Each weekday from now until Rams rookies report to training camp on July 21st, we’ll be profiling a Rams position group. Today we look at the safeties.
The St. Louis Rams will hope that they can have better luck at the safety position in 2014, following a 2013 season that saw the position cause significant problems with the Rams’ defense. While the group of Rodney McLeod, T.J. McDonald, Darian Stewart and Matt Giordano that roamed the team’s defensive backfield last year didn’t necessarily make a bunch of glaring mistakes, their general lack of productivity allowed opposing offenses to find easy ways to exploit the Rams’ defense. McLeod and McDonald are once again the projected starters, and the hope is that they will continue to develop in their respective second years as starters while also gaining the advantage of having Gregg Williams as their defensive coordinator.
McDonald, who had 53 total tackles and one interception over 10 games, made typical rookie mistakes last season, but there are still high hopes for his future. At 6-foot-2 and 217 pounds, he’s drawn plenty of acclaim for his physicality and has drawn some comparisons to the Seattle Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor. He’s a pure strong safety and probably isn’t going to be a huge playmaker, but once he reaches his potential he’s expected to be above-average in coverage while making offensive players who cross him seriously regret it. If McDonald can have a full, healthy season and continue to improve on what he showed last season, he could play a big part in improving the Rams’ defensive attack.
McLeod, meanwhile, may need to hold off some competition to hold onto his starting spot this season. As a second-year former undrafted free agent from Virginia, he unexpectedly won a starting spot in training camp when the incumbent Stewart went down. McLeod held onto that spot throughout the year and played a team-high 1083 snaps from scrimmage. While he definitely progressed during the course of the season, he had some subpar moments as well. He tended to give up long gains on plays where he got thrown at, and he had 16 missed tackles, tied for third-most among NFL safeties. Teams also seemed to expose his undersized 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame at times.
Based on how the team used rookie defensive back Lamarcus Joyner during OTAs, it’s possible that he could push for McLeod’s free safety position. The team has stated that their plan is for him to be the primary nickelback, but he still got reps at safety during practices and could see more time there during training camp. If the 5-foot-8, 184-pound second-rounder ends up winning a starting spot, he would likely only play safety in the 4-3 base package and shift out to the nickel corner spot when necessary, with McLeod taking over the safety spot. This was the arrangement that the Rams used with McLeod for much of last year, as he would play free safety in the 4-3 and then move to the nickel in sub packages, with Stewart or Giordano replacing him.
Cody Davis, an undrafted free agent in 2013, figures to provide depth at both safety spots while serving as a significant special teams contributor. The 6-foot-1, 206-pounder was promoted to the active roster from the practice squad in Week 5, and though he didn’t see action from scrimmage, he was solid as a special teamer. This year, he’ll look to take advantage of his physicality and secure a role as part of the rotation in the defensive backfield.
The Rams drafted two rookies, Mo Alexander and Christian Bryant, to add depth at the safety position this year, but the status of both of them is in question after they missed OTAs due to injury. Alexander, a fourth-rounder from Utah State, probably would have needed a year to get acclimated to the NFL anyway after transferring from junior college, sitting out a season of his college career due to injury, converting from linebacker to safety and playing against lesser competition in the WAC and then the Mountain West. But after missing out on the opportunity to get reps and learn the system firsthand, it’s possible that Alexander may not even be a part of the 46-man gameday roster this year. If he’s able to participate without restriction during camp, though, he could be a factor in the Rams’ special teams plans. Though raw, the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder has immense potential as a hitter, and he received comparisons to former Redskins safety Sean Taylor from Taylor’s former coach, Gregg Williams.
It would be a surprise if Bryant, the second of the Rams’ four seventh-rounders, didn’t spend this year on injured reserve as he continues to recover from a broken ankle that prematurely ended his college career at Ohio State. The 5-foot-9, 198-pounder missed all of OTAs and is not expected to be ready for the start of training camp, and it would be kind of unfair to ask him to get up to speed and compete to make the roster in such a short amount of time. The most likely scenario would involve Bryant starting camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list and then getting a year to become acquainted with the Rams’ system before coming back and pushing for a roster spot next season.
Depending on how involved Joyner is as a safety in the Rams’ defense, they could choose to keep either four or five safeties on the 53-man roster. If they end up keeping five, third-year veteran Matt Daniels could be in line to make the team again. Daniels has flashed quality skills during the preseason in the past two years, especially as a hitter, and he’s been a solid special teams contributor. Unfortunately, he’s ended both of his professional seasons on injured reserve, suffering a torn ACL as a rookie and then going down with a fractured ankle in Week 2 of last season. If Daniels can stay healthy, which is a big if considering his history, he has a chance to take a step forward and become a bigger contributor in 2014. His track record, however, may reduce his chances to make the roster if the Rams are concerned about his ability to hold up.
Avery Cunningham, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound undrafted rookie from Central Michigan, will come to camp and push for a spot as well. Though he begins camp as one of the most nondescript players on the Rams’ 90-man roster, he could definitely be a candidate for a 53-man roster spot, especially considering Bryant and Daniels’ health. A motivating factor for Cunningham should be that the Rams have given plenty of chances to undrafted safeties under Jeff Fisher, with McLeod, Daniels, Davis, and now-departed hybrid DB Quinton Pointer having made the team in the past two seasons.