St. Louis Rams: Rodney McLeod

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As the St. Louis Rams prepare to enter their third training camp under coach Jeff Fisher and staff, much will hinge on the ability of the team's many young players to turn potential into production. In this final week before camp officially begins, we take a look at some players who must take the next step either to preserve their jobs, help the team reach its first winning record since 2003 or, to the team's preference, both.

We continue this week-long series with safety Rodney McLeod.

What he's done: McLeod has enjoyed a strong rise from undrafted free agent to special teams stalwart to starting free safety in just two seasons. His production has probably already exceeded the investment the Rams have put in him. But if McLeod is to hold down his spot in the defense into the future, he's going to need to take another step forward in 2014. In fairness to McLeod, he was forced into a starting role last season and played almost every down between safety and working as the team's nickel corner. By the end of the season, McLeod's first year contributing to the defense, he finished with 79 tackles, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. That came in addition to a continued key role on special teams.

Why he must do more: In his two seasons in St. Louis, McLeod has proved he belongs in the league, but it's still unclear how prominent his role should be moving forward. If nothing else, he's probably already done enough to stick around as a special teams ace and provide solid depth on the back end, but he'd obviously prefer to continue to develop as a starting defender. Clearly, the Rams are willing to give him that chance but not without some competition. The Rams drafted safeties Maurice Alexander and Christian Bryant in the spring and return other young players such as Matt Daniels and Cody Davis at the position. The Rams need better coverage from all of their players on the back end, but McLeod's spot is probably the most tenuous, at least in terms of starting.

Where he fits: By all accounts from the spring, it appears McLeod will again get the first crack at starting alongside T.J. McDonald at safety. Alexander didn't do much of anything as he recovered from injury, but the Rams did use a fourth-round pick on him and coach Jeff Fisher has expressed excitement about Alexander's future. While Alexander profiles similar to McDonald, there's a belief that the pair could play together in Gregg Williams' defense. It's unlikely Alexander will be able to surpass McLeod in the short window of training camp, but McLeod will have to produce over the course of the season to continue in that role.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- There was a time in the not so distant past where, if you ranked NFL rosters from No. 1 to 32, placing the St. Louis Rams at No. 31 would have been considered a compliment.

As the Rams trudged through one and two-win seasons, the lack of talent was so glaring that not coming in last on such a list would be cause for celebration. But those times are gone. Or they should be, anyway.

The folks from Pro Football Focus released their own roster rankings Insider on ESPN Insider on Thursday and much to my surprise and, perhaps, that of many others, the Rams checked in at No. 31. That is not a typo, the Rams finished ahead of Jacksonville, narrowly avoiding a last-place finish.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
AP Photo/Tom GannamMiddle linebacker James Laurinaitis is rated as a below average starter in an analysis of NFL rosters by Pro Football Focus.
Four or five years ago, anyone watching the Rams would have been hard-pressed to disagree. As we sit here in 2014, most would do so vehemently.

To put some context behind the ranking, Pro Football Focus has its own methods of measuring each player's production. They use film study and have developed their own grading system which is then used to assign each player a color designation. Those colors correlate to a label for each player of "elite," "high quality," "good starter," "average starter," "below average starter," "poor starter," "not enough information" and "rookie."

Obviously, the more players ranked as a "good starter" or above, the better the roster will be. For example, the No. 1 ranked Seattle Seahawks have three elite starters, seven high-quality starters and eight good starters. According to PFF's metrics, the Seahawks have just two below average starters and zero poor starters.

When it comes to the Rams, the only elite player according to PFF is defensive end Robert Quinn. That is an assessment that is hard to disagree with both in the sense that he is absolutely an elite player, but also in the roster being void of others who would qualify for that label.

However, it's in the middle part of those rankings where I would disagree with PFF's ranks. Of the team's 22 starters, PFF has the Rams down for seven below average starters, eight average starters and two poor starters. That means 17 of the 22 players on the roster are average of worse, according to PFF.

Included in the group of below average starters are middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, outside linebacker Alec Ogletree and tight end Jared Cook. Running back Zac Stacy and defensive tackle Michael Brockers are two of the starters deemed average, and safeties T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod are the two listed as poor starters.

