Rams: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis

Steven Gerwel@Steve_GerFeatured Columnist IVJuly 8, 2015

Rams: Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Now that the franchise playoff drought has hit the 10-year mark, the St. Louis Rams will be hungry in 2015. 

    If one aspect of the team is going to lead the way to a playoff berth, it'll unquestionably be the defense. The unit features six former first-round picks, four second-rounders and a number of mid- to late-round gems. 

    The talent is there. If the group rises to the challenge and hits its potential, there's no reason why St. Louis can't field an elite defense this season. If not, the 2015 season will be the latest in a long line of disappointing campaigns for the Rams. 

    This article will break down each defensive position, outline the depth and discuss what each position offers in 2015. 

Defensive End

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    Predicted Depth Chart: Robert Quinn (Right End), Chris Long (Left End), William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Ethan Westbrooks

    Training Camp Extras: Martin Ifedi, Matt Longacre 

    When the St. Louis pass rush is on full throttle, there's no limit to how good the Rams defense can be. 

    St. Louis finished 13th in the NFL in sacks last season with 40. That's just slightly above-average, but it hardly represents how good the pass rush actually is. 

    The Rams were cursed early in the season. They started with a terrible drought—one sack in the first five games—and it skewed the numbers. 

    In the final 11 games, St. Louis averaged 3.4 sacks per game. If we apply that average to all 16 games, it brings the sack total to 54, which would have tied the Buffalo Bills for most sacks in the NFL. 

    The team ranked dead last in team sacks entering Week 6 last year, but shot up to 13th by the end of the season. That monumental leap is a shocking example of how explosive this group can be. 

    Robert Quinn tallied 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and earned a Pro Bowl bid last season. Even so, his 2014 campaign was considered a down year. He didn't earn his first sack until Week 6 and didn't force a fumble until Week 8. 

    If Quinn avoids another slow start, he'll surely return to his elite 2013 form—where he finished second in the NFL with 19 sacks and was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. 

    Chris Long, who played just six games last year because of an ankle injury, finished with one sack. Now that he's healthy, he'll continue his role as St. Louis' high-motor left end and approach his usual eight to 10 sacks.

    Even if Long suffers another injury, the Rams are fully stacked with William Hayes and Eugene Sims waiting in line. 

    Hayes and Sims combined for seven sacks in 2014 after sharing duties at left end. They tallied 24 sacks in the last three seasons despite playing on a rotational basis. 

    It will also be interesting to see if second-year pro Ethan Westbrooks gets in on the action. 

    Westbrooks made the team last season as an undrafted rookie. He impressed in the preseason with two sacks and 12 tackles, but he appeared in just six games during the regular season. As a versatile player who can line up inside or out, his playing time will likely increase at some point. 

    The Rams have great depth and talent on the edges. As long as Quinn is healthy and productive, St. Louis will feature a formidable pass rush in 2015. 

Defensive Tackle

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Predicted Depth Chart: Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Nick Fairley, Ethan Westbrooks

    Training Camp Extras: Louis Trinca-Pasat, Doug Worthington

    For the past three season, the St. Louis edge-rushers have hogged most of the praise. Now, the interior linemen are squeezing into the spotlight and earning a fierce reputation. 

    Aaron Donald—the 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year—is a nightmare for opponents. He raked up nine sacks, 17 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in 2014. He also earned a trip to the Pro Bowl—making him the first Rams defensive tackle to earn the honor since Larry Brooks in 1980 and the first Rams rookie Pro Bowler since Jerome Bettis in 1993. 

    What's frightening—at least to opposing offensive coordinators—is that Donald (6'1", 285 lbs) is still developing.

    During the 2014 NFL combine, he ran a 4.68-second time in the 40-yard dash and did 35 reps on the bench press. So naturally, he relied mostly on his freakish combination of speed and strength last season. Once he masters the veteran techniques and pass-rushing moves, there will be very few offensive linemen capable of stopping him.

    What makes Donald's production possible other than his raw talent is the presence of Michael Brockers. 

