to rely much more on their safeties coming down in the box to play in coverage or make tackles. It makes sense for the Rams to do this, especially with teams playing much more nickel and dime. Offenses have expanded to more three and four wide receiver sets, creating more of a need to be deep in the secondary than at linebacker.
In those packages, defenses will typically have one or maybe two linebackers on the field. That shows up on the stat sheet. In 2014, TJ McDonald ranked second on the team in solo tackles. And 2015 it was safety turned linebacker Mark Barron who led defense while safety Rodney McLeod ranked third.
This change became extremely noticeable in 2018 after the Rams cut Ogletree. John Johnson III ranked second on the team in tackles behind Cory Littleton and eclipsed the 100-tackle mark. Johnson III ranked top-20 in the entire league in combined tackles that season.
In 2019, both Eric Weddle and Taylor Rapp were over the 100-tackle mark, ranking second and third on the defense respectively. Finally, last season, safety John Johnson III actually led the team in tackles.
The Los Angeles Rams use their safeties in a way that covers up some of their deficiencies at linebacker. It’s on reason why the Rams are so deep at the position and have players with versatility to either play in the slot or excel near the line of scrimmage. Players that come to find here are safeties Terrell Burgess and Taylor Rapp.
After the departures of James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree, the Rams have not only relied on their safeties, but it has been late day-three picks and undrafted free agents at the linebacker position.
The most notable player of this group was Cory Littleton. Troy Reeder, Micah Kiser, and Kenny Young have all accumulated 50 tackles in a season as well while Reeder has quietly done so in back-to-back seasons.
Unless a linebacker is of the caliber of Bobby Wagner, Fred Warner, or Luke Kuechly, a heavy emphasis should not be placed on the position. The position has become much less important than those on the defensive line or in the secondary.
The big box safety playing that true middle linebacker role is critical in today’s passing game, more so than the run stuffer of old. Outside of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, most of the recent Super Bowl champions have had general no-names playing linebacker.
Anthony Hitchens led the Kansas City Chiefs in tackles in 2019. He was a free agent signing and former fourth-round selection by the Cowboys. In 2018, the New England Patriots got most of their production from safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.
The Rams have gotten away with undrafted free agents like Reeder and Littleton. That primarily because they’ve been able to use their safeties to help cover deficiencies when needed. It also helps when the team has two elite defensive players in Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald.
Raheem Morris will bring different ideas as the new defensive coordinator. He could want a more athletic linebacker. However, the lack of emphasis on the position seems to be a front office idea. The Rams got elite play from Littleton with Wade Phillips. Brandon Staley led the No. 1 defense with Reeder, Young, and Kiser despite having the opportunity to draft Logan Wilson and Willie Gay in the second round last April.
It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t Deion Jones who led the Atlanta Falcons in tackles in 2020. Instead it was 2018 sixth round pick Foyesade Oluokun. Outside of Jones and Oluokun, it was Keanu Neal who ranked third in tackles in Atlanta. Neal, a safety, just made the official switch to linebacker in Dallas.
While drafting a linebacker with the 57th overall pick would be nice, given the Rams’ history it still seems unlikely. Rams fans would love to see Dylan Moses in a Rams uniform next season, but I wouldn’t count on it.