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Monday, 1 August 2011

Hands In The Dirt – Rams 2011 D-Line Taking Shape

The Rams front 4 came forward in leaps and bounds during the 2010 season, under the tutelage of Ken Flajole with more than a little helping hand from Steve Spagnuolo. But entering this year’s (frankly ridiculous but awesomely exciting) free agency, there were a number of questions hanging over this unit that could be summed up in 2 words “Age” and “Talent”. But with the draftees now in camp, and free agents agreeing to terms left, right and centre, have these questions been answered, or does the front office still have more work to do?

Fred Robbins and S Craig Dahl
(photography by Dilip Vishwanat)

In 2010 the Rams D-line was almost unrecognisable from the one of old. Not necessarily in terms of personnel, but in attitude and results. Led by old hands like Fred Robbins and James Hall, the team recorded 43.0 sacks (7th in the league), up from a pitiful 25.0 in 2009 (an embarrassing 30th, but not surprising when you consider the 1-15 record). But having both turned 34 this off-season, it’s clear that the motors on these two guys will be starting to slow down now, and the Rams can’t sit back and rely on them for long. Fortunately, 2010 also saw the emergence of Chris Long as the truly talented DE that he really is. Long has come in for a lot of criticism throughout his short career for not living up to the #2 overall pick that the Rams selected him with in 2008, but this was put solidly behind him this year, recording 8.5 solo sacks, forcing 3 fumbles, and scoring a huge number of QB hurries and hits that contributed in no small part to the Rams picking off 14 passes in 2010 (compared to a league worst 8 in 2009).

Aside from these 3 guys, however, the Rams D-line read like a “Who’s That?” rather than a “Who’s Who”. Ends like George Selvie, Eugene Sims and CJ Ah You contributed well as situational pass rushers, but nothing more. The place of starting DT alongside Robbins ended up falling to Gary Gibson, who although performing admirably, at times seemed a little out of his depth (not surprising for a man with 5 career starts over his previous 4 seasons, and now a UFA searching for a team). It was clear entering the off-season that this unit, although vastly improved, would need further personnel to keep it on the upward arm of the curve.

With the 14th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, the St Louis Rams select: Robert Quinn, defensive end, North Carolina. I’ll be the first to admit, when this pick was read out, I wasn’t best pleased. I have no idea who I would rather have had us select, because the other guys I was really interested in were already off the board, but for some reason this pick didn’t feel right. Quinn had missed his entire senior season at UNC due to NCAA violations, and is still only 3 years removed from his high school prom. Although he has a big frame, he looks as though he could still add 15-20lbs in muscle and it raises the question “Why hasn’t he?” But that was then. After the dust had settled, and I’d had time to digest the pick, I can see how much sense it makes, and how good for the Rams it could be. Quinn doesn’t have to start day 1. He doesn’t even necessarily have to start week 17. With Long and Hall on either end, the Rams have the luxury of using Quinn initially as a situational guy. It’ll take him some time to get back into playing football, and even longer to get up to speed with the NFL, but he has that time. Those extra 15lbs he could gain? He’s got all season to start that. He’s got some consummate pros around him not only to show him how to play in the NFL, but how to live with being an NFL player. As long as he is there and willing to learn, he and Long could form a dynamic and dangerous partnership for years to come.

Danny Muir (photography by Andy Lyons)
Inside at DT, we’ve had to wait a little longer for some action. There were no DTs taken by the Rams in the draft, and the top Free Agent linked with them throughout the lockout, ex-Giant (and therefore Spagnuolo guy) Barry Cofield, was snapped up by the Redskins pretty sharpish. It took a few days in FA for the Rams to finally get some guys – former Bronco Justin Bannan, and former Colt Danny Muir. Although neither are big names, and passed pretty much under the radar whilst names like Albert Haynesworth and Cullen Jenkins were being tossed about being teams, they bring something interesting to the Rams. Danny Muir has 24 starts over the last 2 seasons for the Colts, recording a total of 90 tackles and half a sack. In terms of experience, and to be honest production, that’s huge compared to the Rams 2009 options. Not only that, but when you consider the DEs that Muir was playing alongside (messrs Freeney and Mathis) he is used to being part of a talented line that can attack from all 4 positions. This could be invaluable. Bannan started 16 games last season too, even if it was as part of a frankly horrific Broncos line. In the words of a Broncos fan I spoke to about him, “Tough inside defender...won’t offer much of a pass rush but is solid against the run...wish the Broncos had picked him up again.” These names might not be setting the world alight, but by the looks of things we might just have got ourselves some pretty decent talent to work with. And we also mustn’t forget some potential stars we have within...

Darell Scott was all but forgotten about last year. Having started 5 games his rookie year in 2009, Scott played in only 9 in 2010. After being replaced by Gary Gibson, it was widely rumoured that he would be looking for a new home this season, either through his own request or by being released by the Rams. However, as of the start of training camp, Scott has been taking his place as starting DT for the Rams (according to @nfldraftupdate). Perhaps this will only last until August 4th, when newly signed free agents are allowed to join the frey; but it indicated that Scott might be on board for some time to come.

Jermelle Cudjo joined the side last year as an UDFA out of Central Oklahoma, and was pretty much seen as a body for camp. But through some hard work and the fact that the competition around him wasn’t that great, Cudjo made it on to the Rams roster for the season. He contributed in 10 games, recording 13 tackles and 0.5 sacks, as well as 2 passes defended (not bad for a guy weighing 300lbs). Added in to the rotation, the Rams are starting to look respectable at DT.

Who knows what the depth chart will look like in week 1 against the Eagles, but if there’s one thing we can say for certain in a Spagnuolo defence, it doesn’t matter if you’re #1 or #3 at your position – everyone will get their reps. With youth and potential talent now being stacked up both inside and out, we might not quite be back to “The Fearsome Foursome”, but we’re getting there.

Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
The Pulling Linemen

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