By: Joe Branham, Published May 31, 2015 6:29 PM EST
The St. Louis Rams are expected to have one of the top defensive units in the NFL in 2015. Consistency was an issue with this unit in 2014 and that will need to change if the Rams want to break past the 8-8 hump. The Rams were able to post back to back shutouts and held the prolific Denver Broncos’ offense to just seven points. Seven points that came from a busted coverage. The high points were there, but also the low points. The Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers both posted final scores in the 30s against the Rams defense. With all 11 starters returning to the Rams, most of the off-season attention went to the offensive side of the football. That doesn’t mean that all 11 spots on the defense are set. A few new additions to the roster this off-season as well as some emerging stars from last year make this years Rams defense scary not only for the talent on the top of the depth chart, but also for the second and third tier levels of this defense. A team made up of all the back ups on the Rams defense wouldn’t look too bad. Let’s take a look at the Rams defense.
The Rams defense is one of the strongest units in the NFL. From top to bottom, the Rams are loaded with talent on the defensive line that is headlined by 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year, Aaron Donald, and Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Quinn. The Rams run a fairly heavy rotation on the defensive line so all of these guys figure to be in just about every game to some capacity, but it’s who’s on the field when the game is on the line that will really matter.
1st string - LE Chris Long, DT Aaron Donald, NT, Michael Brockers/Nick Fairley, RE Robert Quinn
second string - Ethan Westbrooks, Eugene Sims, Williams Hayes, Nick Fairley
The Rams have fast and skilled linebackers who are the prototype rushers to handle the Russell Wilsons and Colin Kaepernicks of the world, and also the cover skills to handle the middle of the field with some of the leagues elite pass catching tight ends like Julius Thomas. Jo-Lonn Dunbar has had his fair share of good plays for the Rams in the last few seasons, but the Rams have brought in Ex-Patriots linebacker Akeem Ayers to challenge him in his starting role. This appears to be the only position battle in this group and it will certainly make the linebackers better.
1st string - Alec Ogletree, James Laurinaitis, Akeem Ayers
2nd string - Bryce Hager, Daren Bates, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Korey Toomer
The Rams have an interesting issue at the corner position. The Rams boast three players who are best suited to be on the outside in Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson and EJ Gaines. Gaines exploded onto the scene as a week 1 starter last season when Johnson was injured in the Rams 3rd preseason game against the Cleveland Browns. As a 6th round pick, Gaines started more games than any other rookie corner in the league last season. Johnson is now healthy and will be fighting for his position. It’s likely that the battle will be between Johnson and Gaines. Jenkins is likely solidified as the first corner. Jenkins has seven defensive touchdowns in his career, just six shy of tying the all-time record held by Charles Woodson and Darren Sharper. Jenkins is entering his 4th NFL season. The slot position will likely be manned by either Gaines or Johnson, but the Rams do have other players that could fill the void if needed.
1st string - Janoris Jenkins, EJ Gaines
slot - Trumaine Johnson, LaMarcus Joyner
back up - Brandon McGee
The St. Louis Rams also have plenty of fire power at the safety position with three players who could/should be starters in the NFL. TJ McDonald is a fan favorite and has built a reputation as a heavy hitter who can play the run as well as keep up with receivers down field. Rodney McLeod has built a reputation as a heavy hitter, even though his name does not spill from the mouth of every NFL fan frequently. The Rams also have Mark Barron on the roster. Barron played in the box for the majority of his snaps in 2014 and has even been talked about as a potential linebacker. It is not likely that he will change positions, considering he is more well rounded as a player that McLeod. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see Barron taking snaps on rushing downs while McLeod takes the field on passing downs.
1st string - TJ McDonald, Mark Barron
2nd string - Rodney McLeod, Maurice Alexander
Kicker: Greg Zuerlein has had some consistency issues in the past. Let us not forget that he does have the longest kick in Rams history though. Zuerlein booted in a 60 yard field goal in his rookie season in the dome against the Seattle Seahawks. There’s no doubting the power of his leg, but the accuracy has been an issue. The Rams clearly are not sold long term on Zuerlein giving an extension to Hekker, but not Greg. It is not unreasonable to think that this season is do or die for Greg the Leg, but he will be the St. Louis Rams kicker in 2015.
Punter: The Rams’ Johnny Hekker is one of the, if not the best, punter in the NFL. Pat McAfee gives Hekker a run for his money, but the two are clearly tops in the league. Hekker will be the Rams punter for the foreseeable future and likely beyond.
Kick Return: Special Teams coach John Fassel is somewhere grinning from ear to ear thinking about the weapons that he has that can potentially be the Rams return specialist. Tavon Austin has handled punt returns as Benny Cunningham has taken kick returns. Cunningham will likely remain the Rams kick returner, but that doesn’t come without the thought that Tavon Austin or Todd Gurley could handle the load and maybe even do it better than Cunningham. If Austin and Gurley are offensive starters, it would be difficult to picture Jeff Fisher putting them in as return men. If Austin doesn’t find his place in the offense, he might be best used as a kick return specialist. And why risk your top draft pick who’s coming off a torn ACL at kick returner when you can use him on offense on almost every play? Don’t be surprised if we see the same set up as last season with Cunningham taking kicks as Austin returns punts.
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