One of the biggest uncertainties of the 2019 season was at linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams. In the end, linebacker turned out to be one of the strongest positions on defense. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was undoubtedly stronger than the 2018 season. With all this said, general manager Les Snead must decide which of the Rams’ top linebackers to bring back and find potential replacements.
Dante Fowler, 5-year pro, UFA
Fowler signed a 1-year, “show me” contract after having mixed results with the Rams in 2018. This past season he definitely showed the Rams and the rest of the NFL that he is worth investing in. He exploded with 58 tackles, 11.5 sacks, six pass deflections and two forced fumbles. The combination of Fowler and Aaron Donald gave quarterbacks a hard time. That said, when the defense struggled, he did disappear from time-t0-time. Overall, the Rams had to be satisfied with his overall production.
This poses a real problem for the Rams because this type of season means a big payday. Glancing at the 2020 free agent list for outside linebacker, Fowler will be one of the prized free agents overall. Snead must decide if it’s feasible to retain Fowler’s services. Replacing a dominant pass rusher like Fowler isn’t easy, especially considering Fowler is entering the prime of his career. The tough realization is that the Rams have quite a few free agents that will likely be wearing different colors next season.
Clay Matthews, 11-year pro, 1-year/$3.75 million contract (Remaining)
Matthews came to the Rams in the decline of his career, or so we thought. Don’t get me wrong, Matthews is far from the Pro Bowler he was in his prime with the Green Bay Packers. That said, he had a bit of a resurgence from previous seasons. In just 13 games, Matthews earned 37 tackles, eight sacks, three pass deflections and two forced fumbles. It was thought that Matthews would have more of a veteran coach-like role. But, he made an impact right away during training camp, showcasing his athleticism despite being older than all participating linebackers.
The Rams could tinker with the idea of cutting Matthews to save some cap space in 2020. It could also be in favor of a younger linebacking corps. That said, the Rams don’t have a ton of depth and are in danger of losing Fowler. It might be in the Rams’ best interest to keep him under contract. If he continues to play at a higher level, there’s no need to cut him really.
Samson Ebukam, 3-year pro, 1-year/$735,000 contract (Remaining)
Ebukam had a bit of a reduced role from last season. He performed relatively well considering the time reduction. He played in all 16 games and started the five that Matthews missed. Ebukam managed to conjure up 47 tackles, 4.5 sacks, four pass deflections and two fumble recoveries.
Overall, Ebukam seemed to flourish a bit more coming off the bench. He is still young and can develop more, so he could be a starter at some point. If not, Ebukam is player to have on the depth chart. In 2020, Ebukam is still under contract and will likely have a similar role. If he has a big season, he could be in for a big payday in 2021.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, 2-year pro, 2-year/$1.41 million contract (Remaining)
Okoronkwo had minimal contribution due to the lack of opportunities. He played in a total of 10 games, snagged six tackles and 1.5 sacks. He did show some pass rushing capabilities, and with a little more training, he might sneak his way to earning more playing time. Okoronkwo did show some promise in the preseason too.
With two more years remaining on his contract, Okoronkwo could be a secret weapon if he continues to develop. That said, he will need to progress or it’s possible he could be cut. It doesn’t matter if he was an actual draft pick. The Rams do know how to make use of undrafted free agent talent, just ask John Franklin-Myers.
Natrez Patrick, 1-year pro, 2-year/$1.26 million contract (remaining)
Patrick was quickly snatched up once the Rams were able to sign undrafted free agents. He made good first impressions during training camp and had a solid preseason. Patrick has the capability of playing both inside and outside linebacker. That said, he was buried in the depth chart and wasn’t able to contribute much. Expect Patrick to continue to compete for a job with incoming talent in 2020.
Landis Durham, 1-year pro, Free Agent
Durham made some noise during the preseason, but it wasn’t enough to stay on the main roster. Initially, the Rams placed him on the practice squad and bounced on-and-off throughout 2019. He’s currently a free agent for the 2020 season, but the Rams could invite him for spring training to compete for a spot again.
Josh Carraway, 3-year pro, ERFA
Carraway had a decent camp and preseason. It’s unknown if he would have made the roster or practice squad, but he was waived and placed on the injured reserved list. The Rams could bring him back in 2020 for cheap if they are willing to see him compete for a spot again.
Justin Lawler, 2-year pro, 2-year/$1.41 million contract (remaining)
Unfortunately, Lawler suffered a similar fate as Carraway. He was placed on the injury reserved list and missed the 2019 season. He still has two years remaining on his contract so expect him to compete for a 2020 roster spot.
Jachai Polite, 1-year pro, 2-year/$1.11 million contract
Polite didn’t have the 2019 season most people expected. He initially was drafted by the New York Jets 68th overall but was a surprise cut once the season began. The Seattle Seahawks swooped him up and placed him on their practice squad. Polite was cut two weeks later and landed on the Rams’ practice squad. That’s where he remained for most of the 2019 season. He later signed a 2-year contract and is expected to compete for a job. If Polite lives up to his potential, the Rams could have a solid player in development. The Rams did have some interest in Polite during the 2019 NFL Draft.
Jeff Holland, 2-year pro, 2-year/$1.26 million contract
Despite being in the league for only two years, Holland has now been on five total teams. He initially signed with the Denver Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2018. Since then, he had short stints with the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and now the Rams. The Rams may see something in him since they offered him a contract despite playing less than two months with the team. Competition at outside linebacker is heating up in 2020.