After an offseason makeover that could lead to as many as seven new starters on defense, the Rams enter training camp with a much deeper and more talented unit than they’ve had on that side of the ball in a number of years, at least on paper.
But, as with anything, the games aren’t played on paper and the 2012 training camp won’t be, either. That means that over the course of the next month-plus there will be a whole lot of competition all across the defense as the Rams figure out where all the pieces fit in.
A few mainstays will return to lead the charge but those mainstays have been surrounded by some Pro Bowl caliber players and a number of extremely talented youngsters.
Long has a breakthrough 2011 season and figures prominently as one of the leaders of this defense. New line coach Mike Waufle comes with an impressive resume and should be able to help Long continue to expand and improve in 2012.
Opposite Long, the Rams are banking on a breakout second season for Quinn, the athletic former first round pick who drew the praise of teammates during the spring. Quinn will need to hold up against the run to stay on the field for three downs, though.
Behind Long and Quinn, the Rams have an interesting mix of young talent including free agent addition Hayes, who played for coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee.
Sims returns for his third season in search of reaching the potential he’s flashed at various points in his first two years.
In what figures to be four spots at defensive end, the Rams seem relatively set with a top three of Long, Quinn and Hayes. Sims is the incumbent but he’ll get plenty of competition from undrafted rookies Smith and Jarrett, each of whom showed some raw potential in the spring.
The offseason brought about a complete makeover on the inside after the Rams finished near the bottom of the league in run defense in 2011. They said goodbye to incumbent tackles Justin Bannan and Fred Robbins and hit the free agent market to land Kendall Langford from Miami as one of their marquee additions of the offseason.
But the Rams weren’t done adding big bodies as they used the 14th pick in April’s NFL Draft on monster tackle Michael Brockers out of Louisiana State.
Langford and Brockers bring plenty of size and ability to the inside and should help shore up the run defense but there will be work to do for Waufle, his assistant Clyde Simmons and their group.
For Langford’s part, he is moving to play tackle in a 4-3 defense after playing mostly at end in the Dolphins’ 3-4. Brockers will work alongside Langford and is expected to help against the run but will need some polish as a pass rusher, something Waufle should provide.
Behind that duo, the Rams also brought in Laws via free agency. Laws is versatile and can fill in just about anywhere along the line. He should be solid in his spot as the team’s third tackle.
Like at end, the competition at this spot will likely be for what could be a fourth job in the middle. That competition could come down to Scott, Banks, Cudjo and Conrath, an intriguing mix of young players all looking to make a name for themselves.
Don’t discount the possibility that the Rams will keep a fifth end or tackle, either.
Laurinaitis will resume his role as the centerpiece of the defense and once again man his position as middle linebacker and defensive play caller.
But the spots that are the most readily available in terms of starting jobs are the two spots that flank Laurinaitis at outside linebacker.
Those two spots will come down to a group comprised of a few grizzled veteran free agent pickups and a number of younger, unproven players.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who came to the Rams as a free agent, figures to nail down one of the starting jobs. It’s more likely he’ll wind up on the strong side but he also could play the weak side.
Opposite Dunbar, the Rams have Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan, a pair of veterans with plenty of experience who figure to be two-down linebackers for the Rams. Should McIntosh start, it would most likely be on the weak side with Dunbar on the strong side. Should Haggan win a starting job, he’d likely handle strong side duties with Dunbar on the weak side.
Of course, the Rams have some X factors at the position in the form of a handful of rookies and a couple of young veterans.
Hull did some work in the spring on the strong side and figures to stick as a versatile backup who can also play in the middle. Aaron Brown was a seventh-round draft pick and projects into the competition on the weak side.
Sammy Brown, Cole, Keller and Hoffman-Ellis have some promise and will likely make their way by performing well on special teams.
Most likely, the Rams will keep seven linebackers and aside from Laurinaitis and Dunbar, there don’t seem to be any certainties. The two other starting positions will be hotly contested amongst the rest of the linebackers and the other backup jobs create a land of opportunity for a bunch of young players fighting for jobs.
A year ago, the Rams were ravaged by injuries and no position got hit harder than cornerback. This offseason, upgrading the talent and depth at the position took priority both in free agency and the draft.
Finnegan was the team’s biggest signing of the offseason and he will start and provide leadership at one spot. What happens opposite him will be a training camp battle to keep an eye on.
Jenkins, a second-round pick in April’s NFL Draft, has all the ability and talent to win the job and enters camp as the player most likely to claim it. But he’ll still have to be consistent and produce throughout camp to win that right.
The returning Fletcher could be Jenkins’ biggest competition but he is bouncing back from another serious knee injury and it remains to be seen what type of shape he’ll be in when the pads come on.
Some combination of those three would seem to be the most likely group for nickel packages but it would be unwise to underestimate Murphy, Gordy and Johnson.
Even Burney had some very strong moments during the offseason program and figures to be in the mix for a roster spot.
While the Rams are likely to keep only six corners, there is plenty of competition for those six spots. And, more interesting during this camp at least, is how the final six will shake out beyond Finnegan.
The Rams didn’t make any major adjustments at safety as the veteran Mikell returns to the mix this year providing stability to the back end of the defense.
A position battle that might not be getting much attention now is who will man the starting spot next to Mikell.
Stewart handled those duties last year and will again have every opportunity to retain his job but remember that he wasn’t a “find” of this regime and will have to prove himself all over again in some sense.
Dahl brings experience and versatility to the position and could push Stewart for the starting job or possibly be in a battle for a roster spot in general.
The Rams will likely keep four safeties and they are high on their undrafted free agents at the position, to the point that more than one could make the final roster.
Daniels, in particular, was viewed by the Rams and other teams as a draftable player and has a hard hitting reputation. McLeod is a bit undersized but has good speed to run the alley and be a potential asset in coverage.
Expect a battle to develop throughout camp for as many as three roster spots and potentially even one starting spot at safety.