"Defense wins championships" is a phrase which has echoed throughout the annals of football history. Consider for a moment that 38 of the 46 Super Bowl winners have had a defense ranked in the top 10 in the National Football League. Going further, 22 of those championship teams have ranked in the top three. The 1985 Bears, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the list goes on and on. Yes, in today’s NFL, teams must be able to dominate in the passing game.
Nothing demonstrates this philosophy more than teams drafting the skill players, wide receivers, running backs, and quarterbacks more often in the first few rounds of the draft over the last ten years. Conversely, just as many defensive players have had their names called come draft day. Over the last decade of drafts, 84 of the 160 players chosen within the top 16 picks have been defensive players. In that crowd of players, we have names like DeAngelo Hall, Von Miller, Dwight Freeney, Troy Polamalu, A.J. Hawk, Mario Williams and, Shawne Merriman to name only a few.
In the upcoming NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams have a few options staring them in the face with the #6 pick. Some in Rams Nation want to draft the beast of a running back out of the University of Alabama, Trent Richardson. Another route the Rams could take is to draft Justin Blackmon out of Oklahoma State. Blackmon is seen as the best wide receiver available within the top spots, and is getting a great deal of attention from the Rams in addition to the Cleveland Browns. The O.S.U. star has been touted as a yards after catch machine, with a burst after catching the ball, and elusive running skills. He also rarely gets jammed at the line, and can get open underneath. Blackmon has been knocked for his concentration issues however. He often turns to run before squarely securing the ball, and he has had some interesting and untimely drops. I for one am not so sure that a pass catcher with A.D.D. is the best choice here at #6. Blackmon would make an excellent number two wide out, and a team with an incumbent number one guy will thrive on offense with Blackmon’s services.
An option open to the Rams in the draft is to go defense. Enter Morris Claiborne, the cornerback from Louisiana State University. Claiborne is probably going to be the best player available when the Rams are on the clock. Morris stands 5’11" and weighs in at 188 lbs. He is freakishly athletic, and uses his 33 ¼" long arms and 8" hands to scoop footballs from the air like so many fireflies in a child’s net. Projected as an NFL ready defensive back, Claiborne will make an instant contribution to the Rams defense. A unit that already touts talents like Chris Long, James Laurinitis, and Cortland Finnegan will surely improve with both corner positions locked down on game day.
Claiborne has the ability to put the chains on opposing wide receivers. A shutdown corner in the making, his strengths include his ability to jam receivers at the line, redirect receivers at will, along with great hands and running ability out of the back pedal. Some compare him to the great cornerback Charles Woodson. Personally, I will take a Charles Woodson clone any day over a number two receiver or a presumptive backup running back like Trent Richardson. Claiborne isn’t just another splashy, sexy pick in the vein of Al Davis; the now deceased owner of the Oakland Raiders who used to draft players based off of size and speed alone. Claiborne has the credentials to back up the media hype surrounding him. Claiborne’s honors include being selected as a 2011 Consensus All-American, the 2011 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and the 2011 Jim Thorpe Award winner. He can also lend his talents to the Rams’ return game, as Claiborne averaged 25.4 yards per kick return over his collegiate career. Often compared to the Arizona Cardinal’s Patrick Peterson; who Rams fans are all too familiar with, Claiborne is an elusive ball carrier, making everyone trying to tackle him look like they are running in slow motion. Often overshadowed by his teammate the "Honey Badger", Tyrann Mathieu, during the 2011 season, Claiborne is no slouch, having 95 total tackles, 11 interceptions (274 interception return yards) and, 23 passes defended for his short career.
Let’s take a look at some highlights shall we? Roll Tape!
Did you see that? Claiborne has the ability to leap high into the air, catching the ball at its highest point, something that is a carry-over from his days as a wide receiver. With his 34" vertical and those long arms (77" wingspan); he is a formidable presence that can shut down one side of the field. By taking away an opposing team’s number one threat, he instantly makes the rest of the defense better by allowing them to focus on assignments and making plays of their own. An upgrade at cornerback for the Rams, Claiborne, in tandem with Cortland Finnegan, would force teams to go for the shorter and intermediate routes and focus on the running game. With the Rams other upgrades on defense, and draft possibilities at defensive tackle and linebacker in later rounds, the Rams defense could be scary good in 2012.
But you say : "What about our poor wide receiver corps Papa?" Trust me folks, I have been a strong advocate of going after that #1 wide out via free agency or the draft for years now. Unfortunately for the Rams, who sit at #6 overall, this draft class is lacking in an immediate #1 guy. However, this draft class is chock full of wide receivers who could make an immediate impact at the #2 WR position. The Rams had the opportunity to address the position via free agency, but only signed a young retread in Steve Smith. Sure, there are lots of prospects in this class who could develop into a #1 pass catcher, but many will be there in the 2nd round, where the Rams have two picks.
For those in Ram Nation who still doubt that defense wins championships I point to "the tackle". During what was the beginning of the NFL’s pass heavy/reliant league philosophy, the Rams Super Bowl win was won not by Kurt Warner throwing a game winning touchdown to Isaac Bruce, or Marshall Faulk busting off a 25 yard run. No Rams fans, the game was won on defense. Even the pass happy New Orleans Saints owe their Super Bowl ring to defense, who shut down the prolific Indianapolis Colts offense with a nail in the coffin interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Tracy Porter.
Defense won’t always win championships, but it will most of the time. A shored up defense with the drafting of LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne will shut down opposing offenses, giving Sam Bradford and his offense more time of possession. With the free agent signing of Steve Smith, and the possible signing of free agent Jerricho Cotchery, the Rams wide receiver corps will surely improve. Of course there is still the draft to consider when discussing the position. In today’s pass oriented NFL, no other positions are more important on defense than pass rushers and defensive backs. With starting defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn getting after the quarterback and corners Cortland Finnegan and Morris Claiborne locking down their man, the St. Louis Rams defense could be poised to be the best in the NFC.