Where Does The Rams Secondary Rank In The NFC West?
Last January Pro Football Focus ranked the Rams secondary as the best in the league. Less than six months later, the Rams fell to number nine. The good news is that means they will still field one of the best secondaries in the league. But how does the Ram’s secondary rank in the NFC West? It’s become an even more interesting question as the West has stacked talent recently, specifically at quarterback and at receiver.
Of course, Russell Wilson has always pushed secondaries to the limit, but now the West also has Kyler Murray, Trey Lance and Matthew Stafford. Along with that, the West has some of the league’s top pass catchers. Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, D.K. Metcalf, DeAndre Hopkins, and George Kittle are all among the league’s best and there are plenty more Westerners that are knocking on the door of the elite group.
The truth is that the Rams have, far and away, the best secondary in the West. According to the PFF rankings, the next best is the 49ers in the 20th spot. But let’s take a look at each group to find out how the Rams have taken such a big lead in the NFC West at this position group.
4. Arizona Cardinals
It doesn’t seem like the Arizona Cardinals know exactly what they want in their secondary. They have invested heavily in the draft over the last few years. They used three of their seven picks in 2021 on defensive backs, picked Isaiah Simmons with their first pick in 2020 (who they view more as a linebacker), and in 2019 they drafted Byron Murphy 33rd overall and added safety Deionte Thompson in the fifth round.
Not only that, but they have also been very active in free agency this offseason. They moved on from their 2011 fifth overall pick Patrick Peterson and signed Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford. Neither Butler nor Alford, who hasn’t played a snap since the 2018 season, have made the case as a starting CB in recent years. They also haven’t re-signed Dre Kirkpatrick who played 750 snaps for the Cardinals last season.
This sort of turnover doesn’t point toward a coaching staff that knows what to do with talented players and that trend will likely continue into the 2021 season. The perfect example of this is Isaiah Simmons. He was one of the most exciting defensive players in the 2020 draft. A highly compelling hybrid safety/linebacker that possessed a rare combination of size and speed. The Cardinals drafted him but had no idea what to do with him once he was in the building.
He was only used on 376 defensive snaps and a shockingly high amount of special teams snaps. As the season progressed they seemed to find a place for Simmons, yet his usage didn’t reflect that.
Furthermore, they also lack depth. In all likelihood, their rookie corners, Marco Wilson and Tay Gowan will have to play a healthy amount of snaps. At least more than the average rookie fourth and sixth-round picks are usually expected to play.
While it is difficult to see bright spots for the Cardinals, there are a few. Budda Baker is coming off the best season of his career and that will likely continue. Also, Byron Murphy has the slot on lockdown. So at the very least, the Cardinals won’t get beat there.
3. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks tried addressing their issues in the secondary this offseason. They added D.J. Reed and Ahkello Witherspoon and used one of their three draft picks on Tre’ Brown out of Oklahoma. But they also lost Shaquill Griffin. Neither Reed nor Witherspoon has played much as a starter, but now they are at the top of the Seahawks depth chart. They both performed better than Tre Flowers last season, but that will be a battle to watch heading into the 2021 season. Flowers also missed four games last season due to a hamstring injury.
Jamal Adams was a big reason the Seahawks had limited draft picks in 2021. They sent the Jets their 2021 first and third-round picks. The trade hasn’t panned out as well as Seattle had hoped. Adams continued to wreak havoc on quarterbacks in the sense that he led all defensive backs in QB pressures, but in coverage, he was a liability. He posted a career-low 52.5 coverage grade according to PFF. He also missed time due to a litany of injuries last season.
Outside of Adams, the biggest questions remain about the quality of starters, but there are questions about the depth behind the starters as well. Ryan Neal provided the best play as a backup last season, picking off two passes and defending five more. The Seahawks also added veteran talent in Pierre Desir. He has posted a few good seasons in his career and has been a dependable backup across the board.
2. San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have also taken a hit over the last few years. After the 2019 season, PFF ranked the 49ers as having the second-best secondary. Now, the 20th. Of course, injuries ravaged the team in 2020. No starting DB played in all 16 games last season. This exposed the 49ers’ biggest flaw in the secondary; No depth. And they didn’t do a lot to improve that this offseason.
