As the 2014 NFL season approached there was plenty of hype surrounding the potential of the St. Louis Rams defense. With an already stacked defensive line adding Aaron Donald to the mix, and the hiring of Greg Williams as Defensive Coordinator, it appeared the defense may be on the verge of breaking into "elite" conversation. With all the excitement regarding the Rams front 7 (Mike Tanier from Sports on Earth called it the best) there was still reservations about the secondary. Could 3rd year players, and veterans of the group, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson turn their first round talents into first round production? Could TJ McDonald and Rodney McLeod hold up in coverage on the back end? Would Williams' exotic packages place too much pressure on young players leading to blown coverages?
Trumaine Johnson - C-
Trumaine Johnson went down to the turf in the Rams preseason victory over the Cleveland Browns, and it sure looked like he may not return for the 2014 season. Tru saw his first action of the season on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. Johnson brought some much needed depth and experience to the secondary, and surprisingly played 52 snaps on defense in his return, but the rust (and fatigue) definitely showed up on the 49ers final possession. Hard to grade Johnson based on a single game, but I am going to anways so sue me.
Janoris Jenkins - B-
Try to forget the image of Brandon Lloyd streaking down the sideline on Monday Night Football for a minute. It is true Jenkins made one of the worst defensive plays you are likely to ever see, but lets try to look at the body of work so far this season. Jenkins did snag a pick 6 against the Dallas Cowboys as the Rams jumped out to a 21-0 lead during week 3. In general he has been assigned the oppositions best WR, and has performed admirably in that role. Jenkins continues to make the splash plays (5 career defensive TDs), flashing his immense potential, yet also having some consistency issues. If Jenkins could eliminate the mental mistakes and play with more football smarts, he could be one of the top corners in the NFL. His return to the lineup in the second half of the season could go a long way to improving the secondaries overall performance down the stretch.
Lamarcus Joyner - B+
If you don't like what you have been seeing from rookie Lamarcus Joyner then you must be crazy. Yes he has looked like a rookie at times, but he has seemed to steadily improve as the season goes along. He is also a fiesty slot corner that packs quite the punch. At 5'8" and only 184 lbs you wouldn't expect him to offer much in run support, yet he already has 2 tackles for loss on the season to go with 2 passes defensed. He looks to be the kind of versatile secondary player Greg Williams is known to covet, as he gains experience he could emerge as a star for the Rams.
EJ Gaines - A
The 6th round rookie out of Missouri sure has been a pleasant surprise this season. With the injury to Trumaine Johnson, Gaines was pressed into action and has held up well for a rookie. Gaines has certainly had his ups and downs, as you would expect from any young Cornerback, but its hard not to like what this kid offers. He already has 7 passes defensed, 1 interception, and 2 tackles for loss. In case you were wondering the Rams as a team have 24 PDs on the season, so Gaines is clearly getting targeted often and holding up. I don't think its a stretch to say he has been the teams best secondary player so far this year, and considering he was the 188th overall choice of the 2014 Draft I was tempted to give him an A+.
Marcus Roberson - C
Roberson hasn't seen a ton of work so far this season, although he did technically get the start against the 49ers in Santa Clara. Roberson hasn't been a major liability, although he did leave Anquan Boldin wide open for an easy touchdown against the 49ers. The fact an undrafted rookie cornerback was starting against the 49ers shows just how much shuffling has occured in the Rams secondary this year. Roberson likely wont spend as much time on the field in the second half of the season, assuming Jenkins and Johnson resume their starting CB duties.
TJ McDonald- B
Perhaps I am being too generous with TJ here, he does happen to be one of my favorite players in the Rams secondary. It is true McDonald is mostly a liability in coverage, but with 4 tackles for loss and 2 passes defensed to go with 49 total tackles he has been productive. Some of his best moments have come on Special Teams, but we wont consider those for this grade. McDonald seems to have improved overall in his second NFL season, it will be interesting to see how he is deployed as the Rams integrate former first rounder Mark Barron into the secondary.
Rodney McLeod - B-
I will probably get plenty of flack for this grade, but McLeod has been better than I anticipated coming into this season. He has 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, and 4 passes defensed. Yes he has been involved in most of the Rams seemingly "one time per game" lapses in coverage, but with the rotation of young CBs in front of him it is understandable there would be some communication issues. Then take into account the new Greg Williams defensive scheme (which the whole team seems to be adjusting to) and I give him somewhat of a pass there.
Overall Grade - C+
The Rams secondary has dealt with plenty of injury issues that has strained its depth, which is thankfully an area which has been greatly improved under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead. The secondary hasn't been everything it could be up to this point, but all things considered its hard to give them too bad of a grade. As previously mentioned the blown coverage once per game is frustrating, but if they could eliminate those issues they might actually be onto something. Some of those blown coverages could be attritubed to young players making mistakes, players unfamiliar with each other having communication trouble, or a combination of both. Those are the types of things you expect to improve as time goes along, hopefully they can reduce the coverage lapses in the second half of the season. As the secondary gets healthier, and as Greg Williams figures out how he wants to deploy Mark Barron, this unit could certainly be a major factor if the Rams defense is to achieve the top 10 level we all hoped for.
Thanks for reading and as always, Go Rams!!!