Now that the NFL Combine has come and gone, fans of the Los Angeles Rams are unsure if the team is trending in the right direction. One thing fans can be sure of, is that L.A. will have to add a few linebackers to the roster for training camp. Incumbent Ernest Jones and Jake Hummel are the only second liners currently under contract.
The 2023 NFL Draft, while thin at the top of graded candidates, offers quite a number of late round players who profile as schematic fits to the Rams and have the ability to offer value right away on special teams. Possible conscripts with coverage skills, particularly in zone, have been highlighted. In this final installment, it’s time to look at the big hitter’s, the players who thrive on physical play in the middle. Pass coverage is still important with this group, but does take a backseat to tenacity and gap filling skills.
Installment #2 – Former safeties turned linebacker/new age hybrids
Jack Campbell, Iowa – 6’ 5” / 249 lbs. / 10 1/4”” hands / 31 7/8” arms @ NFL Combine
Consensus All-American, Butkus Award winner as top linebacker in the nation, and Campbell Trophy winner as the college football player with the best combination of academics, community service and on-field performance. Will turn 23 during rookie training camp. Had 305 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 15 passes defended, and five interceptions.
Looks like a throwback, Strong, physical player who is a good tackler, breaks down, drives through, and covers the ground to get stops from behind. Before the Combine I thought much of his success in flying to the ball was because of his reading keys, football instincts, and hustle, but he is actually quite athletic and has very good burst. Solid in zone coverages, gets good depth, follow’s the quarterbacks eyes, and has very good hand/eye coordination. In man, he doesn’t have the quick change of direction skills to mirror breaking receivers, particularly quicker running backs.
While Campbell does not have the high ceiling as other top linebacker prospects Drew Sanders and Trenton Simpson, he does have the highest floor of the candidates. What you see on his college film is what you get, and that’s a damn solid player. But should he be taken at #36, even #69? Even with his stellar showing at the NFL Combine, that’s a little rich. Has value in the middle of Round 3. Oh yeah, he has a ton of special teams experience.
Noah Sewell, Oregon – 6’ 1 1/2” / 246 lbs. / 10” hands / 31 5/8” arms @ NFL Combine
Comes out after his true junior season, will turn 21 in April. Was a linebacker/running back/quarterback in high school. Over his his 33 game college career, Sewell corralled 215 tackles, 20.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks, and 11 passes defended.
Has the size and play demeanor of a traditional “Mike” backer. Good play strength to hand fight and stack and shed or set a base in the gaps. Plays a strong downhill game and is a menace between the tackles. As athletic as he is for a big man, he might be limited to two downs as a pro. In space, he doesn’t appear fluid and gets pinned inside too often. He also overruns tackles. He seems to be ok in short zone areas and actually defended from the slot at times, but his read and react skills need improvement.
Sewell doesn’t fit well with the Rams. He projects best to a pressure-driven downhill defense where he can plug gaps and blitz the quarterback, not the Rams spatial read and react schemes. Certainly athletic enough to play special teams. A good, not great player at the late Round 3 area. Just not for L.A.
Ivan Pace, Cincinnati – 5’ 10 1/2” / 231 lbs. / 9 3/8” hands / 30 1/4” arms @ NFL Combine
Will turn 23 late into his rookie season. Spent his first two seasons at Miami, of Ohio, was voted MAC Defensive Player of the Year and sat out 2020 before transferring to Cincinnati. As a Bearcat and senior, Pace earned unanimous All-American status. Over his 36 game career, he tallied 281 tackles, 42 for loss, 21 sacks, eight passes defended, and four forced fumbles.
Tremendous contact balance, first step quickness and ability to bounce off blockers allows him to thrive inside, linemen cannot seem to latch on to him and he keeps fighting until he gets away. Low center of gravity and play strength. Played in a very aggressive, downhill scheme that fits his style of play. While he has good downhill burst and is constantly hunting the ball, he is not a sideline to sideline pursuer. Best between the hashes or hash to sideline. Good back pedal and hand/eye coordination for pass defense, just wasn’t tasked with a lot of it. Relentless in effort.
