NFC West: Janoris Jenkins
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
In the interest of keeping Rams fans from re-living the nightmares of drafts gone by, we'll limit our look back to drafts where at least one player remains on the roster.
With that, we turn our attention to the 2012 class.
What's left: The first draft class of the Jeff Fisher/Les Snead era, this is the group that, for better or worse, is the foundation of what this regime is hoping to build. So far, the results have been mixed but the Rams have found some pieces that they believe will be long term starters and contributors. From the original group, only Watkins and Brown are no longer on the roster.
Brockers, Jenkins and Johnson remain as projected starters and the Rams seem to have plenty of confidence in their ability to get the job done. Zuerlein looks poised to hold down kicking duties for the long haul.
After a promising rookie season, Givens took a step back in 2013 but still offers potential as a deep threat. Richardson looked ready to become Steven Jackson's replacement as the starting back but injuries prevented that from happening and he tumbled down the depth chart. The jury remains out on Quick and Pead entering their third year but so far they've been disappointments.
Best pick: The Rams rolled the dice a bit when they traded back twice before taking Brockers at No. 14 but so far the pick looks like a good one. An ankle injury slowed Brockers in his first season but he played all 16 games and was instrumental in the team's improved run defense in the final half of the 2013 season. Although he still has work to do as a pass rusher, he posted five and a half sacks despite regular double teams. When the Rams drafted Brockers, they knew they were getting an unfinished product but he looks headed toward reaching that potential.
Worst pick: While Quick hasn't made the strides many hoped he would in his first two seasons, it was at least clear early on that he would take some time. Which makes Pead the choice here. When the team drafted him in the second round, the expectation was that he would be the change of pace for Jackson and potentially his long-term replacement. He fell behind right away, missing the offseason program because of college rules and hasn't been able to get out of his own way since. Richardson claimed the change of pace role for Jackson and then the starting job when Jackson departed. Pead has meanwhile struggled with fumbling issues when he has played and hasn't earned many opportunities. Now, he's been relegated to a special teams role and will likely find himself battling for a roster spot come training camp.
What could have been: Many will point to the Rams passing on Alshon Jeffery in favor of Quick and based on results so far, that's a fair argument. But Jeffery was never really under consideration by the Rams so let's go to a scenario that was in play. Before the draft, the Rams showed interest in linebackers Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks. Both were on the board for the Rams at No. 45 overall. But St. Louis wanted to recoup the fifth-round pick it traded for receiver Brandon Lloyd during the 2011 season. So the Rams made a deal with the Bears, moving down to No. 50 and getting their fifth-round choice in the process. Chicago took Jeffery with that No. 45 pick, Philadelphia selected Kendricks at No. 46 and Wagner went No. 47 to Seattle. Three picks later, the Rams took Pead and used the fifth-round choice on Watkins. Making matters worse, Tampa Bay's star linebacker LaVonte David was still on the board when the Rams picked Pead.
None of those three moves will do much to hurt the fortunes of the Rams' secondary in 2014, but they have left the team short on experience in the defensive backfield. At cornerback, Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins, each entering his third season, are the longest-tenured NFL players. Likewise at safety, where Matt Daniels and Rodney McLeod enter their third years.
Under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead, the Rams have not been afraid to roll with young players and, after staying out of the fray for free-agent defensive backs, it appears that's one area they will do so again in 2014.
According to Fisher, the team's lack of veteran help on the back end of the defense wasn't necessarily by choice but also doesn't have him concerned, either.
“It would have been nice [to add a veteran], but honestly that market got priced out of what we were looking for," Fisher said. "And again, we’ve got two young safeties coming into their second year as starters. Not disappointed in the improvement we saw out of Cody [Davis], got Daniels coming back, the potential to draft and there’s still going to be experienced safeties out there. Not disappointed.’’
There may still be some experienced safeties and even corners on the market, though those shelves have mostly been picked over at this point. It's going to be hard to find starting-caliber players anywhere but the draft at this point in the offseason. Which means the Rams' secondary could well bear a striking resemblance to its 2013 receiving corps, relying on players with no more than two years of experience to handle the bulk of the snaps.