While Laurinaitis, Ogletree and Cook certainly have their faults, I wouldn't consider any of them below average based on how they produce compared to others at their positions. That is not to say any of them should be considered elite, but Laurinaitis and Ogletree were two of the most productive linebackers in the league last season, and Laurinaitis has a track record of producing far better than below average or average. Ogletree has plenty of improvement to do, but improved throughout the season and provided plenty of flash plays. Cook didn't put up numbers commensurate with his contract in the first season, but still finished 10th in the league among tight ends in receiving yards, fifth in yards per catch and tied for 11th in touchdowns. If nothing else, those numbers would put him right at average.

By no means am I saying the Rams should be a top 10 or even necessarily a top 20 roster, but it's hard to understand how some teams on the list, such as Minnesota and Oakland, could be ahead of St. Louis.

The Rams certainly have more than their share of question marks heading into 2014. They have been the youngest team in the league two years running and look poised to be once again next season. It's also worth considering that a roster that young still has managed to finish with seven wins in each of the past two seasons. If the roster was older and treading water, I could understand the argument for it being one of the league's worst.

But it isn't. It's folly to think all of the Rams' young players will develop into top starters in the league. There is plenty of work to be done before the Rams roster can be considered one of the league's best. But they've done enough that they should no longer be deemed one of the worst.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With the NFL draft and free agency complete, the St. Louis Rams' 53-man roster will likely come mostly from the players who now populate it.

With organized team activities (OTAs) still more than a week away, we take a look at where each position stands heading into next week. The next in the series continues Tuesday by examining the safeties.

Who returns: T.J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod, Matt Daniels, Cody Davis

Who is new: Maurice Alexander, Christian Bryant, Avery Cunningham

Who is gone: Darian Stewart, Matt Giordano

Projected starters: McDonald, McLeod

Pending competition: In the long-term, it's probably fair to wonder whether coach Jeff Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams envision a McDonald-Alexander tandem on the back end, but it seems unlikely that's going to happen right away. Fisher was excited to get Alexander in the fourth round and wouldn't be that excited if he only viewed him as a special teamer. So at some point, that competition could come into play and it seems McDonald is entrenched in one safety spot. But for now, it's probably a safe bet McLeod will get a chance to play safety on a more exclusive basis. Since the Rams added Lamarcus Joyner to be the primary nickel corner, McLeod should benefit from getting to focus on playing safety on a more regular basis. Beyond the trio of McDonald, McLeod and Alexander, there figures to be a battle for a fourth and possibly fifth safety spot on the roster as well. Special teams will go a long way in determining those.

Outlook: The Rams have a lot of faith in McDonald and though he missed time with an injury in 2013, he should only get better as Williams devises different ways to use him. McLeod was a first-time starter in 2013 and, like much of the roster, the Rams are banking on him to improve given a second attempt. Alexander will eventually fit into the mix so long as he also develops but he might take a little longer given his lack of experience playing safety. Daniels has always brought a lot of potential but injuries have kept him from reaching it, and Davis remains as a possible special teams contributor. Bryant could be a bit of a sleeper so long as he's fully recovered from an ankle injury. All told, this is a young, inexperienced group that will need to take some major steps forward to not be considered the weakness of the defense in 2014.

Rams draft preview: Safety

May, 6, 2014
May 6
The NFL draft is set to begin May 8 and the St. Louis Rams hold 12 picks in this year's selection process. For the next week and a half, we'll take a look at a different position every day with what the Rams have in place at a position, what they need, when they might address it and some possible fits.

We continue the countdown with a look at this year's crop of safeties.

In place: T.J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod, Matt Daniels, Cody Davis

What's needed: Technically, the Rams are bringing back their two starters from a season ago in McDonald and McLeod. The Rams are high on McDonald's potential and believe new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can find many ways to use him effectively. The team also believed McLeod improved as the year went on, but he actually fared better as a slot corner than he did roaming the back end. The idea here is simple: the Rams need to find a rangy, centerfield type of safety who can cover to complement what McDonald figures to do in the box and near the line of scrimmage. Daniels is a promising player who simply hasn't been able to stay healthy and Davis might have some potential as well, but the need for a tag team partner for McDonald is clear.

Possible fits: While the Rams will acknowledge the need for help at this position, they have once again masterfully played their cards close to the vest. They don't release the names of their top 30 visits and it's been hard to pin down many names amongst the safeties in this year's class as having so much as visited St. Louis in the pre-draft process. The team did meet with top prospects such as Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor at the scouting combine but they meet with pretty much every player -- formally or informally -- at that event. Clinton-Dix is the logical fit because his skill set on paper fits the bill of what the Rams need. Others who might make sense include Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward, Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner and Washington State's Deone Bucannon. Bucannon did visit St. Louis in the pre-draft process. Coach Jeff Fisher kept everyone guessing last year and pounced on McDonald in the third round. Don't be surprised if he follows a similar blueprint this time around.

