Over the past two seasons, the Los Angeles Rams have remained one of the healthiest teams in the NFL. The team dealt with long-term injuries to Aqib Talib and Cooper Kupp last season. However, according to Football Outsiders, they were the fourth healthiest team last season, which broke a two-year stretch in which they were number one.
The Rams took a hit in Week 2 of the preseason when second-year linebacker Micah Kiser suffered a pectoral injury. On Tuesday, head coach Sean McVay described the injury as “pretty significant” and gave no timetable for his return. Depending on the seriousness of the injury, Kiser could be looking at somewhere close to six months without seeing the field.
Drafted in the fifth round last season, Kiser seemed to have a lock on the starting linebacker spot next to Cory Littleton. With the injury, the Rams lose a starter on defense and will look to the “next man up” for his replacement.
While losing a player like Kiser, who has the run-stopping and tackling ability that he does undoubtedly hurts, it’s not going to make or break the defense. The fact of the matter is, the linebacker position was already one of the weaker spots on the roster. Kiser was a player that played mostly special teams in his rookie year. It’s not as if the Rams are losing an All-Pro caliber player.
The Rams have other options here who may be just as good, if not slightly better than Kiser. Most likely, this will become a committee role which will play the current players in the situations that will best help them succeed. Let’s take a look.
Bryce Hager will get the immediate promotion from the Kiser injury due to his experience with the Los Angeles Rams and in the system. Hager is going into his fifth year on the team which makes him the most experienced linebacker on the roster.
Hager is a flawed player, but he’s played with enough intensity on special teams to become one of the team’s longest-tenured players.
The fifth-year linebacker was solid against the Cowboys, teaming up on a sack with Natrez Patrick on Dak Prescott. Because of that, he’s put together a top-20 pass-rushing grade among linebackers according to Pro Football Focus.
Hager certainly has his flaws. There’s a reason he’s been nothing more than a backup and special teams player for the Rams up to this point in his career. However, his knowledge of the scheme and football IQ is going to be unmatched when it comes to the other linebackers on the roster. He also has excellent athleticism for the position, which helps when he’s called upon as a pass rusher.
This is not a typo.
While the Los Angeles Rams drafted him as a safety, it would not be surprising for Taylor Rapp to see some snaps at linebacker. The Rams have done this before with their safeties, most notably with Mark Barron.
Rapp is listed a 6’0, 208-pounds which is pretty similar to Mark Barron’s 6’2, 214-pound frame when he first arrived in Los Angeles. Barron has since put on weight to fit the linebacker mold, as he’s now closer to 230.
It’s highly unlikely that Rapp gets that heavy, but that doesn’t mean the Rams won’t use Rapp in that role. Last season when Barron was hurt to begin the year, the team used a combination of linebacker Ramik Wilson and safety Marqui Christian.
In this scenario, Wilson handled the early-down work, and Christian dealt with the expected passing downs. The Rams didn’t trust Wilson in coverage. With Christian having a smaller frame, it didn’t make sense for him to be close to the line of scrimmage trying to stop the run.
This is a blueprint that could work for the Rams this season as well with Hager in place of Wilson.
Rapp has put together the fourth-highest pass coverage grade among safeties according to Pro Football Focus. The Washington safety was a much more effective player in the box with the Huskies due to his short are burst and physicality. By using Rapp in this role, they would be using him to his strengths. As a nickel LB/S hybrid, Rapp has plenty of value. Expect to see him in a moneybacker role early and often this year.
The Rams linebackers as a group have allowed 17 receptions on 19 targets in the preseason. Playing Rapp in the box on passing downs could be a legitimate option.
ICYMI: Taylor Rapp is going to make a living in the box and near the line of scrimmage. Rapp's elite short area burst makes it look like he was shot out of a cannon. Old school physicality and toughness is what Rapp brings to the field. My full report:https://t.co/SUJMQdfeTE pic.twitter.com/KCwNHPSYN3
— Daniel Valente (@StatsGuyDaniel) February 10, 2019
Most known for his appearance in Netflix’s “Last Chance U,” Dakota Allen can make a name for himself this year.
Allen leads the Los Angeles Rams with eight tackles during the and is the ninth-highest graded tackler in this preseason according to Pro Football Focus. He’s also the Rams’ overall highest-graded linebacker.
A starting role for the seventh-rounder seems a bit out of the question even with the Kiser injury. However, he does show promise. It’s very much in the realm of possibilities that Allen plays himself into a role with the Rams as the season goes on.
As a seventh-rounder, there’s no question that he has his flaws. He lacks the instincts, but he the intangibles and tackling ability to find some short-term success as he continues to develop.
The Los Angeles Rams have several players on the roster that can play both inside linebacker and on the edge. That list includes Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Natrez Patrick, and Clay Matthews. While these players can play inside, it’s highly unlikely that the Rams would switch them back unless they got to a desperate situation.
Okoronkwo played his first game since the Rose Bowl during his senior year at Oklahoma against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2 and was one of the Rams’ standout players. The plan has always been for him to play outside and that’s probably where he stays.
Patrick started training camp at inside linebacker, but with the Rams’ lack of depth on the edge, the team approached him about moving outside as a pass rusher. The linebacker out of Georgia agreed and hasn’t looked back.
He teamed up for a sack on Prescott against the Cowboys and led Rams edge rushers with five tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Patrick is the Rams’ third-highest graded player on defense during the preseason.
Moving Patrick back inside is a much more likely scenario. His ability to be versatile and play both inside and outside is what makes him valuable and will be a big reason why he goes from undrafted to the final 53.
The last player here is the most unlikely to move to inside linebacker, and that’s Matthews. The Rams brought the former Green Bay Packer to help the pass rush off of the edge, and that’s most likely where he stays.
However, in 2014, the Packers moved Matthews to inside linebacker, and it dramatically changed the performance of their defense, particularly against the run. The Packers finished just one game short of the Super Bowl largely because of it.
Matthews is one of the most talented linebackers on the Rams roster. This is emphasized when looking at the Rams’ inside linebackers. The veteran linebacker had six sacks in the second half of the 2014 season after making the switch and finished 2015 with 6.5 sacks.
Rotating Matthews inside and outside could also be an option.
Losing Kiser certainly hurts the Rams defense. It’s never easy to lose a starting player for an extended period, especially when that injury occurs in the preseason. However, Kiser was going into his first year as a starter and had just as much experience as players like Allen, Rapp, or Patrick.
Given the Rams’ history, the most likely scenario will be that the inside linebacker spot next to Littleton becomes a committee position with Rapp coming in on passing downs.
While the loss of Kiser isn’t ideal, the Rams have the players on the roster in which they should be able to overcome it and be okay.