IRVINE, Calif. — A stalwart defensive line has been the Rams’ biggest strength in recent years, and they returned to Los Angeles last season with a starting quartet reminiscent of their hallowed Fearsome Foursome of the 1960s.
The Rams’ foundation is being severely tested after just a few workouts in their second season back home.
Defensive lineman Dominique Easley will miss the season with a torn knee ligament, the team learned Wednesday. His absence left the Rams with just one healthy projected starter for their fifth practice at UC Irvine.
All-Pro lineman Aaron Donald still hasn’t reported to camp while locked in contract negotiations with the club. Nose tackle Michael Brockers is healthy, but the Rams’ line is in upheaval during a time when it should be honing new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.
“It’s kind of sad,” Brockers said. “You see Dominique go down, and Aaron isn’t here, and you miss those guys’ character and the atmosphere they bring.”
Easley’s right knee buckled without contact while he chased a ball-carrier Tuesday, ending yet another season for the gifted but oft-injured lineman. Brockers said he couldn’t watch film of the play on which Easley was hurt.
“It’s tough,” Brockers said. “We work so hard. We push each other every day. You’re missing a guy like that, that drives you and drives competitiveness in you, brings it out of you. You hate to lose that.”
Easley also tore ligaments in both knees during college at Florida. He was the Patriots’ first-round pick in 2014, but his two seasons in New England both ended early due to injuries, including a knee problem in his rookie year.
After the Patriots let him go, Easley signed with the Rams last year and had a solid season with 35 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks. He was expected to step up in prominence this season as a starter.
“It’s really unfortunate because of what he meant to our team on the field and in the locker room,” coach Sean McVay said. “He has a great presence. Always had a good smile on his face, great disposition and demeanor. He’ll be missed, but we’ll put our arm around him and support him.”
Robert Quinn, a starting end last season, is playing a hybrid outside linebacker role in Phillips’ new defense. He is healthy, along with new outside linebacker Connor Barwin.
Los Angeles’ depth on the defensive line also took a hit with the offseason trade of William Hayes to Miami, but the Rams have options. Ethan Westbrooks is a capable veteran, while Louis Trinca-Pasat, rookie Tanzel Smart, Mike Purcell and Matt Longacre will have to step up.
McVay praised the development of Westbrooks and Trinca-Pasat, who got extra work Wednesday.
“It’s crazy what happened to (Easley),” said Smart, a sixth-round pick from Tulane. “I hope he has a full recovery, but I’m ready to do whatever. (The Rams) took a chance on me in the draft, and I’ve got to pay them back for believing in me.”
The Rams also headed into Thursday’s day off with no news about Donald, the three-time Pro Bowl selection and one of the NFL’s top interior linemen.
General manager Les Snead has said the Rams want to restructure Donald’s contract, but talks clearly have hit a snag. Donald’s current deal has two seasons remaining.
McVay couldn’t say when Donald’s absence would begin to have a serious effect on the star’s preparations for the season, the coach clearly wants his best player in camp.
“I’m hopeful to see Aaron Donald at any time,” McVay said.
Receiver Tavon Austin also sat out of Wednesday’s practice with a hamstring injury, but McVay said it isn’t severe.