    Brockers embraced a new role last year as a top-notch space-eater. At 6'5" and 326 pounds, the Rams used his massive size to occupy multiple blockers, which opened up opportunities for Quinn and Donald to make the big plays. 

    There's little glory in Brockers' new role. With just two sacks and 24 tackles, his 2014 numbers were basically cut in half from the previous year (5.5 sacks, 38 tackles). However, it's a necessary sacrifice that'll allow the defensive line as a whole to reach its full potential. 

    Donald and Brockers would be enough for most teams. But seeing as head coach Jeff Fisher has an enormous obsession with defensive linemen, he decided to bring in Nick Fairley during the offseason as well.

    With Fairley, the Rams now have five former top-15 picks on the defensive line—Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Brockers and Donald being the others.

    According Austin Lankford of the official Rams website, Fisher was concerned Fairley's weight was too low. He has weighed as little as 280 in the past but has now bulked up to 308 pounds. 

    The puts his weight in between Brockers and the 285-pound Donald, which might suggest the Rams are hoping Fairley can back up and sub in for both players. His natural nose for the quarterback will help him serve the Donald role, and his new bulk allows him to eat up space like Brockers. 

    Westbrooks—as a tweener who can play inside or out—will serve as the fourth man. 

    With three first-round picks manning the position, defensive tackle is guaranteed to be a key strength in 2015. 

Linebacker

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    Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

    Predicted Depth Chart: Alec Ogletree, Akeem Ayers, James Laurinaitis (Inside), Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Daren Bates, Bryce Hager

    Training Camp Extras: Marshall McFadden, Cameron Lynch, Keshaun Malone, Korey Toomer

    The outside linebacker position will feature an intriguing battle for a starting job between Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Akeem Ayers.

    Dunbar is a fourth-year veteran in Fisher's system and provides a lot of the defense's attitude. He came on strong during his first year with the team in 2012, finishing with 115 tackles, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.

    However, ever since Dunbar's suspension for a performance-enhancing drug violation in 2013, per NFL.com, his production has taken a nosedive. He hasn't sacked a quarterback, forced a fumble or picked off a pass since 2012. He's also been held under 40 tackles in each of the last two years despite starting 10 games each season. 

    Given Dunbar's downward spiral, it's only logical to assume Ayers will step in as the new starter.

    Ayers came on strong for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots last season. In nine games and only four starts, he had 20 tackles, four sacks and a pick. He's also a fairly accomplished pass-rusher with 13 career sacks in four seasons, including six in 2012.

    On the opposite side of Ayers, the Rams will plug in third-year pro and former first-rounder Alec Ogletree.

    Ogletree is immensely talented, but he had some struggles in the first half of 2014. He frequently blew his responsibilities in run defense, which includes Tony Romo juking him out in Week 3.  

    After midseason, Ogletree settled down and allowed fewer backbreaking plays. The Rams are hoping his play will continue to trend upward and that he'll begin to utilize his top-notch physical gifts. 

    Manning the spot in the middle—between Ayers and Ogletree—is veteran James Laurinaitis. 

    Laurinaitis does not boast jaw-dropping numbers, and he's a bit weak when it comes to stopping the run at the line of scrimmage. But he has his pluses as well. He's a smart player and the quarterback of the defense. Between knowing his assignments and ensuring his teammates are in place, he gives St. Louis an advantage every time he steps onto the field. 

    Daren Bates and Dunbar will be the primary backups, though Bates will primarily serve on special teams. 

    The sixth linebacker spot is wide open. Marshall McFadden and rookie seventh-round pick Bryce Hager are the primary contenders, so it'll come down to which player has more special teams value. 

    Overall, with two former second-round picks (Ayers, Laurinaitis) and a former first-round choice (Ogletree), the Rams have plenty of physical talent at linebacker. If the group can hit its maximum potential, the front seven will be extremely vicious and likely one of the best 4-3 fronts in the NFL. 

