The Rams are coming off a Super Bowl hangover where the offense put up only a single field goal. The defense on the other hand only allowed 16 points to a stout Patriots offense. Which defensive players iarethe most fantasy relevant?
The Los Angeles Rams had a spectacular season in 2018 with a high-powered defense. After the Super Bowl loss came free agency. During free agency the Rams lost key players on the defense. Ndamukong Suh, Lemarcus Joyner, and Mark Barron all left for new teams in free agency for the upcoming season. All three of these players were starters on last years defense.
The Rams were able to replace Lemarcus Joyner with 6-time Pro bowler and two-time All-Pro Eric Weddle. Although he is an older player going into his year 34 season, he is still very productive. Mark Barron will be replaced internally and Michah Kiser seems to be getting the first crack at the job. Suh will be replaced by a tandem of most likely Michael Brockers and Tanzel Smart with rookie Greg Gaines mixing in. Lets see who is relevant for IDP in tiers.
Tier 1 Draft Targets
Aaron Donald– Defensive End
2018 Stats: 59 tackles (41 solo), 25 tackles for a loss, 20.5 sacks, on pass defended, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Aaron Donald just finished winning his second straight Defensive Player of the Year award. Donald is coming off a career year where he set career bests in sacks (20.5) and tackles for a loss (25). He even accumulated an astonishing 41 QB hits. The craziest part of it all is that he did not record a single sack until week 4. He had 20.5 sacks in 13 games, an unreal pace. He constantly wreaked havoc on opposing QBs, ask Tom Brady after Donald threw him like a rag doll in the Super Bowl:
The ref told Aaron Donald he almost got flagged for throwing Tom Brady down in frustration pic.twitter.com/TPP0mPv0Rc
— Cameron DaSilva (@camdasilva) February 7, 2019
The amount of pressure that Aaron Donald creates is levels above others when it comes to interior lineman.
Highest pressure percentage, interior D-Linemen (2015-18):
1. Aaron Donald 17.8%
2. Geno Atkins 14.8
3. Fletcher Cox 14.2
4. Chris Jones 13.3
5. Sheldon Richardson 12.6
6. Malik Jackson 12.3
7. Mike Daniels 12.1
8. Kawann Short 11.4
9. Jurrell Casey 11.0
10. Cameron Heyward 10.9
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) July 24, 2019
I fully expect Aaron Donald to regress for 2019, mainly because the numbers he put up are so hard to reach on a regular basis, Also, he lost star nose tackle Ndamukong Suh. Donald never produced more than 11 sacks in any season prior to when Suh’s arrival. The Rams also did a poor job of adding similar talent to keep pressure off of Donald. With all this said Donald should still be a top 5 pick in drafts.
2019 Projected Stats: 54 total tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 16 sacks, two passes defended and five forced fumbles.
Cory Littleton– Linebacker
2018 Stats: 125 Tackles (90 solo), nine tackles for a loss, four sacks, 13 passes defended, three interceptions and a touchdown.
Cory Littleton was a fantasy football darling last year. He either went undrafted or was a late add as he was in his first year starting for the team. Mark Barron was the team’s best inside linebacker for the previous years but last year Littleton made Barron an afterthought. Littleton was one of the best linebackers in coverage last year.
Cory Littleton ranked 2nd in the regular season by accumulating 24 stops in coverage pic.twitter.com/iRq8MLfYw8
— PFF (@PFF) February 1, 2019
He routinely made great plays in passing situations. Watch here as he spies 49ers QB Nick Mullens and comes up with the interception for a touchdown:
Cory Littleton's first time taking it to the 🏠!
— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) July 12, 2019
Littleton is not a one trick pony though. He blitzes rather well as seen by his four sacks last season. Littleton was easily the most improved player last year and is the prototypical mold for inside linebackers today. He is easily cemented as an LB1.
2019 Projected Stats: 131 total tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, three sacks, 15 passes defended, three interceptions and a forced fumble.
John Johnson III- Safety
2018 Stats: 119 tackles (82 solo), three tackles for a loss, 11 passes defended, four interceptions and one forced fumble.
John Johnson III was another player on the Rams defense that enjoyed a breakout season. In his second year in the league he almost added 50 tackles to his total compared to his rookie season and also raised his interceptions from one to four. John Johnson is a sound tackler and has proven to be the second best on the team after Littleton. In 2018 he was super efficient:
John Johnson III was among the best tackling safeties in 2018! pic.twitter.com/9CJ4IBPARt
— PFF (@PFF) July 16, 2019
Johnson is a premiere last line of defense safety. As shown earlier, he is a great tackler and on a team with a thin linebacker unit he may see more time in the box. With that said he has improved drastically in coverage since he joined the NFL:
— PFF (@PFF) January 29, 2019
Even after a great 2018 season Johnson is being somewhat slept on. There are a few guys still being drafted before him that really should not be. Johnson is an easy top 5 safety in the NFL.
2019 Projected Stats: 115 total tackles, six tackles for a loss, 12 passes defended, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Tier 2 Depth Players
Eric Weddle- Safety
2018 Stats: 68 tackles (54 solo), two tackles for a loss, one sacks and three passes defended.
Eric Weddle’s numbers suffered a bit last season but it was not fully his fault. Due to the offensive scheme last season and Lamar Jackson taking over, game flow slowed down quite a bit. The team ran the ball the 3rd most in the NFL at 47.74% of the time and over the last three games led the NFL by running the ball 54.69% of the time. This took more time off the clock than normal offenses and the Ravens defense ended up running the 9th fewest number of plays in the NFL for 2018.