The Rams haven't completely ignored the defensive backfield this offseason, rolling the dice on cornerback Greg Reid, an under-the-radar signing they hope can pay off big as a potential solution for the nickel role next to Jenkins and Johnson. Brandon McGee, a fifth-round pick in 2013, also has drawn positive reviews from Fisher and Snead and could be part of the mix.
It's probably safe to assume the Rams will add some help at cornerback at some point in the draft, though it remains to be seen how early. Reports over the weekend indicated Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert is scheduled to arrive in St. Louis this week for a visit. He's considered one of the top corners available in May's draft.
Either way, the Rams do appear quite confident in the ability of Jenkins and Johnson to take another step forward.
“I think the corners can always improve. I’m pleased what we got out of them last year," Fisher said. "Jenks had a couple issues with the ball, he got tangled up in the Seattle game on the Golden Tate touchdown and a couple others, but was productive week in, week out. Tru, on the other hand, didn’t give up a lot of plays, the balls were in front of him, thought he tackled well, it’s been good to see Tru in the building, he’s committed, he’s working hard this offseason. I think he’s really growing up and maturing, think you’re going to see a lot more improvement out of him.’’
Meanwhile, at safety, the Rams believe in T.J. McDonald at one starting spot but his running mate remains a spot up for debate. McLeod started every game last season and proved valuable if for no other reason than his versatility to play in the slot when needed. But the Rams are still in serious need of a ball-hawking, rangy safety to complement McDonald.
That's why one of the most consistently predictable mock draft selections found anywhere is the Rams taking Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and, to a lesser extent, Louisville's Calvin Pryor, with the No. 13 overall pick.
Armed with 12 picks in this year's draft, it's a safe bet the Rams will select at least one corner and one safety somewhere along the way. All that remains to be seen is whether those positions are enough of a priority for those picks to happen sooner than later.
In place: The top four cornerbacks on the roster all remain under the Rams' control for 2014, though the possibility for tweaks remains. Starters Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are set to enter their third year and will be back as will Brandon McGee, who is set to enter his second season.
Where the intrigue comes in is with veteran Cortland Finnegan. Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have publicly given Finnegan the vote of confidence in terms of his return, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be back under the same contract with his $10 million salary cap hit. The Rams technically don't have to do anything with Finnegan's contract right away since they have room to sign a player or two without restructuring, but having an agreement in place if they plan to bring him back would seem to be a priority.
Pending free agents: Quinton Pointer (exclusive rights)
What’s needed: Simply put, the Rams need to find another starting-caliber cornerback or at least good enough to be one of the top three options on the team. They've invested picks and time in Jenkins and Johnson, and though signs of progress have been evident for both, inconsistency has been just as prevalent. Many believe defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can get that duo on track, but even if that's true, the Rams need another option ready to go.
Finnegan played hurt before he went on injured reserve last year and didn't look right before the season even started. He's still relatively young at 30 and one would think he has some gas left in the tank, but it's hard to imagine the Rams bringing him back at his projected cost.
Possible fits: The obvious name here is pending Tennessee free agent Alterraun Verner. Verner had his best season last year under the guidance of Titans defensive assistant Williams, who is now running the defense in St. Louis. He would certainly fit the need for a starting-caliber corner. But Verner figures to get a hefty contract, and with what the Rams have invested in Jenkins and Johnson and the lack of return on investment for Finnegan, it might not be the best idea to invest heavily in a corner who doesn't have a long track record of success.
Other top corners who will be available include New England's Aqib Talib, Miami's Brent Grimes and Green Bay's Sam Shields. All figure to get big-money deals. The better bet for the Rams might be to find a mid-level veteran type like Oakland's Tracy Porter or San Francisco's Tarell Brown.
Verdict: I wouldn't be surprised if the Rams kicked the tires on Verner, but I also don't expect them to spend the kind of big money on a free agent that would be required to land him. They could use an early pick on a top corner, but they could use a veteran presence in the secondary. Perhaps Finnegan will be that guy, coming back on a lesser contract.
