Despite having a proven defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, as their head coach last season, the St. Louis Rams defense struggled to a 26th finish in points allowed per game last year.
Once Jeff Fisher was appointed as the team's new head coach, he quickly brought in Gregg Williams from the New Orleans Saints to watch over the turnaround of the defense.
Of course, Williams was then suspended for his part in Bountygate indefinitely. Considering the other suspensions handed out, that indefinite ruling from Roger Goodell will likely make sure that Williams never coaches in St. Louis.
Even without Williams, however, Fisher and general manager Les Snead have given the defensive players in St. Louis reasons for optimism.
Free agency saw veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan and a flurry of defensive linemen arrive, the most notable name being Kendall Langford. With a substantial draft class coming in, the Rams also added a number of new faces through the draft with Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson coming in the first three rounds.
The Rams have transformed a defense primarily featuring aging and under-performing veterans and created a defense capable of improving instantly with a lot of talent for the future.
With Brockers and Langford creating a defensive tackle pairing inside, the Rams are also expecting Robert Quinn to become a starting defensive end this year across from Chris Long. Both Brockers and Quinn are only 21 years of age, and former first-round picks, while Long is 27 and Langford, 26.
While Quinn and Brockers will be starting for the first time in the NFL this year, Long and Langford are in their primes with four seasons apiece already under their belts. Both veterans have started most of those seasons allowing them to be very experienced while still having plenty left in the tank.
Langford will need to adjust to a new scheme moving from the Miami Dolphins' 3-4 defense, where he played defensive end, to the Rams' 4-3 where he will be a defensive tackle. If either Langford or Brockers have issues adjusting to their new roles, the Rams also added a veteran defensive tackle to their rotation with Trevor Laws arriving from Philadelphia.
Laws and defensive end William Hayes come in without much hype surrounding their signings, but both players should improve the depth and overall performance of the front. Hayes is only 27 years of age while Laws is 26, so if they do prove to be valuable backups, as they are expected to, the Rams could be set on the defensive line for the foreseeable future.
Probably the biggest addition to this defense came at cornerback with the addition of Finnegan. Finnegan has been an enigmatic figure throughout his career with the Tennessee Titans, but seemed to mature last year with his leadership as one of the team's captains.
Fisher should know Finnegan better than anyone and he was willing to give the cornerback a five-year deal worth roughly $50 million this offseason. Finnegan will be expected to take up a leadership role instantly playing with veteran Quintin Mikell in the secondary.
Finnegan will be asked to mentor rookies Johnson and, in particular, Jenkins. Jenkins and Johnson will be expected to contribute early on, even if not as starters. The return of Bradley Fletcher and Jerome Murphy from injury gives the Rams greater depth at cornerback this year, although nobody has enough depth to deal with the injuries they had at corner last year.
Jenkins will be the biggest priority for this defense moving forward. He has the ability on the field to be an elite cornerback, but the potential off of it to be the next Adam Jones. If Jenkins can learn from Finnegan and focus on football, he could propel this defense to another level quite quickly.
It may come as a surprise, but middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is still only 25 years of age.
Laurinaitis has been an impressive player since starting from Week 1 of his rookie season. He hasn't missed a game in the three years since then and has only really been held back by the lack of talent in the team's front seven.
While the Rams outside linebackers once again look to be the most uncertain pieces of their defense, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan are both veterans who should prove to be reliable role players, if not spectacular game changers.
The Rams defense should be relatively stout this year while they have the pieces in place to build around for the future. Brockers, Laurinaitis, Quinn and Jenkins, in particular, fill some of the more difficult positions in the NFL to fill.
Finding better role players to play positions like outside linebacker and strong safety should be a lot easier in the future.
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