For St. Louis Rams fans, the names being thrown around as free agency approaches are intriguing. Alterraun Verner. Cortland Finnegan. Antonio Cromartie. With a young secondary plagued by inconsistency and injury in 2013, it is difficult to argue with the idea that signing a talented veteran cornerback would improve the Rams’ defense. But, with holes on both sides of the ball and limited salary cap space, the Rams would certainly love to be able to conserve their financial resources.
This is where 2012 draft picks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson can step in. Is there reason to be skeptical of their ability to elevate the Rams to the next level? Without a doubt. They must improve substantially within the next two seasons. If they do, here are five long-term advantages the pair can provide over any external option:
In the wake of Cortland Finnegan’s impending release, the last thing Rams fans want to see is another huge contract for a big name cornerback. Re-signing Finnegan under a more team-friendly deal is not out of the realm of possibility, but Verner and Cromartie will command money that St. Louis does not have. Jenkins and Johnson, on the other hand, are under team control through 2015 with rookie-level contracts that entail very little risk to the Rams. For all the trouble Jenkins gave the Rams during his contract negotiations, his four-year, $5 million contract is minuscule compared to the asking price of top free agents corners so far this offseason. Johnson, as a third-round-pick, has an even smaller contract, valued at approximately $3 million over four years.
The Rams’ “youth movement” has been widely publicized since Jeff Fisher took over. Widespread roster turnover and an infusion of rookies at nearly every position have led many to speculate that the Rams are in need of a veteran presence, someone to mentor the young players. At this point, however, linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn are ready to lead, and the need for a “veteran” appears less prominent than ever.
Jenkins is 25 and Johnson is 24. Their best years are ahead of them, and ideally, they will get exponentially better with each season. They are familiar with the organization and, with their “sophomore slumps” hopefully behind them, they can provide the Rams with years of excellent play.
You don’t have to watch many Rams games to figure out what kind of team they are trying to be. It’s all about speed, speed, speed. Robert Quinn is quite possibly the quickest defensive lineman in the NFL, and the influx of speed on the offensive side of the ball makes it apparent that St. Louis is trying to mask other deficiencies in their game with pure, unbridled speed.
Jenkins and Johnson have reported unofficial 40-yard-dash times of 4.46 and 4.50, respectively. For comparison, Alterraun Verner has run as high as 4.60 in the same test. The importance of 40-times may be overstated, but the youthful quickness this duo plays with shows itself on nearly every snap.
The Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” secondary made headlines all season with its clutch plays, big hits, and outspoken nature. One aspect of their secondary in particular stood out, though. Cornerbacks Brandon Browner and All-Pro Richard Sherman both stand well above 6-feet tall, and much of their physical dominance can be attributed to their height.
Trumaine Johnson stands at 6-foot-2, and with another year under his belt, he can learn to play as “big” as Seattle’s corners. In 2013, he often showed hesitation and was unable to assert himself in the first five yards after the snap. As NFL wide receivers continue to get bigger and the league continues shifting towards a pass-happy nightmare for defensive backs, Johnson has an opportunity to elevate his game and become an athletic, yet physically dominant, cornerback for the St. Louis Rams.
Since the end of the “Greatest Show on Turf” era, the Rams have struggled to establish their image as anything more than a mediocre team in the NFL. Since being dismissed from the University of Florida, Jenkins has struggled to paint himself as anything more than a talented player with off-the-field issues. And, last year, Johnson was arrested for DUI.
The confluence of these three struggles can be worked into an advantage for the Rams. If Jenkins and Johnson can keep their recklessness and anger contained to the football field, they can succeed where countless others have failed since the early 2000s.
They can give the Rams the image of a tough, chippy, and physical football team, can get in the heads of opposing wideouts, and can bring the Rams headlines and media attention in the way the aforementioned Sherman has done in Seattle. If Jenkins stays aggressive, like he did against wide receiver Steve Smith and Carolina in 2013, but also backs it up with his play, the Rams will have found the image they’ve been searching for.
Alterraun Verner is good, but the St. Louis Rams would be wise to use the money elsewhere…