- Let's get our weekly praise for defensive end Robert Quinn out of the way right now. The most impressive thing about Quinn's day against the Bucs wasn't his three sacks. It's that he managed to get them despite having only a handful of snaps in which he didn't receive extra attention. Quinn is often described as being super athletic and fast, both of which are true, but his non-stop motor deserves mention, too. As this game went on, Quinn began to find ways to use the extra blockers against the Bucs. On his second sack, Quinn noticed an extra blocker in the form of a running back chipping on the outside, Quinn made contact with the back and left tackle Donald Penn, used an inside spin move and got to Mike Glennon for the sack. His understanding of space and angles has improved to the point where he's finding ways to not only win athletically but with intelligence as well. To think, Quinn is only 23.
- The Rams run defense has made certain strides in the final month and a half of the season, shutting down nearly everyone since that Tennessee game. This one was no different. There are many reasons for that improvement, including better tackling across the board but one player who might not be getting enough credit is defensive tackle Kendall Langford. Langford has been integral in shutting down the run and he was particularly impressive in this one. Langford and Michael Brockers punished the interior of Tampa Bay's offensive line for most of the day, pushing them around in the run game or, at worst, getting a standstill at the point of attack. Langford isn't just occupying blockers, either. He had a couple of nice plays getting off blocks and dropping Bobby Rainey for a loss.[+] EnlargePhoto by Michael Thomas/Getty ImagesRobert Quinn recorded three sacks against the Buccaneers, bringing his season total to 18.
- It was a solid day overall for the Rams linebackers with Alec Ogletree again leading the way. His week-to-week progress continues. Watching him go after the ball is impressive. Quinn gets most of the attention for his ability to get strip sacks but Ogletree has a knack for identifying when to go after the ball and then finding a way to get it out when he does. Both of his forced fumbles came after he'd established the tackle was about to be made and before the runner was down. It's an ability that seems to be innate for Ogletree, who had no glaring missed tackles to my eye, another sign of improvement.
- James Laurinaitis has quietly put together another strong season and he was good in this one as well. Laurinaitis seemed to know where Rainey was running every time he got the ball and was a sure tackler when he got there. Jo-Lonn Dunbar also had perhaps his most productive game of the season.
- Rookie safety T.J. McDonald also looked to have one of his better games. He's had a habit of missing tackles he should make but I didn't see any from him and he looked more sure of himself coming on the blitz as well.
- Speaking of blitzes, the Rams did a nice job of “adding” in this one. The concept is simple. When a team sends extra blockers to one side, you can add pieces to the places vacated and create major matchup issues. On McDonald's sack near the goal line, the Rams moved Quinn to defensive tackle with Ogletree and McDonald lining up on the edge over left tackle where Quinn usually lines up. Both blitzed as the Bucs tried to send extra help on Quinn. Ogletree was picked up but McDonald went untouched and nearly had a safety. Coincidentally, Quinn still beat his man but McDonald simply got to Glennon first. That type of confusion comes from a simple but well-designed concept.
- William Hayes didn't play much but made the most of his chances. He played about 16 snaps but recovered two fumbles and stuffed a run in that time.
- I've consistently believed the Rams defensive line is at its best when the secondary -- especially the corners -- is aggressive in coverage. Which is to say when they play more press coverage and force routes to take longer to develop. Glennon had few chances to get the ball out quick and the Rams took advantage for seven sacks. ESPN Stats & Information keeps a statistic for time a quarterback has the ball before passing. Glennon's time in this one was 4.13 seconds on average. That's a bit longer than what he's used to and the credit for that goes to the Rams doing a good job in coverage. For comparisons sake, the Rams had just one sack against Arizona's Carson Palmer on a day when he got the ball out in 2.68 seconds. He did that against soft zones where receivers came open right away.
- The cornerback duo of Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins seems to be coming into its own a bit toward the end of the season. Jenkins has had some hard luck on close interference calls this year but he's also been guilty enough that he's not going to get the benefit of the doubt. Still, he continues to battle and come up with a picture perfect pass breakup or two seemingly every week. From a pure coverage standpoint, the past two games might have been his best of the year. Johnson was even better against the Bucs, though he appeared to get turned around on a long completion to Vincent Jackson. Hard to tell if it was his responsibility, though.
