The St. Louis Rams have started training camp. With less than a week, the big issues, position battles, etc. remain. Today, we're continuing our preseason look at the Rams most glaring issues with our best and worst case scenarios. Since this became unofficial Tye Hill day, why not turn the series to the defensive side of the ball with a look at the cornerbacks.
There are a couple of facets to defending the passing game, and with Spagnuolo and Flajole at the helm, an aggressive pass rush is the first and sexiest line of defense. Beyond that, the system calls for physical corners pressing receivers at the line and playing man coverage down the field with the free safeties working deep and ready to move on the ball. Some of the problems last year, especially for Hill, had to do with confusion around who to cover and where to cover them. Opposing receivers would sometimes find themselves alone downfield as corners and safeties moved their way in-front of and beyond them.
As you may have heard, the Rams have a position battle brewing for two of the three top spots at cornerback. However, it's more than just a simple position battle. The players vying for those roles include rookies, former practice squad guys and a former first round pick trying to turn his career around and prove he can start in the NFL. Let's take a look at the possibilities.
Best Case Scenario: Tye Hill clicks and earns the starting job out of camp. It's a close though with rookie Bradley Fletcher showing a lot of potential in the more physical style of play and Justin King building on the impression he made last year in camp before succumbing to injury. The play of the two inexperienced corners ends up costing Jonathan Wade his job as an acceptable nickel. On the field, led by Ron Bartell, the Rams corners are able to restrict all but the most threatening passing games in the league, i.e. those terrible twosomes like Bolding and Fitzgerald still give them some headaches but nothing like the blowouts of old. Combined with solid play up front, the Rams have a respectable, middle of the pack pass defense that's always a threat for the INT.
Worst Case Scenario: Bartell has to essentially go it alone. Forced to play matchups with their only reliable corner, opposing QBs, even with the threat of occasional sack, pick apart the Rams secondary. Fletcher's physical play helps at the line, but better receivers can work around it and beat the secondary in man-to-man. Hill gets the playbook a little better than last year, but just isn't built for the physical style employed by the Rams. King is fast, but he ends up making most of his tackles after the receiver has the ball, struggling when he's forced to play between the QB and WR. This version of the pass defense looks a lot like the last one in the box score each Monday morning.
Most Likely Scenario: Some combination of Hill, King, Fletcher or Wade make the roster behind Bartell. They learn the playbook pretty well and avoid the confusion of who's covering who and where they're supposed to be, which keeps things from getting ugly by the half. Remember that game against the Eagles last year? Fletch and King flash potential, albeit with plenty to remind fans how green they still are. Hill develops consistency as a starter, though struggling with the physical style of the Rams new system.
What to watch for in camp: It's pretty simple really. First, keep an eye on how well the corners, especially the rookies, learn the system. The physical style won't be a fit for all of them, so keep a close eye on how well guys react to those demands, even against physical receivers like Keenan Burton in practice. Second, watch Tye Hill, specifically his hands and eyes as well as his ability to hold down assignments and react from play to play. Finally, I'm keeping an eye on Quincy Butler. Mostly a practice squad guy, he has the requisite size for the Rams scheme and seems to be all over the field (in a good way) early in camp.