St. Louis Post-Dispatch Rams reporter Jim Thomas shared an interesting nugget in regards to the Rams’ defense on Tuesday, writing that “even though plans call for Lamarcus Joyner to be the team’s nickelback, the second-round draft pick has been getting a lot of work at safety so far during the OTAs open to the media.” While Joyner was expected to be a significant contributor to the Rams’ defensive backfield, the prevailing belief was that his 5-foot-8, 184-pound stature would prevent him from being a legitimate safety at the NFL level, so this should be an interesting development to follow as the offseason moves along.
Former undrafted free agent Rodney McLeod served as the Rams’ starting free safety in 2013, and he’s the player who Joyner would have to overtake to earn a starting role. While McLeod made strides during the course of the season, he wasn’t really an impact player, and his lack of elite size or range caused trouble at times. Joyner is even smaller than the 5-foot-10, 195-pound McLeod, but he was extremely disciplined in coverage and pursuit at Florida State and could potentially be an upgrade at the position.
Though it’s highly doubtful that Joyner will see the majority of his time at free safety, we could see a situation similar to what the Rams did last year. McLeod was the starting free safety in the base defense. After Cortland Finnegan was shut down for the year, though, the Rams lacked a proven third corner, so they would move McLeod to the slot in nickel situations, with either Matt Giordano or Darian Stewart assuming his spot at safety. If Joyner ends up winning a starting safety job, it’s conceivable that he could play there in the base 4-3, then move to the nickelback slot when necessary, with McLeod or another safety coming in as the additional defensive back.
A player very similar to Joyner who saw success in this type of role as a rookie was Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. The (allegedly) 5-foot-9, 186-pounder saw some action as a safety in Arizona’s base formation, adding up to 28 percent of his 2013 snaps. Whenever the Cardinals moved into a scheme with extra DBs, however, Mathieu moved to a corner position, usually the slot. Despite his lack of size, Mathieu had a great rookie year, registering 68 tackles and two interceptions over 13 games while being tied for third among Pro Football Focus’s most highly-ranked cornerbacks.
If Joyner could deliver the type of impact to the Rams that Mathieu delivered to Arizona a year ago, it would be a huge boost to their defense. Unless another safety makes a huge impression during training camp, McLeod will still play a big role, whether he’s in the base starting lineup or not. But if Joyner shows that he is capable at the free safety spot, he should definitely be given the chance to push McLeod for some time.