Sunday August 7, 2022

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — At the Los Angeles Rams‘ Super Bowl parade in February, All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald stood at the podium to echo coach Sean McVay’s “run it back” chant.

“We built a superteam,” Donald said at the parade. “We’re gonna bring a superteam back! Why not run it back?”

And while the Rams made sure they kept their core group of players under contract for the foreseeable future by reworking Donald’s contract and signing quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp to contract extensions, the defense will look a bit different than in Super Bowl LVI.

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Los Angeles hoped it could bring back outside linebacker Von Miller, but it couldn’t compete with the six-year, $120 million contract he got from the Buffalo Bills. Instead of looking for another pass-rusher, the Rams looked to add quality in a different linebacker position with future Hall of Fame inside linebacker Bobby Wagner.

While Wagner and Miller are obviously not straight swaps in terms of position or skill set — Miller is a pass-rusher with 115.5 sacks, and Wagner is a tackling machine who has averaged 138.3 per season in his 10-year career, including a career-high 170 last season with the Seattle Seahawks — the Rams once again added a championship-winning veteran who will bring leadership to a roster that lost several key players to retirement or free agency since that Super Bowl victory.

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Rookie Ernest Jones played a big part at middle linebacker for the Rams en route to the championship, so it did seem like an odd fit for Wagner in Los Angeles. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said Wagner, who should start alongside Jones, is still “one of those guys that can play every single down.” Morris said the Rams are working on what adding Wagner means for the defense, but that “all those things will play themselves out as you get into the season and you start game planning.”

“He’s certainly a guy that can go out there all three downs and play every single snap of the season, and it wouldn’t shock me one bit if he was able to do that,” Morris said.

McVay said he noticed that Wagner seemed “really comfortable” during the spring install of the Rams’ defense, saying, “It’s still football at the end of the day, and he’s got such a seamless way of being able to build those relationships and he’s such a likable guy.”

“He’s really a pleasure to talk to, to communicate the defense to,” Morris said. “Tell him the whys, the whats, the wheres, the hows. And then to get some input from him also. He does a great job. He’s been in this league for a long time and has been a great presence on command and leadership, so I learn stuff from him every day as well. So I’m really excited about working with him.”

During minicamp, Kupp talked about how “daunting” the defense is, something he said will make him better because he goes up against the unit every day in practice. The defense has an elite player on every level: Donald, Wagner and cornerback Jalen Ramsey.

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“When you talk about who I believe are three guys that are either locked themselves as Hall of Famers or on track to do so,” Kupp said. “And that’s an incredible thing to have on each level of that defense and the leadership that they have. … It’s a daunting thing. I’m glad it’s just practice and then we get to go against it and practice against it, and it will make things a little bit easier for us.”

The Rams ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA last season — third against the pass and 10th against the run. There is little room for improvement. With Wagner, though, the best might be yet to come for the Los Angeles defense.

“When you’ve got that kind of talent all across the board on all levels,” Kupp added, “and you’ve got to include Flo [outside linebacker Leonard Floyd] in that mix and some of the other guys that have played a lot of football for us. It’s just really fun to be around. It’s really fun to get the grasp and the understanding on how we want to do things and how we move forward every single day. So that’s extremely fun to be around.”

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