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Rams “zoning” in on secondary in NFL draft

Profiling versatile cornerbacks that can do double-duty

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Texas A&M
Jaylon Jones shows off a a good form tackle
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Los Angeles Rams defensive secondary allowed 67.4% of passes completed and intercepted 16 passes. The L.A. front office cleaned house. Six defensive backs are gone, along with 12 of those interceptions. Of the remaining eight members, inexperience is an understatement. They have 42 NFL starts amongst them, with Jordan Fuller logging 29 of those.

There is some light up ahead. The 2023 NFL Draft has a strong and deep cornerback class. The top 12-15 corners all have the real potential to carve out a pro career. With the Rams sitting at #36, one could easily fall within their crosshairs. But cornerback is not L.A.’s only need in the secondary, both safety roles also need bolstering.

This year’s safety class is thin at the top and there is a risk of over drafting if you’re married to the idea of getting a “true” safety. Why not consider taking a cornerback who has plus athleticism and coverage skills while fitting into the Rams zone schemes? After all, L.A. uses predominantly shell coverages, Tampa2, Cover3 and Cover4 (quarters). So, why are we prospecting for press and off-man candidates? If one of the top-rated talents happens to fall, great, those players have the skills to adapt, or would make nice trade bait.

The NFL has legislated the “enforcer” safeties out of the game. Being sticky in coverage is now the rule, not separating the receiver and ball with bone-jarring hits. Now, you must be able to quickly read and react (both the QB and the WR’s route), have the burst to break quickly on the ball, and have the ball skills to compete with the receiver. Having good arm length, quick change of direction agility, and good leaping skills. Angles aggressive play and form tackling wins defending the run game

Some defenders just have a knack for seeing and reacting to movement better while facing the action and look more comfortable playing downhill. After studying their film, the candidates below appear to have the positional versatility that fits into the Rams schemes. There are certainly many other fine corners, but this group stands out for having zone coverage traits and the physical nature to play safety.

Julius Brents, Kansas State - 6’ 3” / 198 lbs. / 34” arms / 4.53 - 1.57

Much better defender when facing the action and reading the quarterback rather than mirroring receivers. His lack of long speed forces him to grab at faster wide outs. His length and agility allows him to cover broad areas underneath. He is also much better at charging downhill to close gaps than he is a flipping open and running down the sideline. Good tackler and uses his arm length to keep blockers at bay. Round 3 grade.

Riley Moss, Iowa - 6’ 1” / 193 lbs. / 30” arms / 4.45 - 1.48

Uber-athletic prospect, that has the versatility to play outside or inside. Experienced, smart, defender with stellar ball skills. Good tackler, not great. Strong making play on the ball. Can smoothly cover wide swathes of field and facing the action and playing downhill may help alleviate some of his coverage shortcomings. Looks like a natural deep safety. Round 4 grade

Jaylon Jones, Texas A & M - 6’ 2” / 200 lbs. / 30 3/4” arms / 4.57 - 1.48

Recruited as a safety, bounced around the Aggie’s formation until moving predominantly outside in 2022. Very sticky in short/mid coverage. Aggressive and physical in run support and wide receiver screens. Strong enough to grapple with tight ends and both agile and quick enough to cover wide outs. Round 5 grade.

Jay Ward, LSU - 6’ 1” / 188 lbs. / 32 1/2” arms / 4.55 / 1.53

A true Swiss Army knife in the secondary. Outside he’s lined up on both the boundary and field sides, inside he’s in the slot in both nickel and dime packages, and has toiled at both deep and in-box safety. Very agile, smooth mover and tracks football well. Lauded as a team leader and a player to be trusted to fill his assignments. A good tackler, but appears not big enough to stand up to the full-time rigors of NFL strong safety. Round 5 grade

Taiwan Mullen, Indiana - 5’ 8 1/2” / 181 lbs. / 30 3/8” arms / 4.42

Size likely limits him to a slot role, but Mullen is willing and aggressive in run support. While he’s an ankle bite tackler to be sure, he drives through runners legs and wraps up well. Deep experience in zone coverage, both inside and out. Scrappy player who’s always poking and hacking at football. Used regularly on blitz. Round 6 grade

Starling Thomas, UAB - 5” 10” / 194 lbs. / 30 3/8” arms / 4.38

As an added bonus, Thomas also returned punts and kickoffs. He’s actually built more like a running back, cut thickly with a low center of gravity. Played primarily on the outside at UAB, but his traits relate well to the slot. Really explodes off his plant foot on breaks to the ball. He is reportedly a film room scholar and because takes to coaching, is technically strong. Although he does not possess the prototypical build of an NFL secondary player, strength, speed, and football IQ are great building blocks to transition to the NFL. Round 6 grade.

