EARTH CITY, Mo. -- A year ago at this time, Rams safety Rodney McLeod was no different than any other undrafted free agent in the league.
The little-known McLeod was getting his training camp repetitions with the second and third team defense, hoping not to make too many mistakes. Like most of his rookie free agent brethren, he concentrated his efforts on special teams knowing that if he was going to get his ticket to the 53-man roster punched, that was his easiest route.
Entering Saturday night’s third preseason game against Denver, McLeod finds himself nearly entrenched on the roster. But there’s a much bigger opportunity sitting in front of him, a chance to go from undrafted special teams ace to possible starting safety.
“Last year, special teams was a big role for me,” McLeod said. “I took it and just embraced it. It helped out a lot, and I was willing to do whatever it takes to win. This year I am looking forward to playing special teams, but also contributing to the defense.”
At this point, it seems nearly certain McLeod will at least contribute to the defense. What isn’t set in stone yet is whether he can lock down a possible starting spot. With each passing day, that opportunity looms larger.
In last week’s preseason game against Green Bay, presumptive starter Darian Stewart left just nine plays into the game with a hamstring injury. Soft tissue injuries have become a familiar refrain for Stewart as he enters his fourth season in the league.
Last season, Stewart was expected to compete with Craig Dahl for the starting job after he handled those duties in 14 games in 2011. That battle never materialized as Stewart again battled hamstring issues and was relegated to a special teams role for the entire season.
At this point in his career, it’s reasonable to ask whether Stewart will ever be durable enough to be anything more than a special teams regular. That discussion doesn’t even include some of Stewart’s tackling woes.
Although he finished third on the team in tackles in his only season as a regular starter, Stewart was also among the league leaders in missed tackles in 2011. Pro Football Focus cited him for 20 whiffs, but Rams coaches’ evaluations actually had him closer to 30.
Stewart has flashed some big-play potential and is actually pretty good on the blitz but with him unlikely to play, the time could be now for someone like McLeod to step forward and take the job.
“He’s active on special teams and he’s in the right place and did a nice job (against Green Bay),” coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s a guy you can trust to go in the game and play either safety position and be productive.”
With Stewart expected to sit again tonight, the timing is right for the Rams to take a long look at McLeod and see if he could handle the job. Rookie T.J. McDonald seems set to start at one of the safety spots, but the Rams don’t seem to have a guaranteed answer at the other.
Stewart is the longest tenured Ram at the position, and veteran free agent addition Matt Giordano has missed nearly all of camp and the preseason with a calf injury. That leaves a young group including McLeod, Matt Daniels and rookies Cody Davis and Rashard Hall with plenty of opportunity to claim roster spots.
McLeod played 31 snaps in place of Stewart last week, and has worked with the first-team defense all week. He brings a different skill-set to the table than Stewart, who is more of an in-the-box type.
At 5-foot-11, 183 pounds, McLeod is smaller than most of his fellow safeties, but he probably also has the most range. Although the Rams say they want their safeties to be interchangeable, McLeod would seem to give them a little more of a center fielder type on the back end that could complement the bigger, more physical McDonald.
If nothing else, a long look at McLeod tonight should give the Rams plenty to chew on moving toward the final round of cuts and allow them to decide whether they need to go out and get a veteran or if they can really move forward with a young, inexperienced group.
McLeod says he’s not going to ignore his special teams duties -- he led the team in special teams tackles in 2012 -- but he’s also focused on ensuring he knows the calls and techniques to step in on defense. The fact that he has a chance to take the next logical step in his career progression is not lost on him.
"It’s everything a player would dream of,” McLeod said. “It’s not like in college, where I was a starter on defense. But I’m prepared for anything, whether it’s special teams or a starter on defense, or whether it’s coming in second, third quarter filling in. I am preparing wherever I need to, and I’m looking to get better starting this week.”