How Rams' supporting cast for Aaron Donald looks, sounds different

Aaron Donald (99) and Michael Brockers played together on the Rams for seven seasons. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- An almost eerie quiet swept over the Los Angeles Rams defensive line while they stretched before a recent voluntary practice session.

The silence was broken when a player hollered, "Dang, I miss Brock, it's quiet as hell!" defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day recalled.

NFL roster turnover is inevitable, and the 2021 Rams defensive line is not immune. After he was selected 14th overall in 2012 and played nine seasons with the Rams, defensive lineman Michael Brockers was traded to the Detroit Lions in March in an effort to create salary cap space.

Brockers' departure means not only less noise, but a gaping hole along the front of the NFL's defending top-ranked defense and marks the end of a seven-year run playing alongside three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who often praised Brockers' efforts that helped but did not appear on the stat sheet.

"It's different for sure and definitely an adjustment," Joseph-Day said about the group's dynamic sans Brockers. "But in this business it's kind of what's expected."

The amount of turnover on the Rams' defense has been significant since the unit led the NFL last season, allowing an average of 18 points per game.

The Rams hired Raheem Morris as defensive coordinator to take over for Brandon Staley after he departed following one season to become the Chargers head coach. The Rams also lost their cornerbacks and linebackers coaches to promotions elsewhere, and saw starting cornerback Troy Hill, outside linebacker Samson Ebukam and safety John Johnson III depart in free agency.

Fifth-year pro Morgan Fox, a rotation player on the defensive line who had six sacks last season, also departed in free agency, signing a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers.

"We have the right kind of guys in this building to be able to pick up the slack or pick up exactly where those guys left off," said Joseph-Day, a sixth-round pick in 2018 who is entering his third season as starter. "I think that's going to be the story of what's going on here."

Donald, who attended a portion of the voluntary offseason workouts but was not made available to reporters, will now lead a group that includes Joseph-Day, A'Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines.

The Rams also added depth in the draft, selecting Bobby Brown III in the fourth round from Texas A&M and Earnest Brown IV in the fifth round from Northwestern.

"There's a lot for me to learn," said Bobby Brown, who was the first defensive lineman drafted by the Rams since Gaines was selected in the fourth round in 2019. "I don't think I've completely made the transition yet but also I would say it just shows me that I'm not a premier defensive lineman no more. I have to learn all over again and I have to be just as humble as I was pretty much my freshmen year again."

Gaines has played in 26 games the past two seasons and has recorded 31 tackles and two sacks.

Robinson reported to the offseason program in the best shape of his career after dedicating himself a new diet and workout regimen. Listed at 330 pounds last season, Robinson says his goal is to play this season between 300 and 305 pounds.

"I just wanted to be the best for these guys," said Robinson, a second-round pick by the Lions in 2016. "I'm not going to go out here and slack and let any of these guys down."

A sixth-year pro, Robinson was signed to a two-year, $17 million free-agent contract during the 2020 offseason to take over for Brockers, who at the time agreed to terms in free agency with the Baltimore Ravens but ultimately returned to Los Angeles. after the deal fell through.

Robinson spent the first half of last season sidelined due to unspecified health issues and played in eight games. Through organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, teammates noticed his readiness to step up.

"He's really locked in," Joseph-Day said. "I think a lot of guys are locked in especially with the departure of Brock. A lot of guys are locked in, a lot of guys are ready to step up and that's a huge, positive."

As for how quickly the group can come together, Robinson emphasized the importance of the offseason program, which wrapped up last week with a three-day mandatory minicamp that Donald did not attend (Rams coach Sean McVay indicated the two communicated and it was an excused absence) and Joseph-Day did not fully participate in.

"That's what OTAs is for, the foundation, you build the ground up," Robinson said. "... Everyone has been seeing how everyone needs to do this, how everything comes together and putting the puzzle pieces together."