Verdict: The Rams are going to draft a safety and if they want the one ranked at the top, a guy such as Clinton-Dix, they'll have to do it with their No. 13 overall pick, assuming he's still available. But I'm not sold the Rams value the position or any of the safeties available in a manner that would lead to them using such a lofty pick on one. The guess here is the Rams will wait until the second or third round before looking to pounce on whoever the player is that has caught their fancy -- and they've worked so hard to keep secret.
Earlier today, we took a look at what needs remain for the St. Louis Rams in the secondary. Coach Jeff Fisher said at last week's owners meetings that his team wanted to get involved with some veteran defensive backs but they were quickly priced out of the market.

In more general statements about free agency, Fisher has also indicated the Rams might not be done adding low cost free agents. While we wait on a decision from Tennessee receiver Kenny Britt, let's take a quick spin through the market to see what's still available in terms of free agency (as ranked by ESPN's Bill Polian) and what the Rams' secondary looks like as is. To see all of Polian's rankings of the top free agents left, you can check out his list on ESPN Insider here. Insider


Current expected starters: Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson
Also on the roster: Brandon McGee, Darren Woodard, Greg Reid

Free agents available: Dimitri Patterson, Carlos Rogers, Dominique Franks, Jabari Greer, Terrell Thomas, Cassius Vaughn, Josh Wilson

Thoughts: There simply isn't much left here to pursue. The Rams seem content with Jenkins and Johnson but need at least one more corner who can help in the nickel. Safety Rodney McLeod has that ability, but the Rams would be better served to find a true nickel. The hope is that McGee or Reid can develop into that but the Rams could peruse other options. Polian points out that Rogers is best suited to play in the slot at this point in his career, and he would provide a veteran presence. Greer has a history with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Still, the Rams haven't really expressed interest in any corners so far, and they have shown even less inclination to sign veterans unless they're certain it's an upgrade over what they have.


Current expected starters: T.J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod
Also on the roster: Matt Daniels, Cody Davis

Free agents available: Thomas DeCoud, Reed Doughty, Danieal Manning, Mike Adams, Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory, Major Wright, Ryan Clark

Thoughts: The Rams like McDonald's trajectory, and he figures to be the movable piece that Williams likes to have as his primary-box safety. McLeod is the incumbent in the spot next to McDonald, but that's the spot the team would like to upgrade. When healthy and in the lineup, Daniels and Davis have primarily been special-teams contributors, though Davis profiles more as the rangy type of safety the defense needs. In looking at the group available on the market, none of the free agents really fit the mold of a rangy type capable of running the alley and playing center field. The lone possible exception is Manning, whom Houston released Monday afternoon. If the price is right, perhaps he could be of interest to the Rams, though he's coming off an injury and he's 31. Matt Giordano, who filled the role of veteran at safety in 2013, is also available and could still potentially be brought back for depth.
Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine JohnsonGetty ImagesThe Rams have been pleased with the work of CBs Trumaine Johnson (22) and Janoris Jenkins.
The St. Louis Rams said goodbye to cornerback Cortland Finnegan early in free agency, releasing him in a move that will save them $7 million in salary-cap space. Safety Darian Stewart signed with the Baltimore Ravens. Fellow safety Matt Giordano remains unsigned.

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.
If it wasn't already clear that the St. Louis Rams have no problem giving playing time to young players, let the team's distribution of performance bonuses serve as another reminder.

The league pool allows each team to distribute a total of $3.46 million to all players on the roster, but the system is set up in a way which is supposed to allow players who don't make much money -- but play a lot -- to reap the biggest rewards.

Rodney McLeod leads the way for the Rams this year, garnering an additional $280,915.83. That should come as no surprise as the second-year undrafted safety played almost exclusively on special teams as a rookie and became a starter at safety and nickel corner in 2013. After filling in for an injured Darian Stewart in the preseason, he claimed the job on a permanent basis as he played nearly 80 percent of the available snaps.

Tackle Joe Barksdale also cashed in after becoming a starter at right tackle early in the season because of an injury and, like McLeod, doing enough to hang on to the job for the rest of the season. Barksdale earned $187,114.62 for playing 60.87 percent of the snaps.

