One of the bigger pieces of news coming out of Los Angeles Rams training camp so far is that Cobie Durant will be playing the “star” role left by Jalen Ramsey in the Rams defense. If you’ve been following the Rams defensive scheme over the past few years, you’ll understand just how much responsibility the player in the “star” has on a game-to-game basis.
The star role isn’t exclusive to just the Rams defense. College teams like Alabama and Georgia utilize this role. As defenses in the NFL continue to adopt the Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley system, the position is gaining more traction at the professional level as well.
What exactly is the star?
The star is more than just a standard nickel/slot cornerback. While it is the extra defensive back in nickel packages, what it’s asked to do is a lot more than those other four players.
Last season, the Rams lined up in their base 3-3-5 defense on 32 percent of snaps. This means that on approximately one-third of their defensive snaps, the Rams lined up with three defensive linemen, two edge rushers or outside linebackers, one middle linebacker, and then a combination of five defensive backs.
The Rams may technically be a 3-4 defense, but they only lined up in a standard 3-4 on just 15 percent of snaps in 2022.
With only one linebacker on the field, that star position becomes the standard “sam” linebacker. This defensive back needs to have linebacker abilities in the sense that they can wrap up and tackle in the run game and then blitz on occasion. However, because this player is now a defensive back, they can also run with and cover wide receivers in the slot and drop back into space like a third safety.
Jalen Ramsey was perfect for this position in the Rams defense because of how versatile and physical of a player he was. Typically, larger cornerbacks struggle from the slot because they don’t have the movement and shiftiness to cover the open space without using the sideline as a boundary.
Jalen Ramsey has been playing the techniques he’ll be asked to under Fangio for 3 seasons now, and he’s as versatile as it gets for a cover CB. He’s the Nickel/Star here in Punch with Fire Zone (“Lucky” call) coverage. His blitz causes a hot throw and the jump causes the miss. pic.twitter.com/gPk0NQFGa9— Honest NFL (@TheHonestNFL) June 13, 2023
Ramsey was such a unicorn from an athletic standpoint that the Rams were able to utilize him in this role. He was physical and had no problem making his presence felt in the run game. Additionally, as a larger cornerback with a long wingspan, it made attacking the middle of the field more difficult. Alabama actually utilized Patrick Surtain II in the star as well.
The question becomes, is this a role that Durant can succeed in as he obviously lacks the size that Ramsey had? Durant is 5’9 with a 72.75-inch wingspan. Contrarily, Ramsey was 6’1 with a wingspan of 79.625-inches. Because of this size differential, Durant will surely face his own set of challenges.
Here’s what Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris had to say about Durant playing the star,
“It’s really the increased toughness. It’s really the short space quickness, and when you put a guy like Cobie in there, they definitely have those tools and those attributes. They definitely lack the size that Jalen had, which is kind of unique. But those are the things that we look for. Those are things that you look for in just around the league in general.”
Durant added what he needs to do to be successful in the star position,
“Be consistent, be a better tackler, be more vocal. Especially being at the star position, just being more vocal...If it’s star-right, star-left, going ahead and saying that early on and letting everybody else know where I’m lining up at, because it kind of runs through me...At the end of the day I’m ready for it, I’m ready to take on that challenge, to just go out there and play fast, play smart and be a playmaker”
Despite not having Ramsey’s length, Durant was one of the best cornerbacks in coverage from the slot last season. In 104 coverage snaps from the slot, Durant’s 0.68 yards per snap ranked fifth in the NFL. His 48.7 quarterback rating was also the best mark among all slot cornerbacks with at least 100 snaps. The Rams cornerback allowed a reception just once every 11.6 snaps which ranked sixth.
Yes, Durant had a smaller sample size than other slot cornerbacks in the NFL. Still, in those snaps, he was among the best in the league.
Will be watching more Cobie Durant film the next few days.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) July 28, 2023
Not sure there's anyone better to fill Jalen Ramsey's "star" role on the Rams D. Most versatile player in the secondary. Played one half against SEA after not playing D for 10 weeks. Almost had pick 6 to win the game. pic.twitter.com/QLQJnp4RGo
One area where Durant will need to improve and where the Rams will miss their former all-pro cornerback in Ramsey is in the run game. This is especially important for a player in that “star” role. As mentioned earlier, the player in the “star” needs to be able to wrap up and tackle in the run game.
While the rookie showed flashes, he remained inconsistent. TurfShow Times’ very own JB Scott noted this earlier in the offseason. As he wrote back in early July, Durant’s 19 percent missed-tackle rate ranked 118th out of 128 qualifying cornerbacks. This was especially noticeable in the run-game where Pro Football Focus tagged him with a 33 percent missed-tackle rate on run plays alone.
He did have positive moments, and it’s worth noting the small sample size. Still, this is an area in which he’ll need to improve. Ramsey was arguably the most physical player in the Rams secondary. Whereas Durant had a missed-tackle rate over 30 percent in the run game, Ramsey’s missed-tackle rate was just 11.8 percent. This ranked 19th among cornerbacks with at least 300 snaps.
Mentioned it early, but if Durant is going to play the "star", he'll need to show up in the run game.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) July 31, 2023
Does a nice job of navigating traffic, avoiding a block, and blowing this play up in the backfield. pic.twitter.com/8oQtHYakIE
What does give off some optimism for Durant taking over for Ramsey in the star is just how versatile of a player that he is and how comfortable he is in multiple positions. Let’s be clear here. Nobody is going to replace Ramsey and that shouldn’t be the expectation for Durant. However, that doesn’t mean that Durant still can’t be effective as the star.
Last season, Durant played 167 of his 281 snaps from the slot. This made up approximately 60 percent of his snaps on defense. 78 or 27 percent of his snaps came on the outside and then he had 36 snaps (27 percent) as a “box” defender.
Comparatively, Ramsey took 67 percent of his snaps on the outside, 19.7 percent from the slot, and lined up in the box on 10.3 percent of his snaps. Only Troy Hill showed as much versatility in the Rams secondary last season.
One of the more impressive aspects of Durant’s play during his rookie season is just how disciplined he was in his assignments, his ability to anticipate and recognize route combinations, and how comfortable he was in space. He very rarely got lost in space and displayed very good awareness.
This might be the most impressive play that I've seen from Durant.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) July 31, 2023
Rodgers is one of the best off-script QBs EVER. It can be so easy for players to get lost in space in these situations. Great awareness to see Cobb coming back towards the middle. Gets the PBU. pic.twitter.com/c13bVCniwN
This awareness and understanding of what’s happening around him is a very important trait when it comes to playing the “star” position in the Rams defense. The fact that Durant was this disciplined as a rookie is very encouraging. With more experience, he should only continue to improve.
While Durant spent a portion of his rookie season injured and playing special teams, his impact was felt in the games that he did play. You could argue that in Weeks 7-11 when he only played special teams as he returned from injury, Durant should have had at least a small role on defense.
Another example of Durant's spacial awareness. Reads the QB and sees Dulich coming across into the open space behind him. That's who Wilson wants. Completion to Sutton, but Durant did his job. pic.twitter.com/jkSLU2aJkA— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) July 31, 2023
Outside of Aaron Donald, Durant might be the most important player on the Rams defense. A lot of that is because he will be thrown into a role that handles so much responsibility in the secondary. As the star, Durant will be asked to do a lot more than he did as a rookie. As a smaller cornerback, he’ll face his own set of challenges in that regard. Only time will tell if Durant can handle that responsibility, but there may not be a player better suited for it on the Rams roster than the second year cornerback.