Among the Rams’ many needs as they head into free agency and the draft will be the prospect of depth and growth in the secondary. The Rams have limited cap space to work with, and it’s no secret that they will have to maneuver it well if they are to shore up the unit and compete in the tough NFC West in 2014.
The Rams’ total defense was among the middle of the pack league-wide, finishing 15th in yards allowed per game (345.0) and 13th in points allowed per game (22.8). As the season progressed, the unit played it’s way into the top-10 against the run, but couldn’t muster a similar effectiveness against opposing passers. The Rams’ pass defense allowed an opposing quarterback rating of 94.7 (24th in the league), and additionally gave up just more than 262.5 yards per game to opposing receivers, good for 25th in the league.
There is talent in the secondary, without question. Young cornerback Janoris Jenkins is a firmly entrenched playmaker, and both Trumaine Johnson and safety T.J. McDonald showed flashes of quality in the latter half of the season. However, the unit could certainly benefit from some further direction if it’s young members are to fully reach their potential.
As it stands, the Ram defense has established leaders in each of it’s first two levels in defensive end Chris Long and linebacker James Laurinaitis. Assuming cornerback Cortland Finnegan doesn’t return in 2014, that leaves a very young secondary without any veteran guidance. I tend to side with our friends over at Turfshow Times in believing that at least one seasoned free agent should be brought in to solidify the holes in the unit and take it to the next level.
As of this very moment, Jenkins is the only likely starter among the current members of the secondary heading into 2014. Johnson came on strong as the season progressed playing opposite Jenkins, but he can provide quality depth should the Rams seek to bring in a free agent at corner. I do think, however, that he has the potential to be a long-term starter and I’d be ok with it if he earns his spot at starter. Additionally, McDonald looks poised to compete for starting spot when training camp rolls around. That leaves an opening at safety as well as an opening at corner should the Rams’ show hesitancy in handing the reins to Johnson. I’d be a bit shocked if safety Darian Stewart is brought back, and I’m not sure Rodney McLeod is ready to be a member of the starting 11.
There is one home run solution in free agency, but the Rams’ tight cap situation may not make signing him a realistic possibility. That solution is Jairus Byrd, the unrestricted free agent safety from the Buffalo Bills. Byrd is a St. Louis native, having played his high school ball in St. Louis County at Clayton High School before shipping off to the University of Oregon for college. He is also coming off a second-team All-Pro season despite playing in just 11 games due to an early season bout with plantar fasciitis. Byrd was hit with the franchise tag by the Bills last season and figures to be a very expensive re-acquisition should the Bills go that rout again. Should Byrd hit the market, though, he figures to be the best option available and may likely cost too much for the cash-strapped Rams.
Another option is Cleveland safety T.J. Ward. Ward has become a crucial player for the Browns’ defense, and (much like his former Oregon teammate Byrd) his production was rewarded with a second-team All-Pro selection. However, the Browns have a ton of cap space to work with and figure to make resigning Ward a priority. Should he decide not to return to Cleveland or if the Browns can’t make an appealing enough offer, I’d expect the Rams to at least make an inquiry.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on NFL finances, but it makes sense to me that it’s to the Rams benefit to sign any and all free agents to deals of three years or more to lessen the immediate cap hit in an offseason where the Rams must squeeze what they can out of every penny. There is aging talent on the market, like Indianapolis’ Antoine Bethea and Tennessee’s Bernard Pollard (both 29) who will likely find a long-term contract appealing and can be had for much less than what both Byrd and Ward will demand. Also, they’d provide a nice combination of talent and league experience that could hopefully benefit the likes of Jenkins, Johnson, and McDonald. However, what it will likely boil down to is whether the Rams want to spend that type of money on one position.
Safety is certainly a need for the Rams as the offseason begins, but their immediate priorities likely lie with the offensive line and figuring out the quarterback situation. Should the Rams turn to the draft to add depth to the secondary, there will be first-round talent available in Alabama’s “Haha” Clinton-Dix when the Rams pick at 13, as well as possible impact players in the second and third rounds in Washington State’s Deone Bucannon, Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon, and Florida State’s Terrence Brooks. Still, count me among the crowd that believes a veteran presence is necessary for the young Rams’ secondary to fully take the next step in 2014.
Read why the Rams must bring Sam Bradford back next season.