All compensation and playtime percentages courtesy of NFL management council. Those numbers for every team can be found here.
The free-agent market is scheduled to begin March 11 and teams may begin negotiations with those poised to hit the market beginning March 8. We'll countdown to that with a position-by-position look at what the St. Louis Rams have in place, who is set to hit the market, what they might need and who might fit the bill.

In place: The Rams bring back both of the safeties who started the majority of their games in 2013.

T.J. McDonald is entering his second season after an up-and-down rookie season marred by a leg injury. But the Rams believe in McDonald and he figures to maintain his starting position going into 2014.

More tenuous is the other safety spot where Rodney McLeod started all 16 games and also served as de facto nickel cornerback for much of the season. McLeod improved as the season went along and finished with two interceptions. He had a lot on his plate for a second-year undrafted free agent.

Cody Davis and Matt Daniels are also under team control for 2014. Davis returns after a rookie season in which he appeared in 12 games, primarily on special teams.

Daniels likely would have had an opportunity to play last season were it not for a season-ending leg injury suffered in the second week against Atlanta.

Pending free agents: Darian Stewart, Matt Giordano

What’s needed: An athletic upgrade for McLeod who is capable of running the alley and patrolling center field when McDonald is operating near the line of scrimmage. New coordinator Gregg Williams likes to use one safety in the box, bringing him on blitzes and moving him around. McDonald figures to fill that role, leaving the Rams cornerbacks needing a big-play safety who can help over the top. McLeod is a nice piece to have because of his versatility, but is probably better suited for a backup role and special teams at this point in his career. With Giordano and Stewart headed to free agency, the Rams could also use some veteran depth.

Possible fits: The free-agent class at safety is a good one compared to other positions. Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, Pittsburgh’s Ryan Clark, Miami’s Chris Clemons and New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins are just a handful of the recognizable names that figure to hit the open market.

Byrd is the prize, but the Rams don’t seem to be in a hurry to spend the type of money required to land him. Likewise, the team may not want to spend big money on any free agent after splurging the past two years.

But the Rams did well in a saturated market last year, landing offensive tackle Jake Long at a relatively bargain price because so many tackles were available. Perhaps a similar opportunity could arise this year.

Jenkins is already free and familiar with Williams’ defense but isn’t necessarily the type of roving ball hawk the Rams need on the back end. Clemons is maybe the most intriguing name on the list, but he figures to be right behind Byrd and Ward as the most expensive guy available.

The Rams could also choose to bring back someone like Giordano to add some veteran depth.

Verdict: No position on the Rams' defense could use an influx of talent more than safety, and it’s the one spot that if the team could solidify might take the defense to the next level. The Rams could choose to address the position in the draft, though the crop of safeties in this year’s class is actually not as strong as the free-agent group. I still don't believe the Rams will spend big on any free agent not named Rodger Saffold, but if they want to get a mid-level type at a position of need, safety might make the most sense.

Mock draft: About that 'other pick

December, 19, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay released his newest mock draft Insider Wednesday and it generated plenty of discussion when it comes to the St. Louis Rams and the second overall pick they own courtesy of the Washington Redskins.

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.

Morning Ram-blings: Early draft read

November, 7, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It's never too early to start talking about the NFL draft, and though it might be difficult now to really zero in on a team's needs, the overall picture is starting to get clearer.

So our NFL Nation reporters each identified what his or her team's greatest need is based on the first nine weeks. From there, our resident draft experts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. provided some potential fits for each team's needs.

From a Rams perspective, there were plenty of options for possible needs, but I wanted to use the criteria of what is the team's greatest need as we sit here today. Offensive tackle is almost certain to be a need, and that's obviously a position of more pressing importance than safety when it comes to using a first-round pick. I also don't believe Rodger Saffold will be back with the Rams next year. But again, I wanted to do this exercise without making assumptions on how free agency might shake out, and instead focus on what are the most pressing needs right now.

If T.J. McDonald were healthy and developing each week, I might have looked elsewhere, but right now safety is a position where the Rams simply aren't getting enough production.

From all indications, the Rams view McDonald as a major piece in their long-term plans. He's a good fit as a box safety, capable of playing the run, and his presence would certainly be useful right about now. But he needs a running mate, namely one who can make some plays on the back end and consistently force turnovers. The Rams haven't had someone like that since the early days of Oshiomogho Atogwe.

