St. Louis Rams: Five Best Position Battles Heading into OTAs

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Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

4. Cornerback

Candidates: Janoris Jenkins, E.J. Gaines, Trumaine Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner, Marcus Roberson

This is another spot where it will generally be more of a competition for playing time than a true battle, as the Rams will use their top three corners frequently, and the fourth cornerback will probably get decent playing time against pass-happy teams like the Arizona Cardinals. With that said, the Rams have five corners that are capable of holding their own as starters, and it should be interesting to see how the depth chart is assembled.

The guy who has the most to prove as he heads into the last year of his rookie contract is Jenkins. Despite being tied for the Rams’ all-time franchise lead in interceptions returned for touchdowns, Jenkins has been a liability in coverage more than a few times over his three years in the league. He seemed to particularly struggle in that area last year after coming back from a midseason knee injury, and it was quite clear that he wasn’t as adept in coverage as Johnson or Gaines.

Gaines was the Rams’ best cornerback in 2014 and looked to be the closest thing to a “shutdown” coverage corner that the Rams have had in a long while. However, the team has little incentive to be loyal to him as a sixth-rounder in last year’s draft, so it should be interesting to see if he’s given the edge over Johnson, especially after ending last season on a dark note, being carted off the field with a concussion in the home finale. Other than missing the early part of last season with an injury, Johnson really hasn’t done anything to deserve losing his starting spot, and he was quite productive last year, collecting three interceptions for 69 yards and a touchdown over just nine games.

In addition, Johnson provides the size to cover bigger, more physical receivers at 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds. The Rams may want to have him on the field for the sake of matchups, rather than playing two undersized corners in Jenkins and Gaines, which could force Gaines to the nickelback position if the Rams insist on starting Jenkins.

The guy who really complicates things in this situation is Lamarcus Joyner. The 5-foot-8, 184-pounder was selected in the second round of last year’s draft to help shore up the nickelback position, which had been an area of concern during 2013. Joyner struggled in coverage as a rookie and seemed to frequently be physically overmatched. He struggled with injuries on multiple occasions, and after the Rams got Jenkins, Gaines, and Johnson all healthy at the same time late in 2014, Joyner ended up being a healthy scratch for several games before re-emerging in the season finale as Gaines sat out with a concussion.

Joyner isn’t going to be thrown into the lineup purely because he’s a second-round pick, but one would have to think that he’s going to be given every opportunity to earn a spot as the Rams try to collect value on their major investment. He’s currently listed on the roster as a safety, but with the Rams already having substantial depth at that position, his best bet to get on the field from scrimmage in 2015 is probably by stealing playing time from one of the current top three corners.

One final guy who should not be slept on is Marcus Roberson, who was often projected as a first-rounder in last year’s draft but ended up going undrafted and battled to make the Rams’ team in training camp. When given opportunities from scrimmage in 2014, Roberson was more than solid and was arguably more reliable in coverage than either Jenkins or Joyner were, albeit in a much more limited role. He also showed his playmaking ability in the season finale at Seattle, running back an interception for 18 yards.

With the loyalty that the Rams show to their early-round picks (i.e. Jenkins, Johnson, and Joyner), Roberson is already up against the odds as a former undrafted free agent. Like Gaines, however, he proved in 2014 that he’s better than his draft status, so if he opens enough eyes during the offseason, don’t be surprised to see him take on an expanded role in 2015.

Next: 3. Strongside Linebacker