The 2018 Los Angeles Rams defense goes into the season set on the defensive line and secondary. There may not be a better defensive line in the NFL than the Rams' starting trio of Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Micheal Brockers. The secondary will feature the AP All-Pro team starters, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters at corner-back. Reserve corners Sam Shields and Nickell Robey-Coleman could probably start for most teams. The starting safeties, Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson, may not yet have the names most non-Rams fans recognize, but they certainly have the games most teams would like to feature. Add the coaching genius of Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips, and you could have a defense for the ages. That is IF they can put together a decent line-backing corps. So how does that unit look with training camp only weeks away?
Barring the unlikely possibility that 2017 starter and current free-agent Connor Barwin ends up returning to Los Angeles, the Rams will feature two new starting outside linebackers in 2018. I guess that Samson Ekubam will claim one of those spots, with Ogbonnia Okoronkwo or Matt Longacre eventually claiming the other. Ebukam is a freakish athlete, with a combination of size, strength, and speed that could ultimately lead him to NFL stardom.
At 6'2 and 248 pounds, Ebukam has been timed in the 4.5 range in the 40-yard dash, faster than some NFL wide receivers. While he was considered somewhat ''unpolished" coming out of Eastern Washington, he's now had a year to learn the Wade Phillips defense. He also played well filling in for Barwin late in the season last year. While he's still something of a question mark, he should be ''ready for prime time" in 2018. Even if he doesn't start, he should see a lot of snaps, barring injury.
Speaking of injuries, edge rusher Okoronkwo out of Oklahoma suffered a broken foot this spring that potentially could set back his progress a little bit. Personally, think he could end up being one of the steals of the 2018 draft, where the Rams took him in the fifth round after many 'experts" had him going in the third round. While Okoronkwo is slightly smallish for an edge rusher in the 3-4 (various reports have him listed at anywhere between 240 and 253 pounds, standing 6'2), Wade Phillips has a history of getting production out of these kinds of edge rushers. His pass coverage and rush defense both could use some work, but as a pass-rusher, this guy is a quarterback's nightmare. The good news is that it looks like he won't miss too much time in training camp. We may see a lot of him on the field for the 2018 Rams.
The other guy who would appear to be a front-runner to start in 2018 is Matt Longacre. While Longacre indeed wasn't dominant in 2017, he did log 5.5 sacks in a part-time role and certainly made his presence felt. He also has the advantage of a year under Wade Phillips to learn the defense, something that can't be said of most of the other. Longacre is a severe, gritty, blue-collar type who won't wow anyone but seems to find a way to get the job done. I would expect him to see a lot of snaps this season and may have the edge for starting out of the gate because of his familiarity with the defense. Okoronkwo's athleticism may give him a long-term advantage for starting, but Wade will probably find a way to get Matt Longacre on the field if he stays healthy.
Once again, at this point, there are more questions than answers. Many felt that converted safety Mark Barron, was expected to be traded, but so far that hasn't happened. What did happen that surprised a lot of folks was the trade of Alec Ogletree to the New York Giants. Ogletree and Barron gave the Rams a somewhat under-sized pair of inside linebackers last season, which may have accounted for the teams poor showing in defending the run (28th in the league in 2017). What Barron's future is with this team is anyone's guess going forward.
Cory Littleton was a special team standout in 2017, and he stands an excellent chance of starting in 2018. He also started for games at inside linebacker, logging 36 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack. A lot of observers think Ogletree's trade has as much to do with the coaching staffs opinion of Littleton as a potential play-making starter as it did with their thoughts on Ogletree. Barring an injury or a dismal pre-season, I would expect Littleton to start for the Rams in 2018.
Whose the Rams other starter is anyone's guess. It could be Barron, but that's no sure thing. Rookie linebacker Micah Kiser should get a long look. He was a productive player in college at Virginia, showing excellent hustle and instincts, and playing effectively against both the pass and the run. While his combine numbers won't blow anyone away, Kiser is a football player in the most real sense of the word. If he can pick up Wade's defensive schemes and perform well in the pre-season, he has an excellent chance to see a lot of action in 2018.
Former Chief Ramik Wilson, a college teammate of Todd Gurley's at Georgia is also in the mix. Wilson at one time was a starter for the Kansas City Chiefs, and many were surprised by his demotion to the bench in 2017. There are questions about Wilson's pass-coverage abilities, but the big problem for the Rams last year was run defense, and he's pretty solid in that department. There are those who think Wilson is something of an underachiever who takes plays off at times, but the ability is indeed there. He has a golden opportunity with the Rams, and Wade Phillips has a way of getting the most out of guys like Wilson.
Bryce Hager did a serviceable job filling in for Ogletree when 'Tree was injured last year, and he knows the defense. He should get a crack this year if he plays well in the pre-season. Don't rule out undrafted free agent Tegray Scales either. While the former Indiana star is neither especially big nor fast, he was a tackling machine in college, showing great instincts and hustle. Many were surprised Scales that went un-selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, and seeing him start at some point for the Rams would not be a shocker.