Their best coverage corner from last season was Ahkello Witherspoon who they let walk, along with the veteran Richard Sherman. They added Tavon Wilson which will bolster depth at safety. San Francisco also drafted two corners Ambry Thomas and Deommodore Lenoir and a safety Talanoa Hufanga with later round picks. Thomas would be the most likely to see the field in any significant amount, although they all were productive at the college level.
The injury bug has hit the 49ers’ secondary particularly hard. All five starters have missed significant time due to injuries. Although, Jimmie Ward and Jason Verrett have seemed to be pointing in the right direction.
Emmanuel Moseley, Jaquiski Tartt, and K’waun Williams will round out the starting five. Moseley and Tartt have flashed at times, but neither has shown a high ceiling. Witherspoon has emerged as a top nickel corner in the league. But again, there is a lack of depth behind the starters. This leaves the 49ers hoping that they will stay healthy this season and that some of the depth will rise to meet the moment. Hope is never a good strategy.
1. Los Angeles Rams
The biggest reason PFF dropped the Rams eight spots is because they lost two of their best defensive backs to free agency, Troy Hill and John Johnson III. Hill played the second-most snaps on defense and scored a career-high coverage grade. Johnson also set personal best PFF grades last season and was on the field for all 1,024 defensive snaps last season.
Not only did they lose players, but they also didn’t add much to the secondary in the offseason. They did add one defensive back in Robert Rochell with the 130th overall pick in the fourth round of this year’s draft and they also picked up a handful of undrafted safeties and corners. But because of their well-publicized cap space limits, the Rams didn’t add any high-profile defensive backs in free agency.
But fear not. It’s not all troubles and woes for our Los Angeles Rams secondary. They are still anchored by the best corner in the business; Jalen Ramsey. Darious Williams also took a big leap forward and is poised to move into Troy Hill’s spot. Jordan Fuller showed a lot of promise last season and is the front runner as a successor to John Johnson. He played at least 99% of snaps in games in which he was healthy, including the two Rams playoff games.
Fuller may be flying under PFF’s radar, as they graded him an overall 63.3 and a dismal 58.6 in coverage. But Rams fans will remember him as the player that stuffed CeeDee Lamb behind the first down mark deep in Rams territory and the player who picked Tom Brady off twice, one of which sealed the victory for the Rams. He also racked up the third-most tackles among defensive backs on the team despite missing several games.
The Rams secondary will also see the return of Terrell Burgess and Taylor Rapp. Burgess was getting a good share of playing time last season and will likely seem even more this season. Rapp has established himself as a force to be reckoned with as a playmaker in the defensive backfield. He is a big hitter and often comes up with big plays.
The Rams will be looking for Nick Scott and David Long Jr. to take a jump forward to really round out this squad. There is no guarantee that they will but the Rams have had a track record of developing talent in the secondary and adding Raheem Morris to the mix will only help them along. Morris spent a good time of this coaching career working with DB’s after playing safety while at Hofstra.
How rookie Rochell fits into all of this remains to be seen. What we do know about Rochell is he has some freakish athletic traits. He posted the best vertical among all defensive backs last season, 43 inches. That’s over three and a half feet. And! He already stands 6’2”. He was also near the top in the broad jump, the three-cone, and the shuttle. He also posted a 4.41 40. In a fantastic recent article, Rams Beat Reporter for The Athletic, Jourdan Rodrigue, reported that according to JARS, a Rams internal scouting system, Rochell’s size, and athleticism put him in a category with three other defensive backs that they have collected data on. They are; Obi Melifonwu, Derwin James, and none other than Ramsey himself.
Obviously, this doesn’t guarantee Rochell will be the next Jalen Ramsey, (Case in point Melifonwu) but it is time to get excited about Rochell. If he is able to apply his raw physicality to the pro game, he will likely play outside cornerback opposite Ramsey with Darious Williams covering the slot. It’s hard to imagine a deep threat in the league that can beat two outside corners who are over 6 feet tall with 40+ verticals.
This should make it apparent why the Rams secondary ranks number one in the NFC West. The Rams prioritized (with significant draft capital) landing an elite corner in Ramsey. They also have spotted underrated draft talent in the secondary and consistently developed that talent into quality contributors and even starters.