LOS ANGELES -- Wade Phillips has taken over nine different defenses as a coordinator or head coach, and nearly every single one of them improved significantly in the first year. He has served a combined 34 seasons in those roles. In 18 of those seasons, his defense finished in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed. In the past six years, three of his defenses have finished in the top five.
Will his Los Angeles Rams be next?
"I have a good feeling about this team," Phillips, the Rams' defensive coordinator, said last week when asked if his latest defense had the makings of a top-five unit. "Again, we’re only in shorts and we haven’t done anything live gamewise, which we’ll get to. I feel good with where we are right now. Comparatively to the teams that I’ve gone to in the first year, I think they’re right on par with those teams. And a lot of those teams did well.”
The Rams boast a devastating front seven, led by Aaron Donald, the game's best 3-technique lineman by a wide margin. Michael Brockers is a solid, underrated defensive tackle who lines up next to him. Veterans Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin, with a combined 104½ career sacks, are outside linebackers who will spend a significant portion of their time rushing the quarterback. Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron are two athletic, ball-hawking inside linebackers who should give Phillips a lot of flexibility.
The question is the secondary, though Phillips believes that department is "stronger than people think. I think they'll show that."
Trumaine Johnson will return as the primary corner, and on the other side the starter will probably be Kayvon Webster, who was previously buried on the depth chart on Phillips-led Broncos defenses behind elite cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. Lamarcus Joyner will be making a transition to free safety, and Maurice Alexander will return to his more comfortable role at strong safety. And outside of that the Rams have some flexibility, having added a solid slot corner in Nickell Robey-Coleman through free agency and a talented free safety in John Johnson through the draft.
Defense was a staple for the Rams under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is now with the Browns. Last year's numbers -- 16th in rushing yards allowed, 10th in passing yards allowed, 23rd in points allowed -- don't necessarily support that. But the Rams' defense simply ran out of gas down the stretch in 2016, ultimately crippled by an offense that finished 32nd in the NFL in yards and 25th in time of possession.
Football Outsiders' latest projections had the Rams finishing with the NFL's second-best defense in 2017, behind only the division rival Seahawks.
Phillips will simply tell you they're off to a good start.
"I couldn’t be more pleased with the guys’ attitude, No. 1, and also the ability we have," he said as the Rams were finishing their offseason program. "I think we have a lot of talented players. They’re working hard to get better, and I think we will show that in the fall when we start playing, start practicing together. We don’t make many mistakes, and they’re real aggressive and they play well as a team."