The St. Louis Rams chose to bolster their defense with their 13th and 41st overall selections in the 2014 draft. With the selections of Aaron Donald and Lamarcus Joyner, the Rams are making an effort to have a top-10 defense—one to compete with the likes of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Both players are slated to make an immediate impact on Gregg Williams’ defense, but the unveiling of their defensive roles will be interesting to watch as the season pans out.
Donald’s role is easy to project, because the Rams already have depth on the defensive line with incumbents Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford. Neither Brockers nor Langford are particularly great pass rushers, which gives Donald a unique opportunity. With the Rams lacking an interior pass rusher, Donald can be both situational (on definite passing downs) and rotational (to give Brockers or Langford a break). Donald has a chance to utilize a skill set that is currently absent on the Ram defense. Both Brockers and Langford are big, run-stuffer types, whereas Donald will wreak havoc behind the line of scrimmage instead of plugging holes or stopping runners for short gains.
Predicting success for Donald isn’t difficult, as he seems to fit well into Gregg Williams’ defensive scheme. According to scouts, Donald is comparable to Jurrell Casey, a member of the 2013 Tennessee Titans defense that Gregg Williams took over. In the Williams defense, Casey had 10.5 sacks, while only combining for 5.5 sacks in the two years not under Gregg Williams. The St. Louis Rams have a better supporting cast on the defensive front than the Titans, which forecasts a potential rookie rampage out of Donald.
One of Donald’s potential downfalls is his frequently discussed short stature. Despite this disadvantage, Donald still out-performed almost all of the defensive tackles in the strength category. He also managed an impressive 35 bench press repetitions, which was only one fewer than the highest of all defensive tackles. Donald may be undersized, but his strength is not.
Although his strength is excellent, Donald’s greatest attributes are explosiveness and straight line speed. Donald, at 288 pounds, ran a 4.68 second 40 yard dash. Jadaveon Clowney, at 266 pounds, ran a 4.53 second 40 yard dash. With only a .15 second difference between the most athletic defensive end prospect in recent history and a defensive tackle who is 22 pounds heavier, Donald’s size should not be an issue.
Elite explosiveness will give Donald a great advantage when it comes to sacking the quarterback. However, sacks should not be the only factor in determining success—especially when evaluating defensive tackles. Donald’s presence in the middle of the defense might be reflected in the sack category of Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Effectiveness in the NFL for a defensive tackle isn’t necessarily reliant upon tackles for loss or sacks alone; disruption is key. Donald could have an extremely productive season without gaudy numbers, and making the lives of Brockers, Langford, Long and Quinn easier is just as effective.
Lamarcus Joyner does not have the luxury to be situational or rotational due to the Rams’ lack of depth in the secondary. Likely, Joyner will play a free safety or nickel/slot corner position with the versatility to play both positions. Joyner, even at 5’8” and 184 pounds, plays as if he’s Patrick Willis and has no fear of making a tackle. It’s no secret that Williams enjoys dialing up creative and exotic blitz packages for every position, which makes Joyner a prime candidate for a Gregg Williams defense.
Although Joyner does not run as fast as some cornerbacks, his pure aggressiveness makes up for any speed deficit. His pursuit skills and his above average football knowledge allow him to be productive and make up for his lack of elite speed. Ed Reed and Dashon Goldson are two prime examples of productive players who lack elite speed. Ed Reed ran a 4.57 40-yard dash and Dashon Goldson ran a 4.60—both still slower than Joyner’s 4.47. Both Reed and Goldson were not hindered by their lack of elite speed.
Gregg Williams’ love of blitzing may cause Joyner’s aggressiveness to kick into overdrive. In college, Joyner was too aggressive, occasionally over-pursuing the ball carrier. If Joyner can play assignment football and only be as aggressive as Williams wants him to be, the Joyner-Williams marriage will be long and happy.
At worst, both Aaron Donald and Lamarcus Joyner are poised to have productive seasons, with the potential for greatness. Scheming is one of Gregg Williams’ greatest attributes, which bodes well for the two rookies who fit Williams’ style of play almost precisely.
Drafting Aaron Donald and Lamarcus Joyner gives the Rams potential to improve their defense enough to compete in the tough NFC West. The addition of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator only adds to that potential. Rams fans should be excited to watch an impending powerhouse defense.