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Rams must brace for injury luck to even out after healthy 2016

IRVINE, Calif. -- Dominique Easley's 2016 season was a minor miracle. Four of his five prior seasons ended prematurely because of injury. In 2011 and '13 at the University of Florida, he tore ligaments in his knees. In 2014 and '15, he landed on injured reserve right around the middle of December. But there he was in 2016, playing in every single game for the Los Angeles Rams and providing the type of disruption that his former team, the New England Patriots, could only dream about.

Easley's 2017 season ended because of a torn ACL on Tuesday, four days into the Rams' training-camp schedule and more than a month before their games start counting.

The juxtaposition epitomizes a larger issue: The Rams were uncommonly healthy throughout an otherwise disheartening 2016 season, and they might not be again.

Stuff like this usually regresses to the mean.

"There's a mean and an average for a reason, and it's probably hard to beat the odds," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "Now I think with the technology we have, and the science we have, there's an element where you might prevent some soft tissue-type injuries, stay ahead of that curve. But your injuries that are more traumatic -- a tear of an ACL, dislocated shoulder, torn labrum -- those are hard to guard against."

The Rams didn't have much of that last season; a season that nonetheless finished with a 4-12 record. Football Outsiders uses a statistic called Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) that seeks to quantify how much teams were affected by injuries, with affected players divided into two principles: (1) injuries to starters, injury replacements and important situational reserves; (2) injured players who take the field and are thus playing with reduced ability.

The Rams finished first in the NFL last season with an AGL of 29.0, which means they were the team that was the least affected by injuries. (The Chargers, meanwhile, ranked 31st with an AGL of 127.8.) In 2015, the Rams had an AGL of 80.3 and ranked 24th, further demonstrating how something like this can fluctuate.

There are anomalies, such as the Giants being the team most affected by injuries for three straight years from 2013 to '15. But it's largely based on luck, the type that tends to even itself out over time. Teams that lose an inordinate number of significant players to injury one year can typically expect better health the next, and vice versa. There were times last season when Snead marveled at the relative amount of health on his roster to head athletic trainer Reggie Scott, only to wonder when the pendulum might swing in the other direction.

"I don’t know if you really go into any year going, 'We need to prepare for injuries,'" Snead said. "But you do go into the year preparing to be the most complete team as possible from head to toe, and that goes into the contributors, the people that are not starting, so that if they're called upon, they're ready."

The Rams seem a little vulnerable in the spots where they have been struck by injury.

Lance Dunbar, signed to be a change-of-pace running back for Todd Gurley, has been slow to recover from a lingering knee injury and there is no timetable for his return. Behind him are Malcolm Brown (with 22 carries in two NFL seasons), Aaron Green (on the practice squad for most of his rookie year) and Justin Davis (an undrafted free agent this spring).

With Easley out and Aaron Donald still holding out, most of the first-team snaps alongside Michael Brockers on the defensive line will go to Ethan Westbrooks (two starts in three seasons), Louis Trinca-Pasat (on injured reserve last season) and Tanzel Smart (a sixth-round pick this past April).

Snead said this time of year is "the most difficult" to acquire help from the outside. Teams will cut their rosters from a maximum of 90 to 53 on Sept. 2, which means that as many as 1,184 players will be available. Still, the best 1,696 will remain on teams. And among those who are cut, very few figure to be scheme fits. The Rams, with roughly $6 million in salary-cap space, might ultimately prefer to fill injury voids internally.

Defensive line used to be the Rams' deepest position. But they've cut into that depth, largely because they only need three down linemen for Wade Phillips' 3-4 system. The Rams focused instead on addressing their depth at linebacker during the offseason. And now Snead prefers to look at his defensive-line depth as a combination of defensive linemen and outside linebackers, seeing it as more of a five-man front than a three-man front.

"I think that helps the math," Snead said. "But I can tell you, I do think from just an urgency, tenacity, disruptive factor, it'll be hard to replicate Dominique Easley."