Evaluating the Los Angeles Rams Defensive Free Agents
To say the Los Angeles Rams have a lot of work to do is an understatement. The process has begun with the hiring of new coach Sean McVay, and his staff hires, but player personnel will be an entirely new challenge.
The Rams have built a solid defense over the past years by drafting well and using their free agents wisely, but after another disappointing season filled with more than a fair share of blown leads, there is much room for improvement.
Without overloading the effort by going through the litany of options the Rams can pick up during free agency, special focus will be paid to players that the Rams need to retain and those who need to be sent on their way.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Johnson ended this season as the team’s most complete cornerback and one of their best defenders. He also entered 2016 under the franchise tag, as the chosen defensive back while Janoris Jenkins and Rodney McLeod were given their leave.
Johnson offers an interesting case for the Rams. His stellar play is unquestioned, but as a “Fisher guy”, the team may wish to distance itself from the top corner. On the other hand, Johnson is a veteran and well-versed in the Rams system as well as a leader to the defensive players.
Johnson also had some injury trouble this past season, which can be a precursor to his aging concerns. He missed two starts and was held out for parts of other games. In addition, his interception numbers dropped substantially this season, from seven in 2015 to only one in 2016.
However, Johnson was consistent in his coverage and there was rarely a big play with him involved. These intangibles have been the trademark for his NFL career and the spike in interceptions he saw in 2015 may be looked on more as a perk than an expectation.
As he has just turned 27, a long-term deal may also be a tough sell for Johnson, especially from a coach only three years older. Though the Rams are a very young team and could use veteran leadership, if injuries are a concern and takeaways a priority, the team may fish around for another cornerback.
The longtime safety for the Rams has officially served out his rookie contract and will be available for free agency this year.
Though he often had Rodney McLeod by his side, he served his time this year with Maurice Alexander in what was initially a tough secondary to beat. However, once the team hit the elite stretch of the schedule with opponents like Super Bowl contenders Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, the weaknesses began to show.
McDonald is another defensive back that did not produce many takeaways — only two interceptions – but his impact was felt as a tackler, where he recorded 49 tackles and 13 assists. His defensive skills are solid and under a coordinator like Gregg Williams, it would be expected for him to come up and make plays more often than not. Now, with the aid of coordinator Wade Phillips, his secondary play in general should find refinement, increasing his well-rounded skill set.
Longevity is another plus for the young safety. He started every game this season and avoided any serious injuries, unlike the previous season. His sophomore season in 2014 also saw him starting all 16 games, proving that he is a durable player that can take the impact of a full NFL season.
McDonald has the experience, the talent, and the durability to continue to lead this defense to success and should be a top priority in the Rams free agency moves.
The veteran defensive lineman was integral in his situational role this season with the Rams, but with the influx of young talent, he will not be likely to return next season.
Thomas recorded only one sack this season with 11 tackles to pad his resume. He started two games, working mostly in relief or situational roles, with his large size being very valuable on run defense. However, with the defensive line being arguably the strongest positional group on the team, his play will not impress the staff as much as it would on another team.
Most would expect Thomas’s services to not be renewed, but if he is not claimed, he may receive an invitation to camp as he still looks to have a lot to contribute to a run defense.
Restricted Free Agents
Easley was picked up by the Rams this year after an unsuccessful stunt with the New England Patriots, and his impact was definitely felt. He recorded 3.5 sacks and 24 tackles, showing shades of what led the Patriots to draft him.
Easley fit in beautifully with teammates Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers, even filling in for the latter and not missing a beat. Fans can be sure that Wade Phillips has taken note of the lineman and his pass rushing ability, as well as his run defense. Expect him to return in 2017.
Westbrooks was another standout who appeared in every game this season. He recorded a pair of sacks, a fumble recovery, and even a touchdown. Westbrooks has sparks of greatness and he outworks everyone on the field.
He became much more public with his role in this year’s Hard Knocks, where he fought for his place on the roster. Once he was officially signed, he contributed at the top level expected of this team’s defensive line.
This young defender has the showings of another great Rams’ linemen and dependent on how Coach Phillips schemes for the defense, he could have opportunities to develop into a star player. Westbrooks has proven that he can play at a top level and his spot on the Rams’ roster has all the markings of one that could be long term.
Like many clubs, the Los Angeles Rams have many decisions to make in terms of players, and these can make or break the upcoming season. The defense especially has a lot of question marks around it and if the team expects to continue the growth of their squad, they will need to be precise in their evaluations. Fortunately, they have Super Bowl champion Wade Phillips as their guide and a lot of talent with which to work.
Free agency is always important, but when this team is trying to exorcise their demons of mediocrity and mark their place in the Los Angeles NFL community, personnel becomes everything.