As we continue to gear up for free agency and the draft here in our small corner of cover32, we’ll continue to evaluate the fringe guys and their potential to evolve into impact players should they survive the offseason. The Rams will have to make a decision at strong side linebacker at some point, as the two players with the most experience are both headed to free agency. Both other linebacker spots seem to be set, but there is an interesting outside prospect lying among the Rams’ defensive depth.
The Rams enjoyed a stellar season from linebacker Alec Ogletree, who came in as a rookie and more-than-delivered on the expected production of a late first round pick. The Georgia product led the team in total tackles with 155 (according to the coaches’ statistics) and also added six forced fumbles. In the middle, James Laurinaitis put in yet another solid season (if not a relatively quiet one) to the tune of 144 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. Both linebackers, however, received a negative overall grade according to Pro Football Focus’ system, largely as a result of inconsistent play against opposing teams’ running games. Regardless, both figure to have years ahead of them wearing blue and gold.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Will Witherspoon both manned the strong side of the defense and are headed into free agency. Dunbar was the go-to at the position for the majority of the season, but played less than half the snaps of Ogletree and Laurinaitis in 2013 and also received the lowest grade among the three at -9.5. Witherspoon saw most of his action in weeks 1-6, but was a relative non-factor. It’s unclear if the Rams will re-sign one or both, but Dunbar would be the more obvious choice to return. With the Rams’ cap situation as tight as it is, though, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if neither is brought back.
That leaves Ray Ray Armstrong. The rookie out of Faulkner College by way of Miami will likely get a shot at starting when training camp comes around. Armstrong is a classic case of overcoming adversity to reach the highest level, and became a solid contributor on special teams in his first professional season. The fact that Armstrong even made an NFL roster is surprising enough, but the fact that he led the team in special teams tackles with 12 on the season is undoubtedly an accomplishment. It’s not a jaw-dropping statistic by any means, but Armstrong’s road to the NFL and the fact that he’s stuck around is enough to warrant a conversation about his future.
Armstrong worked his way into the University of Miami lineup as a sophomore, and despite starting just three games that year, snagged three interceptions and registered 79 tackles. What looked like a clear path to the NFL took a major blow the next year, however, as Armstrong was suspended for five games for being dishonest during an internal investigation, and was subsequently booted from the team after the season. Armstrong then enrolled at Faulkner College in Alabama and appeared set to continue his collegiate playing career, but was declared ineligible prior to the season. Faulkner College is an NAIA school, and their rules bar anyone who has been banned from a sport at any four-year institution. Armstrong would still submit his name to the NFL draft, but would get passed over in each of it’s seven rounds.
The Rams stepped in and signed Armstrong to a free agent deal, ultimately changing his position from safety to outside linebacker. In an interview last spring, Armstrong claimed that his role as a special teams assistant at Faulkner gave him an advantage over his competitors in playing an effective role in the unit. As previously mentioned, his team-leading 12 special teams tackles seem to prove that claim.
It’s unclear whether Armstrong can step in and start at strong side linebacker in 2014, and it makes sense that he’ll have some competition for the job through either free agency or the draft. He played only 21 defensive snaps in his rookie season, 17 of which came against San Francisco in Week 4. For what it’s worth, he graded positively at 0.2 for his efforts, depite the 24-point blowout. However, Armstrong’s apparent willingness to give his all on special teams and the fact that he’s clung to a roster spot and thrived despite his collegiate misfortune speak volumes about his character and make him an interesting prospect moving forward.
How will the Rams rookies do in the second year? We took a look ahead.