All across the Rams defense, at nearly every position, you can find a strong mix of veterans and youngsters, players in their prime and those headed in that direction.
Every position, that is, except for one. After an offseason makeover in which veteran starters Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl moved on, the safety position became one of the most inexperienced position units on the youngest team in the league.
The cast surrounding Stewart and Giordano – the duo combined for all of the NFL starts amongst Rams safeties – are Matt Daniels and
Out of the group, only McDonald and Giordano are drafted rookies. But just because they might not be overloaded with experience doesn’t mean the group in place has expectations any different from the rest of the defense.
“I think it’s great motivation,” Daniels said. “You look around the entire defense; the safety position might actually be the youngest within the team, especially on the defense. We are stout at all positions but everyone does question the safety spot. But I don’t question it at all and neither do the coaches or the guys that play the spot. We are looking for the opportunity to go out and make an impact quick and show them just how good we actually are. It’s going to be fun come camp time to go out and see who really shines and who is willing to go out and make the plays.”
Indeed, the competition at safety figures to be one of the team’s most hotly contested by the time training camp kicks off at the end of July. As the roster is currently constructed, the Rams have a total of seven safeties on the roster.
Through the organized team activities, the Rams began with Stewart and McDonald getting most of the first-team work but a soft tissue injury to Stewart opened the door for McLeod.
Daniels is still recovering from a knee injury but also figures in the mix upon his return. So while it might take a bit to sort out who belongs where, Rams defensive coordinator Tim Walton believes the talent in place can be successful.
“I’m excited so far,” Walton said. “You’ve gotten a chance to see T.J. come in and get a lot of reps right now. He’s been able to step in and pick up things fast. Then you have Rodney McLeod that’s showing a lot of good things. He was on the team last year and showed his athletic ability. I’m impressed by the way guys pick things up, the learning curve of those guys. Then you have (Darian) Stewart, that’s the same way. Those three guys, we think that we’ll have a great group of guys that will be able to help us a lot.”
Although Stewart and Giordano figure to get much of the attention based on experience and McDonald as well based on his draft status and ability to adapt quickly, the two undrafted rookies from last year’s class figure to be wild cards in the competition.
The 5’10, 183-pound McLeod was something of a revelation in last year’s training camp, quickly catching the staff’s eye for his ability on special teams and his speed and coverage skills on the back end of the defense.
Although he wasn’t well known when he arrived in St. Louis, he fought his way to a roster spot and finished the season as the team’s leading special teams tackler with 16.
That’s a role McLeod knows he must fill again but he’s setting his sights on something bigger given the available opportunity at the safety spot.
“I was more so just a special teams player last year,” McLeod said. “I am going to be the same guy this year but I’m looking forward to competing for possibly a starting spot or just having a bigger role on the defense this year.”
By the end of the season, McLeod had played in every game on special teams but had just a handful of snaps on defense. The offseason changes coupled with Stewart’s injury allowed McLeod to get on the field and give coaches a glimpse of what he can do.
While McDonald, Stewart and Daniels provide bigger, perhaps more physical options, McLeod brings a little different element to the table with his speed and coverage skills. The notion that he could fill a nickel corner role if injuries occur has also been kicked around. That could potentially make him an intriguing option should the Rams look for a more skill-diverse safety tandem.
Having started as an undrafted free agent himself, McLeod has no intention of relaxing or getting comfortable knowing that others could be coming for his spot.
“Coming in last year as a free agent, it’s almost like being a walk on in college,” McLeod said. “You have got to prove everything and every single day you have to prove yourself. I feel like this year it’s the same thing. Even though a lot of us are second year players we still have a lot to prove in this league.”
As McLeod got more comfortable as the season went along from his playing experience, his fellow rookie safety Daniels spent the second half of the season on the long road to recovery after he suffered a torn right Anterior Cruciate Ligament on Oct. 28 against New England.
For Daniels, who came to the Rams with a reputation as a smart, hard-hitting type, the injury came just as he was starting to get settled into his position and a previous knee injury was nearly fully healed.
Like McLeod, Daniels’ role to that point had been exclusive to special teams but seemed poised to be more involved before the injury hit.
“I was really starting to get to a point where my knee was starting to feel 100 percent,” Daniels said. “The swelling went away and I was getting a lot more playing time as far as special teams was coming along and making plays there and coaches were really starting to trust me and put trust in me. So I was feeling really great about where I was at and where I was going but football you are one injury away from being sidelined and on I.R. That’s exactly what happened.”
Daniels has been working furiously to rehabilitate the injury but through OTAs had not yet been cleared to return to football activities. For most of the workouts, he was present on the sidelines doing some running.
For now, Daniels feels confident enough in the knee to run full speed in a straight line but is still working on developing the confidence for the cutting and change of direction needed for his position.
Watching as his teammates went through the offseason program was especially frustrating for Daniels given the opportunity to thrust himself into the mix for a spot.
“There’s a big opportunity at the safety spot and it is frustrating at times knowing I can’t be out there to seize the opportunity that is in front of me but training camp comes around and it’s wide open,” Daniels said. “The best will play; it’s as simple as that. So all I can do at this point is just focus on getting 100 percent healthy and once I am healthy just go from there and do whatever it is I have to do.”
Daniels said he and the team’s athletic trainers expectations are that he’ll be ready to go by the time training camp starts and if he’s not he’ll at least be able to ease his way back into the mix.
Having missed the offseason program with a meniscus injury last year and still accomplished enough to make the roster, the idea of entering camp with something to prove is not foreign to Daniels.
Still, Daniels plans to spend all of his offseason time right here in St. Louis working to get back to full speed.
“For the next six weeks I am here,” Daniels said. “I don’t want to go away and come back not 100 percent and then they are sitting there wondering what I was doing. I’d rather put my health in their hands. I know this training staff will do what they need to do to get me back right and on the field.”
When that time comes and all of the Rams get back on the field in full pads with contact permitted, the competition at safety will only heat up further.
Considering the makeup of the safety group – largely underrated players who have earned every chance they’ve had at this level – it’s safe to say nobody is going to back down from the challenge.
The hope for the Rams is that competition will yield a group ready to contribute as much as any other position on the defense.
“A lot of people may think that us being younger is negative but we take it as a positive,” McLeod said. “A lot of guys are hungry and that’s one thing as younger guys, we have fresh legs and we are all just looking to compete, get better and prove people wrong. Even though we are young and may not be as experienced, we are tough and talented young players.”