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2020 Rams position battles: Nickel cornerback

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It won’t be Nickell Robey-Coleman this time around

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

We don’t know exactly when training camp will begin and really if the NFL season will happen at all, but there’s nothing left for fans and writers to do other than precede as if all is normal. Because why not? That is what the NFL is doing after all. There is no apparent upside to giving up before it becomes readily apparent that the worst is happening. On that note, training camp position battles should still be a thing.

The Los Angeles Rams will have a lot of those. I would count at least six starting jobs on offense as up in the air. Things are thought to be more understood on the defensive side of the ball but there is plenty left to settle.

Among those positions is one that may remain underrated even after a few years now of people calling it underrated: the slot.

Whether it’s on offense or defense, slot receivers and slot corners are often still seen as the “number three” player at the position for those teams. We also know that this is not the case for plenty of teams. Larry Fitzgerald has been a slot receiver for a long time. He was happy to make the move under Bruce Arians because he was assured “100 balls per year” and from 2015-2017 he averaged 108. Defensively, Chris Harris may one day generate Hall of Fame discussion despite the fact that he’s spent virtually all of his career defending the slot.

And yet these players are paid less and drafted lower than their outside counterparts. Does that make you feel more comfortable knowing that players like Fitzgerald, Tyler Lockett, and Deebo Samuel could be coming out of the slot in 2020? Sure, you’ve also got to worry about DeAndre Hopkins, DK Metcalf, and Brandon Aiyuk. All the more reason to feel secure at nickel.

The LA Rams can’t feel secure at nickel right now.

Nickell Robey Coleman-played in all but one game after spending three seasons on the Rams defense under Wade Phillips. But big changes are coming after Phillips was replaced by Brandon Staley and Robey-Coleman was among a number of “starters” departing on defense as he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Pro-Football-Reference says Robey-Coleman was targeted 64 times last season, allowing 64% completions, 6.3 yards per target, and one touchdown. He intercepted zero passes. More dominant numbers in the slot belong to Jason McCourty of the New England Patriots, who was targeted 56 times and allowed 48% completions, 4.8 yards per target, and no touchdowns, intercepting one pass. Of course, McCourty played next to Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and some really excellent teammates, like brother Devin McCourty.

The good news there is that the Rams should have some really solid secondary players too.

Jalen Ramsey is a legitimate “next Stephon Gilmore” candidate, as in a cornerback talented enough to win Defensive Player of the Year. And Troy Hill wasn’t too far behind Jason McCourty’s numbers: 45.6% completions, 5.8 yards per target, two touchdowns allowed, two interceptions. Safety John Johnson could be one of the better players at his position and Taylor Rapp showed plenty of promise as a rookie.

It allows for the nickel corner position to arguably have a more likely path to success for whoever is next. Who - ever - is - next?

The frontrunner is David Long and there doesn’t seem to be much competition. The only other name really worth mentioning is third round rookie safety Terrell Burgess, who may get his opportunity to compete there given the lack of other options and the unlikeliness of him winning a starting job at safety next season.

Long was a third round pick out of Michigan in 2019, going 79th overall. He is 5’11, 196 pounds, ran a 4.45 40-yard dash and he recorded three interceptions and 12 passes defensed over two seasons with the Wolverines. Over eight games as a rookie, Long made nine tackles and played in 109 snaps, which is roughly one-tenth of a season. In that one-tenth, Long was targeted 13 times, allowing nine catches and a touchdown. It’s not great, but expectations have to be low at that point in his career.

Not quite the same in 2020 as Long could be called upon to regularly defend those names above and others like them.

If not, Burgess comes in at 5’11, 192 pounds, and running a 4.46. He was also a third round pick (104th) and though he only spent one season as a starter at Utah, he’s coming into the NFL on a high note. Burgess is praised for versatility and getting an opportunity at nickel in his first season would not be high on the list of surprises.

The Rams have a handful of other cornerbacks, including Darious Williams, Donte Deayon, Adonis Alexander, and undrafted free agent signing Levonta Taylor, but their inclusion near the top of this battle will await an actual training camp. Let’s hope that can safely happen on time.