Rams' defense remains under construction

With the departure of Ndamukong Suh seemingly inevitable, the Rams must find help along the defensive line and also at linebacker. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- By this time last year, the Los Angeles Rams had built a star-studded defense, were proclaimed the winners of the offseason and still were a week away from signing All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Now, with the peak of free agency over -- and the draft five weeks away -- the Rams remain in the building process, which includes replenishing a defense that produced satisfactory results but did not consistently excel throughout a 13-3 season until a playoff run to Super Bowl LIII.

Led by two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, key playmakers remain in place; and two key additions have been made.

Outside linebacker Dante Fowler signed a one-year "prove it" deal worth $12 million after he demonstrated a knack for rushing the passer and creating game-changing plays in 11 contests last season, including the playoffs. The Rams also signed veteran safety Eric Weddle to a two-year deal worth $12.28 million after he was released by the Baltimore Ravens. Weddle replaces Lamarcus Joyner, who played on the franchise tag last season but went on to sign a long-term deal with the Oakland Raiders in free agency.

On Tuesday evening, the Rams signed veteran linebacker Clay Matthews to a two-year deal. Matthews, a Southern California native, spent 10 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, where he starred as an edge rusher and collected 83.5 sacks.

But questions remain about how to replace Suh, an unrestricted free agent, and veteran inside linebacker Mark Barron, whose release saved $6.33 million in the salary cap.

Free agency remains an option to find starting-caliber talent, though the Rams appear to be running thin on space under their salary cap. Prior to signing Matthews and quarterback Blake Bortles, who agreed to a one-year deal to back up Jared Goff, the Rams had $8.26 million remaining under their cap.

With seven picks, including the 31st selection in the first round, the draft will be used to supplement several positions. Internal candidates, both young and old, also provide some flexibility.

"You at least feel like you don't have to, you know, press too much knowing you have seven picks," Rams coach Sean McVay said last week after an introductory news conference for Weddle. "And then a lot of young guys are players that we've invested with recently that you feel like are your core players to build around."

A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Suh attracted attention from several teams in free agency last March, but his free agency this offseason has been noticeably subdued. Regardless, Suh -- who had 4.5 sacks and four pass deflections last season -- is expected sign a lucrative contract outside of the Rams' means. "We're projecting that to be the case," Rams general manager Les Snead said.

Suh's departure will be felt, but it's unlikely to leave a gaping hole. Although Suh had dominant performances in the divisional round of the playoffs and the NFC Championship Game, he did not produce consistent results throughout the season playing alongside Donald on a unit that allowed a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry and ranked 19th in average yards allowed per game at 358.6.

Michael Brockers, a seven-year pro, produced only one sack in 16 starts last season. But he has experience playing tackle and end, and his versatility could prove key in roster construction.

"What his flexibility allows you to do is maybe pick the best player and not necessarily we have to have a nose tackle," Snead said. "But you can pick maybe the best 5-technique, it does give you some flexibility, and it's looking like that's what we're going to do there."

John Franklin-Myers proved himself as a playmaker in specific packages as a rookie and also could find himself playing a larger role in his second season. And the 2019 draft class is rich with talent, providing almost a given that a potential starter could be found with the 31st pick.

The Rams placed a second-round tender on linebacker Cory Littleton, who led the team with 90 tackles last season and also had three interceptions, including one returned 48 yards for a touchdown.

Barron's absence will be noticeable (he signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers), but Littleton solidified himself as a leader after he played four games last season without his veteran counterpart, as Barron nursed a nagging ankle injury.

The Rams must not only replace Barron, but find depth at the position with backups Ramik Wilson and Bryce Hager also unrestricted free agents.

"There's probably a little more work to do at that position through this process," Snead said.

Micah Kiser, who last year was selected in the fourth round of the draft from Virginia, has been penciled in as the starter. Kiser's experience last season was mostly limited to special teams.

Matthews' addition creates some flexibility. The 10-year veteran gained experience at inside linebacker during parts of the 2014 and 2015 seasons in Green Bay, but it's unlikely that he will be expected to fill the inside role in L.A.

Solving one of their most pressing needs in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, the Rams signed Fowler before he could test market. Fowler, who picked up a key pressure in the NFC Championship Game that spurred the Rams to an overtime win, is expected to excel with an offseason and training camp in Phillips' scheme after he was acquired at the trade deadline in October.

"Dante was a priority for us to try to get back for the 2019 season, at minimum," Snead said.

McVay offered his take.

"You see the traits, you see the explosiveness, you see the passion for the game with the way he practices," McVay said. "He's got a great demeanor about himself."

Weddle and John Johnson III, who intercepted a team-best four passes last season, could grow into a dynamic duo in a secondary that also features slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman and All-Pro cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, who performed well together in the weeks after Talib's return from injured reserve in December.

Weddle, a 12-year pro, emphatically stated in his introductory news conference that he still has an ability to make plays despite being 34 years old. After intercepting 10 passes in 2016 and 2017, Weddle did not pick off a pass last season and had only three deflections.

"I definitely think he helps the Rams now," Snead said. "But I do think when he does decide to move to the next chapter in life, all of our young players on defense and offense will be better."