Despite having a linebacker corps that ranked dead last according to certain corners of the internet, the Rams defense has a ton of talent. Their front line features human Kaiju Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, and the newly acquired A’Shawn Robinson.
The most underrated group on their defense is their tandem of young safeties headlined by free-agent to be John Johnson. The Rams young safeties are all players that are flexible enough to be utilized in both pass and run coverage which makes life easier for their unproven group of linebackers.
New defensive coordinator Brandon Staley plans to run a system that hinges on flexibility which is a stark contrast to his predecessor Wade Phillips. As awesome as Wade’s defenses were, his lack of adaptability ended his time in LA and Sean McVay wanted someone who could change the scheme as the game goes along.
Due to a lack of funds, the Rams are relying on young players all over their defense but that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Les Snead struck gold in 2017 by selecting safety John Johnson in the 4th round. He made an immediate impact as a rookie recording 75 combined tackles (56 solos), 11 deflections, and a pick. He appeared in all 16 games, starting in 11 of them.
His role only grew following that season and his second-year saw him record 118 tackles and four picks, one of which was in overtime in the NFC Championship. In their ill-fated Super Bowl trip, he also recorded 7 tackles. He became the cornerstone of the safety position. They attempted to pair him with Eric Weddle but they once again wound up with a young safety that would be advanced for a rookie. Enter Taylor Rapp, taken in the second round in 2019. Weddle struggled with injuries and Rapp stepped in demonstrating his athleticism. He did have issues in coverage but he still made an impact. While Johnson missed 10 games with his own injury, he and Rapp will help stabilize a secondary that was upended by the Jalen Ramsey trade which also saw Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib leave the team.
Going into this season the Rams are cap-strapped and thus had to turn towards the draft to acquire depth for Johnson who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. In round three they selected Terrell Burgess, and Jordan Fuller in the sixth round.
Burgess represents exactly what kind of player Staley wants. At Utah, he played in an unconventional defense which primarily utilized a 4-2-5 scheme. He is being coached to play both safety and corner and due to his size, he can line-up with tight ends. He’s also a skilled tackler, which, like Johnson, makes him a great asset in the run defense. Staley could use Johnson, Rapp, and Burgess on the field at the same time which gives the Rams one of the most dynamic groups of young safeties in the league.
Jordan Fuller is another versatile safety that is an adept tackler making him another valuable piece in a run defense that needs all the help it can get. He lacks the speed to be a starting safety but he can definitely be a key rotational guy when they need him.
Should Burgess truly emerge as a rookie he might end up having to start in 2021 if they can’t retain John Johnson due to a decrease in the salary cap, and Jalen Ramsey looking to get a market-setting deal.
This is a season all about transition for the Rams where they have a ton of pieces to make another title run but are also auditioning younger guys to fill in just in case they have to make tough choices. For now, the Rams young safeties give the defense a lot of reliable options while they sort out the linebacker position.