Even the oldest player on the St. Louis Rams’ roster at the end of last season was born just after the real heyday of the Los Angeles Rams–between 1967 and 1980. During that era, the Rams were a combined 141-54-7, and were generally considered to be one of the premier teams in the National Football League. While younger Rams fans will always cherish the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ era, the older generation of Rams fans cherished the ‘Fearsome Foursome’ era that actually began in 1963 when the Rams acquired Rosey Grier from the New York Giants and added him to a defensive line that already included Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, and Lamar Lundy. While the defensive line was undoubtedly fierce, the Rams didn’t have one winning season until they replaced Grier with Roger Brown in 1967. Over the following three seasons, the Rams were 32-7-3 and became truly dominant on defense. This revamped Fearsome Foursome ushered in a 14-year stretch of dominance that the Rams had never experienced before, and outside of the relatively brief 5-year Greatest Shown on Turf era, have not even come close to matching since.
Enter the 2014 NFL Draft and South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney. As we’ve discussed before, one of the Rams’ most attractive options in the draft is to select Clowney with the 2nd overall pick, then select either Alabama S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Texas A&M WR Mike Evans with the 13th overall pick. Although the Rams’ top areas of need are almost undoubtedly offensive line, wide receiver, and defensive secondary, there is a certain appeal to adding a rare talent like Clowney to an already dynamic defensive line.
To get a better sense of just how dynamic that defensive line has become in the past two seasons, we’ve compiled notable defensive line statistics for all defensive ends and defensive linemen that have been in the Rams’ defensive line rotation since the 2012-2013 season. Of course, as a team, the Rams have more sacks (i.e. 105) than any other team in the NFL over the past two seasons combined. Those cumulative statistics are shown in the following chart:
Rams Defensive Line Statistics 2012-2014 (courtesy of NFL.com and ProFootballFocus.com)
Hits & Hurries
Robert Quinn’s (age 23) sack total clearly stands out among the group that includes fellow defensive ends Chris Long (age 28) and William Hayes (age 28), and defensive tackles Michael Brockers (age 23) and Kendall Langford (age 28), however, all five members of the Rams’ defensive line rotation have stood out in one way or another during the past two seasons. Despite the impressive sack totals, and QB hits and hurries, the more impressive statistic may be that the Rams improved their average rushing yards per attempt allowed from 4.3 in 2012-2013 (19th lowest average among all 32 NFL teams) to 3.7 in 2013-2014 (tied for 2nd lowest average). It should be noted that the Rams’ defensive line excelled this past season despite not having an experienced defensive coordinator (who was fired after just one season). With all five of the Rams’ main defensive linemen being between the ages of 23 and 28, they also still have room to grow as a unit.
While new Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams has a well-documented track record of seeking defensive backs in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the draft, his defensive philosophy is generally predicated on putting relentless pressure on the quarterback. While the secondary will naturally play a large part in achieving that objective, he will have, arguably, the NFL’s most dynamic defensive line to rely upon in creating pressure up-front, thereby minimizing the need for blitzing defensive backs and linebackers, and the vulnerability that can create 10-20+ yards down the field. The Rams can also use the 13th overall pick or their 2nd round pick, to select a defensive back that fits the mold of what Williams prefers–big, tough, and has ball-hawking skills.
Clowney didn’t exactly set records for sack totals while playing at South Carolina, and as his college career extended into his junior year, his desire and work ethic were called into question. In all fairness, though, he was almost always double and triple-teamed by opposing teams, and he had legitimate concerns about his long-term health heading towards his eventual NFL career. Moreover, despite these question marks, his talent is undeniable, and he possesses a very rare combination of height (6’5″), weight (266 lbs.), arm length (34.5″), hand span (10″), and straight-line speed (4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash). Adding him to the Rams’ already elite defensive line wouldn’t just be an embarrassment of riches–there are legitimate practical benefits. First, he would take pressure off of Long and Quinn. Second, he would allow Gregg Williams to create some exotic line combinations with Long, Quinn, AND Clowney, perhaps similar to what the New York Giants often did with Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, and Osi Umenyiora during their 2011-2012 Super Bowl season.
In about six weeks, the Rams will be faced with a very difficult decision about the 2nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Trading the 2nd overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft for a haul of additional draft picks has made the Rams relevant again in the NFL. If faced with a similar offer from a team before this year’s draft, Jeff Fisher and General Manager Les Snead would be foolish not to take it in a heartbeat. Chances are, however, that they won’t receive a similar offer and they end up deciding to use the pick to select a player that they really want. Many fans and pundits believe that they should select an offensive tackle like Jake Matthews or Greg Robinson in order to shore up the offensive line, others believe that they should select the best wide receiver in the draft, Sammy Watkins, because the Rams still desperately need a true ‘number one’ wide receiver. All three of those players could very well end up being Pro Bowlers. But no player in this draft, other than Jadeveon Clowney, can give the Rams one truly dominant unit on the field. The Rams’ defensive line IS their best unit already, and is arguably the best defensive line in the NFL–as the NFL is about creating as many mismatches and advantages as possible, adding Clowney would certainly allow the Rams to exploit their obvious advantage. No one could realistically expect a second-coming of the Fearsome Foursome, but just as the revamped line was assembled in 1967 with Roger Brown replacing Rosey Grier, leading to the Rams’ 14-season run of dominance, Jadeveon Clowney could be the final piece to the Rams’ puzzle in getting the team back to the prominence for which its fans have so long yearned.