- Aside from a silly block in the back on a punt return, it was another solid day for the Rams special teams. Johnny Hekker and Greg Zuerlein make one heck of a punter/kicker combination.
Austin sat out Friday's practice, just like he did Wednesday and Thursday, as he continues to nurse his ankle back to health. He didn't practice before sitting out last week's game against New Orleans, either. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said Austin will be questionable for Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.
Here's the Rams' complete Friday injury report:
Questionable: Austin (ankle), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh)
Probable: Offensive lineman Mike Person (illness), linebacker Will Witherspoon (illness), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back)
The chances for Austin to get back on the field this week against Tampa Bay will likely hinge on his ability to return to practice Friday.
Elsewhere on the injury report, the Rams made some additions to the two they had listed Wednesday. Here's the full breakdown:
Did not practice: Austin (ankle), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh), offensive tackle Mike Person (illness), linebacker Will Witherspoon (illness)
Limited practice: Cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back)
Lost in the mix of McShay's projection of the Rams taking Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews at No. 2 was the fact that the Rams hold another pick, currently No. 14 overall, in the first round. McShay's projection there was no laughing matter.
OK, sorry, had to get that first bad pun out of the way now because I have a feeling McShay's choice of Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Rams with their second first-round pick is one that's going to be quite popular in the buildup to the draft.
Here's what McShay had to say about the free safety and the Rams:
"This might be something of a reach, but I actually think that safety has taken on more importance with the increasing number of slot receivers and pass-catching tight ends. Clinton-Dix doesn't have elite man-to-man cover skills, but he has good range when asked to cover the middle of the field and very good closing burst. He comes in hard, blows up plays and isn't afraid to mix things up. He's exactly what you're looking for in terms of a complete safety, and he fills another need for the Rams."
The safety position has generally been the biggest weakness of the Rams defense in 2013. They believe they have one piece locked in for the future in T.J. McDonald, who has started every game in which he's been healthy. McDonald is more of a box safety, capable of coming up and helping in run support. What the Rams need next to him is a ball hawking type to patrol the middle of the field. Rodney McLeod has improved as the season has gone on but is probably best suited as a backup and special teamer. If Clinton-Dix fits the play making mode, he would make sense for St. Louis.
Of course, there are other directions the Rams could go here if, as McShay says, the team considers Clinton-Dix a bit of a "reach" at this point in the draft. A top receiver such as Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's Mike Evans or USC's Marqise Lee would also have to be intriguing for an offense still in need of a true No. 1 type wideout. If the Rams felt one of those guys was capable of being that, it's something they'd have to consider.
But at the end of the day, the Rams' biggest need heading into the offseason is help in the secondary. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan may not be back and if he is, it would almost certainly be under a drastically altered contract. That leaves Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson as the top two corners. Even if the Rams believe that's their starting duo moving forward, another top corner would remain a necessity with the need for at least three in today's NFL.
Although plenty can change in the next five months, there doesn't appear to be a defensive back worth taking in the top 10. Thus, going with the best secondary piece available, be it a safety or a corner, would make a lot of sense for the Rams' second first-round choice.
In NFL parlance, the questionable designation translates to a 50/50 chance to play. Austin has watched practice each of the past two days with a walking boot protecting his left foot.
Jenkins has spent the week getting treatment on his back but took to social media earlier Friday to offer a strong statement that he plans to play against the Saints.
In response to a fan question, Jenkins said he'd be ready to play.
The possibility of playing without Austin is damaging enough to an offense without much big play potential in his absence. Not having Jenkins would also be harmful to a struggling secondary without much depth, especially against New Orleans' high-octane passing attack.
Here's the Rams' complete injury report for Friday:
Questionable: Austin (ankle), Jenkins (back), running back Daryl Richardson (thigh), Harvey Dahl (knee)
Probable: Cornerback Brandon McGee (foot)
More will be known about Austin's status on Friday, when the team has its final practice of the week before Sunday's game against New Orleans.
Also missing practice for the second day in a row were cornerback Janoris Jenkins (back) and running back Daryl Richardson (thigh). Guard Harvey Dahl (knee) joined that group on the not practicing list.
