NFC West: defense

A look at the current incarnation of the St. Louis Rams defense and specialists, where reinforcements may be needed and how the depth chart could look when the season begins.

Defensive ends (5): Chris Long, Robert Quinn, William Hayes, Eugene Sims, Gerald Rivers

Long and Quinn are the starters and the pass-rushers around whom the entire defense revolves. Hayes and Sims are valuable backups with the versatility to play inside and come in on running downs. All four will get plenty of playing time, and possibly even be on the field together at times. Rivers is a promising youngster who earned a spot with a strong camp, though he seems the most likely candidate to be inactive on game days, at least initially. The Rams are all set here as this is probably the strongest position on the team.

Defensive tackles (4): Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Jermelle Cudjo, Matt Conrath

Brockers and Langford handle starting duties and will get the bulk of the work, though the Rams do like to use a rotation along the defensive line. Cudjo is still coming back from a foot injury, but he played in the preseason finale and would be first off the bench on the inside. Conrath is healthy and added bulk in the offseason. His size and strength makes him a promising player for the future, but it remains to be seen where he'll contribute aside from special teams this season. Again, the Rams seem pleased with what they have at this position.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesMiddle linebacker James Laurinaitis will again run the Rams defense, and now will have help from rookie Alec Ogletree.
Linebackers (6): James Laurinaitis, Will Witherspoon, Alec Ogletree, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Daren Bates, Jonathan Stewart

Laurinaitis runs the defense from his middle linebacker spot, and he's got a running mate now in the rookie Ogletree. Those two will start and figure to stay on the field for all three downs. Witherspoon steps in for the suspended Jo-Lonn Dunbar and offers the Rams a sound, veteran presence on a unit that doesn't have much. Behind the starters, the Rams have three, count 'em three, undrafted rookies providing the depth. Armstrong has shown particular promise on the outside, while Stewart provides some backing for Laurinaitis. Bates projects as a core special-teams player, an area Armstrong also will contribute. The lack of experienced depth until Dunbar gets back won't be an issue so long as the Rams have good health the first quarter of the season. It still wouldn't be a shock if they made a tweak or two to this position before opening day.

Cornerbacks (5): Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Brandon McGee, Quinton Pointer

Finnegan and Jenkins return for a second run in the starting roles and Johnson again figures as the third corner in nickel situations on the outside, with Finnegan moving into the slot. McGee played well in camp before getting banged up late, slowing his progress a bit. He's the fourth corner. Pointer brings some versatility in that he can play safety in a pinch and contribute on special teams. Unless an obvious upgrade appears on the waiver wire, this is another spot that seems pretty secure.

Safeties (5): T.J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod, Darian Stewart, Matt Giordano, Matt Daniels

McDonald has one starting spot secured. The other one looks like it will be McLeod, at least for the time being as Stewart nurses a hamstring injury. McLeod has probably done enough to earn the job on a full-time basis, though. Stewart and Giordano give the Rams some much-needed experience for a young group, but both have had injury issues throughout camp and it's uncertain when they'll be available. Daniels closed the preseason with a flourish, helps on special teams and figures to contribute in a variety of ways. The uncertainty surrounding the health of Stewart and Giordano, combined with the inexperience of McDonald, McLeod and Daniels, could have the Rams looking for upgrades here as well.

Specialists (3): LS Jake McQuaide, P Johnny Hekker, K Greg Zuerlein

This young trio has been locked into its spots since the start of camp. The Rams hope this group performs well enough to hold the jobs down not only for this season but many in the future.

Drafting for defense: 49ers

October, 8, 2008
10/08/08
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

DraftRd.Overall49ers Pick
Pos.49ers Starter?Pro Bowls
2008129Kentwan BalmerDLNo0
2008375Reggie SmithCBNo0
2007111Patrick WillisLBYes1
2007397Ray McDonaldDLYes0
2006122Manny LawsonLBYes0
2004258Shawntae SpencerCBNo0
2003257Anthony AdamsDTNo0
2003389Andrew WilliamsDENo0
2002127Mike RumphCBNo0
2002369Saleem RasheedLBNo0

The premise: The 49ers' defense, like most in the NFC West, has struggled this season.

A closer look: The chart shows the last 10 defensive players San Francisco drafted in the first three rounds.

The facts: Patrick Willis and Ray McDonald are the only players among the 10 expected to start for the 49ers in Week 6. Lawson hasn't lost his starting spot, but he was having a hard time getting on the field even before a hamstring injury intervened. He is very good on special teams.

The future: Rookie first-round choice Kentwan Balmer is not making an immediate impact. The position he plays does not lend itself to getting noticed. Reggie Smith could get a longer look heading into next season. Willis might be the only star from this group.

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