Kiper suggests Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as a good fit for just that reason. Here's an excerpt of Kiper's analysis from the aforementioned article:

"Clinton-Dix is a ball-hawking safety who can play center field and cover sideline to sideline, using both his speed and length to make plays on the ball. Remember, with an extra first-round pick acquired from Washington, the Rams could fill a need and then go best player available at the other spot."

Indeed, the Rams may be reluctant to use a first-round pick on a safety, especially given other needs, but it's not as taboo to draft safeties early as it once was. Teams like Seattle are getting huge dividends from using a high pick on a safety such as Earl Thomas. If there's a player of that caliber, or at least comparable, the Rams may also be better positioned to make a move on a safety because they have two first-round picks.

Of course, there's plenty of time between now and the offseason for things to sort themselves out and players to emerge.


A roundup of Wednesday's Rams' stories appearing on … The day began with our midseason report, handing out grades on the Rams through the first nine weeks, with video included. … What would a midseason report be without some midseason awards? … Next was an injury update, including running back Zac Stacy missing Wednesday's workout as he falls into a familiar pattern. … Finally, it was a look at quarterback Sam Bradford's surgery and why he and the Rams will reschedule it.


Jeff Gordon, of, provides his own look back at Richie Incognito and his current situation.

Jim Thomas looks at the Rams' continued struggles stopping the run.

A good look from Turf Show Times at Jeff Fisher's approach to handling a locker room.

At the 101 ESPN website, Randy Karraker offers 10 observations from the Tennessee game.

In the same corner of cyberspace, Anthony Stalter provides his postgame notes on the same contest.

Rams starting to form an identity

October, 13, 2013
HOUSTON – It was only 18 days ago that the St. Louis Rams were coming off two blowout losses and searching for anything that could remotely be defined as a team identity.

The minimum expectation for any team under the tutelage of coach Jeff Fisher is an innate toughness, the ability to deal with problems head on. Such toughness -- which seemed to build over the course of the 2012 season -- appeared to have vanished after the Sept. 26 drubbing at the hands of San Francisco.

A win against Jacksonville the following week showed that the Rams could do what they needed to against an inferior opponent. But a team personality that the Rams could lean on when times were tough still had not bubbled to the surface.

They aren’t there yet, the personality is still in the developmental stages, but for the first time in the 2013 season, the Rams gave a glimpse of what they hope the finished product will become with a resounding 38-13 win against the Houston Texans on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeDaren Bates
AP Photo/Eric GayThe Rams have come together since a pair of big losses and are showing a newfound toughness.
Now sitting at 3-3, the Rams seem to have dug themselves out of their early-season hole, and all things remain possible.

“It was important to us to speak life into our team, after the Thursday game [against the 49ers],” Fisher said. “I think we did that. We sent them off and gave them a little break and brought them back and just started over.”

On Sunday, the Rams showed plenty of signs that their toughness was back, that they could stand toe-to-toe with a physical team such as Houston and not back down. It served them well in 2012 against division foes Seattle and San Francisco, and it did again against the Texans.

Whether it was hard-nosed rookie running back Zac Stacy pushing the pile and picking up yards after contact or quarterback Sam Bradford standing tall in the pocket to take a hard hit from Houston linebacker Brooks Reed as he delivered a strike to tight end Jared Cook for 34 yards to set up a touchdown, the Rams refused to let Houston pummel them.

There was no better example of the attitude the Rams are looking to engender than the reaction of guard Harvey Dahl when Texans linebacker Brian Cushing jumped on Bradford after he slid for a 4-yard gain in the second quarter. Dahl immediately popped up and got in Cushing’s face, with not-so-pure intentions clearly on his mind, before tackle Jake Long restrained him from acquiring offsetting penalties.

It was a small thing in a game of big plays, but when forming an identity, it can be the small things that count the most.

“That’s what I love about Harvey, that’s what I love about all those guys upfront,” Bradford said. “I know they’ve got my back. To see something like that happen, I think that’s a big step for this team, a big step for this offense, and I couldn’t be happier or more proud to play for those guys up front.”

That same mentality was evident in the other phases of the game as well.

On special teams, the penalties mostly evaporated and the unit found a way to score one of the rarer touchdowns in football: a fumble return while covering a kickoff. The play happened because safety Rodney McLeod hit returner Keshawn Martin with reckless abandon and linebacker Daren Bates – fresh off running over a would-be blocker – was simply looking for something else to hit.

The Rams' defense struggled to stop Houston running back Arian Foster from ripping off big chunks of yards, but they managed to find ways to keep the Texans out of the end zone and hold them to field goals. They also created three more takeaways after grabbing three last week.

