One thing is for sure, the St. Louis Rams are on the uprise.
This upstart organization spearheaded by Les Snead and Jeff Fisher have spent the last two offseasons dismantling, reshuffling and reloading the roster with premier talent. In 2011, the offensive line had more holes than Torrey Pines as the sub-par unit gave up 55 sacks. The unit progressed in this area in 2012 only giving up 35 sacks. With the addition of 4-time pro bowl left tackle Jake Long and consensus All-American and 2011 Outland Trophy winner (Best Lineman in College Football) Barrett Jones, The Rams look to solidify the O-line even further.
The receivers were also vastly upgraded by drafting the physical specimen Brian Quick and the team’s leading receiver Chris Givens in the 2012 draft only to one-up themselves by selecting the most explosive playmaker this year’s draft in Tavon Austin and his record breaking teammate Stedman Bailey. St. Louis already prepared themselves for the departure of Steven Jackson by picking Isaiah Pead in the 2nd round and Daryl Richardson in round seven in the 2012 draft, not to mention RB Zach Stacy who the Rams were smitten with by trading both of their 6th round picks to select him in the 5th round of the 2013 draft.
Do I even have to introduce the roaming, ultra-athletic outside linebacker Alec Ogletree who was the other first round pick this past draft?
The Rams’ front office have gotten rid of downtrodden deficiencies on the team and replaced them with gifted youth. However, the position that underwent the most drastic change was the safety position. After the releasing of Quintin Mikell due to cap issues and Craig Dahl because of constant lapse in coverage and lack of production, St. Louis will have the two new starting safeties running out the tunnels of the Edward Jones Dome, 71st overall selection T. J. McDonald of USC and regime holdover Darian Stewart.
This unproven pair is one of the biggest question marks on the Rams roster. True, as a rookie, McDonald will be thrust into the fire of arguably the best division in football in the revamped NFC West and Stewart, who was a former starter that showed promise in 2011, looks to rebound from an injury riddled and lost season as he was beat out by former Rams S Dahl. Though this pair is untested, they are also underrated, and here is why:
As a full-time in the 2011 season, Darian Stewart played in 15 games and started in a total on 13 contest. That year, the Rams finished 7th in total pass defense compared to 15th in passing in 2012. Different situations and factors contributed to the numbers, but Stewart played a vital role in those rankings.
When examining these statistics, you immediately take notice to total yards, touchdowns and interceptions. It’s reasonable to say the less of amount yards in 2011 can be attributed to fewer attempts and completions, but the touchdowns and completions tell a different story. The Rams’ top corners in 2011 were Ron Bartell, who suffered a season ending injury first game of the season, Bradley Fletcher who was coming off a season ending injury prior to the 2011 season, Justin King was repeatedly beat at the line of scrimmage, the respectable Al Harris was at the end of his career at age 34, practice squad promoted Josh Gordy and Roderick Hood. That group of corners combined for 5 interceptions compared to 3 by Stewart and Mikell. Paired along with Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson who combined for 8 interceptions in 2012, Stewart has the help and support from bonafide playmakers on the outside to strengthen his coverage skills.
After a successful 4-1-1 record against the NFC West in 2012, the re-addition of Stewart will only bolster the secondary. Against the NFC West in 2011, Stewart finished with 32 tackles, 3 sacks, and a forced fumble. When facing the NFC as a whole, he totaled 65 tackles, 3 sacks, a forced fumble and a game sealing interception return for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints.
You could somewhat say Stewart is clutch, over half of his total tackles and all of his sacks came when trailing and when the game was tied. Stewart finished 3rd on the team in tackles in 2011 with 84, 3 sacks and one interception.
With one half of the safety position filled, the other slot is occupied by an opposing prospect.
The 6’3″ 219 pound safety has been destined for the NFL since his Pop Warner days largely credited to his father who was a pro bowl safety and Super Bowl champion for the San Francisco 49ers.
"NFL bloodlines with pro size and length who has played deep and in the box. Hits like a missile in the middle of the field, uses his shoulder to bring real power into the back or midsection of receivers with closing speed and tenacity. Solid ball skills, looks high and wide passes into his hands and can get down to get his hands under low throws. Physical presence around the line, sticks his head into short-yardage plays and uses his length to stay off lineman blocks and to wrap up running backs in traffic and receivers in the flat. Attacks the alley aggressively when coming downhill from two-high coverages. Does a good job fighting through blocks and making tackles on screens. Tries to lay the kill shot on wide receivers over the middle, but generally a good form tackler against running backs. Height and size come in handy on jump ball situations. Will be a factor on special teams, both using his length on the kick block team and as a strong tackler on coverage units."
After his junior campaign at USC, McDonald was graded as a first round talent as he was widely considered the top safety prospect in the draft. He compiled 67 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions and 5 pass deflections. The main knock on him is the stiffness of his hips and being overaggressive, but that tenacity can be tweaked and put to valuable use.
Analyst and onlookers said his play on the field declined which caused his drop to round three, but whatever way you spin it, 112 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss one sack and two interceptions is not a decline in my eyes. Not to mention these number came in the wake of a scheme change as he never looked comfortable in Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2.
McDonald is an excellent fit in Fisher’s defense as he translates to a hard hitting, in-the-box safety virtually filling the role vacated by Mikell who was no where near the prospect of McDonald as an undrafted free agent out of Boise State. Tim Walton, the Rams’ new defensive coordinator who was the Lions’ secondary coach and also a product of Fisher’s coaching tree, will bring out the best in McDonald.
The duo of Stewart and McDonald are essentially unproven as of now, but they both have the talent and skill set to take defense and secondary of St. Louis to new heights.