Besides the glaring need on the offensive line, the Safety position has become a point of emphasis in this year’s NFL draft. The incumbent Craig Dahl is an unrestricted free agent. He finished fifth on the team in tackles, but was a costly liability in coverage. The Rams are showing no signs of interest in re-signing Dahl. Quintin Mikell caught fire towards the end of the season as St. Louis inched him towards the line of scrimmage blitzing off the edge. Mikell is due a $6 million base salary next season, but he has excelled in his two years in a Rams’ uniform and will mostly likely be retained. The Rams still managed to finish 15th in passing defense and tied for 11th in the NFL with 17 interceptions without an elite safety.
With an open slot at safety, this year’s crop is loaded with a ton a talent to fill the void. The consensus number one safety is Kenny Vaccaro of Texas. Vaccaro is said to possess the prototypical combination of size and athleticism to man the free or strong safety position in the NFL. He is known as a ball-hawking safety with the ability to come down into the box as well. He is projected to go t0p-15 or even top-10. It will be interesting to see who the Rams select at 16 if guard Chance Warmack of Alabama and Vaccaro remain on the board at the first of two first first-round picks. Vaccaro posted a career-high 107 tackles in 2012, but had a modest five career interceptions and never hauled in more than two in a single season.
Vaccaro opted out the Senior Bowl along with coveted safety D.J. Swearinger of South Carolina, and underclassmen such as Eric Reid of LSU, Matt Elam of Florida and Tony Jefferson of Oklahoma were not allowed to participate. However, plenty of options still remain at the safety position.
Robert Lester of Alabama, T.J. McDonald from USC and the two safeties from Georgia, Shawn Williams and Baccari Rambo are also projected to go early in the draft. I see Rambo as the sleeper in this year’s group. In his junior year at Georgia, Rambo corralled eight interceptions. He missed the first four games in 2012 for failing a drug test. However, his high school coach noted that the positive test was caused by inadvertently eating marijuana brownies. Rambo stands at 6 feet, 218 pounds and is currently the sixth ranked safety according to the WalterFootball 2013 NFL Draft Safety Ranking. The knock against Rambo is he is not seen as a sure tackler, or a big hitter for that matter.
Lester is the polar opposite of Rambo as he is known for his aggressive style a play. He still came down with four interceptions this season and a total of 14 in his career at Alabama. McDonald, who is also the son of former football Cardinals and San Francisco safety Tim McDonald, earned first-team all-American status in 2011. That made him and his father the first father-son team to do so at USC, although some college analysts say he failed to live up to expectations.
Another ball-hawk and Jim Thorpe award finalist, Phillip Thomas of Fresno State, had eight interceptions to lead the nation and set a Mountain West record. Thomas returned three off those interceptions for touchdowns, only one shy of the NCAA record. His playmaking ability should entice Fisher and his scout team as standout rookie CB Janoris Jenkins had four defensive touchdowns this past season with the Rams.
Safeties from lesser known schools such as Duke Williams of Nevada might transition better at cornerback. He often times played in the slot when Nevada went to their nickle package. His 5’11” frame also plays a part in his transition. Jonathan Cyprien of Florida International is another lesser known gem.
The Rams’ young and tenacious defense leaped onto the scene this season, finishing 14th in total defense. They are only a player or two away from becoming a dominant defense in the league for years to come.
Oh, and a defensive coordinator as well.