Last week, before the fallout of the Saints game took over, I carried out an analysis of the depth in the offense, specifically considering how strong the squad would be should a starter find himself benched through long-term injury. While there were concerns at quarterback, these have been somewhat quashed by Shaun Hill’s performance in the first pre-season game, while other positions presented an encouraging situation. This week, the focus turns to the defense…
It is already accepted that the Rams’ starting D-line is one of the strongest in the League. What was already a formidable front four – Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford and Robert Quinn – has been further strengthened by the addition of rookie Aaron Donald who, while technically still listed as a backup, will undoubtedly find his snaps increasing. This gives the defensive line a daunting ‘fifth-man’, and this is the case with other positions along the line. William Hayes, for example, would be a starter in many other teams, and clearly enjoys being part of this deep rotation. Eugene Sims represents a bit of a drop-off in ability, but he is still a useful part of the D-line depth. The fact that Michael Sam may find himself struggling to find a place on the team shows how encouraging the depth is along this key area of the Rams franchise.
Verdict: Very good. There are six starters available in the defensive line positions, with other backups providing solid depth. While the loss of Long and, particularly, Quinn through injury would be devastating, this is more a testament to the quality of the starting unit than to those lower down the depth chart.
The Rams have acquired a talented group of starting linebackers, anchored by youngster Alec Ogletree and mainstay James Laurinaitis. Jo-Lonn Dunbar had a troubled, suspension-shortened season, but, if he bounces back, will be a solid contributor to the unit. It is imperative, however, that these three remain healthy (and away from PED’s) as the depth is thin behind them. Dunbar can play in the middle spot should anything happen to JL55, but backup options are a cause for concern. Ray Ray Armstrong is a converted safety whose inexperience regularly eclipses his obvious eagerness to impress, and players such as Daren Bates and Etienne Sabiano would be poor replacements for these starters.
Verdict: Alarming. The Rams need to invest in finding better backups in the impending wave of pre-season cuts, or wrap their hard-hitting linebackers in cotton wool.
Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are the nominated starters at cornerback, and the situation behind them is very interesting with a wealth of young players jostling for position on the depth chart. Lamarcus Joyner has demonstrated feisty but effective tendencies in training camp and is likely to man the nickel position (effectively making him a starter on many packages), although his purpose in the secondary might be diluted should he also work at safety. Joyner is young but clearly has the ability to make big contributions as a backup and could relish the opportunity should either Jenkins or Johnson go down (and both of them have suffered niggles these last few weeks). E. J. Gaines is also making a positive first impression and is threatening to take over the position currently occupied by the more experienced Brandon McGee on the depth chart. Greg Reid is also a factor, providing the Rams with a stable of gutsy young cornerbacks who are often betrayed by their lack of experience.
At safety, the situation is less clear. T. J McDonald is the cemented starter at strong safety. McDonald showed promising skills in his injury-shortened rookie season and could emerge into a key part of the secondary. At free safety, Rodney McLeod is the incumbent. McLeod is a good backup who has made improvements in the off-season, but would represent an Achilles heel in the Rams’ defensive starting unit. Joyner could find himself taking his place, which, as mentioned earlier, would reduce his impact as a cornerback. Mo Alexander provides some depth, but he is an unproven commodity. Cody Davis and Matt Daniels are experienced backups, but would hardly provide much confidence should they have to take over from any of the starters.
Verdict: At cornerback, the situation could be worse. Joyner and Gaines are showing signs of ability to provide effective cover for the starting cornerbacks, although losing a dynamic player such as Jenkins would be a cause for worry. The situation at safety is concerning with a weak starting unit complemented by a string of even weaker backups. Rodney McLeod would be a backup in most teams, and using Joyner as a safety could impact on the cornerback field – how should the Rams use him?
Overall verdict: The Rams defense is seen as the team’s strength, and this is the case as long as the starters remain on the field. While the depth is strong in the D-line, it is significantly weaker in other areas and a few key losses could really see this defense struggle to maintain its reputation. The front office staff may find itself closely analyzing the waiver wires once the next waves of cuts start.
Tags: St. Louis Rams