Eric Weddle provides help creating takeaways for this Rams defense. The team already has one of the best coverage linebackers in Cory Littleton. They also have two cornerbacks who thrive at forcing turnovers in Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Add Weddle to that group and it becomes one of the best coverage groups in the NFL.
SF Richard Sherman 32
NFL Reggie Nelson 29
ARI Patrick Peterson 23
BAL Earl Thomas 23
LAR Eric Weddle 23
— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) May 17, 2019
Erid Weddle is not only a turnover forcing factor but he also tackles very well for a free safety. Watch here as he helps in run support and makes the mean tackle on James Conner:
Eric Weddle showing up in run support! pic.twitter.com/1ZB937hvkW
— WeAreDBnation (@WeAreDBNation1) October 1, 2018
With how thin the Rams linebacker unit is I foresee the Rams playing some more three safety sets after they drafted rookie Taylor Rapp in the second round. Weddle should be able to stay on the field for a majority of the team’s snaps.
2019 Projected Stats: 82 total tackles, three tackles for a loss, 12 passes defended, three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
Marcus Peters- Cornerback
2018 Stats: 43 tackles (33 solo), eight passes defended, three interceptions and a touchdown.
Marcus Peters had a down year to his own standards. The start of his career has been magnificent. In four seasons he has 63 passes defended, 22 interceptions, and four touchdowns. Since he has joined the Rams his numbers have dipped but that is mostly due to being a true lockdown cornerback. Watch here as you see the beautiful anticipation by Peters as he takes the interception to the house:
Marcus Peters did the Marshawn celebration 👀
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 11, 2018
Not only does Peters force turnovers through the air but he is always making a play on the ball. He has five forced fumbles for his career including three in 2017. When plays seem to breakdown he just starts punching and grabbing for the ball as opposed to always taking the ball carrier down:
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) October 31, 2017
Normally lockdown corners are not great fantasy assets but Peters’ ability to force turnovers and the likelihood teams will have to pass often to keep up with the Rams vaults Peters into tier two.
2019 Projected Stats: 49 total tackles, 16 passes defended, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown.
Tier 3 Rotational Players
Micah Kiser– Linebacker
2018 Stats: N/A (did not play rookie season)
The Rams lost linebacker Mark Barron to the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason in free agency. Mark Barron was one of the pioneers of the move from safety to linebacker that changed the norm for inside linebackers. He became a full-time linebacker in 2015 for the Rams and played the position all the way until the end of 2018. During those four seasons he posted 375 total tackles, 33 tackles for a loss, four sacks, 18 passes defended, five interceptions, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
During those four years he played alongside the likes of Alec Ogletree and Cory Littleton who both finished as top-tier linebackers respectively. This shows that there is still a good chunk of fantasy points for the second LB in the Rams lineup. Kiser seems to have a leg up on the competition in OTA’s so far and could be a beautiful compliment to Littleton.
Micah Kiser was a productive pass-rusher during his career at UVA pic.twitter.com/05Xh7yyJWh
— PFF College (@PFF_College) April 16, 2018
Littleton, as we touched on earlier, is one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. Kiser is a great blitzing linebacker and he showed that in the preseason last year:
Rams rookies DE Marcus Martin and LB Micah Kiser team up for the sack. pic.twitter.com/V0jAL83otC
— Duane Lively (@DuaneLively) August 18, 2018
If Kiser wins the job and can retain it through the entire season he can put up solid numbers next to Littleton. The fact that he has a year under his belt in the defense and the team did little to address the position in free agency leads me to believe they have confidence in Kiser. The only worry I have is if he comes off the field in obvious passing situations and the team running with three safeties more often.
2019 Projected Stats: 89 total tackles, eight tackles for a loss, four sacks, two passes defended and a forced fumble.
Team IDP Sleeper
Taylor Rapp- Safety
2018 College Stats: 58 tackles (32 solo), five tackles for a loss, four sacks, four passes defended, two interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
The Rams went and drafted Taylor Rapp in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Rapp is added to an already impressive group of safeties joining John Johnson III and Eric Weddle. Weddle is 34 and Rapp projects to learn from him for a year or two before becoming his successor. What people do not realize is he may have an impact with this defense year one.
The team did very little to address the linebacker position after losing Mark Barron and their best replacement is a pass rushing linebacker. This leads me to believe that in passing situations the Rams may take on a new look and run three safety sets. John Johnson III will most likely move in the box and Rapp will come in playing safety. A tandem in passing situations of Rapp and Weddle would strike fear into opposing QBs. Weddle has 29 career interceptions and Rapp is no slouch himself:
Rams S Taylor Rapp allowed a ridiculously-low 12.0 passer rating on throws into his coverage last year. pic.twitter.com/tzl5F6mz7m
— PFF (@PFF) May 15, 2019
That opposing passer rating is jaw dropping and in a minimum 250 snaps at that. He was a full 73.4 points better than Marquise Blair who was selected before Rapp. If this is how the Rams defense plays out than Rapp could have a significant impact his rookie season.
2019 Projected Stats: 62 total tackles, two tackles for a loss, five passes defended, one interception and a fumble recovery.
The Rams have three tier one defenders with John Johnson III and Aaron Donald being top 5 at their respective positions and Cory Littleton in the top 10. All three of those defenders project to have incredibly productive seasons once again. Eric Weddle is aging but should still be a productive player and should see a high snap count keeping him a tier two player. Marcus Peters has great turnover forcing ability which has him also listed as tier two.
Micah Kiser is seizing his opportunity to start and could add some valuable depth and be a bye week flyer if he retains the job. The Rams possibility of playing three safeties more often could lead to Taylor Rapp seeing significant snaps and his ability alone makes him a solid sleeper.
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