Cornerback Brandon McGee (foot) returned to practice as a full participant.
- From the beginning of the game, the Rams' defensive approach to "covering" Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald was perplexing to say the least, especially in the first half. Carson Palmer only threw to him twice on the opening drive, but it was no coincidence that both completions came when cornerback Janoris Jenkins was playing off coverage in a soft zone with linebackers, safeties or even defensive end Chris Long asked to drop underneath to make Fitzgerald work for it. On the first play of the game, Palmer hit Fitzgerald for 19 yards when safety T.J. McDonald dropped into the flat with Jenkins dropping deep. As McDonald ran to the short area, Fitzgerald ran an intermediate in route for an easy pitch and catch. Later, on third and 5, Rodney McLeod dropped into the flat but Long was asked to run all the way across the field to get in coverage and the ball was in Fitzgerald's hands before he could get there. Gain of 15, first down and a play later Arizona is up 7-0.
- Later, Fitzgerald lined up in the slot and the Rams opted to go to man coverage with Quinton Pointer covering him. Again, mismatch and an easy 15 yards. More head-scratching ensues.
- Fitzgerald simply outclassed an overmatched Rams secondary once again in this one. He finished with 12 catches on 12 targets. He's still a great player and some of those grabs came against decent coverage but as the examples above point out, the Rams didn't have many good ideas on how to slow down a guy who regularly makes their lives miserable.
- One player who did fare pretty well against Fitzgerald after a rough week last week was cornerback Trumaine Johnson. He showed good read and react skills as he closed on Fitzgerald a couple of times and tackled him quickly for short gains. Much better performance for Johnson this week.
- Tougher sledding for Jenkins on the other side. He had a couple of borderline calls go against him and a couple of tough catches made on him.
- Still not getting much help from the safeties, a regular theme this year. McLeod made a nice play to force the fumble near the goal line but otherwise was pretty quiet from that spot.
- The Rams' pass rush was unable to get to Palmer much but they were buzzing him quite a bit. Robert Quinn's frustration, which led to a penalty, was understandable after watching this again. He was held without calls a few times and the Cardinals threw extra blockers his way. But Palmer's ability to get the ball out quick had to be most maddening. Playing that soft zone coverage against a team aware of your pass rush prowess again is a good way to negate your ability to rush the passer. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Palmer's average time before throwing was 2.68 seconds. His previous low number for the year was 2.93 seconds against Tampa Bay. Hardly enough time for any pass rush to get home.
- Aside from the struggles in coverage, the Rams defense once again did all it could to make its life more difficult with penalties. Some were questionable, sure, and I've already documented how I felt about the call on Eugene Sims, but some were just plain silly, too. McDonald's late hit out of bounds on the opening drive, for one, was unnecessary. Seven more penalties on the defense in this one a week after piling up six in the first half against the Niners.
- Looking for a bright spot? The Rams run' defense was pretty good again with a few obvious standouts. Linebacker Alec Ogletree, save for a missed tackle in the hole early on, had a nice day and showed continued improvement as a run defender. He's getting off blocks better and appears to be reading things better now than earlier in the season. His arrow seems to be pointing up and that's a good thing because he'll be a key cog for this team moving forward. Jo-Lonn Dunbar and James Laurinaitis were solid against the run as well.
- The defensive line did well against the run most of the day but two players in particular stood out to my eyes: tackle Kendall Langford and Quinn. Langford was stout at the point of attack and made running between the tackles quite difficult.
- The defense didn't have a great day by any means but it certainly didn't get much help from the offense in terms of field position. The Cardinals' average starting field position was their own 33 and they started two drives in St. Louis territory.
- More good work from the Rams' coverage units on special teams. Patrick Peterson had two punt returns for 3 yards, including a 6-yard loss. That group has been perhaps the most consistent bright spot this season for the Rams, led by the right leg of punter Johnny Hekker.
But with 11 minutes to go in the second quarter and trailing 7-3, the Rams got a glimmer of hope that the tide had turned and good things were still to come. That glimmer vanished into the darkness of a whistle heard only by a player or two among the 22 standing on the field.
After Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer hit tight end Jim Dray down the middle, Dray appeared to break the plane of the end zone before the ball came out to extend Arizona's lead. Rams safety Rodney McLeod hit Dray before he crossed the goal line, jarring the ball loose. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins scooped it up and began running the opposite direction.
Almost immediately, side judge Rick Patterson signaled touchdown which led many to believe there was little doubt of the score. But aside from his signal, not many seemed to hear a whistle.
"They ruled it a touchdown," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "Nobody else blew the whistle. Back officials didn't know what was going on so Jenks picked the ball up like you're supposed to do and run with it. Then we got a penalty on top of it."
We'll get to the penalty in a moment but before we do, it's worth noting just how much the premature touchdown signal hurt the Rams in the moment. The replay showed that Dray really wasn't all that close to scoring or even being down before the fumble. Jenkins made it almost to midfield before he realized the play had been blown dead. He almost certainly would have scored a touchdown to give the Rams a 10-7 second quarter lead.
"I didn't hear any whistle," Jenkins said. "I just finished the play. At the end, I can only just play and then when the whistle blows and it comes back. I think it could have changed the game. But it didn't."
Making matters worse for the Rams, the officials flagged defensive end Eugene Sims for a personal foul for hitting Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer after Jenkins picked up the fumble and began returning it. Of course, Palmer was like most everybody else in that he heard no whistle and was actually in motion to attempt to tackle Jenkins on the return.
The penalty on Sims came in as a result of his blocking Palmer and trying to help Jenkins score.
Upon review, the officials got the call of a fumble correct but opted not to pick up the flag despite attempts by the officials to get Walt Coleman to do so before the review took place. So, instead of a touchdown or even a touchback from the fumble recovery, the Rams got the ball but started from their own 10. Arizona eventually got a stop on the Rams' ensuing possession and promptly scored on its next drive.
A possible 10-7 Rams' lead became Arizona's 14-3 edge.
"It's a difficult call," Fisher said. "It's just one of those things that happens. I'm not mad at them. I'm a little disappointed in the fact that they enforced the penalty."
Considering the way the game went, it'd be quite a leap to think that play going the Rams way would have keyed a victory but there's no doubt the botched calls hurt any chance the Rams had of making it a game.
A roundup of the weekend's Rams stories appearing here on ESPN.com. … Saturday's Ram-blings explored the Rams' ongoing issues with dropped passes. … Next, we previewed Sunday's game with three things to watch and a few key individual matchups to keep an eye on in Sunday's game. … In the immediate aftermath of the Rams' loss, we offered this week's edition of Rapid Reaction. … From there, we revisited the three things to watch with an eye on how the Rams fared in each of those categories. … Finally, it was a look at how Arizona's win shows the Rams have a tougher road to the top of the NFC West now than it once appeared.
Jim Basquil and Eric Allen break down the Rams' loss.
At stltoday.com, columnist Jeff Gordon offered his grades on the Rams' Sunday performance.
Gordon also chatted with fans during the contest.
Jim Thomas' game story puts the spotlight on the Rams' lost decade.
Turf Show Times offered its take on Sunday's happenings.
At KMOV.com, Doug Vaughn ponders another disappointing Rams' performance.
Instead of breaking down a big play and a hidden play this week, we'll just dive right into observations and general thoughts from the game.
- It was quite clear from the beginning that the Rams' top goal in this game was to stop Niners running back Frank Gore and San Francisco's ground game. They spent much of the day loading up with the intent to stop Gore. And that's exactly what they did. The Rams' run defense improved greatly from the first meeting and most of it was simply the ability of their front seven to get off blocks and make tackles.
- All told, the Rams defense played pretty well in this game but there were two issues that kept them from keeping it a little closer: penalties and the ability of Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick to extend plays and get the ball down the field.
- First, on the penalties, the Rams were unhappy with many of the calls that went against them but in watching it again most of the calls, especially against the defense, seemed legitimate. The exception was the call on linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar for hitting Kaepernick late. You could see why they called it but it was too far in terms of trying to protect him. On the call that went against cornerback Janoris Jenkins, he took a jarring blow from receiver Anquan Boldin and lost his feet. Jenkins grabbed Boldin to prevent a walk-in touchdown and try to keep up. It was the right call but clearly a tough matchup for Jenkins.