“We knew the key to this game was holding them out of the end zone and finding ways to get turnovers,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “We knew they were going to get yards. They are tough to defend. We just needed to find ways to keep them out of the end zone and get the ball back for our offense.”

The fact that the Rams are the league’s youngest team is not lost on anyone; they were last year as well. They don’t and won’t use it as an excuse for any failures, but after their successes they can point to it and realize there’s still plenty of growth to come.

After the loss to San Francisco, it was fair to wonder if the Rams’ season would be lost by the time they started to progress again. Fisher told his team that it was starting fresh, that the first four games of the season were nothing more than an extended preseason.

The message was received loud and clear, and now, though the team’s identity is still far from formed, that personality is starting to peek from behind the curtain.

“I believe if you want a head coach in a fistfight, I’ve got Jeff Fisher,” defensive end Chris Long said. “Even in a really tough time, and the last couple weeks have been really tough trying to find an identity as a team to try to fall back on like we thought we were building last year, having him as our head coach and knowing the guys that he’s brought in, the right type of people to help you dig out of this hole and to get to .500, the sky is the limit for us. It’s one game. Now, we’ve got to duplicate this next week.”

Making Rams roster an open proposition

September, 8, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In retrospect, it’s easy for St. Louis Rams linebacker Daren Bates to call the chance he got from the team the perfect situation.

Little did Bates know that when the Rams were the only team to call and express interest in him after he went undrafted in April’s NFL draft that he was walking into a place that actually was the exact fit he’d need to make the team.

“My agent told me this is where I would be at,” Bates said. “So I that’s all I had and that’s what I took. It worked out perfectly.”

In St. Louis, your pedigree doesn’t matter as much as what happens when you step on the field. To borrow a phrase from Twitter follower @3k_, if you can play, you can stay.

So it is that the current 53-man roster has 18 players that were originally undrafted, 14 of whom were signed by the Rams coming out of college, given an opportunity and earned their way on to the roster.

In this year’s undrafted rookie class alone, the Rams kept five players -- linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong, Jonathan Stewart and Bates, defensive end Gerald Rivers and running back Benny Cunningham -- who did not hear their names called in April’s draft.

If the draft is the lifeblood of a franchise, undrafted free agency serves as the blood bank. That’s why, in the Rams’ philosophy, it’s not just general manager Les Snead and his group working hard to unearth hidden gems.

“It’s something that everybody works at, the coaches. It’s a collective effort and it starts well before the draft,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “It’s basically one of those deals where you get a sense for guys on the board and if they’re still left on the board when the draft’s over, you basically express interest and show a need and fortunately we got some quality players.”

It hasn’t always been that way around Rams Park, though. In fact, before the arrival of Fisher, Snead and vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff, the undrafted rookies were generally an afterthought.

Not that the Rams didn’t pursue them but they usually didn’t even make competitive bonus offers to go after the best options available. That has changed plenty in the past two years, and it’s a good reason why the Rams now figure to have undrafted players making major contributions for the first time since London Fletcher in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Safety Rodney McLeod went unselected in 2012, made the team and led it in special teams tackles as a rookie. Most undrafted players get their start on special teams but work their way up after. McLeod is a good example and likely to start on defense against Arizona on Sunday.

“There are Pro Bowlers that were undrafted college free agents,” Fisher said. “So, yeah, basically everybody’s doing it. You spend a lot of time on the bottom of those lists. You spend a lot of time in it, so it’s worked out good for us so far.”

The roster scouring isn’t limited to undrafted free agents, either. Center Tim Barnes, running back Chase Reynolds and tight end Mike McNeill spent time elsewhere before the Rams picked them up. Offensive lineman Brandon Washington was a sixth-round pick by Philadelphia last year, didn’t make the roster and spent the 2012 season on the Rams' practice squad.

Washington proved a valuable scout team member. He clearly understood his role and the old idea that the more you can do, the more valuable you become.

“It was definitely one of those things,” Washington said. “I learned that last year on the practice squad. I kind of bumped around on practice squad and then coach Bones (special teams coach John Fassel) would come pick me up and say ‘Be my gunner or cover this guy on punt return.’ I was like, ‘What in the world?’ Me a gunner?’ But I heard that a lot, the more you could do, the better. I just looked at everything as an opportunity.”

