The Los Angeles Rams were a surprisingly strong fantasy football asset in 2020 during first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s impressive turnaround after a rough 2019 campaign. The effort was parlayed into Staley getting named the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, which opened the door for veteran defensive coach Raheem Morris to be hired by Sean McVay as Staley’s replacement. This will be the third time the pair has worked together in the NFL.
Morris has extensive history coaching defensive backs but also calling the overall shots. He was the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2009-11, and the Atlanta Falcons elevated him from defensive coordinator to the main man after firing Dan Quinn in 2020. Despite a promising start, the Morris-led Falcons proved irredeemable and finished 4-7.
The Rams utilized a base 3-4 alignment installed by Wade Phillips in 2017 that Staley kept in place throughout 2020. That said, LA ran so many nickel and dime packages that it hardly was in its true base defense.
Morris is a 4-3 guy and ran what is commonly referred to as a “big nickel” defense in Atlanta at times, which is when the nickel back is replaced with a safety. Some of it was by necessity due to injuries. This wrinkle allows defenses to cover tight ends in the slot with someone typically more athletic than a linebacker while also being larger in stature than a traditional nickel back. It also allows defenses to adjust to today’s RPO and pass-friendly game plans. LA may explore this route because of impending losses in free agency.
Morris has a reputation for being adept at balancing the relationship with his players and knowing when to push to get the most out of them. He also has vast experience in very different defensive philosophies. While with the Buccaneers under Jon Gruden, Morris was schooled in the Cover 2 look, whereas during his time under Quinn he was part of a defense that employed Cover 3 and single-high safety looks with far greater frequency.
It’s probably unfair to attempt to glean much of anything from the 2020 Falcons while he served five games as the DC and continued to have a say in the weekly plans after naming Jeff Ulbrich his successor, but it’s worthy noting in today’s pass-happy league, Morris has experience coaching wide receivers, too. Being able to see the field from both perspectives is an obviously handy tool to keep in one’s belt.
The Rams boast the top secondary in football, and Morris’ time can be focused on helping in other areas than his expertise … how much better can his guidance really make them?!
Expect Los Angeles to possibly blitz a little more than we saw under Staley. He ratcheted up the pressure 27.3 percent of the time, which rated 19th. The Falcons called a blitz with the 12th-highest frequency in 2020. With a secondary as talented as this one, bringing more pressure can work extremely well, but it will be more interesting to see if the Rams rely most on man coverage or zone defense in 2021.
The league’s best cornerback (Jalen Ramsey) and overall defensive player (Aaron Donald) come as a package deal for Morris, which immediately provides flexibility with the X’s and O’s. The core of the Rams’ 2020 unit returns intact.
Linebacker Leonard Floyd enjoyed a breakthrough season after being mostly a disappointment in Chicago. He’s entering his age-29 season and will look to cash in. He figures to be the key loss on defense, unless he feels the Rams’ outlook deserves a discount.
Cornerback Troy Hill will be 30 and is an adequate role player. He won’t break the bank, so his return would make some sense. The Rams may not be able to retain 26-year-old linebacker Samson Ebukam, and fellow 26-year-old safety John Johnson will look for more cash than LA currently can offer. In the likelihood Johnson defects, the Rams still have impressive 2020 rookie Jordan Fuller and soon-to-be third-year pro Taylor Rapp in the mix.
DE Michael Brockers could be a cap casualty if he won’t restructure, even though the team would eat almost half of his existing total cap hit in dead money.
Fantasy football takeaway
The 2020 Rams finished second in sacks with 53, or three off of tying for the lead. This unit recovered eight fumbles and picked off four passes. Four of the 22 takeaways went the other direction.
With the strengths of its defense poised to return, the Rams will be in a strong position for more success in the upcoming year. There are questions to be answered yet, particularly in relation to the 3-4 or 4-3 alignment. Consider most teams are in nickel or expanded coverage so regularly nowadays, we’re talking 25-33 percent of the snaps tend to come from a base alignment.
The reason this matters to any meaningful extent is the current roster composition is light for classic 4-3 linebacker personnel builds and is better designed for a 3-4 edge presence with more athletic ‘backers. It’s difficult to envision Morris coming in and breaking what has been quite successful, so the early view of this should be look for tweaks over wholesale changes.
That differentiation could be important for applying pressure without bringing extra rushers. Interestingly, the addition of quarterback Matthew Stafford could lend to this group being able to take more chances.
Unless the salary cap creates issues beyond what we foresee, there’s no reason to expect a massive deterioration in the LA fantasy football defense for 2021. They’ll rightfully be in the conversation for the top defense chosen in drafts.