As the discussion over how early the Rams should take a safety in the draft has heated up in the last couple days, it got me thinking: Would a rangy, do-it-all free safety represent the final piece of what would be a complete Rams’ defense? And if you believe that’s the case, doesn’t it make the selection of one of the top players available at the position an absolute necessity at pick No. 13 in the first round?
It isn’t an easy answer. On the surface, free safety is the one position on the defense where the team doesn’t have a clear-cut starter. Of the safeties currently on the roster, only T.J. McDonald looks poised to put a stranglehold on a starting spot in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ system. Though he’s listed as a free safety officially, McDonald’s aggressive style of play is more tailored toward that of a strong safety. The other safeties on the roster – youngsters Rodney McLeod, Cody Davis, and Matt Daniels – don’t appear to be starting-caliber players. This leaves a massive hole in the secondary at the free safety position.
While it is a consensus top need among sports writers and Rams enthusiasts, the team has been pretty quiet about addressing their plans for the position. As noted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Jim Thomas, the Rams had spoken with Alabama’s Haha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor – widely considered the two best safeties in the draft – but it’s unknown whether either have been hosted on a visit or been subjected to a private workout. This shouldn’t rule out their consideration for either player, especially for Clinton-Dix, who I’ll formally endorse as the team’s best option at pick 13 barring any trade madness.
Clinton-Dix is regarded as the best safety available to play in the “free” role given his combination of both athleticism and football instincts. I won’t pretend to be a scouting expert myself, but from what I’ve gathered his ability to diagnose plays is considered the best among the 2014 safety class, and his coverage skills are undeniable. Getting back to my original point, should Clinton-Dix (or Pryor or Washington State’s Deone Bucannon if Rams’ brass instead deem them more suitable) provide the Rams with the back-end secondary support that they lacked last season, is that the final puzzle piece in a potentially elite defense?
Much of that depends on how you view the progression of cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. It’s unclear whether the team’s lack of attention given to the secondary in free agency is a vote of confidence in the two, but it seems clear that the Rams are comfortable with them for at least the short term. Factor in that the incumbent members of the starting defensive front seven don’t appear to be going anywhere, and all the sudden it looks like free safety is the only hole in the entirety of the defense. However, arguments for upgrades at cornerback and outside linebacker are perfectly valid, and again, that’s where the whole “free safety as final piece” argument begins.
But, say the Rams do bring back 10 of their 11 defensive starters from 2013. We know that the unit can hit hard and fare well against the run, as they finished last season in the top-10 league wide for both forced fumbles and yards allowed on the ground. We also know that they can get to the quarterback. Defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long are pretty good at that. They can score, too. Their five defensive touchdowns led the league last season. But the major area in which they struggled was against the pass. They gave up a league-worst 68.1 completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks (much of which can be attributed to former defensive coordintor Tim Walton’s mind-boggling soft coverage schemes) and were in the bottom quarter of teams in the league by allowing a quarterback rating of 94.7.
So, finally, despite the Rams keeping their plans for safety close to their chest, getting that selection right could mean the completion of the defense in a best-case scenario. From there, you shore up depth and move forward. If Clinton-Dix can provide the range and instincts that he’s billed to possess and is available at 13, for me it’s a no-brainer.
RELATED: Ted will be happy with our latest cover32 mock draft, as the Rams do indeed select Clinton-Dix at no. 13.