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McVay confident in next players up on defense

The first wave of 2021 free agency saw the Rams trade one defensive starter, then lose three others and a key reserve to new teams as unrestricted free agents.

Filling the void created by the departures of defensive lineman Michael Brockers, safety John Johnson III, cornerback Troy Hill, edge Samson Ebukam and defensive lineman Morgan Fox won't be easy, but Rams head coach Sean McVay believes the team has the depth to sustain those losses.

"I don't think you would ever look at it (like a setback)," McVay said during a March 19 video conference. "You've always got to have contingency plans in place."

For Los Angeles, those plans will primarily focus on players acquired via free agency or the NFL Draft in previous years.

L.A. signed defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson to a two-year deal last offseason, effectively bringing him in as Brockers' replacement since Brockers appeared headed to Baltimore before Brockers wound up back in Los Angeles. With Brockers getting traded to Detroit last week, both Robinson and fourth-year defensive lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day are expected to take on bigger roles.

Though his debut was delayed due to landing on the reserve/non-football injury list prior to the start of the regular season, Robinson still posted 12 total tackles, one pass breakup and one blocked field goal in eight games last year. Meanwhile, Joseph-Day turned in 55 total tackles, four QB hits, three pass breakups and one forced fumble as a starter in all 16 games.

"(Robinson) had some situations and we're excited about the development for him," McVay said. "I think Sebastian Joseph-Day is a guy that continues to show why he is a special interior player and those are the guys that are going to be asked to step up."

At edge, the Rams welcomed back Leonard Floyd via a four-year deal as Ebukam signed a two-year deal with the 49ers. Third-year pro Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and second-year pro Terrell Lewis remain under contract for Los Angeles.

Regarding Floyd specifically, Rams general manager Les Snead last week said Floyd is a special athlete whose versatility makes him valuable. As Floyd developed into a disruptive presence at the line of scrimmage, Okoronkwo tallied 12 total tackles, one sack and one pass breakup in 10 games, while Lewis collected five total tackles and two sacks in eight games.

The Rams' defensive backfield offers several familiar faces for reinforcements.

They placed a first-round tender on cornerback Darious Williams, who led L.A.'s defense with four interceptions. McVay also singled out third-year pro David Long Jr. as one of the players who will be asked to step up with Hill gone. Long made seven tackles while playing in all 16 games, and gained experience working on the inside and outside in the secondary under former cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant.

At safety, the Rams will lean on 2019 second-round pick Taylor Rapp and second-year pros Jordan Fuller and Terrell Burgess with Johnson gone.

Rapp posted 44 total tackles, three pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble in nine games before sustaining a knee injury that placed him on injured reserve for the rest of the season, but has starting experience from his 2019 rookie season. Fuller tied for second on the defense in interceptions with three while starting all 12 games he appeared in. Burgess mainly contributed on special teams before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury in Week 7, but his versatility coming out of Utah makes him an intriguing piece to the secondary.

"You look at Darious Williams, he's done an outstanding job that you tender him as a one, which is what we felt like his worth was to us," McVay said. "You're going to ask some guys like David Long (Jr.) to really step up, when you lose a Troy Hill. You invest in the safety position the last couple of years with Taylor Rapp, Terrell Burgess, we saw what Jordan Fuller was able to do. Those are three guys that we're very excited about."

With a defense built around foundational pieces like cornerback Jalen Ramsey and defensive lineman Aaron Donald, the Rams can afford to let veteran players walk and ascend younger players into larger roles. McVay was appreciative of what the departing players provided Los Angeles' defense, but remains confident in the next players up.

"To say you're going to take a step back, there's too much work that goes into it," McVay said. "There's too many people I still have confidence in, while not minimizing the huge impact that those four players that you mentioned had on the success of our defense in particular last year," McVay said.

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