Jerome Muprhy's season-ending injury means the St. Louis Rams have one more question to answer before the 2011 season starts. Coaches tentatively penciled Murphy in as the Rams third cornerback. Without him, there is already talk the team might seek another corner in free agency. And what about the possible options already on the roster?
With thirteen-year veteran Al Harris and fourth-year Justin King, it's not as though the Rams lack experienced options. Can either of those players be counted on to play an increased role with Murphy out? And what about some of the younger players at that position?
Al Harris - Once upon a time, he was a fearsome presence in the secondary. He made the Pro Bowl twice during his stint with the Packers, but at 36 his skills have faded and injuries are a concern. Harris plays a rough and tumble physical style, which only contributes to the injuries. Staying healthy and finishing his career on a high note was one of Harris' motivations for seeking another opportunity this year after bounding around the league last year, mostly on PUP and IR lists. He can contribute, but it's doubtful that he could fill in as a starter and carry that load.
Justin King - King can fly, and when the Rams picked him in the fourth round of the 2008 NFL draft, many thought they got a real steal. One of the knocks on King in the draft, however, as a three-year graduate at Penn State man felt he came to the NFL without a much-needed fourth season of polish. Then, he missed his entire rookie year, stunting his development. Injuries have nagged him since then; he played just 8 games last year. The biggest knock I have on King is his football awareness. He seemed to get caught out of place on more than one occasion last year. He was definitely a better nickle option than Kevin Dockery, but is that the standard you want to be measured against? He's probably the best bet to be third in line now.
Things get really questionable after those two...
Marquis Johnson - A seventh-round pick out of Alabama last year, he does have the college resume you like to see. He played lots and lots of nickle in Alabama's defense, subbing in as a starter some too. He set the school record for six pass breakups in one game. Johnson had some injury issues last year. This is a prime opportunity for him to earn some playing time. His ceiling is probably as a nickle.
Mikail Baker - A seventh-round pick this year, Baker is more of a kick returner than a defensive back. He also missed time in college because of injury. Has to be considered a long shot to make the roster at this point.
Jonathan Nelson - This could be a guy to keep your eyes on as camp and the preseason progress. A late bloomer in college, Nelson is kind of hybrid between a CB and safety. One draft expert called him a sleeper. We'll see what happens, but it's folly to think even with an outstanding rookie performance, he could be counted on to play such a big role this year.
It's a pretty rough year for undrafted free agents, and there aren't many names worth committing to memory among the Rams' UDFA corners. There just isn't time to develop the more raw prospects. However, one name among that group has had some moments in the early part of training camp...
Dionte Dinkins - Considered one of the top small school UDFA corners, Dinkins is big, but not particularly fast. He is physical, which gives him a leg up in the Rams' press scheme. The Fort Valley State product might well have a future in the NFL as a developmental player.
However, the Rams can't use developmental players to replace their top corners, which is why adding another name in free agency is probably a sure bet. That might not happen until roster cuts start happening closer to the start of the season. Keep an eye on players with experience under the Rams' coaches or in very similar systems, as they'll need someone capable of stepping in right away.