– With yesterday’s announcement that the Rams had signed veteran LB Rocky McIntosh to a contract, the Rams continued their efforts to bolster the one position they didn’t address much in the draft – save for the 7th round selection of Hawaii’s Aaron Brown. They now have 10 total linebackers on the roster.
– But that doesn’t mean the Rams haven’t attempted to address the outside linebacker position this offseason. They haven’t thrown large amounts of free agent dollars at any outside ‘backers and they didn’t use any premium picks to get one but they have now added three talented veterans and a plethora of hungry young rookies looking to solidify jobs.
– On Thursday, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis made it clear that the Rams do not have a need at MLB. Not that we didn’t know that already but here’s what he had to say after getting the chance to spend the past two months around MLB James Laurinaitis:
“He’s perfect,” McGinnis said. “He’s the perfect middle linebacker for this defense. The ultimate linebacker for this defense when it started evolving was Mike Singletary. I was with Mike Singletary for seven years. The quarterback of the defense is the middle linebacker and in this system he has to be so in tune, I mean he has to be right in the defensive coaches skin. He has to understand it and know it from a lot of different angles. We could not have asked for a more perfect middle linebacker to install this system than James Laurinaitis. I remember watching him come out. I interviewed him at the Combine when he came out and I loved him then and I love him even more now because he’s exactly what you need.”
– So, yeah, I’d say the Rams are pretty pleased with what they have in the middle.
– That, of course, leaves us with two spots flanking Laurinaitis, spots that have been troublesome in recent years in no small part because they’ve been neglected. The Rams have tried a hodgepodge of players there without finding consistent results. Chris Chamberlain had some good moments last year but departed as a free agent to New Orleans.
– This offseason, the Rams have focused their efforts on finding veteran pieces to put outside while also adding a bunch of talented rookies who could potentially fit the bill. With that in mind, and removing Laurinaitis from the equation, let’s take a look at what the Rams have in place on the outside now:
– Jo-Lonn Dunbar: Dunbar was one of the team’s initial free agent moves, falling in line soon after the team pursued the big, high-priced free agents. He’s still young at 27 and the Rams believe his best football is ahead of him. He spent his first four years in New Orleans and played every linebacker spot. He says he’s most comfortable in the middle but he can play either outside spot. With the Rams so far, he’s played almost exclusively on the weak side. It’s possible he could shift over to the strong side because of the addition of McIntosh but he did just go through an offseason program playing one spot so it would also make sense to leave him there.
– Rocky McIntosh: Like Dunbar, McIntosh has been around for a bit though he’s more experienced with six years under his belt. He’s 29 and has played all over in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. He played inside and out in college but most of his starts for Miami were on the strong side. For the Redskins, he played weak side linebacker his first four seasons before the team transitioned to a 3-4. Upon that change, McIntosh moved inside and never was truly comfortable in that role. In St. Louis, McIntosh will work outside exclusively and it’s likely he’ll play there in St. Louis though he could get a look on the strong side if the Rams prefer not to move Dunbar.
– Mario Haggan: The most experienced of the linebackers, Haggan is 32 and has been in the league since 2003. At 6’3, 270 pounds, Haggan is the very definition of a strong side linebacker. He’s considered an excellent special teams player and should play a big role there but he also will be in position to battle for the strong side spot.
– Josh Hull: Hull is best served as a middle linebacker and a solid backup/special teamer. He did some work in the very early stages of the offseason at strong side but since the Rams have added the likes of Haggan and Dunbar, Hull has worked more in the middle. That’s likely where he’ll get his reps come training camp.
– Dunbar, Haggan and McIntosh would seem to be in the driver’s seat to win the starting jobs outside Laurinaitis. McIntosh and Dunbar have a bit more versatility than Haggan, who will play exclusively on the strong side. The question is how that will play out. Because of McIntosh’s experience on the weak side, it could trigger a move of Dunbar to the strong side but again, the Rams can sort through that in camp as they might prefer to keep Dunbar at the position he played most of camp.
– Justin Cole: Signed late last year, Cole is a young player with some intriguing upside and special teams value. He can play either outside position (though he spent most of his time on the weak side in the offseason) and will compete for a roster spot in camp.
– The wild card here is a group of talented youngsters that the Rams either drafted (Aaron Brown) or signed as undrafted free agents (Sammy Brown, Noah Keller and Alex Hoffman-Ellis). All of those players have flashed some level of potential during the offseason program and each seems to bring something different to the table.
– Aaron Brown: A bit on the smallish side, he figures to compete on the weak side but is expected to help on special teams. Known as a fearless competitor in his time at Hawaii, he’ll be in the mix.
– Sammy Brown: On the other end of the spectrum, doesn’t have the natural coverage skills to play the weak side so he’ll likely be in the mix on the strong side. Natural pass rush skills but is coming from a 3-4 defense at Houston to a 4-3.
– Alex Hoffman-Ellis: Some positional versatility with Hoffman-Ellis, but he spent the bulk of his time in the middle. We’ll see if he gets opportunities at other positions.
– Noah Keller: Similar to Hoffman-Ellis, Keller showed some flashes during the offseason. He had some nice moments and worked in the middle as well. Will compete with Hoffman-Ellis and Hull for spots.
– All told, the Rams have 10 linebackers and will likely keep six or seven. How that shakes out will likely come as a result of how the starting three shakes out. At a glance, here’s how the competition figures to look in terms of positions:
MLB: Laurinaitis, Hull, Keller, Hoffman-Ellis
WLB: Dunbar or McIntosh, Cole, A. Brown
SLB: Dunbar or McIntosh, Haggan, Sammy Brown
– Obviously, this situation won’t gain clarity until we get to training camp and can see where everyone is working on a daily basis but if nothing else, this can serve as a bit of a guide to what to watch for heading into camp.
– As always, thanks for reading and have a great weekend.
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