Even if not in Round 1, Rams know they need to find pass rushers in draft

The choice, at least in terms of need, is obvious.

Even before future Hall of Fame defensive lineman Aaron Donald announced his retirement, the Rams required additional pass rushers.

Tackle Kobie Turner and outside linebacker Byron Young showed great promise last season as rookies. To contend for a Super Bowl, however, the Rams almost certainly require more elite players to pressure quarterbacks.

So with the Rams holding the No. 19 pick in the NFL draft on Thursday, will general manager Les Snead select a defensive lineman that can play immediately?

“It would definitely be a net positive for the Rams,” Snead said.

That, of course, does not mean Snead will go that direction in the first round as he oversees his 13th draft, and his eighth with coach Sean McVay.

The Rams have a first-round pick for the first time since Snead traded up a record 14 spots to select quarterback Jared Goff No. 1 in 2016.

Whether Snead keeps the pick, trades up or moves back to acquire more picks remains to be seen.

“Staying pat is one that you control, but you definitely do not control who falls,” Snead said. “If you’re going to move up, that’s a proactive attempt to strike from a distance per se, maybe get an explosive play in the football world, and we’ll see what happens.”

Unlike most of the last seven years, the concrete possibility of picking in the first round gave Snead, McVay and Rams scouts impetus to evaluate elite prospects they have a realistic chance to select on the first night of the draft.

“It’s really probably spending more intimate, more intentional time with a certain subset of players,” Snead said, adding, “The key with what we’re trying to do now is within the nuance of our scheme, our needs, who fits us and who really doesn’t.

“Sometimes the hard part about the first round is who not to pick, not necessarily who to pick, and actually also who’s available when you do pick.”

Byron Murphy of Texas, Jer’Zahn Newton of Illinois, Braden Fiske of Florida State, Ruke Orhorhoro of Clemson and Kris Jenkins of Michigan are among top interior-line prospects. Top edge defenders include Dallas Turner of Alabama, Jared Verse of Florida State, Laiatu Latu of UCLA, Chris Braswell of Alabama and Chop Robinson of Penn State.

Some of those players are expected to be available at No. 19.

The Rams, who won Super Bowl LVI to end the 2021-22 season, know the connection between pass rushing and championships.

“As you look back through history and you look at teams that have won Super Bowls … they’re all built differently,” said Tony Pastoors, the Rams’ vice president of football and business administration. “But they all have in common — they have a way to get after the quarterback one way or another.”

The Rams, however, could opt to select a player from another position group as they attempt to build on last season’s 10-7 finish and playoff appearance.

Rams receiver Puka Nacua, a fifth-round draft pick in 2023, is in the second year of a bargain four-year contract. Receiver Cooper Kupp, who carries a salary-cap number of $29.8 million this season and next, will turn 31 in June. Demarcus Robinson will play on a one-year contract, and Tutu Atwell is not expected to receive an extension after playing the final year of his rookie deal.

So the Rams might be in the hunt for a receiver in a draft class regarded as deep in play-makers.

“There are some wide receivers that we kind of put in this pod that they’re probably not getting to 19,” Snead said.

Offensive tackle is another position of concern.

The Rams tendered restricted free-agent Alaric Jackson. for $4.9 million this season, but they have not indicated if they regard Jackson as the long-term solution at left tackle. Right tackle Rob Havenstein is preparing for his 10th season. Swing tackle Joe Noteboom is in the final year of his contract.

The Rams drafted quarterback Stetson Bennett in the fourth round last season to be Matthew Stafford’s backup and possible successor. Bennett was placed on the non-football injury/illness list, however, before the opener and did not return.

The former Georgia star is participating in voluntary off-season workouts.

“You leave all options on the table,” McVay said when asked if having Stafford, Bennett and Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster precluded the Rams from drafting a quarterback.

Cornerback is another area of concern and need. The Rams signed free agents Darious Williams and Tre’Davious White, but Williams is 31 and the 29-year-old White is coming off Achilles surgery.

The draft will continue with the second and third rounds Friday and the last four rounds Saturday.

Last year, without a first-round pick, the Rams selected offensive lineman Steve Avila in the second round, Young and Turner in the third and Nacua in the fifth.

“Some of those guys got afforded opportunities that maybe others wouldn’t have in previous years,” said McVay, who has guided the Rams to five playoff appearances in seven years. “What a cool reminder to use all seven years as learning opportunities. And even though we do have a little bit more draft capital earlier on, there’s going to be some big-time players in this draft that contribute in later rounds.”

Snead referenced Donald, who he termed a “North Star” to guide the Rams as they evaluated which prospects might fit.

“I call it in honor of Aaron Donald when he said, ‘Hey, I’ll play beside anyone as long as they care,’” Snead said. “So we call it the ‘care factor.’

“It’s really a lot of the person’s intangibles and how much of those intangibles lead to, or let’s call it inspire, ignite, whatever, the player to do things behaviorally that show that they care about football.”

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