Washington arrived in this year's training camp hoping to earn a spot at guard but plans changed when injuries hit the Rams at tackle. Without hesitation, Washington returned to his Miami (Fla.) roots and played tackle, again showing the versatility and attitude the Rams seek in young players.

After watching the Rams keep young players around him last year, Washington knew when he was told he’d have a shot to make the roster, it wasn’t just lip service.

“All the hard work you put into this thing, you try to come out here and earn a roster spot,” Washington said. “That was my No. 1 goal coming in. You can be on practice squad and then get a chance for this.”

The amount of players making the roster after going undrafted also can’t hurt the Rams in their pursuits of future player in similar predicaments.

Yes, the Rams have been a team reshaping a roster and naturally have more job openings than teams with deeper rosters, but it’s been made clear that the philosophy of keeping the best players regardless of resume isn’t going to change anytime soon.

“Beforehand, I had no idea,” Rivers said. “I just came in hoping for the best and going out there and playing hard. Coach was saying he doesn’t care who you are, (if you are) making plays, production, that is all on the field. Production equals power.”

Three things: Rams-Cardinals

September, 7, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. – Three things to watch in Sunday’s regular season opener between the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals. The game kicks off at 4:25 p.m. ET at the Edward Jones Dome.

1. Getting vertical

A big part of Sunday’s matchup is trying to know the unknown. Arizona has a new coaching staff and along with it new schemes on both sides of the ball. It’s the offense that figures to change the most under the guidance of new coach Bruce Arians.

Arians has long been known for his preference to attack down the field with a vertical passing game. That philosophy brought the offseason acquisition of quarterback Carson Palmer.

As interim coach and offensive coordinator in Indianapolis in 2012, Arians was no different. The Colts tied for sixth in the league with 35 completions of 25-plus yards and ranked first in the league with an average depth of completion of 7.8 yards. Furthermore, the Colts tied for first with 59 pass attempts of 21-30 yards.

It’s safe to assume Arizona will want to attack in similar fashion, with Palmer targeting the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Roberts and Michael Floyd. For that to work, the Cardinals will look to establish the running game with a variety of zone runs and then look to beat the Rams with play-action passes.

The onus then falls on two first-time starters at safety -- T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod -- to ensure that Palmer and Arians aren’t able to go deep for big plays.

“They do a good job of blending in misdirection runs, shifts, motion, different personnel groups, and off of that, throwing the ball down the field,” Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “That’s been his staple. That’s what he’s about. They get you so they can try to take the top off the defense, and if you get soft to cover that, that’s when the run game can get you. So we have to be well-balanced.”

2. A new look

Arizona isn’t the only team ready to debut a new-look offense Sunday. The Rams have worked hard to keep their new toys under wraps through training camp and the preseason, and Sunday will provide the first chance to see quarterback Sam Bradford with tight end Jared Cook, receiver Tavon Austin and others in what is expected to be a more spread-out, up-tempo offense.

Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has said his group plans to pick its spots in turning up the pace, and acknowledged that there will be some new things mixed in with what they’ve already done.

“At the end of the day it comes down to, we have a plan,” Schottenheimer said. “They have rules to adjust to our plays, and they have [a] defense that they’re going to show that we have seen in our rules. It certainly will have more to it [than] you saw in the preseason, but there’ll certainly be some similarities, as well.”

3. Under control

For the second consecutive year, the Rams have the league’s youngest squad. Of the 53 players on the active roster, 28 are entering their first or second season.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher & Co. have made it clear they don’t intend to use that as an excuse for any mistakes they make, but they’ve also acknowledged the reality that a younger team is going to be prone to some miscues. The Rams were hit with 43 penalties for 294 yards in the preseason, but many of those infractions came courtesy of players no longer on the roster or further down the depth chart.

Still, the Rams did lead the league in penalties in 2012. If nerves were ever going to be raging for a young team, opening day would seem to provide a platform. Avoiding penalties, blown coverages and other mental mistakes, and maintaining composure, will be imperative for a young Rams team.

"We’ll keep them rested and hydrated, but, yeah, they just need to keep their heart rate down and just relax,” Fisher said. “That’s the key for the young guys – just relax and go play hard.”
News broke today that safety Quintin Mikell signed a one-year deal with Carolina after spending the past two seasons with the Rams.

It's no surprise that Mikell ended up landing a job somewhere (and with the added benefit of not having to go through training camp) but there are those in Rams Nation that aren't pleased Mikell isn't returning to St. Louis.

