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2020 positional preview: Outside linebackers

Photo credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

The Los Angeles Rams have a good crop of players at outside linebacker for 2020. The Rams lost a highly productive starter in Dante Fowler, Jr. after the 2019 season. Fowler had 11 sacks last year from the EDGE position and had the ideal size to match. The Rams picked up Leonard Floyd in the offseason in his place.

Floyd will most likely start at EDGE and brings experience and physicality to the position. The Rams lack some depth and experience in the inside linebacker position, but at outside linebacker, they gained a veteran player in Floyd. They also have unsung hero Samson Ebukam returning for year-four. As for the returning players and rookies, there is much potential. Here is the outside linebacker lineup for the Rams in 2020.

Samson Ebukam: Starting linebacker (WLB)

Ebukam is the one linebacker you want to have a huge break out season. He is the Rams’ longest-tenured outside linebacker. He has only one interception in his career, but it was the pick six against the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018. Last season, Ebukam had a career high 48 tackles (including five for a loss), 4.5 sacks, four passes defended and ten quarterback hits. He also had two fumbles recovered and two forced fumbles. Ebukam is known as the perfect all around outside linebacker. He is not a huge EDGE for the Rams. At 6’3,” 245 pounds, he can cover receivers well, rush the quarterback and stop the run. He played about half of the defensive snaps last year and some special teams. He was a great backup to Clay Matthews and Fowler in 2019. Now, he will start on the EDGE, but will still have stiff competition with Terrell Lewis and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo.

Leonard Floyd: Starting linebacker (SLB)

Floyd has the most league playing experience out of the entire linebacker corps. The Rams picked him up as a free agent from the Chicago Bears in the offseason. The Georgia product will begin his fifth year in the league and brings the perfect size with the right experience to the strong-side EDGE position. At 6’5,” 240 pounds, he is the lightest outside linebacker, but quick. For his career he has 154 tackles (26 for a loss), 18.5 sacks, one interception for a touchdown, three fumbles recovered (including one for a touchdown), one forced fumble, nine passes defended, 44 quarterback hits and two safeties. He had his lowest number of sacks in 2019.

Floyd has big shoes to fill after Fowler’s departure and career-high sack number last year. One good thing he has going for him is being reunited with defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Staley was Floyd’s linebacker coach in Chicago from 2017-2018 and they have a great relationship. Floyd will need to refine his pass rushing a bit, but he is a good run stopper.

Ogbonnia Okoronkwo: Backup linebacker (SLB)

Okoronkwo saw most of his defensive plays against the Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons and the Arizona Cardinals in Week 13. Although he only registered six tackles (one for a loss), 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hits, he was still productive. Okoronkwo is slated to be the main backup to Floyd. Last season, he was buried a little further in the depth chart. He is undersized in stature for the strongside EDGE position at 6’2” and 253 pounds, especially since defensive coordinator Staley likes long edge rushers. Okoronkwo will also be competing with a much bigger rookie in Terrell Lewis. Lewis has no NFL experience yet, so that leaves Okoronkwo with a bit of an advantage. Okoronkwo also plays special teams and is in his third year with the Rams.

Justin Lawler: Backup linebacker (WLB)

Lawler has not had an opportunity to show his talent and shine following a season-ending injury last year. He had foot surgery that placed him on injured reserve for the entire 2019 season. Before the injury, he played throughout the entire 2018 season on special teams and saw some defensive snaps. He had six tackles including one for a loss. The former SMU standout is in year three. Lawler has the perfect size for an EDGE in at 6’4” and 265 pounds. He is also the heaviest outside linebacker on the roster. He will have tough competition this preseason with Natrez Patrick, Greg Reaves and Lewis, depending on where the Rams decide to place everyone.

Natrez Patrick: Backup linebacker (WLB)

Patrick did not play many defensive snaps last season, although he did play special teams. He has two total tackles for the season, earning one in Week 6 against the 49ers and one in Week 7 against the Falcons. He saw the most playing time against Atlanta and played in 12 games during the season.   Coming into his second season, Patrick was signed out of Georgia as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He will most likely back up Ebukam and will compete with Lawler for the backup role.

Jachai Polite: Backup linebacker

Polite joined the Rams practice squad in 2019 when he was cut by the Seattle Seahawks in late September. He was drafted by the New York Jets last year but was cut before the season started. While at Florida, he had 78 total tackles (28.5 for a loss), 15 sacks, four passes defended and eight forced fumbles for his collegiate career. Most of those stats were from his 2018 senior season. Polite is slated in some depth charts to backup inside linebacker, but the Rams official website has him at outside linebacker. Either way, Polite will need to show progress if he wants to make the active roster.

Terrell Lewis: Backup linebacker (SLB)

At 6’5,” 262 pounds, Lewis is the biggest outside linebacker in the group and an ideal size for an EDGE. The rookie may also be a strong competitor to Okoronkwo behind Floyd. Drafted in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the former Alabama star EDGE earned a career 58 tackles (13.5 for a loss), eight sacks and three passes defended. A knee injury caused him to miss the entire 2018 season, but that did not stop him from earning the best stats of his collegiate career in 2019. He may see some playing time this season. If he does, expect an explosive rush to the quarterback and the strength to penetrate the offensive line.

Greg Reaves: Possible backup linebacker (WLB)

Reaves was signed by the Rams as an undrafted free agent right after the 2020 NFL Draft. The University of South Florida alum had 209 tackles (30 for a loss), 8.5 sacks, one interception, six passes defended, three fumbles recovered and one forced fumble for his collegiate career. Reaves is a former walk on and earned his way to a productive defensive end and outside linebacker role for the Bulls. Reaves most likely will back up a deep weakside linebacker position behind Patrick and Lawler. He is undersized for an NFL EDGE at 6’2,” 241 pounds and may not see the field this season. As a rookie, he will need to impress in training camp to move up the backup chain.

The Rams will have to make a choice on where to place the backup outside linebackers. They have a talented corps with potential, but there is a lack of sufficient experience with two rookies coming in and three players with minimal playing time on defense. Floyd and Ebukam will be the obvious choices for starting on the outside. They have the most playing time combined. Look for serious competition in training camp and the preseason. Each of these players brings a unique gift to the defense.

Sources: 247sports.com, Therams.com, 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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