The new Suh: Rams turn to rookie Greg Gaines

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Greg Gaines met with the Los Angeles Rams once. The interview at the Senior Bowl was the defensive tackle's one, and only, interview with the defending NFC champions before the NFL draft.

So it came as a shock to Gaines when his phone rang after the Rams traded up into the fourth round, to the 134th overall pick.

“It was just amazing,” said Gaines, who spent five seasons at the University of Washington. “I’m super excited.”

The Rams traded out of the first round of the draft. They addressed needs in their secondary, on the offensive line and at running back on Day 2. And they began Day 3 with a specific target in mind.

“The first priority was to try to figure out how we could get to a spot in the draft and draft Gaines to fill the nose-tackle-type spot in our base defense,” said general manager Les Snead, who traded up 28 spots to make the pick.

Gaines, 6-foot-1 and 312 pounds, could start immediately in place of All-Pro Ndamukong Suh, who produced mixed results last season as he played on a one-year, $14 million contract.

“What Greg was able to do at Washington and then when you see the production he had at the Senior Bowl, that really is what we felt really strongly about,” coach Sean McVay said. “I think some of the things we talked about -- how we get better specific to our scheme, but then also defensively in terms of playing the run a little bit better. I think that will be a key factor of being really stout inside and we feel like Greg will provide that.”

Throughout a 13-3 season that included a second consecutive division title, a conference championship and trip to Super Bowl LIII, it was apparent the Rams’ run defense needed improvement.

Despite a unit that boasted two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, seven-year veteran Michael Brockers and Suh, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, the Rams allowed a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry, and ranked 23rd in the league in average rushing yards allowed per game with 122.3.

Donald and Brockers will return in 2019. Suh, however, remains an unrestricted free agent and Snead said he was unlikely to return to L.A. due to budgetary constraints.

Suh undoubtedly leaves a sizable hole behind, one that could be daunting for a rookie to step into. However, the nine-year veteran never appeared to fully acclimate to playing nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme for the first time in his career. Suh had only four run stuffs last season, which tied for eighth on the Rams and tied for 261st in the NFL, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. (A run stuff is defined as when a defender tackles the ball carrier within a gain of two or fewer yards.)

Donald led the team with 16 run stuffs, followed by linebacker Cory Littleton with 10 and Brockers, who had nine.

Gaines is expected to play a significant role in stopping the run. “He’s going to get a chance to compete,” McVay said. “He is a guy that we identified that we feel like really will do a great job as a nose guard in our base package.”

Gaines described the role as his “sweet spot.”

“I like head-up nose,” he said. “Anywhere on the inside between the guards -- anywhere in there. From guard-to-guard, I’m good.”

Gaines played at La Habra High School in a suburb of Los Angeles before he became a three-year starter at Washington. He appeared in a Washington-record 54 games and finished with 9.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. As a senior he won the Morris Trophy, awarded to the Pac-12's top defensive lineman, voted on by opposing team players.

But contingency plans remain in place if the 24-year-old rookie is not ready to play immediately in the NFL.

Brockers has experience at tackle and end, though he said at the start of voluntary workouts last month that he would prefer to remain at end, a spot to which he has adjusted in Wade Phillips’ two seasons as defensive coordinator. Snead and McVay also have expressed confidence in the development of tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, who made the 53-man roster after his selection in the sixth round last year, though he was listed as inactive all season.

But after studying Gaines at the Senior Bowl, where he competed against offensive linemen Garrett Bradbury and Chris Lindstrom, both selected in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons, respectively, the Rams are confident they found a talent who can contribute sooner than later.

“You look at a physical, stout player,” McVay said. “He was an outstanding, productive player for Washington. But then when you get a chance to really watch the Senior Bowl, where he’s going against some of the best interior linemen in this draft, guys that we really thought highly of -- I think you got a sense for what a competitive player he is.”