The Los Angeles Rams defensive line proved to be effective again in 2019. They did have some struggles but performed well overall. After the loss of nose tackle Ndamukong Suh in the offseason, the defensive middle had big shoes to fill. The Rams started second-year player Sebastian Joseph Day at the position and picked up a true nose tackle in rookie Greg Gaines. Aaron Donald dominated again and continues to command respect from offensive lines with double, triple and even what appeared to be quadruple-teamed. Longest-tenured defensive tackle Michael Brockers had his best performance of his career this season.
Aaron Donald, 6-year Pro, 5-year/$115,892,000 contract (remaining)
Donald works consistently to be the best defensive player in the league. Donald is guaranteed to have more than one blocker coming his way on every down. He is just as strong as he is quick off the snap. Offenses continue to configure their lines to contain him. If not, he will usually find a way to sack the quarterback or tackle a ball carrier for a loss.
In 2019, Donald had 12.5 sacks, 48 tackles (including 20 tackles for a loss), two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two passes defended and one safety. He fell short of his 20.5 sacks from last season, but that is mainly due to offenses isolating him. In the Rams loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6, Donald had two sacks, 7 total tackles (three for a loss), three quarterback hits and one forced fumble. He also shined against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Donald earned a safety by sacking quarterback Mason Rudolph in the endzone. He also had six total tackles (three for a loss) and three quarterback hits in that Week 10 loss. In the following Week 11 win against the Chicago Bears, Donald had two sacks, four total tackles (two for a loss), four quarterback hits and one pass deflection.
It is hard for other defensive linemen to match his prowess, but he has good company on the line. Brockers and Joseph-Day put up strong numbers this season as well. The Rams will need to figure how to free them up when Donald is locked up in double or triple-teams next season.
In 2018, Donald signed a 6-year, $135 million contract extension until 2025. That contract made him the highest paid defensive player at the time. Donald is a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year (2017, 2018). He is also a team captain and one of the longest tenured Rams. Let’s be real, Donald isn’t going anywhere.
Michael Brockers, 8-year Pro, UFA
Brockers saw more snaps this season than he has seen in six years. He had 766 in 2019 and 792 in 2013. He also had three sacks, a career high 63 tackles, including three for a loss and nine quarterback hits. It was an improvement from 2018, but not a stellar performance like his counterpart on the line, Donald. Brockers is strong on stuffing the run and great at assisting the D-line where needed. Against the New Orleans Saints in Week 2, Brockers had one sack, three tackles (two for a loss) and one quarterback hit. He also had his strongest performance against the Baltimore Ravens. Brockers had one sack, nine tackles (one for a loss) and two quarterback hits in the blowout loss in Week 12.
Brockers just finished a 3-year, $33,250,000 contract extension and is currently an unrestricted free agent. The Rams need to evaluate how badly they want to keep him on the roster. Brockers showed to be regressing and not performing to expectations on paper before this season, but improved in 2019. His value on the defensive line lies in his camaraderie with his teammates and leadership. He is also great run defender. Donald claims the line is good because of him. With other younger players waiting behind him on the roster and the practice squad, they may choose to walk away from him in 2020. That loss will be felt by fans and teammates.
Sebastian Joseph-Day, 2-year Pro, 2-Year/$1,487,619 contract (remaining)
Joseph-Day stepped into the starting role of nose tackle after spending the entire 2018 season on the roster as inactive in all regular season and post-season games. He played the position in college at Rutgers for most of his tenure. At 6’4,” 310-pounds he is another good run stuffer. Joseph-Day had a strong season in 2019, especially for it being his first time seeing any regular season snaps. He earned 44 tackles (five for a loss), two sacks and five quarterback hits and one pass defended. He had the highest number of tackles in Weeks 5 and 6 against the Seattle Seahawks and the 49ers. In a Week 4 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Joseph-Day earned one sack, three solo tackles (including two for a loss) and one quarterback hit. His other sack was in the Rams win over the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13.
In 2018, Joseph-Day signed a 4-year, $2,615,237 contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2022. The Rams have great potential with him, and will most likely start him again next season.
Greg Gaines, 1-year Pro, 3-year/$2,494,959 contract (remaining)
Gaines played in ten games this season, but only made the stat box in six games. He is currently a backup to Joseph-Day and is also experienced at the nose tackle position from his time at the University of Washington. Gaines did not have a spectacular season, but he did have a few highlights for his first year. His best performance was against the Ravens where he earned half a sack, four tackles and one quarterback hit. He saw the most snaps against the Cardinals in Week 13 where he had two solo tackles.
In 2019, Gaines signed a 4-year, $3,146,612. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023. The 6’1,” 312-pound rookie shows potential, but may be limited in snaps again next season. If the Rams remain a 3-4 defense, he should get see time on the field behind Joseph-Day. Seeing him as a backup for Brockers or Donald at this point would be hard as the Rams would need to prep him for those positions during the offseason.
Morgan Fox, 4-year Pro, RFA
Fox played in all 16 regular season games this season. The 6’3,” 275-pound defensive end had two sacks and 18 tackles in 2019. Fox has great potential to continue to backup Donald or even replace Brockers if needed, although he was limited on snaps this year. In 2018, he was placed on the injury reserve for the entire season. This year, Fox attempted to get back to where he was in 2017 where he had 2.5 sacks, 19 tackles and a safety. In 2019, he saw the most snaps against the Atlanta Falcons, both Arizona games and in Week 14 against Seattle. Fox had one sack against the Steelers and one sack against the Niners in Week 16.
Fox finished out his 1-year, $645,000 contract and is currently a restricted free agent. The Rams may want to keep him as a reliable backup with a few years’ experience under his belt. He has proven to make big plays when healthy and given the opportunity.
Tanzel Smart, 3-year Pro, 1-year/$776,198 contract (remaining)
Smart played in 13 games this regular season, making the stat box with only five. He registered three tackles against the Cleveland Browns, his most in a game this season.
Smart signed a 4-year, $2,564,783 contract in 2017. He will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021. At 6’1,” 295-pounds, he can still be a good backup to any defensive lineman. Smart has not had the opportunity to show anything special consistently, but still has good potential.
Marquise Copeland, 1-year Pro, 2-year/$1,110,000 contract
The Rams signed Copeland to their practice squad in 2019. He went undrafted out of the University of Cincinnati where he was a two-time All-American Athletic Conference honoree. The 6’2,” 287-pound defensive tackle may be a strong backup for defensive line starters. The Rams seem to have faith in him as his contract goes until 2022. He will be an exclusive rights free agent then.