Jarrick Bernard-Converse, LSU - 6’ 1” / 205 lbs. / 32” arms / 4.40

60 starts between the Big 12 and SEC. Long, fast, and physical, smooth and fluid mover. Very versatile piece, he’s played outside, in the slot, and deep safety. In the LSU defensive formations, he often lined up and had the responsibilities of a linebacker. Played four seasons of special teams, too. Good wrap up tackler who brings some thump. Round 7 grade.

Justin Ford, Montana - 6’ 1” / 201 lbs. / 30 3/4” arms / 4.60 / 1.50

Aggressive alpha-dog mentality and play-style. Not as fast as the other prospects, but has stellar instincts. At his best when in read-and-react mode. After two years at JC, originally went to Louisville. In 23 Grizzly games, Ford showed great ball skills with 11 interceptions and 28 pass breakups. Two-time FCS All-American. Had two blocked kicks off the edge. From the strange-but-true file, his favorite NFL player is Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford. round 7 grade.

Cameron Mitchell, Northwestern 5’ 11” / 191 lbs. / 31 3/8” arms / 4.47 - 1.48

Tough, hard-nosed attitude. Willing to take on bigger blockers and running backs. Good burst, speed and agility. Wins when looking in at the action, reads quarterback eyes and flows to ball. Not particularly fluid when turning and running with wide outs. Whether playing inside, outside, on a blitz, or filling a gap, Mitchell plays it all like it’s his last game. A Day 1 special teams demon in the NFL. Round 7 grade.

Emphasizing the need for an athletic secondary with coverage skills

Offenses are changing again. It’s still a passing league, but there is a proliferation of young quarterbacks who can change the game with their legs, as well as their arms. Last year, seven quarterbacks ran for over 700 yards and another four tallied over 350. And there’s 4-5 more highly-athletic prospects coming in next week’s draft.

When analyzing and projecting aspiring candidates, you must now, not only give extra weight to running backs with receiving skills, it’s almost a prerequisite that aspirant quarterbacks have plus running skills. Lest I forget, anymore, tight ends are seldom an extension of the offensive line and are now offensive weapons. Defending this new breed calls for interchangeable, athletic cornerbacks and safeties.

The 220 lb. thumping safety is a dinosaur, he’s now a hybrid linebacker and if he’s not athletically-gifted, just a rotational/package player. Today’s safeties stand a shade over 6 foot and weigh 203 lbs. and it is imperative that speed must be equitable to size. Disguising and rotating coverages to befuddle quarterbacks leads to some interesting matchups and safeties must be fast enough to cover playmaking wideouts and have the length/physicality to blanket tight ends or tackle them after the catch. Not to mention filling in on run support.

Should the Rams decide to select a cornerback at #36 or even #69, they should certainly double dip later in the process and consider cross training that corner at safety. In the Rams defensive scheme/formation, it’s just not that big of a leap.

How do these prospects testing numbers compare with those Rams on contact?


Robert Rochell - 6’ / 195 lbs. / 32 1/2” arms / 4.41

DeCobie Durant - 5’ 10” / 180 lbs. / 30 3/4” arms / 4.38

Derion Kendrick - 6’ / 194 lbs. / 31” arms / 4.79

Shaun Jolly - 5’ 9” / 177 lbs. / 30 3/8” arms / 4.52


Jordan Fuller - 6’ 2” / 203 lbs. / 31” arms / `4.67

Quinten Lake - 6’ 1” / 201 lbs. / 31 1/4” arms / 4.59

Russ Yeast - 5’ 10” / 195 lbs. / 31 3/4” arms / 4.58

Richard LeCounte - 5’ 10” / 196 lbs. / 31 5/8” arms / 4.79

Do you agree that both secondary units need an injection of speed and athleticism?