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2020: Five defensive players to watch in training camp

The Coronavirus pandemic has shifted organized team activities to individualized workouts and player virtual meetups. Concerns about the virus have not halted plans for their training camp and the Los Angeles Rams are ready to get to work.

The defense had a shake-up just after the 2019 season. The retirement of Eric Weddle, the releases of Clay Matthews and Nickell Robey-Coleman, as well as, losing Cory Littleton and Dante Fowler in free agency left huge shoes to fill for 2020.

The Rams defense picked up several talented rookies during the 2020 NFL Draft, added veterans from other teams and have a pool of reserve players ready to compete. Below are players that most likely will start in their respective positions in 2020. Here are five defensive players to keep an eye on in training camp:

DT A’Shawn Robinson

Robinson joins the Rams after a four-year stint with the Detroit Lions. The former Alabama standout was originally picked up to replace Michael Brockers. Brockers was set to go to the Baltimore Ravens but his deal fell through and Brockers landed back with the Rams. This gave the Rams an even deeper defensive line.

Robinson has 172 tackles (16 for a loss), five sacks, 14 quarterback hits, 16 passes defended, one interception (for a touchdown) three forced fumbles and three fumbles recovered in his career. He started in nine games in 2019 and had 40 tackles (three for a loss) and 1.5 sacks.

Injuries to his shoulder and knee plagued Robinson the last two years. Now recovered, he is ready to learn, compete and bring his skillset to the Rams. Robinson will likely look to learn from Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. It will be interesting to see how he fits into the system at nose tackle. At 6’4,” 330 pounds, he is an ideal size to play anywhere along the line. He is a solid run-stuffer and has also batted down several passes in his career.

Rams defensive line coach Eric Henderson is known to develop players where they need to improve. He did that for Sebastian Joseph-Day last year and he will bring Robinson up to speed too. Robinson will have competition with Joseph-Day, who started all last season at nose tackle.

ILB Micah Kiser

Fans have been waiting to see Kiser rise to his potential during the regular season since 2018, but his preseason pectoral tear landed him on injured reserve the entire 2019 season. Now, Kiser is ready to prove himself and hoping to start at inside linebacker. He is a big unknown for now, especially since he has not seen any defensive snaps.

Kiser played special teams during the 2018 season. He saw 298 snaps with only four tackles. Kiser will also have a ton of competition for the position. Troy Reeder and Travin Howard are also looking good. Reeder fairly played well in his limited defensive plays last year.

Kiser may not be the all-around linebacker needed to replace what Littleton left behind, but his tackling ability is strong. His run-stopping and play-reading skills are also good, but he will need to work on coverage fundamentals in camp. Stepping into Littleton’s spot will be a challenge, but he is confident. He also has the confidence of the coaches and the front office to fill the starting role.

LB Travin Howard

Howard, as mentioned above with Kiser, has serious competition for the inside linebacker position. This position is important for the Rams as two starters, Littleton and Bryce Hager, have vacated both inside roles. The addition of former Ravens starter Kenny Young during the 2019 season creates more depth and competition. The recent rookies will also make it interesting to see how everyone shows their skillsets during training camp.

Howard’s advantage is his time with the Rams and studying the defensive scheme. He played mainly on special teams last year and had 102 defensive snaps, mostly toward the end of the season. He has 22 tackles and three passes defended.  At 6’1,” 219 pounds, he is noticeably light for the position, but the converted college safety’s athleticism makes up for size. Look for Howard to excel in camp and jockey for the starting role alongside Kiser.

S John Johnson

The Rams are glad to get Johnson back after he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 6 against the San Francisco 49ers. He was already considered one of the top Rams defensive backs, coming off a successful 2018 season. That year, he was second in tackles with 119, behind Littleton’s 125. He also had three tackles for a loss, four interceptions, 11 passes defended, one forced fumble and two quarterback hits.

In his short 2019 season, Johnson had 51 tackles (two for a loss), two interceptions and two passes defended. He played alongside veteran safety Eric Weddle last year and now will start alongside Taylor Rapp. It will be good to gage his progress in camp to see how he fairs against incoming rookies Terrell Burgess and Jordan Fuller as well as returning backup Nick Scott. Johnson is favored to be a key factor for the Rams defense in 2020. In February, head coach Sean McVay said he was making great progress with his recovery. He will be challenged in training camp and should be ready for getting back to his starting role.

CB/NB David Long

Long is slated to potentially fill the void of former starting nickelback, Nickell Robey-Coleman. Jalen Ramsey and Troy Hill are slated to start at the corners. That would leave Long as the ideal candidate for the nickel slot position.  At 5’11” and 221 pounds, he is bigger than Robey-Coleman and his current competition Darious Williams. Burgess may also compete for the nickel spot. Long has athleticism and size going for him. He is a decent size for a cornerback and is ideal for a nickelback role. More importantly, he plays bigger than his size when covering bigger receivers.

Long only played 109 snaps on defense in 2019. He had nine tackles and two passes defended. Training camp will weed out who belongs in that role and will divvy up the other players to their best suited positions. The defensive back corps is deep. Long will need to stand out for consideration as a main cornerback reserve and the first choice for nickel.

Honorable Mentions

Burgess, Terrell Lewis and Clay Johnston will be three rookies to watch in training camp. They may see snaps in 2020 depending on the depth need and who will start. Lewis is the perfect size for an EDGE and is the perfect backup to potential starter Leonard Floyd. Johnston will contribute to the depth at inside linebacker. His tackling acumen is no joke and he plays with intensity. Burgess is a solid safety that can also play slot corner or hybrid linebacker. His tackling skills are sharp and he covers receivers well.

Sources:  Pro-football-reference.com

You can follow Erik Ho on Twitter @EHoinSDLVLA. Be sure to follow Rams Talk on Twitter @TalkRams.

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