- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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EARTH CITY, Mo. – As part of the St. Louis Rams’ offseason roster shuffle, they found themselves making many tough decisions.
They decided to say goodbye to offensive stalwarts Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola in order to improve in other areas. Those moves drew plenty of attention, but one that may have flown under the radar as a result was the release of safety Quintin Mikell.
Signed to a lucrative contract only two years earlier, Mikell had found a comfort zone in coach Jeff Fisher’s defense, enjoying one of his most productive NFL seasons in 2012.
But Mikell carried a heavy price tag, and his release saved the Rams $3 million in cap space and twice as much in cash value.
The move was fairly obvious in a business sense, but much more difficult in terms of team-building.
“He was great,” Fisher said. “He was a great teammate. I was only with him for a year, but he played very well, very productive for us. He’s helping their defense as well, too.”
Losing Mikell meant losing far more than just a solid teammate. His production was better in 2012 than at any point in his career as he settled into a box safety role that suited him well. He finished the season with a career-high 101 tackles and was an effective blitzer, racking up a combined 14 sacks, hits and hurries.
“I felt like I had a good year, and I felt like I did well enough to help us win some games,” Mikell said. “I wasn’t perfect but I played hard and I gave them my best, and that’s all I ever do. I do feel like I had a good year, but that’s last year. I’m moving on.”
For a while, it remained uncertain whether Mikell would move on. Even after his release in March and the subsequent big-money signings of tight end Jared Cook and left tackle Jake Long, the Rams seemed to have interest in bringing Mikell back at a reduced rate. Mikell said he was mildly surprised by his release, and indicated that he was willing to come back at a cheaper rate.
“I was willing to do whatever needed to be done to come back,” Mikell said. “But, obviously, it just wasn’t in the cards. It’s just the business part of it.”
Mikell said he heard from general manager Les Snead only once after his release, and it became clear when the team drafted T.J. McDonald in the third round in April that a return was increasingly unlikely.
“That kind of sucked about it, but like I said, it’s a business,” Mikell said. “I wasn’t owed anything. It was just kind of one of those things where you just feel a little down or whatever, but no big deal.”
From the Rams’ standpoint, it seemed safety was one position where they were willing to skew a bit younger and attempt to develop some of their untested players. The idea of bringing a veteran such as Mikell back to handle a backup role that would potentially block one of their upcoming youngsters didn’t jibe with the team’s approach to bringing along young players.
McDonald flashed some promise early in the season before suffering a leg injury against San Francisco that landed him on the injured reserve/designated to return list. Now the Rams are using McLeod and Stewart as the starters, with veteran Matt Giordano coming in at safety in the nickel and McLeod moving to the nickel corner spot.
Frankly, the safety spots became the biggest question mark on the defense after Mikell’s release, and through six games that hasn’t changed. That’s not to say the Rams should have kept Mikell at his former price, but for a defense that entered the season with high expectations and has had issues stopping the run, Mikell’s presence would almost certainly be an upgrade over the team’s current starters.
For his part, Mikell isn’t holding any grudges, but he acknowledged that he’s looking forward to taking on the team that released him. He signed Sept. 2 with Carolina, where he’s been reunited with Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, his defensive-backs coach when they were in Philadelphia.
“Obviously, whenever you get to go against your former team it’s always so good and you get excited to show them what you still have,” Mikell said. “I definitely am motivated, not more than any other week, but it’s just a different type of motivation this week.”