LOS ANGELES -- It's official: The Los Angeles Rams are rebuilding at linebacker.
They'll have at least two new starting linebackers next season, but that number could easily increase to three and potentially even four. Alec Ogletree was traded to the New York Giants on Wednesday, five days after Robert Quinn was traded to the Miami Dolphins. Mark Barron remains a potential cap casualty -- though the expectation now is that he will stay -- and Connor Barwin soon will be an unrestricted free agent.
The Rams believe they can acquire players who are better scheme fits -- even if they aren't necessarily better football players -- at a cheaper rate. Earlier this week, we looked at how the Rams could beef up their run defense. Now we'll explore ways they can improve their pass rushing.
The Rams generated the fourth-most sacks per passing attempt last season, but star defensive tackle Aaron Donald was responsible for an inordinate percentage of their pressures. With Quinn gone and Barwin potentially following, they need new edge rushers who can consistently get to the quarterback and take some of the load off the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Below we targeted some who could help, through free agency and in the draft.
Three fits in free agency
Muhammad Wilkerson: The 28-year-old defensive end stands as one of the best pass-rushers available, but character concerns follow him. Wilkerson was seemingly on the verge of stardom after a 12-sack season in 2015, which he parlayed into a five-year, $86 million contract. But the Jets released him last week after a recent dip in production and myriad disciplinary issues. He has generated only eight sacks in 28 games over the past two seasons, but has spent his entire NFL career in a 3-4 scheme. Acquiring Wilkerson could prompt Michael Brockers to move back to nose tackle, giving the Rams a menacing defensive line.
Trent Murphy: Murphy had a breakout year with the Washington Redskins in 2016, generating a career-high nine sacks and, according to Pro Football Focus, 55 total pressures. But the 27-year-old outside linebacker sat out the entirety of the 2017 season, first because of a suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, and then because of a torn ACL. Now he is a free agent. His defensive coordinator with the Redskins from 2015 to 2016: Joe Barry, who now coaches Rams linebackers and serves as an assistant head coach.
Dominique Easley: Like Murphy, Easley has familiarity with the Rams' coaching staff but also a troubling history of knee injuries. The Rams benefitted from Easley's abilities as a pass-rusher when they signed the former first-round pick in May 2016, shortly after he was released by the New England Patriots, and watched him emerge as a valuable rotation player on their defensive line. They were counting on Easley to be their 5-technique in 2017, but then he tore an ACL early in training camp -- for the third time in seven years. Perhaps the Rams take a flier on him again for 2018. The rest of the edge-rushing market looks dry.
Three fits in the draft
Harold Landry: The Boston College defensive end broke out as a junior in 2016, generating 16.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss while on his way to first-team All-ACC recognition. He returned for his senior season, picked up five sacks in eight games, and will now generate serious buzz from NFL teams because of his explosiveness and his ability to whip around the edge. Landry -- listed at 6-foot-3, 252 pounds -- has good length and is deemed a fit in a 3-4.
Marcus Davenport: ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. had Davenport ranked 15th on his Big Board and identified him as "one of the best pure pass-rushers in this class." Davenport, out of UT San Antonio, is listed at 6-foot-6, 264 pounds and generated 15 sacks as a junior and senior. Kiper considers him a quick-twitch athlete who can play on his feet or with his hand in the dirt. He's a little raw, but he was impressive in the Senior Bowl and at the scouting combine.
Dorance Armstrong: The Kansas edge rusher could be a nice pickup in the third or fourth round. Armstrong's sack total dropped from 10 in 2016 to two in 2017, but a change in scheme contributed to that. He is supremely athletic and fluid, and he is deemed a good fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Listed at 6-foot-4, 246 pounds, Armstrong finished third among edge rushers in the 60-yard shuttle (11.82 seconds) and fourth in the three-cone drill (7.12).