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Why do the Rams target small secondary players?

The NFL’s current trend back towards zone coverages is the likely reason

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams
Quentin Lake battles Kobie Turner to recover a fumble in Rams 26-9 win
Alex Gallardo-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Derion Kendrick’s future with the Los Angeles Rams is currently in a state of flux, bringing back previously-released cornerback Shaun Jolly to the L.A. practice squad (PS) is good business. The Rams were only carrying nine defensive backs on the 53 and another on the PS. According to reports, Kendrick has not practiced with team, nor has been personally in touch with the coaching or management staffs

Were there other cornerbacks available as street free agents or poach candidates on opposing rosters that might be better long-term prospects? Most probably, but often these mid-season, bottom of the roster signings are based on a member of the coaching staff having some past relationship or knowledge of the signee. In this case, the whole cadre of L.A. secondary mentors are familiar with Jolly.

It is pretty hard to miss that Jolly is a diminutive player and the entire Rams cornerback room is on the small side. Even the safeties are not a physically imposing group, gone are the bangers of the past, Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott, replaced with players who are not as aggressive coming downhill, but stronger coverage players and more disciplined in their responsibilities. It appears obvious that the smaller players are the preference of Defensive Coordinator Raheem Morris and staff. But Why?

Morris use of zone defenses may answer most of it. Although this season the Rams have used some more aggressive schemes and formations, they are still a predominantly an off ball zone defense. Last year L.A. was in zone around 90% of the time, in 2023 they have been in Cover1 or Cover0 on around 17% of pass snaps.

While smaller corners may struggle tackling bigger wideouts/tight ends and cannot fill up passing lanes with height, arm length and long strides, many have quick feet agility and short area quickness. If you can find smaller, aggressive defenders that can match plus athleticism with quick read/react processing, ball skills and good tackling technique, chances are they have the versatility to play outside the boundaries, inside on the slot and against stack/bunch receiver formations. It makes them very useful when moving around to disguise defenses.

The Rams are ranked in the middle of the NFL pack in pass defense, but pass defense is as much about quarterback pressure as it is about coverage. While their pass rush numbers are improving game by game, according to Pro Football Reference, they still sit 25th in pressure percentage, t29th in sacks, 17th in QB knockdowns, and 20th in hurries. If you combine a lack of pass rush with soft zone, you can quickly figure out how the numbers can appear blasé.

Let’s take a look a mid-season look at the Rams secondary.


Derion Kendrick - 5’ 11 7/8” 194 lbs.

After five games last year, he played himself off the field and got a sixth start later due to injuries. I do think he’s shown some incremental improvement in 2023, but the same problems nag him. He’s not very good in 1on1’s down the field, being the most glaring.

DeCobie Durant - 5’ 9 5/8” 180 lbs.

Filling the big shoes of discharged Jalen Ramsey as the “STAR” was his task. It looks like the Rams have moved away from that role and more into a more traditional nickel/slot corner. Overall, he’s been okay in coverage, but he just doesn’t have the size to matchup with tight ends and his missed tackles have been numerous. He has to wrap up, diving at ankles was fine in college, but pros just shrug him off.

Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson - 5’ 7 5/8” 178 lbs.

Looked good in preseason, but has only mopped up in the real deal. He’s played a lot of special teams and appears to hustle and give 100%. Although his draft profile projected him as nickel/slot guy, he exclusively played on the boundary in preseason games. If Kendrick is in real trouble, he may get the first shot as the long term answer.

Duke Shelley - 5’ 8 5/8” 173 lbs.

THT will have to get past Shelley, if there’s a long term opening on the corner. He’s accumulated 11 pro starts and 1039 defensive snaps in his five seasons and has garnered some good numbers from Pro Football Focus, albeit predominantly from the slot position.

Shaun Jolly - 5’ 8 3/4” 179 lbs.

The second-year player spent all training camp learning the “STAR”, he was behind Durant all the way, but did get some shoutouts from DC Morris on his camp work. He suffered a badly-timed hamstring injury as camp wound down and was cut with an injury designation.

Ahkello Witherspoon - 6’ 3” 198 lbs.

‘Spoon has played pretty much to his past profile, a solid coverage guy with questionable tackling skills. I think that overall, he’s played solidly. A few receivers have gotten behind him, but he recovered, closing well and using his length to tip the ball away. I am not fully sure if he was burned on these plays or just playing from the trail position and in good shape.

Cam McCutcheon - 6’ 1” 204 lbs.

Undrafted rookie out of FCS Western Carolina. He was likely destined to spend this year on the PS. But I can’t help wondering, if the Rams didn’t have some other pressing positional problems (running back and defensive interior) that they might bring the rookie up to get his feet wet. Back in May, I ran a capsule preview of McCutcheon.


Jordan Fuller - 6’ 1 7/8” 203 lbs.

Smart, steady safety that is disciplined in his responsibilities. Found a nice niche in two and three deep safety formations to make up for being a step slow when having to turn and run. Comes down hill in run support well and is a good form tackler. In his seasons without injury he has been good for 100 tackles and is on track for well above that. He ’s already had two strips for fumbles.

Russ Yeast - 5’ 10” 192 lbs.

You have to rate Yeast as an over-acheiver. One of the last players chosen in the 2022 draft, he spent his rookie season on special teams and some minor defensive work. He’s parlayed that into starting role this year and has played all but one defensive snap. He spends much of his time sitting in the deep zone, and honestly has not been a playmaker. In fact, he has played to his draft profile, a high-effort and disciplined player that can take some bad pursuit angles and fall off tackles.

Quentin Lake - 6’ 1 3/8” 201 lbs.

Lake subs in for ILB Christian Rozeboom in dime packages, about 20% of snaps. It’s a very small sample size, but Pro Football Focus gives him a mediocre grade and SIS Datahub thinks less of him. He plays underneath for the Rams and maybe with both linebackers, Ernest Jones and Rozeboom nicked up, he will get more shots at making plays. He’s another guy that’s had tackling problems.

John Johnson - 6’ 208 lbs.

I am surprised at Johnson’s contribution so far, he’s only had a few mop-up reps and less than 33% on special teams. I really thought he would have been more involved by now. He’s only a year removed from logging 100 tackles for the Cleveland Browns.

What kind of secondary players do fans think fit L.A. best?

Soft zones are here to stay. NFL scoring is down, man coverages are at all-time lows, and almost 23 of teams are running as much as passing. You cannot read an interview with a defensive coordinator that doesn’t mention limiting the big plays with some sort of umbrella defense. Multiple deep safeties and athletic defensive ends encourage offensive coordinators and quarterbacks to run the ball and take the quick, short stuff.

Into the future, should the Rams continue to pursue smallish cornerbacks that fit the current mold of having plus ball skills, short area quickness, and a good mix of both zone and man coverage? Should the safeties continue to be umbrella types, adequate athletically, more reactive than aggressive, and contain oriented?

Or should the secondary be filled with long, uber-athletic, aggressive players to try and buck the current NFL defensive trends by playing a gambling, blitzing, and big play style? Press all over the field and play principally Cover1, and even Cover0.

What types of secondary players should General Manager Les Snead look for in the future?