Here one season, gone the next. That’s the story of former Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who inherited the NFL’s ninth-ranked defense and turned it into the best in the league in only one season.
But now Staley has departed to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, with 18-year NFL coaching veteran Raheem Morris taking his place.
“He has that fire,” defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson said about Morris, “that intensity.”
But it remains to be seen whether Morris can spur an encore performance from the defense. It will be a tall task after several key playmakers departed in free agency, including defensive lineman Michael Brockers, cornerback Troy Hill and safety John Johnson III.
With free agency mostly complete and three months removed from the NFL draft, it’s time to look at the Rams’ roster to determine if, based on personnel changes, the defense made any gains this offseason.
So, better, worse or the same?
Better, worse or the same: Worse
Bottom line, any group that has Donald, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is going to be spectacular. But this group could take small step back in 2021 after the Rams traded Brockers to Detroit to clear salary cap and cash space and since Fox, a role player who tallied six sacks last season, departed for Carolina.
A first-round pick in 2012, Brockers played seven seasons alongside Donald, who often said Brockers’ ability went well beyond what appeared on the stat sheet.
So who will replace Donald’s wingman?
Robinson arrived to the offseason program in the best shape of his career and is on pace to play the season at 305 pounds, down from 330 a year ago.
“I really invested a lot of time in my body so I can be ready for the team,” said Robinson, a second-round pick in 2016 who the Rams signed to two-year, $17 million deal in free agency last year. “I just wanted to be the best for these guys … I’m not going to go out here and slack and let any of these guys down.”
Brown played three seasons at Texas A&M and also will compete for time.
Additions: Chris Garrett (seventh-round pick)
Better, worse or the same: Same.
Entering free agency, the top priority was to re-sign Floyd, who was coming off a career-best 10.5-sack season. They got the job done with a four-year, $64-million deal. “I wanted to play with AD and Jalen Ramsey,” Floyd said. “I wanted to run it back.”
The question is who will play opposite of Floyd following Ebukam’s free agency departure.
In 16 games last season, Hollins had three sacks, a forced fumble and a pass deflection. He appears to be a frontrunner to win the starting role.
Okoronkwo, Lewis and Lawler also are options, though each has had difficulty remaining on the field because of injury issues.
Additions: Ernest Jones (third-round pick)
Better, worse or the same: Better
Depth and experience, a concern for this group over the past couple seasons, is no longer an issue.
Kiser, Young, and Reeder all have starting experience, while Howard was on track to start last season before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp. Howard returned to action during the offseason program and flashed throughout drills.
But how this position battle will shake out will be intriguing with the addition of Jones, a three-year starter at South Carolina who the Rams snagged with their second pick in the NFL draft.
“He’s just got that knack to go find the ball, avoid blockers,” Rams general manager Les Snead said after selecting Jones. “He’s got some interesting traits where he’s a longer-armed human being, so that allows him to blitz, use his hands to probably bat those longer tackles, those arms down and get the QB.”
Additions: CB Robert Rochell (fourth-round pick)
Losses: S John Johnson III (Cleveland Browns), CB Troy Hill (Cleveland Browns)
These guys are back: CB Jalen Ramsey, CB Darious Williams, CB David Long Jr., CB Dont’e Deayon, CB J.R. Reed, S Taylor Rapp, S Jordan Fuller, S Nick Scott, S Terrell Burgess, S Jake Gervase, S JuJu Hughes
Better, worse or the same: Worse
Expect growing pains following the departures of Hill and Johnson, who served as the defensive signal-caller last season.
But any secondary that features the All-Pro Ramsey can’t be expected to take too big of a step back. Expect Ramsey to elevate the play of those around him, including Long, a third-year pro who will play an increased role following Hill’s departure.
Williams returns for an encore performance after a breakout season that included four interceptions and led to a first-round tender for the undrafted free agent, amounting in a $4.76 million, one-year deal.
With Rapp slowed and sidelined during training camp last season, Fuller seized the opportunity to earn a starting role as a rookie and made an immediate impact. He finished the season with four interceptions and the sixth-round pick from Ohio State is only expected to improve in Year 2.
Rapp, now healthy, will take over for the departed Johnson. A third-year pro, Rapp has plenty of experience after starting 10 games as a rookie and intercepting two passes, returning one for a touchdown.
“I’m feeling really good,” said Rapp, who played in nine games last season. “I’m moving really well, feeling really well so I’m excited for this next year.”