Cornerback

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

     Predicted Depth Chart: Janoris Jenkins, E.J. Gaines, Trumaine Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner, Marcus Roberson

    Training Camp Extras: Brandon McGee, Imoan Claiborne, Montell Garner, Jay Hughes

    The cornerback position is particularly interesting this year. The Rams have a number of contenders talented enough to start, so it'll be a puzzle working them all in. 

    Janoris Jenkins is what he is. He's a big-play guy with six defensive touchdowns in three years, but he's also a gambler in coverage. Fans love him for his clutch plays but condemn him when he blows coverage. 

    Considering Jenkins' backbreaking mistakes are just a handful per season, he'll likely keep his job as a full-time starter. His knack for creating turnovers is too important, so it'd be unwise to keep him hidden on the sidelines. 

    The primary battle will be for the spot opposite Jenkins—between E.J. Gaines and Trumaine Johnson. 

    Gaines started 15 games for St. Louis as a rookie last season. He was surprisingly solid for a sixth-round selection, as he racked up 70 tackles and two picks. As Johnson's injury replacement, he was anything but a liability and was one of the Pro Football Writers of America's All-Rookie selections on defense. 

    Johnson, who played just nine games last season because of injury, will be fighting to regain his starting position. He had three picks—tying his career high—despite missing time, and he's less of a gambler in coverage than Jenkins. 

    In the slot, all eyes are on Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner was the team's second-round selection last year, but Gaines beat him out for the starting job on the outside after Johnson went down. 

    Joyner saw action in 10 games—including 40 tackles and a sack—and St. Louis is hoping he'll have an increased role in 2015. At 5'8" and 184 pounds, he's a smaller, shiftier corner, which makes him a solid fit for playing the inside and lining up against slot receivers. 

    If Joyner doesn't show significant improvement during camp, one possibility would be to slide Jenkins in the slot (where he plays from time to time) and have Johnson and Gaines cover the outside. 

    That would allow St. Louis to maximize its talent by ensuring the three best corners are on the field. Unless, of course, Joyner impresses in camp and makes a case for himself. 

    Whatever the combination, the Rams will depend heavily on their corners this season. 

    In order for the pass rush to work, the corners will have to buy time with tight coverage. If that doesn't happen, the pass rush fails, and the Rams lose their top advantage. 

Safety

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Predicted Depth Chart: T.J. McDonald, Mark Barron, Rodney McLeod, Mo Alexander, Cody Davis

    Training Camp Extras: Jacob Hagen

    The Rams have four heat-seeking missiles at safety capable of aiding run support. It's just a matter of finding the two who are the least likely to blow coverage.

    McDonald is clearly the star of the group. He more than holds his own in coverage and isn't afraid to take on running backs head-on. For whatever reason he was an overlooked hero in 2014, but expect him to break out and generate more buzz this season.

    Mark Barron will likely serve as the second safety. He's excellent in run support and served the Rams in 2014 as a safety-linebacker hybrid. He'll likely play on run downs and step aside during passing situations, though it's possible he'll move to linebacker in the nickel package. 

    Rodney McLeod will step in for Barron at times, particularly on passing downs. After this hit on Denver Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders, it's safe to say he can strike fear in opposing receivers. 

    The dark horse is Mo Alexander. According to Michael Silver of NFL.com, Fisher was so high on Alexander during the 2014 draft that he knowingly "reached" on him in the fourth round just to ensure no other teams could have a shot at him.

    Alexander accomplished little in 2014 other than the occasional special teams appearance, but as stated, the coaching staff is quite high on him. For all we know, he'll emerge at camp and shake things up. 

    Cody Davis will serve as the fifth and final safety. He has little value as a starter, but he has nice potential as a special teams guy. 

    It's true that safety is the most questionable and unrefined position on St. Louis defense. But what the safeties lack in raw talent, they make up for in viciousness. 

    Steven Gerwel is the longest-tenured Rams featured columnist at Bleacher Report and served as the Rams' game-day correspondent in 2014. You can find more of Gerwel's work by visiting his writer profile or following him on Twitter.

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