Better, worse or the same: A look at the Rams’ changes on defense

It was a rollercoaster offseason for the Los Angeles Rams‘ defense after first-year coordinator Brandon Staley replaced veteran Wade Phillips and several key players departed in free agency or were released.

So, better, worse or the same?

That’s the question facing each defensive position group as the Rams attempt to rebound from a 9-7 season that kept them from a third straight playoff appearance.

With free agency mostly complete and nearly 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.

Defensive line

Additions: A’Shawn Robinson (two-year, $17 million contract)

Losses: Tanzel Smart (Unsigned)

These guys are back: Michael Brockers (three-year, $24 million contract), Aaron Donald, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Greg Gaines, Morgan Fox

Better, worse or the same: Better.

Any defensive front that features Donald is in good shape, but consider the Rams’ line in excellent condition following Brockers’ surprise return. Bound for the Baltimore Ravens in free agency, Brockers’ deal fell through and he quickly returned to L.A., much to the delight of long-time teammate Donald.

“He’s a huge part of our defense,” said Donald, adding that Brockers’ contributions transcend the stat sheet.

Following Brockers’ initial departure, the Rams agreed to terms with Robinson, who parted with the Detroit Lions after four seasons. A second-round pick in 2016, Robinson never established himself as a consistent playmaker with the Lions but is expected to add strength to the Rams’ interior in joining Joseph-Day and Gaines.

“We feel really good with the interior depth,” coach Sean McVay said.

Outside linebackers

Additions: Leonard Floyd (one-year, $10 million contract), Terrell Lewis (third-round pick).

Losses: Dante Fowler Jr. (Atlanta Falcons), Clay Matthews (unsigned).

These guys are back: Samson Ebukam, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Justin Lawler.

Better, worse or the same: Worse.

Fowler had a career-high 11.5 sacks last season and Matthews had 8. Those numbers will be difficult to top for a young group of pass-rushers.

The No. 9 overall pick by the Chicago Bears in 2016, Floyd reunites with Staley — who coached him for two seasons in Chicago and played a role in bringing him to L.A.

“This guy has a unique skill set, he’s a unique athlete for the position,” Staley said. “He’s a very, very high football-IQ guy.”

The Rams took a chance on Fowler, who arrived in L.A. after a tumultuous 3½ years in Jacksonville, and he excelled. The Rams are optimistic Floyd can experience a similar turnaround and he said he felt motivated by a fresh start.

“I gave [the Bears] all I had,” said Floyd, who had 18.5 sacks in four seasons. “It’s time to move on and with L.A. and the Rams I see myself doing very, very good.”

A third-round pick, Lewis is an intriguing prospect who could blossom into a draft steal. He struggled to stay healthy in four seasons at Alabama but possesses the physical traits — including long limbs and an explosive burst — that could propel him to become a dominant pass-rusher.

A starter in 2018, Ebukam lost the job to Matthews but said multiple times last season that he felt good about learning behind the veteran. But now is Ebukam’s time to once again prove that he is a starting-caliber player. A rotational player last season, Ebukam has 9.5 career sacks.

Inside linebackers

Additions: Clay Johnston (seventh-round pick)

Losses: Cory Littleton (Las Vegas Raiders)

These guys are back: Micah Kiser, Kenny Young, Travin Howard, Troy Reeder.

Better, worse or the same: Worse.

Rams general manager Les Snead didn’t dance around the subject when asked how the Rams would replace Littleton, their leading tackler the past two seasons.

“[It’s] a very inexperienced group,” Snead said about the linebacking corps. “Internally we have, let’s call it, a solid to good to high hopes for this group and we got to do our best to develop them.”

The Rams slotted Kiser as a starter last season before he suffered a season-ending pectoral injury during the preseason.

Young joined midway through last season as part of the trade involving cornerback Marcus Peters and the Ravens. He should benefit from an entire offseason learning the Rams’ system.

An undrafted free agent from Delaware, Reeder found himself thrust into a starting role for eight games because of injuries. He finished with 58 tackles and his experience could provide a boost in the training camp competition.

Defensive backs

Additions: S Terrell Burgess (third-round pick), S Jordan Fuller (sixth-round pick)

Losses: CB Nickell Robey-Coleman (Philadelphia Eagles), S Eric Weddle (retired), CB Marqui Christian (unsigned).

These guys are back: CB Jalen Ramsey, CB Donte Deayon, CB Troy Hill, CB David Long Jr., CB Darious Williams, S John Johnson III, S Taylor Rapp, S Nick Scott, S Jake Gervase

Better, worse or the same: Same.

With the Bears, Staley was known to use defensive back-heavy packages. More of that should be expected with the Rams.

Ramsey teased that he will take on an increased role this season, noting that he no longer considers himself a cornerback, but a defensive back.

Williams intercepted passes in back-to-back games to end last season, which caught the attention of Staley. Williams might be the front-runner to play opposite of Ramsey, and Hill can play the slot.

“[Williams has] a really good skill set for corner,” Staley said. “He can run, he can change direction, he can play the ball in the deep part of the field, he’s got a good body.”

Johnson returns from a shoulder injury that sent him to injured reserve after six games last season. As he enters the final season of his rookie contract, Johnson has intercepted seven passes and has 24 pass deflections in 32 starts.

Rapp will take over Weddle’s spot as starter and is expected to make a significant jump as a second-year pro after a solid rookie season that included starting in Johnson’s absence.

Burgess and Fuller will provide depth and probably will contribute on special teams.

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