THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — Aaron Donald makes a joke during a break in practice, and Ndamukong Suh chuckles. Pretty soon, the entire Los Angeles Rams' defensive line is cracking up.
This new defense is no laughing matter, though. Six months after the Rams assembled a remarkable collection of veteran talent, it's finally all out on the practice field together.
Michael Brockers, the other defensive lineman in the Rams' fearsome threesome up front, thinks the rest of the NFL should be wary.
"Just backing out of the huddle and looking at all the talent we have is kind of surreal," Brockers said. "I look back and I'm like, 'Bro, we can be so crazy on this field.' But it's on paper first, so we have to go out there and prove why we're so talented, why we're so great."
Donald, Suh and Brockers have been together in practice for the first time over the past week while the Rams prepare for their opener in Oakland on Monday night. Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are eager to get on the field after barely playing in the preseason to see if this defense can live up to its enormous potential.
The bulk of the defensive starters only got seven snaps together in the preseason. That's still more than the offense, which didn't play at all, and defensive coordinator Phillips doesn't sound overly concerned.
"I think they're going to be really good," Phillips said. "But it's (about) meshing together and playing the right way. I have a lot of confidence in them. ... We have a group that really likes football. Some teams or players I've been with, they played because they were good at it or whatever. But this group, they like football. They like playing football, and some of them even like practicing, which is a little different."
Donald is the biggest key to the Rams' aspirations, and the NFL's defensive player of the year is going full-speed in practice after being away from the team for several months in a contract holdout. He won't have any limit on his snaps in Oakland, coach Sean McVay confirmed Friday.
"We've been missing that little puzzle piece, the final piece, so it's been awesome," Brockers said. "He's been making some great jokes, and we're just happy to have him back. ... A.D. is a pro. He's been studying the playbook. He's been watching film. Literally, we plugged him in, and he knew everything he's supposed to do. We haven't had to slow down at all. We honestly picked up the tempo."
Donald missed the Rams' 2017 season opener after ending his holdout one day earlier. This year, he signed his new contract last Friday and reported to the Rams in time to get ample work before the games begin.
"You kind of know what to expect," Donald said of his second straight late arrival. "But you've got the opportunity to come back and basically get six practices under my belt before the first game, so I think that's going to be a big help for me, as far as getting adjusted out there."
Donald's partnership with Suh has been hotly anticipated ever since the Rams outmaneuvered several suitors last March to sign Suh to a one-year deal.
"He makes my job easier, you know?" Donald said. "When you've got guys out there like him and Brock next to you, you know the other guy is going to make plays, just like you make plays. You're just a little bit more comfortable."
Any talk about the potential success of this defense comes with a giant caveat in the middle.
While the defensive line and secondary are jam-packed with proven NFL talent, the Rams' linebackers are mostly unproven at an elite level. What's more, veteran inside linebacker Mark Barron seems increasingly unlikely to begin the season healthy after missing the first two days of practice this week with a flare-up of an Achilles tendon injury that has dogged him for months.
Untested Cory Littleton is taking over for traded middle linebacker Alec Ogletree, the Rams' leading tackler in four of the past five seasons. Samson Ebukam and Matt Longacre also are penciled into starting spots, and even defensive lineman Dominique Easley has taken practice reps as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
If Barron can't play against the Raiders, Los Angeles is likely to put Ramik Wilson into the starting lineup for his Rams debut after three seasons in Kansas City.
"He's a smart player," said Phillips, who played Wilson more extensively in the preseason than other probable regular-season contributors. "He's started before in the league, and he's played well when he's been in there. He knows what to do."