In reality, Mikell's departure came down to money (the Rams needed cap space to bolster the offense), and an ongoing commitment to youth and player development.

Mikell's time in St. Louis came with its share of ups and downs but for the most part he was a steady, solid performer, especially in 2012. According to this ESPN Insider piece from the folks at Pro Football Focus, Mikell graded out as the fifth best safety in the league last year. Here's a snippet of what they had to say about Mikell in the rankings:

Analysis: When the Rams spent big on Mikell, it was unlikely he'd see out his deal. It was simply too much money for a player at his spot. It's a shame for St. Louis, which obviously would have liked to keep him. Mikell is a fierce competitor, and in 2012 made his presence felt around the line of scrimmage with more pressure (14 combined sacks, hits and hurries) than any other safety.

Indeed, the Rams parted ways with Mikell much more as a function of needing cap space to sign players like tight end Jared Cook and tackle Jake Long than out of disappointment in his performance. Mikell struggled with missed tackles and coverage mistakes in his first year with the Rams but seemed to find a niche playing more exclusively as a box safety last year. That's evident in the numbers above.

Even after the Rams spent a third-round pick on T.J. McDonald, many Rams fans had held out hope that Mikell might return on a cheaper deal. Indications from the Rams were that there was interest in a reunion, an interest that Mikell might have shared but only in the right situation. My sense is that the right situation meant only in a potential starting role.

With McDonald in place, the Rams have the safety who likely will handle a lot of the in the box work that Mikell did a year ago. Things have trended in the direction of Rodney McLeod handling the other starting spot and he's better suited on the back end, running the alley and sticking in coverage.

Like nearly every position on the roster, the Rams are not hesitating to trend younger at safety. McDonald is a rookie and McLeod is entering his second season.

Behind McDonald and McLeod, the Rams have Darian Stewart, Matt Giordano and Matt Daniels. Stewart and Daniels are younger options that could have long term upside. Giordano is around to provide experience and brings the added value of having worked with John Fassel in Oakland on special teams. When the team signed him, it probably eliminated any chance of Mikell returning.
A deluge of yellow flags has rained down upon the St. Louis Rams during this preseason, reaching its crescendo in Thursday night's game against Baltimore.

All told, the Rams were penalized 17 times for 123 yards against the Ravens, a somewhat astonishing number that it would normally take more disciplined teams two or three games to reach. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Joe Strauss says the Rams can't afford all the sloppy mistakes, no matter if it's starters or backups on the field.

The penalty situation got so bad during the second quarter Thursday that Rams coach Jeff Fisher lit into his team at halftime even though the offending players were mostly backups. The real issue, though, is that the penalties have been an ongoing issue for a team that was the most penalized in the league last season.

In four preseason games, the Rams were called for 43 penalties for 294 yards, and those are just the penalties accepted by opponents.

The mistakes against Baltimore weren't just penalties. The Rams fumbled three times in the game's first four minutes and six seconds.

A certain amount of mental miscues are probably to be expected for a team that's again going to be one of the youngest in the league. But if this group wants to take the next step and return to the postseason, they're going to have to focus on cutting down on the laundry and giveaways.


It was a busy day in this space as we discussed ESPN senior writer John Clayton's quarterback rankings, where Rams QB Sam Bradford checked in at No. 20. ... Former Rams DT D'Marco Farr discussed the concussion-lawsuit settlement and expressed fear of the unknown. ... During last night's game against Baltimore, Rams general manager Les Snead casually mentioned Rodney McLeod as the team's starting safety, leading to the question of whether that's a permanent designation or not. ... After the game, we looked back at five things to watch, including the backup quarterback and running back situations.

The fourth preseason game came and went with only trace signs of starters from either side. The result was not pretty even though the Rams got their first exhibition victory, writes Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch.

Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell dived further into the concussion-lawsuit outcome by talking to former players Stan White and the aforementioned Farr. Burwell writes that there are no winners in the ruling and wonders what the end game from it will be.

With final cuts approaching, the hardest part of trying to predict what the 53-man roster will look like is trying to figure out the roster numbers. In another interesting nugget from the team's broadcast, former Rams receiver Torry Holt indicated that he's been told the Rams will only keep five wide receivers. That would make sense, as the first five are obvious, and a sixth isn't so clear, though Justin Veltung would be the most likely. It also could open things up for a potential fifth tight end as Cory Harkey is likely to miss some time with injury and Lance Kendricks is still returning from knee surgery.