James Laurinaitis has solidified the middle; now the Rams need to find him some help on the outside.
Yesterday we looked at the Rams' situation at wide receiver, and it was determined said situation is, at least in the near term, somewhat less than ideal. A combination of injuries and plain old ineffectiveness have combined to leave the Rams badly in need of some high-quality pass catchers to help out Sam Bradford as he tries to hone his Peyton Manning impression. (I hear he's working on a dynamite Bill Cosby, too, but that's less helpful on the football field.) Unfortunately for the Rams, there isn't much of anything they can do to try and shore up their weaknesses this season; however, they can
begin prioritizing their needs as the 2011 draft creeps inexorably closer.
While receiver may be the team's biggest weakness, it's by no means the only place they could use a fairly significant upgrade. Today we look at their outside linebacker corps, which has been a pretty soft spot in its own right for the 2010 season.
I said before middle linebacker is settled for the near future, with James Laurinaitis cementing his place as the Rams' best since London Fletcher left town. On the outside, though, things are not nearly so good. We've seen the secondary get torched several times this season, and a big part of that is some serious coverage holes in the linebacker corps. With so much space over the middle, the secondary's assignments are breaking down as they try to fill in the fault lines.
Really, of the options at OLB, only Na'il Diggs brings much to the table, and he's still a limited player. Good tackler, not much in coverage, will overpursue at times. Plus, as a veteran guy brought in to shore up a weak spot Diggs isn't getting younger. The other options are guys like David Vobora (former Mr. Irrelevant), and Chris Chamberlain, the man traded for Alex Barron. Both have proven to be valuable special teams players (particularly Vobora), but neither have the toolset to be every-down players for a top-flight NFL team. Personally, I will say I was mildly impressed with Vobora's play at strongside LB last season, but the coaching staff seems disinclined to give him much in the way of regular playing time. I don't necessarily disagree with that, but I do wonder why he hasn't gotten at least a shot, considering how weak the position has been overall.
There is some definite talent to be had at linebacker in this draft. The best of the outside bunch is probably Akeem Ayers of UCLA, though there is some thought he would be a much better fit as an OLB in a 3-4 than a 4-3. Still, he's a tremendously talented player and you could do much worse. He is probably the best of all the OLB's in this draft in coverage. He is only a junior, but it's almost a sure thing he'll declare for the draft. Ayers' production hasn't been as good in 2010 as it was last season, but the Bruins lost significant talent on defense and he's been asked to do more on his own. It will still be interesting to see how teams view his dropoff in performance.
Von Miller of Texas A&M and Travis Lewis of Oklahoma are both highly rated at the position, and at least one of the two, if not both, should be around when the Rams pick in the first round. (Both should be, but depending on who needs linebackers ahead of them, well, odd things happen in the draft.) Bruce Carter out of North Carolina began the year rated as the top OLB in the draft by many, but his production hasn't quite been there and his stock has slipped accordingly.
In his defense, there's a little of the same situation here that Akeem Ayers is dealing with in UCLA. Several of UNC's players were suspended this season (including Robert Quinn, a defensive end who will appear in a later draft post), and Carter has had to carry a large portion of the load himself. He may still be the most physically gifted linebacker in the draft.
Possibly my favourite linebacker prospect in this particular draft is Greg Jones from Michigan State. He's just a tad on the small side for an NFL linebacker, which would likely limit him to weakside duties and has hurt his stock a bit, but he's an incredibly athletic, high-motor guy with outstanding range and strong tackling skills. He actually reminds me a bit of Laurinaitis in the sense he's always where he needs to be to make a play, wraps up his target, and gets knocked down by some for not being a 'blow-up' tackler. He's a leader on the field and plays very efficiently. The only real problem I see with Jones is his availability. He would be a reach to take in the first round, but may not be there when the Rams pick in the second. I think he's an early second round pick, which could very well put him in between for the Rams.