Who couldn’t use a player with his skillset. Physical, hot-motored, athletic and fast. If his size pushes him back to Round 5 or even Round 4, the Rams should grab him. A similar player I liked last year was Malcom Rodriguez and Pace profiles even better. He needs reps in coverage, but showed his stuff in the Senior Bowl. Was named Defensive MVP and recorded a top speed of 20.58 mph, fastest linebacker speed over the last last four years.
Aubrey Miller, Jackson State – 5’ 11” / 229 lbs. / 9” hands / 30 1/2” arms / 75” wingspan @ Senior Bowl
Spent three unassuming years at Missouri before transferring to play for Deion Sanders at Jackson State. At JSU, he moved to weakside linebacker and he flourished with the addition of more coverage to his run-stopping ability. Over his final two years, Miller racked up 226 tackles, 23.5 for loss, nine passes defended and six forced fumbles. He was the SWAC Defensive Player of the Year and named to two all-American teams.
Short, stocky frame with low center of gravity. Very good form tackler who wraps up well, plays behind his pads, and drives through runners. Flies to the ball and shows good ball skills. Tasked to simple coverages, he has the move skills to succeed and did very well in Senior Bowl workouts.
He is not Les Snead’s typical draftee, under his watch the Rams have not taken a linebacker shorter than six foot. Played in a scheme that called for a lot of run blitz and gap control. Has all the traits to be a good special teamer, athletic mover, pursues and moves to the ball well and doesn’t fall off of tackles. The big question is whether or not he can make the step up in competition and provide some value on defense. His intensity and physical play fit in Round 6.
Cam Jones, Indiana – 6’ 1” / 226 lbs. / 9 1/2” hands / 31 1/4” arms @ NFL Combine
Three-time captain, who came to Indiana as a safety. Had 3700 all-purpose yards in high school. Will turn 24 in October and won Big 10 accolades on the field and in the classroom. Had solid Senior Bowl workouts and played well in the game.
Nice mix of athletic and stellar physical play. Agile enough to scrape the line and navigate through traffic, but willing to do the dirty work by taking on linemen in the gap or blitzing. Good tackling form and pursuit behind the play. quick enough to get there and brings a load as a striker when he does. Played a lot of zone pass coverage and showed smooth backpedal and good depth. Was also tasked with man on drags and in the flats and shows good change of direction to mirror breaking receivers.
Sleeper prospect who missed the last seven games of 2022 and has long history on kick coverage and return units. Has room for more muscle on his frame. Has good ball skills with 11 passes defended, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and three recoveries. I like him in the late 5th round, but will likely be around later.
Bumper Pool, Arkansas – 6’ 2” / 232 lbs. / 10” hands / 32” arms / 77” wingspan @ nfldraftbuzz.com
Interested getting the SEC’s all-time leading tackler in Round 7? It’s the “other” linebacker at Arkansas and he’s a bit lost in the shade of teammate and possible Round 1 pick Drew Sanders. The solidly built Pool has been a tackling machine for the Razorback and over the last four years has averaged over 100 tackles per annum.
A football player, pure and simple. He processes and reacts quickly, is tough at the point of attack and is consistently solid as a tackler. He’s not at his best covering in space, looks a bit stiff, not natural and loose, but doesn’t have the long speed to turn and run on wheel routes. For his size, plays well in the pit and tackles well.
Not much draft love for a solid performer that has not missed time for injury and had All-American, All-SEC, and academic honor roll run. While being the SEC’s all-time tackler doesn’t automatically transfer to an NFL starting role, stats like that are not a matter of chance. At the very least, with his hair-on-fire play style, tackling form and football IQ, Pool should be a special teams demon. A good roster addition in Round 6.
The Rams have their run stopper in Ernest Jones. A linebacker with coverage skill is a necessity, particularly if the Rams decide to trade Jalen Ramsey, and let Taylor Rapp and/or Nick Scott leave in free agency. The remaining secondary is very inexperienced and unproven.
It doesn’t help that L.A.’s edge players are of the defensive end skillset, not coverage-type players. Leonard Floyd has been oft-injured, moves like a 30 year old and is being shopped around. Michael Hoecht, Keir Thomas, Brayden Thomas, Zach VanValkenberg, and to a lesser extent, Daniel Hardy are built to set the edge and rush the passer, not be downfield covering running backs and today’s tight ends.
The Rams don’t need to add another “Mike”, what they do need, is to grab a couple bargain-rate late round/undrafted linebackers with cover skills and special teams play.