- Aside from that, Jenkins played pretty well. He had a couple of nice pass breakups, two on back-shoulder throws which he was on top of all the way. He doesn't have the splash plays but Jenkins appears to be improving from week to week.
- Tougher day on the other side for Trumaine Johnson, who struggled to keep up with Boldin. Worse, he let his struggles affect him as he picked up an unnecessary roughness penalty and was inconsistent tackling after giving up completions. Michael Crabtree turned him inside out on a double move for a 60-yard gain in the third quarter, also.
- Safety T.J. McDonald was better in this one than his first game back from his leg injury, including textbook coverage for a pass breakup on Niners tight end Vernon Davis (not the play you're thinking about). The Rams still had their share of struggles covering Davis. It's not saying anything we didn't already know but the Rams simply need a playmaker on the back end of the defense. The safety play was actually decent in this game but that's been on the high end of what they've had most of this year.
- It would probably be easy to look at the Niners' shuffling along the offensive line and think end Robert Quinn would have had yet another big day at the office. With Joe Staley out, Quinn faced covered guard Alex Boone most of the day. Quinn was shut out in the sack department but played better than that zero might indicate. The reason? Kaepernick. Quinn and bookend Chris Long got around the edge multiple times but Kaepernick often stepped up in the pocket to get away from that pressure. Sometimes that led to Kaepernick running or throwing for a positive gain and it also led to three sacks combined from defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Kendall Langford, both of whom pushed the pocket well for the most part.
- As a group, this was one of the best games of the year for the Rams' linebackers in terms of defending the run. James Laurinaitis was solid all day once again and Jo-Lonn Dunbar consistently made the correct read and helped bring down Gore at or near the line of scrimmage. Alec Ogletree performed well against the run, even getting off blocks to make tackles a couple of times but actually struggled in coverage a bit. Ogletree slipped in coverage once but also had a play in which he was covering Boldin well, but when Kaepernick scrambled he got caught looking in the backfield and actually ran away from Boldin for an easy completion to set up a field goal.
- Another good day for the Rams' special teams in coverage but not much there for the return game. The kick return team had a few opportunities to get something going but couldn't do it and gave the offense poor field position a few times. Punter Johnny Hekker was quite good again.
A couple years ago this might have been one of the premiere individual battles you could find anywhere in the NFL. Make no mistake, Long and Peppers are still very good players but they might not be at the level they once were.
Still, this is one of the most important matchups in this game. Peppers’ combination of speed and athleticism remains even if the numbers aren’t jumping off the page as they once did.
“He’s a great player, day in and day out,” Long said. “He’s got such long arms, he’s got power, he’s got speed to take down the edge, so it’s a good battle to go up against him. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.”
Through the first 10 games, Peppers has posted 29 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown.
Long has struggled against elite rushers this year, particularly with Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware, a player not unlike Peppers in terms of size and skill set. But Long has also been much better in the past month or so since the Rams switched to a more run-heavy attack.
If the Rams can get the run game going – an area Long can help jump start – it should allow for the Rams to keep Peppers off balance and Long to dictate the matchup.
There’s no receiver combination in the league more physically imposing than Jeffery and Marshall. That duo has caused nightmares for opposing defenses with its ability to outjump and outmuscle opposing corners for the ball.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall has 64 catches for 828 yards and eight touchdowns this season while the 6-3, 216-pound Jeffery has 54 catches for 818 yards and three touchdowns.
There isn’t a cornerback duo in the league equipped to match Marshall and Jeffery in terms of sheer size.
“It’s a matchup issue,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re very, very talented. Both quarterbacks Jay [Cutler], obviously was playing well before he went down, but Josh [McCown] does a really good job putting the ball up to them. They’ve got confidence. These guys can outjump and outreach. We’ve got a battle on our hands, but our corners … ‘Jenks’ is a leaper and ‘Tru’s' got length, so we’ll just see how it goes.”
At 5-10, 198 pounds, Jenkins is the smaller of the Rams’ options and must be on top of his game in terms of timing his leap. He’s had mixed success in those situations this year but hasn’t faced a challenge of this size just yet.
