How many inside linebackers should LA Rams draft this year?

Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports /

The LA Rams certainly seemed to be flirting on the edge of disaster throughout the 2020 NFL season at the interior linebacker position. When the team lost their seventh-round drafted linebacker Clay Johnston to the Carolina Panthers, the Rams were left with a group of just four players. The depth chart revealed the starters would be ILB Micah Kiser and Travin Howard, with backups Kenny Young and Troy Reeder.

But moments before the season,  a projected starter went down to a season-ending injury.  This time it was Travin Howard, and just like the Micah Kiser injury from the previous season, the Rams were forced to adjust.  But by adjust, the plan seemed to settle upon promoting Kenny Young and adding nobody, At one point in the season, Kiser was injured as well, and the team was forced to play their only two healthy interior linebackers.

The Rams not only have Howard, Kiser, Reeder, and Young, but the team will see what a year of coaching up on the practice squad can do for Christian Rozeboom and Derrick Moncrief. If you recall, Rozeboom actually outplayed Clay Johnston in the 2020 crash-course training camp, while Moncrief was a CFL star who was originally signed in 2020 before they grabbed free agent, Cory Littleton

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So that brings us to the question at hand. How many inside linebackers should the Rams truly draft in the 2021 NFL Draft? Based on Spotrac, the LA Rams face losing all four veteran linebackers in 2022 free agency. One consolation is that both Travin Howard and Troy Reeder project as restricted free agents.

What’s the number?

So we know that the LA Rams were content to carry just four inside linebackers in 2020. While it feels right to expect the team to carry a similar number in 2021, that won’t work in the current timetable of losing all four veterans at the end of the year. Somehow, the Rams must stagger the contracts on the linebackers.

One of the easiest ways to do so will be to draft a day-two inside linebacker, either at round two or round three, with the expectation that they can earn a starting role with the team early in the season. But what if no day-two prospect is available? Well, then it gets a bit prickly.

The Rams will be hard-pressed with the salary cap in 2022 unless there is an immediate and significant spike in salary cap dollars next year. So right now the Rams have three tracks to address the linebacker position for 2021 and 2022.  While none of the three are mutually exclusive, it could come down to a combination of the three to make it work on the field and under the cap.

Let’s make a deal

Behind door number one, the LA Rams can run their veterans back onto the field in 2021 and hope that the salary cap is such that they can re-sign one or two veterans to return in 2022.  The bonus to this strategy is the elimination of the unknown performance on the football but carries the greatest uncertainty with the checkbook. Micah Kiser and Troy Reeder flashed some brilliance in 2020, and then again not so much at times as well. Hopefully, the return of Travin Howard will stabilize the linebacker play.

Behind door number two, the LA Rams could fast-track developing either/or both Derrick Moncrief and Christian Rozeboom this year. While that may be less certain to the quality of play at the position this year, the Rams cannot argue at the cost. And with either or both in a significant role in 2021, they will be installed to resume in 2022. This option saves the Rams a valuable draft pick on day two but does not eliminate the need to bring in reinforcements from the 2021 rookie class. If the Rams trust this option, they can draft a linebacker in either round six or seven, and then add several more to compete after the draft.

Behind door number three, the LA Rams are completely pessimistic for the 2022 NFL salary cap and run with drafting a day two inside linebacker.  In this scenario, the selection of the second-tier thumper would place the starting role into his path, and the Rams would still be obligated to sign several depth players at the position after the draft. If the Rams do this, the team would ultimately be tempted to trade away a veteran at the chance of an additional draft pick added to the 2022 draft cache.

Conclusion: If the Rams have the chance to select a premier inside linebacker through round three of the 2021 NFL Draft, they could very likely do so. I don’t want to cry wolf, but a team that struggles with dead cap space and the NFL salary cap cannot run recklessly into the 2022 season without a firm grasp of how they intend to replace all of their inside linebackers that will leave via free agency.

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If the Rams take the safe route in 2021, and simply suit up 2020 starters to start this year, they will miss a huge opportunity to snag an inside linebacker from a fairly talented draft class. This is the year that the Rams should select a linebacker on day two. And then follow up by adding two more after the draft.