Rams defense needs upgrades, though not nearly as much as offense
ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Rams’ defense had its moments in 2013, but from a statistical standpoint it looked a lot like the one from 2012.
When you compare the team’s record in each of those seasons — 7-8-1 in 2012 and 7-9 in 2013 — it makes sense that the two would resemble each other.
In 2012, the Rams were tied for first in the NFL in sacks (52); 18th in fewest points per game (21.8), fewest rushing yards per game (117.5) and fewest passing yards per game (225.1); and 19th in fewest total yards per game (342.6).
A year later, the Rams were third in the NFL in sacks (53), ninth in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (102.9), 14th in fewest passing yards allowed per game (242.1), 18th in fewest total yards per game (345.0) and 20th in fewest points per game (22.8).
We looked at the Rams’ needs on the offensive side of the ball last week. Now we address the defense, which has a strong core but will need to get even better next season to compete with the likes of Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC West.
Robert Quinn had a season to remember, racking up 19 sacks, forcing seven fumbles and earning a Pro Bowl selection as well as Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
Quinn and veteran Chris Long (8 1/2 sacks in 2013 after leading the team with 11 1/2 in 2012) give the Rams arguably the league’s top defensive end tandem. It will be interesting to see how those two work in the off-season to try to come back even stronger in the fall.
Defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who like Long and Quinn was a first-round pick, improved in his second season. He recorded 46 tackles, 10 quarterback hurries, seven tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks and played in all 16 games after missing three contests as a rookie.
The other defensive end, Kendall Langford, racked up 49 tackles and five sacks. ProFootballFocus.com rated Langford as the Rams’ second-best run defender, behind Quinn, and then rated backup ends William Hayes and Eugene Sims next.
The line was an obvious team strength, and Quinn, Long, Brockers, Langford, Hayes, Sims and tackle Jermelle Cudjo are all under contract for the 2014 season.
One of the names linked to the Rams at the No. 2 spot in the draft is South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, who is considered one of the top defensive end prospects to enter the draft in years. Some have argued the Rams should pick Clowney and add him to an already-strong group up front, but it would make more sense to trade down in the draft and address other needs.
The Rams hit a home run in the 2013 draft when they selected Alec Ogletree with their second first-round pick, at No. 30 overall.
The rookie from Georgia made an immediate impact and seemed to get better as the season went on. He finished with a team-high 119 tackles — overtaking veteran middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who had 116 — and added six forced fumbles, 1 1/2 sacks and one interception, which he returned 98 yards for a touchdown.
Laurinaitis had another strong season in his fifth year. He and Ogletree give the Rams a solid linebacking corps for years to come.
The Rams struggled at the other linebacker spot. Jo-Lonn Dunbar was suspended and then released and eventually re-signed. While he played better as the season went on, he did not have the same impact that he did in 2012. He is now a free agent, as is veteran Will Witherspoon.
The Rams could go any of several directions at linebacker. Will the Rams re-sign Dunbar? Will they turn it over to youngsters Ray-Ray Armstrong and Daren Bates, both of whom had some highlights on special teams duty this season? Or will St. Louis draft another linebacker early and hope he has an Ogletree-like impact?
If the secondary isn’t the Rams’ biggest area of need, it’s 1A, right behind the offensive line.
The Cortland Finnegan Era is likely over after two seasons. The Rams brought the cornerback to St. Louis with a big five-year, free-agent contract before the 2012 season and it just didn’t work out. He played only seven games last season before going on injured reserve with a fractured orbital bone and was ineffective when he was out there.
Finnegan is now owed a $6 million base salary and $3 million roster bonus in 2014, according to Rotoworld.com, and the team can save $7 million in cap space by releasing him. That’s a lot of money for a team that was up against the salary cap in 2013.
The Rams will return cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson for their third seasons in 2014, and Brandon McGee will be back for his second year. Johnson had a team-high three interceptions in 2013 and Jenkins had just one after snagging four as a rookie.
But that doesn’t mean the Rams are set at cornerback. Look for the Rams to explore such top draft prospects as Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. Local product Pierre Desir of Lindenwood University could be an interesting late-round selection.
The Rams definitely need to do something with the safeties.
Strong safety T.J. McDonald did some good things as a rookie but played in only 10 games because of injuries. And Darian Stewart, who started six games in place of McDonald, is now a free agent.
Rodney McLeod held down the free safety spot in just his second season. He started 16 games, finished third on the team with 76 tackles and added two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
As the Rams look to upgrade at safety, they likely will consider Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who would make a lot of sense as a cost-controlled young player with upside.
Another name to watch is free agent free safety Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills who played his high school football in St. Louis. But it has been reported that Byrd, 27, wants to be one of the highest-paid safeties in the NFL.
If the Rams release Finnegan, which seems likely, they could have the funds to make a run at Byrd. But that money might be better spent elsewhere, like rebuilding the offensive line, because the Rams already have invested a lot of money in such defensive guys as Long and Laurinaitis.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.