Johnson has improved in 2013 and at 6-2, 208 pounds is more suited to take on players like Marshall and Jeffery.
The Rams have been more aggressive in coverage in recent weeks, playing more press coverage at the line of scrimmage. That may be the best way to keep the Bears duo from winning jump balls. A good jam at the line of scrimmage can throw off timing and allow the Rams defensive line to get after McCown before he can get the ball down the field.
Rams fans still have nightmares about Hester’s game in St. Louis in 2006 when he returned two kicks for touchdowns.
Much has changed in terms of Hester’s role since then as he no longer contributes much to the offense and has even been in the mix as a cornerback. But he remains Chicago’s primary returner with a strong kick return average of 28.23 yards and 13.25 yards per punt return to go with a touchdown.
“He’s not playing any offense, but he’s still very, very dangerous,” Fisher said. “I think, considering the fact that his role on offense has been reduced or limited, he’s going to be more inclined to bringing the ball out and has that desire to make plays. So, it makes him very dangerous and they’ve always had great confidence in him.”
The onus falls on Hekker and Zuerlein to help neutralize the player who is probably the most dangerous returner in league history.
Hekker has been as good as any punter in the league so far in 2013, leading the league in net punting with an average of 43.51 yards.
Zuerlein hasn’t yielded much in the way of returns, either, averaging 65.88 yards per kickoff, fifth most in the league. The coverage units have been good in this regard, too, as Rams opponents have started an average of 80.4 yards from the end zone on their drives, second furthest away in the league.
Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins vs. Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton
Hilton had three touchdown catches in a win against Houston last week, and he leads the Colts with 533 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re aware of him and what’s going on with him at all times, because he’s the go-to guy,” Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “He’s the guy that, he was making catches even when Reggie was there, but now he’s really been the go-to guy. They’re moving him around, putting him in different spots on the field so you can’t just zero in on him and know exactly where he’s going to be in line. And like I said, the guy’s crafty, so he’s definitely a threat.”
The Rams haven’t had much success slowing down receivers who are clearly their team’s top threat this season. Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald and Jacksonville’s Justin Blackmon are among those who have had big days against the Rams' secondary.
Likewise, the Rams haven’t opted to shadow any receivers this season, so the onus of slowing Hilton figures to fall on more than just Jenkins. Whether it’s Jenkins, Cortland Finnegan, Trumaine Johnson or someone else, the Rams must find a way to make someone other than Hilton beat them.
Rams tight ends and tackles vs. Indianapolis pass-rusher Robert Mathis
Dwight Freeney is gone, but the Colts’ pass rush remains strong behind the yeoman’s work of Mathis.
Playing a position the Colts refer to simply as “Rush” linebacker, Mathis moves around and finds the spots where he can do the most damage. That means the job of protecting quarterback Kellen Clemens from Mathis falls on everyone, not just tackles Jake Long and Joe Barksdale.
That includes tight ends such as Mike McNeill, who is likely to be pressed into duty with Lance Kendricks recovering from a fractured finger.
“Certainly, Indianapolis has some good pass-rushers,” Clemens said. “Obviously, Mathis leads the way. But, I’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys, and we’ll do some things to probably help out a little bit.”
Look for the Rams to help out a lot bit when it comes to Mathis.
Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford vs. Indianapolis left guard Hugh Thornton
The Colts have been solid in protecting Luck on the edge, which should be a tough task to continue against Rams ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn, but Langford is coming off one of his best games and should have a favorable matchup against Thornton.
Langford had a pair of sacks last week, and though some of that damage is the result of strong edge rushing and his cleaning up after, he still showed a knack for being disruptive in the middle.
Luck’s ability to run and escape pressure often comes up the middle, so the chance for Langford and fellow tackle Michael Brockers to slow that train also exists.
“When he’s coming head-on up the middle, he’s a big body coming at you, so sometimes he’ll catch DBs and most of the time, when he’s getting tackled you can see he’s falling forward,” Walton said of Luck. “There are not a lot of times that he’s actually carrying the football as he’s getting knocked back.”