Entering the 2020 NFL draft, many assumed that the Rams would be seeking help at inside linebacker. The thought was to mitigate the loss of Cory Littleton to Las Vegas during free agency. In 2019 the Rams linebackers accounted for roughly 1400 snaps; the issue is that over 1000 of them came from Littleton. The Rams are seemingly in need of a snap-hog type of player, but do they have that on the roster? The team seems to think so, as evidenced by them not drafting a linebacker until the seventh round when they grabbed Baylor’s, Clay Johnston.
As far as the returning players, Troy Reeder is still on the team, and the Rams are hoping he takes a step forward after a painfully bad rookie season. Also coming back are Kenny Young, Travin Howard, and Micah Kiser–who is the current favorite for the most snaps. Kiser may have the leg up for now, but this will be an open competition because the team does not yet know what they have in any of the players.
Kiser is returning from a torn pectoral muscle that wiped out his sophomore season but has never played a snap in the NFL. He will look to see the field under new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley finally. The plan for Staley is to keep the 3-4 base defense, but become much more versatile defensively to match up with opponents from week to week. This kind of system is perfect for a super-smart player like Kiser. The team is going to need a leader in the middle that can get the defense in and out of formations on any given snap.
While Kiser does not have the experience that Reeder gained last season, he also does not have the bad play on film that Reeder does. Kiser will have to prove he is healthy, but if he can do that, he has a chance to be the Rams’ new defensive leader. The last Rams to start playing meaningful snaps in his third season was Cory Littleton, a comparison that Kiser would love to call fair come season’s end.
Another player that is coming off an injury and hoping to make an impact for the Rams in 2020 is Clay Johnston. As “All-Around” as they come, Johnston excels against both the pass and the run. Because of the aforementioned injury, Johnston was limited to just 17 games over the past two seasons. However, in those 17 games Johnston racked up 157 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and seven pass deflections. If he can get anywhere close to those numbers in the NFL, the Rams will have found a huge steal.
Johnston’s injury last season–torn ACL– was a big one, as he will need to prove he is capable of changing direction quickly. He has all the intangibles that you want in a linebacker. He is smart, instinctive, and unselfish. The kid loves the game, as evidenced by his draft-day call. Even if he isn’t a part of the rotation this season at linebacker, expect Johnston to play a vital role on special teams just as Littleton did in his first two years in the league.
Most Rams fans know the story here, Reeder is decent at stopping the run but a significant liability in the passing game. That kind of skill set is ideally best suited for special teams, but Reeder was forced into playing a decent amount of snaps as a rookie (298). His ability to rack up tackles should theoretically help in the run game, but Reeder graded out just as bad in that department as he did against the pass. Pro Football Focus had him as a below-average player in all facets of the game in 2019.
The fact that Reeder picked up 50 tackles in only 300 snaps shows that there is a chance he will shake off the first-year jitters and hold his own as his career progresses. He has the physicality and tackling ability to be an “early-down thumper” against the run. Do not look for him to turn into Littleton’s replacement, however. That may not even be necessary anyways. The Rams have already talked about putting Jalen Ramsey into different positions on third-down. That could be a hint that Ramsey will be sliding to safety in some sets. That would move Taylor Rapp down into the linebacker spot, taking third-down snaps from Reeder, or whoever wins the job.
Acquired in the Marcus Peters deal midway through the 2019 season, Kenny Young would go on to log zero snaps for the Rams. Not being able to get on the field might have been a product of Young not having enough time to learn the system, but it also could be an indicator of the team’s lack of faith in him. Young possesses traits of both a safety and a linebacker. That could come in handy with the Rams looking to disguise their coverage more this season.
The “Hybrid” role of a linebacker and safety can also be a detriment to some players. If Young is spending too much time learning two positions, will he ever be a master at any of them? Only time will tell. Look for Young to log plenty of snaps in the pre-season as the Rams try to evaluate the position. He has too much talent to be wasted on the bench. Hopefully, for the Rams’ sake, he can finally turn that talent into production on the football field.
Rounding out the group
Travin Howard has a theoretical upside in pass coverage and against the run. He more than held his own last season in limited snaps–grading out better than Reeder in every category. Howard was also third on the team with 329 special teams snaps. He should have a role this season. Fighting for a spot at the end of the roster will be three un-drafted rookies in Christian Rozeboom, Daniel Bituli, and Bryan London II. Rozeboom and London II will have to prove they can handle the jump from small schools to the NFL. Bituli will be trying to answer questions about his speed and range.
Prediction: The Rams will be using their linebackers a little bit less frequently in 2020, but not by much. After being on the field for 1400 total snaps in 2019, look for closer to 1300 snaps this season.
Kiser: 600 snaps
Johnston: 300 snaps
Reeder: 150 snaps
Young: 150 snaps
Howard: 100 snaps
London II: Practice squad