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Can the LA Rams ‘corner’ the market on under-the-radar defensive backs?

Small school prospects that could do double duty for Les Snead

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Utah at San Diego State Photo by Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In one month, approximately 900 young football players will sign professional football contracts and get their big chance to earn a role in the NFL. It's THE big day for aspiring prospects, the Los Angeles Rams scouting department, and of course, fans.

There are as many draft strategies as there are teams and it doesn’t matter if you draft for positional needs, best player available, athleticism, production or any combination thereof. Every team will have to stock their training camp rosters with at least 20 fledgling defensive backs and most teams deciding on 10 or 12 for the final squad.

Competition will be ferocious and versatility may end up being the deciding factor between a final roster spot and and the practice squad. Under Sean McVay and Les Snead, the Rams have favored versatility throughout the entire team. Players on both sides of the ball are cross-trained at multiple positions to embed scheme and situational adaptability.

Behind Jalen Ramsey, the Rams cornerback room is unproven. David Long and Robert Rochell are players that have real upsides but lack game experience. Long played well in Super Bowl, but has had his ups-and-downs and Rochell, a small school draftee in 2021, needs NFL seasoning. Kareem Orr, Tyler Hall, and Grant Haley have all bounced around the league and provide support on special teams.

With that being said, the Rams could, and probably should, use pick #104 on a cornerback. If they don’t decide to go that way, it’s a deep 2022 cornerback class and there will still be value available in the mid/late rounds and undrafted ranks. Today we’ll look at some prospects that will most likely go undrafted, but have the coverage skills to play cornerback and the size/physicality to move to safety. For small school prospects, getting noticed before the NFL Draft is only the first hurdle, next comes stepping up and seizing the opportunity.

Daron Bland- Fresno St. 6’ 203 lbs. @ NFLPA Collegiate Bowl

High school track star who had three stellar years at Sacramento State before moving on to Fresno State as a graduate transfer. First team All-Big Sky in 2019 and 2020, Didn’t start the first four 2021 games for the Bulldogs but his play versus UCLA locked him in as starter for the rest of the season. On tape, he stood out as the best player in Fresno’s secondary

At the CSUF Pro Day, Bland ran a 4.42 forty, 7.26 3cone, and shuttled 4.15. In explosion drills he had a 35.5” vertical and a 10’ 3” broad, He added 14 reps on the bench press. Measured at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, his arms are 32 1/4” and he sports a 76 3/4” wingspan.

Very sticky in man coverage, his speed and length flashed vs, quality receivers. Best in press, he is able mirror and hand fights well. Even when beaten off the line or having to fight through screens, has the burst and closing speed to make up. The same ability to close shows in zone, although he will need to read and react quicker in the NFL.

Willing tackler who comes forward with intent, not a thumper though, comes in little high. Great hand eye coordination and ball skills. When he keeps good inside position he is very good at fighting for and winning contested balls. Returned some kicks at Sac St. and his long strides match up better with kick returns rather than punts. Very dangerous returning interceptions.

Bland fared well covering NFL Draft prospects. He faced off with Devon Williams of Oregon, Romeo Doubs of Nevada, Kyle Phillips of UCLA, Kalil Shakir of Boise State, and Calvin Turner of Hawaii. He looks rather lanky and has the frame to put on more weight. He’s a nice blend of size, athleticism and on-field production that needs some technique refinement.

Tayler Hawkins- San Diego St. 6’ 198 lbs. @ Hula Bowl

Hawkins is the least athletic of today’s prospects and cut thicker as well, but I really liked his game tape. He shows out where it counts most, on the field. He is not a slug, at his Pro Day he reportedly gutted through a hamstring twinge and posted speed times of 4.5 in the forty, 4.40 in the shuttle and 7.45 in the 3cone. He recorded a 33.5” vertical, 9’ 11” broad jump and 13 reps on the bench in the explosion drills. He’s got 31 1/4” arms and a 73” wingspan.

An aggressive and physical tackler, Hawkins pursues well from the outside in run support and has the play strength to handle playing near the line of scrimmage. He likes the big hit and brings a heavy load leading with a shoulder and striking low. I’d like to see him improve on form and wrapping up, because in the NFL, the contact balance of playmakers might bounce right off. You can make the big hit and still wrap up.

He played a lot of press coverage but I think he projects better as a zone defender. He is sticky in man, strong enough to knock receivers off their routes, and turns easily to run down the field. The problem is his long speed, it doesn’t look like he can hold up one-on-one racing down the field. His instincts, route recognition, read and react skills and ball skills bode well in zone. He has good vision and hand/eye coordination, is quick to break on routes and fights for the ball on contested catches.

Tayler Hawkins’ positional versatility would easily fit into the Rams defensive schemes. He can play man, projects to be even better in zone and offers physical run support. On tape, he plays faster than he tested, maybe it was the tweaked hamstring at SDSU Pro Day. He plays old school tough, with a cocky alpha dog mentality and motor that runs hot. He does not fear the big stage, he was voted MVP in the Hula Bowl.

Dallis Flowers- Pittsburg St. 6’ 1/2” 195 lbs. @ East-West Shrine Classic

With the odds stacked against developmental players, the best way to improve those odds is by being an aggressive special teams performer. Those odds can be evened out even more by by being a dynamic kick returner. This is Dallis Flowers opening to the NFL.

