The last day of workouts will feature the backend of the defense. And while they won’t break this group up in Indy, we will here at Ramsherd. There are some obvious team needs in the defensive backfield that will make this group a must-study.
Let’s dive in.
NEED LEVEL – MEDIUM
The Rams began the 2013 campaign with what I’m certain must have been high hopes for the cornerbacks group. Led by Cortland Finnegan and 2nd-year men Janoris Jenkins and Tru Johnson, the Rams looked to have one of the better up-and-coming groups in the NFC. But, somewhere between age, injuries, and a questionable defensive design by recently-fired defensive coordinator Tim Walton, the cornerback group appeared to take a big step back this season.
Questions loom large entering the off-season on what the Rams plan to do with the now 30-year old Cortland Finnegan. There is some notion that he could be a cap-casualty just two years after signing a 5-year, $50 million ($27 million guaranteed) deal. Nick Wagoner, who covers the Rams for ESPN, passed on word from Jeff Fisher that seems to counter that notion.
Fisher said expectation is to have CB Finnegan back for offseason program. Didn’t address possible restructure. Have to think its in play.
— Nick Wagoner (@nwagoner) February 21, 2014
Whether or not Finnegan is back, there are some reservations about whether a duo of Jenkins and Johnson would be enough to get the job done.
WHO TO WATCH FOR AT THE COMBINE-
This draft is anything but short on talent at corner. Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard is arguably the best cover corner in the draft. However, the Jim Thorpe Award Winner for the nation’s best defensive back will have to answer the bell as some of his detractors question whether he has the athleticism and speed to be a number 1 corner in the league.
Sure to join Dennard as a Day 1 pick will be Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert. Also impressive are TCU’s Jason Verrett, Florida’s Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller.
Perhaps the best workout will be had by Ohio State’s Bradley Roby. Another one to watch is Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner. Joyner is tough and versatile. A team may fall in love with his ability at strong safety, a position he played in 2011. Joyner was a leader in the Florida State secondary that led all of FBS with 25 interceptions. Finally, I’d be remiss not to include the local flavor of this group, Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir.
The Rams’ interest may change some depending on what they do with Finnegan. The corner situation from the outside looks promising, but last year’s less-than-stellar play is nothing to ignore. The Rams faced the 6th least amount of passing attempts last season but somehow managed to finish 19th in passing defense.
According to Pro Football Focus, Finnegan in his brief time last year allowed 78% of balls to be completed on him, which was the 5th-worst rate in the league. Jenkins was better but still below average, surrendering a completion percentage of 64.4%. Jenkins also allowed 7 touchdowns last year, which tied for 3rd worst in the league. PFF rated the Rams corners as the 59th (Jenkins) 71st (Johnson) and 109th (Finnegan) out of 110 in the league. This is fairly alarming considering the division was won by two teams that finished 31st (San Francisco) and 32nd (Seattle) in passing attempts.
Behind this trio are Quinton Pointer and rookie Brandon McGee. Neither one has proven to be much more than serviceable special teams contributors. McGee was greatly exposed during the Bears game last year.
When the Rams made the move to bring in Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator, Darqueze Dennard was a name that I thought would be a perfect for this system. Dennard would be one of the more aggressive defensive cornerbacks in college for one of the more aggressive defensive coordinators in the NFL. Like Williams, Michigan State’s defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi, is known for his aggressive blitzing style and for putting his corners on an island. Dennard excelled there and has turned into a star. Of Dennard, Narduzzi says he is the best corner he’s ever come across.
One concerning factor for those in the Dennard camp is the current regime’s preference for plus athletes (sometimes over better technicians) at the position. Perhaps, it is the belief that secondary coach Chuck Cecil will be able to coach up plus athletes. If that were the case, then Ohio State’s Bradley Roby would be at the top of the Rams board and Mizzou’s E.J. Gaines and Florida’s Jaylen Watkins aren’t too far behind.
Another favorite amongst this profile is Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The converted wide receiver has room for growth, but Jean-Baptiste has great size and ball skills that who could flourish into a unique commodity at the position. Remember, Richard Sherman was once a tall wide receiver who was asked to convert.
NEED LEVEL – MEDIUM-HIGH
A lot of talk this off-season is centered around the safety position. I’m probably in the minority here, but I thought Rodney McLeod played well last year. I would not argue with anyone that would suggest the Rams can do better than “well”. But it’s part of the reason I didn’t place this need as “high”. McLeod played well enough to take the position from expected 2013 starter Darian Stewart, and prevented the Rams from re-signing 2012 starter, Quintin Mikell.
Next to McLeod, 2013 3rd-round pick T.J. McDonald seems to be poised to be one of the starters moving forward. The group is rounded out by free-agent rookie Cody Davis, and veteran Matt Giordano, who were mainly special teams contributors last year.
WHO TO WATCH FOR AT THE COMBINE
Early front-runners for mock drafter choices for the Rams include Alabama’s HaHa Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. These two seem to be locked in as 1 and 2 off the board at free safety. While Northern Illinois’s Jimmie Ward and Washington State’s Deone Bucannon look to be holding down the strong safety top spots. USC’s converted linebacker, Dion Bailey should attract the eyes of many. Stanford’s Ed Reynolds and Florida State’s Terrence Brooks round out the top 5 at FS.
We’ve spent most of the draft season thus far seeing Clinton-Dix and Pryor tied to the Rams at pick #13. We will probably see this continue all the way up until May. Both are very good safety prospects.
After these two prospects, there are questions on whether the rest of the class at both safety spots will be ready to go on day 1. Guys like LSU’s Craig Loston and Washington State’s Deone Buccannon are fringe starters who could maybe start at some point in their first year.
Like offensive line, we’ll know a little more about the Rams’ plan after free agency.