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 cornerbacks.
The St. Louis Rams will look to create stability at the cornerback position in 2014, following a 2013 season where there wasn’t a whole lot of it. Cortland Finnegan, who was the team’s number one corner going into last year, was released following a terrible season in which he sat out three weeks with what was described as a thigh injury, then came back and played three weeks as the Rams’ nickel corner before being placed on injured reserve with an eye injury that he had apparently been suffering from all season long. All the while, Finnegan regressed to the point where he was ranked as the second worst cornerback in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, so the Rams decided to let him go early from his five-year, $50 million-dollar deal.
This season, third-year corner Janoris Jenkins will step into the number one role and look to bounce back from a not-so-impressive sophomore season. While his coverage took a step back—he dropped from 73 to 61 tackles and went from 243 to 367 yards allowed after the catch from 2012 to 2013—the biggest area where he regressed was with his lack of playmaking. Jenkins had performed nearly at a Pro Bowl level as a rookie, running back four interceptions for 150 yards and three touchdowns while scoring another TD on a fumble recovery. But as a second-year player, Jenkins had just one interception for five yards on the year and scored no defensive touchdowns.
Jenkins will hope that the edginess that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams provides to the defense will give him more opportunities to make plays in 2014. While he’s certainly capable in coverage, Jenkins needs to create scoring opportunities for himself if he wants to be considered elite, because his lack of size at 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds simply doesn’t allow him to stack up as a cover corner with divisional opponents Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson.
A Ram who does have the size to compete with those two, however, is 6-foot-2, 208-pound corner Trumaine Johnson, and he’ll look to take a step forward as a starter after showing some impressive flashes during 2013. Johnson took over for Finnegan as a starter in Week 5 and went on to impress, leading Rams corners in tackles with 68 while picking up a team-high three interceptions. He did a solid job of shutting down opposing receivers, and when he did allow catches he was able to prevent them from picking up too many extra yards. If Jenkins can’t return to an elite level of play in 2014, it might be on Johnson to serve as the Rams’ top option at cornerback.
Beyond those two, things aren’t completely certain. The Rams only used Jenkins and Johnson at the cornerback position for most of the time after Finnegan went down, as safety Rodney McLeod filled the nickelback position. This year, the Rams moved up in the second round to select 5-foot-8, 184-pound defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, and the plan is for him to serve as the primary nickelback. Joyner has also gotten work at his college position of safety during OTAs, however, and it’s possible that he could make a push to beat out McLeod at the free safety position this year. If that ends up being the case, McLeod would probably come on the field as a safety in the nickel package, while Joyner would move over and cover the slot receiver.
Even if Joyner’s only responsibility ends up being the nickelback spot, there’s very little chance of him ever playing an outside corner position. Instead, the primary players competing to back up those positions will be 2013 fifth-rounder Brandon McGee and this year’s sixth-rounder, E.J. Gaines.
McGee seemed to develop slowly as a rookie, and though he dressed on gamedays and contributed on special teams, he was limited to 79 snaps from scrimmage for the season. Reports have been positive on him during offseason activities, though, and he’ll look to take a step forward and be a reliable option as a second-year player. If he can’t take that next step, his job may be at stake, as there’s plenty of cornerback competition in this year’s training camp.
Gaines will look to embarrass the league’s other 31 teams after he fell to the sixth round despite an esteemed college career. Though Gaines is slightly undersized at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, he showed plenty of ability to be a successful outside cover corner in college, limiting Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound star receiver, to four catches for eight yards in a late November matchup last year. If Gaines can avoid injuries that held him back during his senior season and during the lead up to the draft, he could be a major steal for the Rams.
Also pushing for roster spots will be Darren Woodard, who spent 2013 on the practice squad, former Florida State corner Greg Reid, and undrafted rookies Marcus Roberson and Jarrid Bryant.
Woodard, a 5-foot-11, 175-pounder from UTEP, had some impressive moments during last year’s preseason. The Rams obviously saw enough in him that they kept him on the practice squad for the majority of last season, although he’ll face a very tough battle to make the team while competing with much more recognizable names this year.
Reid, a 5-foot-8, 190-pounder who profiles best as a nickelback and possible return specialist, could be a very intriguing guy to keep your eyes on. He had a successful college career at FSU before being dismissed and ending up at Valdosta State, and those character complications along with a torn ACL he suffered last spring left him without an NFL job in his first year out of college. The Rams ended up signing him in late March, and though he was arrested shortly after for a probation violation and ended up spending some time in jail, they kept him around. With head coach Jeff Fisher’s history, having released disgruntled wide receiver Titus Young at the first sign of trouble last spring and cutting guard Rokevious Watkins after he showed up overweight for a second straight year to training camp, it’s clear that the Rams do not believe that Reid is a lost cause. If he can take advantage of his quickness and athleticism, Reid definitely could be a dark horse candidate to end up on the Rams’ 53-man roster.
Roberson and Bryant will both attempt to impress in their respective first NFL campaigns. Roberson was showing up in many first round mock drafts midway through his junior season at Florida, but after deciding to declare early for the draft he seemed to turn teams off with character concerns and lack of performance during workouts, which ultimately caused him to go undrafted. Despite that setback, he could make a strong push for a 53-man spot or a space on the practice squad during camp, particularly if McGee underperforms.
Bryant, a 6-foot-3, 185-pounder from South Dakota, fits the new model of the prototypical cornerback that has been brought about by the immense success of Sherman. Bryant, a former wide receiver at Arizona State, might be a guy who’s seen by the staff as an intriguing developmental project, although he’ll face a tough roster crunch with all the other accomplished cornerbacks on the roster.