For the Pittsburg St. Gorillas, Flowers returned kickoffs at a 33.6 yard clip, Overall, he returned 17 kicks for 573 yards and two touchdowns. In 2019, at NAIA Grand View college he returned kickoffs for 38.1 yards and punts for 11.1 averages. As a runner, he shows good vision and anticipation, he has that innate ability to cut at speed. He’s not a stop-and-go jitterbug punt returner, more of a long striding glider with good contact balance who foresees defenders.

But Flowers is not just a returner. In coverage, he uses his strength, aggressive nature, and hand fighting/ball skills to make him outstanding in press man, particularly in the red zone. He easily flips his hips open to run with wideouts and his signature move seems to be playing a bit behind the intended receiver undercutting the route with his burst and length. Whether he can retain that edge vs. NFL playmakers will have to be proven, but the traits are there.

As single high safety, he uses the the same route recognition and vision that makes him strong in man coverage, to get big jumps on the pass. He really can make up a lot of ground. (An interesting comparison would be taking LA Rams current free safety Jordan Fuller and giving him explosive athleticism). Flowers can keep his eyes on the quarterback in cover two and three, read, react and explode forward. He’a hard hitter who attacks runners that enter his area and pursues relentlessly.

At the Pittsburg State Pro Day, Flowers stood out in the speed drills. He ran the forty in 4.40, the short shuttle in 4.34, and the 3cone in 7.07. He had a 10’ 11” broad jump. His arms are a shade under 32” and wingspan a bit over 78”. On film he shows very good burst, but looks to really excel at long speed.

Because of his return skills, Flowers has a good chance at being drafted and contributing in the NFL right away. He is raw as a pass defender, but has all the right traits for success. The Rams could use his physicality in the secondary, as a gunner on kick coverage, and on kickoff returns. He stands out on game tape as dominant, was twice named NAIA All-American, and was a defensive secondary standout in the East-West Shrine classic.

Sam Webb- Missouri Western 6’ 204 lbs. @ East-West Shrine Classic

Adjectives are rightly part of draft prognosticators jargon, but the term “intriguing” is tossed around too often when describing under-the-radar prospects, During research, I see the term applied to Sam Webb very often. My adjective is “perplexing”, as in “what a I missing?”

Here’s player who played in Division II and admittedly, was a good player. His tape is good, but not as dominant as some of the other small schoolers that I have capsuled. Yet, Webb was invited to both the Hula Bowl and East-West Shrine Classic. He also got a revered invitation to the NFL Combine. A consensus of draft boards show him valued anywhere from round three to round six, mostly in five and six.

Participating in the University of Missouri Pro day, Webb ran a 4.53 forty, 6.94 in the shuttle, and 4.18 in the 3cone. In the explosion drills, he had a 42.5” vertical and a 11’ 4” broad. He certainly has some plus athletic traits and has used them along with leveraging his 32” arms and 78 3/4” wingspan to stand out on special teams. He recorded four blocked kicks in college.

Like most small school standouts, Webb was mostly used on the outside in a man-on-man lockdown role, but he did move over to a single high safety position quite a bit. He ia good hand fighter and works wide receivers towards the boundary. He ably mirrors receivers, changes direction well and has stellar burst coming forward when in read and react mode. On contested catches his leaping ability, good sense of timing and strong hands are strengths. His backpedal needs work but he fluidly opens his hips and runs with outside receivers.

Like most outside cornerbacks, he is away from the tackling action unless it comes his way. On bubble screens he takes good angles, setting the edge and fighting off blocks. I don’t think he’s as physical as some of the other players capsuled today, but has a history of success as a special teamer.

Webb is not my favorite but gets a lot of draft buzz. Because of the competition factor, it is always hard to project DII players into the NFL. He has the size/speed//agility traits going, but doesn’t fit my criteria of jumping off the tape and dominating his lesser competition. Just an aside, on YouTube there is a full game video of Missouri Western vs. Central Arkansas featuring both Sam Webb and Rams 2021 draftee Robert Rochell.

Scouting the traits

All four of these prospects will be late round choices at best and need work to contribute at the NFL level. It is up to the position coaches to diagnose their weak spots and plan the proper training plan. I prefer to prognosticate according to player strengths.

  1. They are all nice combinations of size/speed/agility and good length.
  2. Positional versatility, aggressive demeanor, and football IQ are in their portfolio’s.
  3. Each can read and react, are willing tacklers, and can make plays on the ball.

Fitting into the Rams defensive schemes

LA doesn’t play a lot of straight man, but these prospects are all sticky in coverage. With bigger, stronger secondary, maybe the Rams could play more man in the red zone instead of cover four. I bet Jalen Ramsey would like that. All four have the range to cover vast swaths of area deep in cover one and charge forward to lay the wood. In cover two and three, each can keep their eyes the quarterback, recognize the route, and follow through their area

The Rams currently have 11 corners and safeties under contract and only Jalen Ramsey, Jordan Fuller, and Robert Rochell are over six feet tall. The unit could use an influx of size and speed. LA is going to have to add at least 10 more defensive backs before training camp opens, any one of these prospects would be fine additions.