St. Louis Rams Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis
The St. Louis Rams defense has a real shot at becoming one of the truly elite units in the NFL next season. The pieces are certainly all there, and it's just a matter of the players meshing together and making it happen.
If the defense does in fact scrape the drywall of its sky-high ceiling, the Rams will have a chance to finally dethrone either the Seattle Seahawks of the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West, which will result in the franchise's first playoff appearance in a decade.
That's how good this unit is—if the groups show up to play in 2014, the rest of the division could be in serious trouble.
This article will break down the starting lineup and depth of the ultra-talented Rams defense, allowing you to see which players are expected to get the most playing time. This piece will also provide a vague look at some of the different formations we might see during the upcoming season.
Right Defensive End
Robert Quinn (Starter)
Left Defensive End
Chris Long (Starter)
Robert Quinn and Chris Long have the edges locked down. The two pass-rushing gurus will enter the 2014 season as the best 4-3 defensive end tandem in football, and Quinn will surely be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (he was just labeled the 13th-best overall player in football by the NFL Network).
William Hayes, who has 12 total sacks over the last two seasons, will resume his role as the ultimate No. 3, and Eugene Sims is an underrated No. 4 who will also see regular playing time.
Quinn, Long, Hayes and Sims have combined for an astonishing 66.5 sacks over the last two seasons. The Rams have premier starters on the edge and depth players who are top of the line.
Aaron Donald—the Pittsburgh defensive tackle selected by St. Louis at No. 13 overall—will also see some time on the edge. He has impressive speed and athleticism for a 285-pound tackle, so defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will surely get creative by giving Donald a few reps on the outside.
There's a chance the Rams will keep an extra defensive end on the roster as a special teams and reserve player. If that happens, it's pretty much a coin flip between Michael Sam and undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks. Both players have impressive pass-rushing potential and can contribute on special teams, but there's likely only room for one of them on the roster.
Right Defensive Tackle
Michael Brockers (Starter)
Left Defensive Tackle
Aaron Donald (Starter)
The 326-pound Michael Brockers will be expected to clog the run lanes up front. He has been somewhat of a silent difference-maker the past two seasons, but it's his turn to have a breakout year in his third NFL season.
Brockers is a stout run defender and has been surprisingly productive as a pass-rusher with 9.5 sacks since 2012. Now that he's a seasoned player, he'll finally established himself as a legitimate game changer in 2014.
Rookie Donald will replace Langford in the starting lineup and will provide the Rams with an extra pass-rushing weapon. Donald's snaps will be limited early in the season, but his reps will increase as the year goes on.
Langford will see a reduced role, but he'll continue to be a valuable asset as the No. 3 tackle. He'll rotate in and give Brockers and Donald a chance to rest.
Veteran newcomer Alex Carrington will likely see a role that is similar to Langford's in a best-case scenario, but it's still unclear how much he'll actually be depended on. He needs a good camp if he wants regular playing time, as this is a competitive group.
Defensive ends Quinn and Hayes will also see a fair share of reps at the tackle position, as they did in 2013. This will typically occur on obvious passing downs.
The tackles aren't on the same level as the St. Louis ends, but this is another clear position of strength for the Rams.
James Laurinaitis will enter his sixth season as the team's middle linebacker, and the reliable veteran has yet to miss a start for the Rams.
Laurinaitis' football smarts and dependability have greatly benefited the St. Louis defense. He's not the greatest athlete or a game-changing playmaker, but he can more than hold his own.
If Laurinaitis does miss a game for the first time in his career, the Rams will likely bump over outside linebacker Alec Ogletree, who has the athleticism to play either inside or outside.
The Rams have somewhat decent depth at outside linebacker, so the team has the ability to move Ogletree inside without missing a beat.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar (Starter)
Alec Ogletree (Starter)
Veteran Jo-Lonn Dunbar and second-year pro Ogletree will start on the outside, while Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates will contribute as high-quality backups.
As mentioned in the previous slide, if Ogletree has to move inside as an injury replacement for Laurinaitis, he'll be replaced on the outside by either Armstrong or Bates. And while it's certainly preferable to have Laurinaitis in the lineup, it wouldn't be a complete disaster if this happened, as the backups are totally competent.
It's also possible that either Armstrong or Bates will flat-out beat Dunbar for the starting job in camp, as he had a slight down year in 2013. At the very least, Dunbar should be on high alert this summer.
Sammy Brown will contribute as a special teams player and will also serve as an emergency backup.
Janoris Jenkins (Starter)
Lamarcus Joyner (Slot and Nickel Corner)
Trumaine Johnson (Starter)
Lamarcus Joyner (Slot and Nickel Corner)
Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson will resume their roles as the starting cornerbacks on the outside. Johnson was reliable last season, and Jenkins is a total playmaker and a clear breakout candidate for 2014.
Rookie Lamarcus Joyner is listed above as the No. 3 cornerback, but if either outside cornerback is injured at any point, chances are that Joyner will remain in the slot and E.J. Gaines will instead come in as the replacement, as he has slightly better height and a more compatible skill set for the outside.
Rookies Greg Reid and Marcus Roberson are both diamonds in the rough. Both players have exciting potential, but they're total unknowns. They'll certainly contribute on special teams, but it's still unclear what role they'll have on defense (if any).
Mo Alexander (Starter)
T.J. McDonald (Starter)
T.J. McDonald and rookie Mo Alexander will complete the defense as the starting safeties. Both safeties are big, strong run-stoppers who can lay the wood.
McDonald and Alexander are both a bit stiff and not exactly ideal for coverage, but they can inflict major pain, so that can be overlooked for now.
Rodney McLeod was a starter in 2013 and had his struggles, but the undrafted rookie from 2012 is still learning and will improve. His experience as a starter makes him a valuable No. 3.
Second-year pro Cody Davis—another former undrafted rookie—will primarily serve as a special teams weapon, but there's a chance he'll see a few reps on defense.
Also, don't be surprised if cornerback Gaines takes some reps at safety. He has great versatility for a defensive back and can serve as an emergency safety in a pinch.
Safety is probably the biggest concern for the Rams on defense, but there's some decent young talent at the position, so there's no reason to worry quite yet.
Steven Gerwel is the longest-tenured Rams Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and serves as the Rams' game-day correspondent. You can find more of Gerwel's work by visiting his writer profile or by following him on Twitter.