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St. Louis Rams’ Training Camp Battles: Safety

July 28th, 2013 at 7:30 AM
By Sports Media 101

The 2013 St. Louis Rams' training camp has officially begun, and the battles for starting roles and key depth are beginning to heat up.  In our first piece, we studied the top three running back candidates expected to compete for significant roles in 2013.  Today, we will study the top four safety candidates (and one sleeper) and their chances to make an impact.

Lead Horses: TJ McDonald, Darian Stewart, Matt Giordano, Rodney McLeod
Sleeper Horse: Matthew Daniels
The 2013 Rams' safety class currently has but two drafted players (Matt Giordano, a 2005 4th round pick of the Indianapolis Colts, and T. J. McDonald, the Rams’ 2013 3rd round pick out of USC).  The remainder are undrafted players, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the Rams are deficient on talent at the position. Many of these players fit exactly in the mold of a Jeff Fisher defense: feisty, hard-hitting and tough players who are not afraid of a little contact.  These are players like Darian Stewart (2010 UDFA addition), Rodney McLeod and Matthew Daniels (2012 UDFA additions).
TJ McDonald
At 6’2 and hovering around 220 pounds, with 4.5 speed and a 40” vertical to boot, McDonald’s size and athleticism project him to assume an enforcer role for Coach Fisher and new defensive coordinator Tim Walton.  A big, physical safety in the mold of the Seattle Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor, the consensus among many is that McDonald was not well utilized in USC’s Cover-2 scheme that had McDonald dropping in deep coverage instead of playing closer to the line of scrimmage.  It could be that Fishers scheme will better fit his downhill, play-making skills.  
McDonald must quickly prove to Rams' coaches that he can keep his current role of starting safety and tie down the back end of the defense (through two practice sessions, returns are positive).  If so, the front seven will assuredly improve on their league leading 52 sacks of 2012 and turnovers should be bountiful.  McDonald is clearly the Lead Horse, and we expect him to man one of the two starting safety positions in 2013.
Darian Stewart
After signing as an UDFA in 2010, Stewart (5’11 214) came on the scene in 2011.  In 13 starts Stewart tallied 84 tackles, 11 passes defended and an interception returned for a touchdown.  All in all, a very promising sophomore season in a disappointing year for the Rams.  After missing time at OTA’s last year to finish his college degree, and battling a stubborn soft tissue injury for much of that summer, Stewart could not capitalize on the momentum and found himself behind the now-49er Craig Dahl.  He saw sparse playing time, with Dahl and the also departed Quintin Mikell manning the safety positions for most of 2012.
Now healthy and entering his fourth season with the team at only 24 years old, Stewart hopes to build on the success of his 2011 campaign and get back to his play-making ways.  He has proven capable of producing pressure on the quarterback from the secondary, along with CB Cortland Finnegan, which provides a nice wrinkle in the Rams’ defensive looks and in the pressure packages.  Stewart is also the Lead Horse, as long as he can remain healthy, as the Rams do not have many proven playmakers with NFL experience at the position.
Matt Giordano
Giordano (5’11 204) is entering his 9th season in the NFL, and is coming off of a 2012 campaign in which he played in all 16 games for the Oakland Raiders, recording 51 tackles, 2 interceptions and 5 pass break ups.  At the very least, Giordano will bring a veteran’s savvy and experience, as well as a previous working relationship with Special Teams Coach Fassel, with whom he worked in Oakland.
Signed this June to provide some veteran depth to an otherwise inexperienced safety group (especially after the team cut 2012 starting safety Quintin Mikell), Giordano is currently working with the second unit during training camp.  Giordano is also a Lead Horse to at minimum provide depth to this green unit, and should be expected to win a roster spot with a good camp showing.
Rodney McLeod
A bit leaner (5’11 183) than his positional peers, McLeod was signed in 2012 as an UDFA out of the University of Virginia and was projected as a rangy, centerfielder-type prospect.  He worked his way onto the 53 man roster and played in all 16 games as a core special teamer, making 12 tackles and helping Johnny Hekker convert a fake punt at San Francisco.  
For this season, the consensus among the staff is that McLeod is poised to take on a bigger role due to his improving coverage skills and excellent athleticism, and will be an intriguing player to watch during camp (currently receiving second team looks) and preseason.  McLeod is also not afraid of contact, even if he is in a smaller package than many safeties.  For these reasons, look for McLeod to be a Lead Horse who appears capable of continuing to contribute heavily to special teams and eventually challenge for a starting job.
Matt Daniels
Also brought in immediately after the 2012 draft as a priority UDFA, Daniels (6’1 212) came from Duke University with a reputation as a no-holds-barred, hard-hitting enforcer who absolutely loves to “lay the wood” (even doing so on 2012 1st pick QB Andrew Luck).  A 1st team All-ACC and 2nd team All-American in 2011, Daniels also brings the speed (4.49 40) and range to cover the deep half of the field.  After making the 53 man roster his rookie season, and working his way toward becoming a special teams ace, Daniels had an ACL injury in late October 2012 and has since been working his way back on the field.
Expected to be cleared in several weeks after being placed on the active PUP, Daniels will soon insert himself back into the mix and look to reclaim his role as a key special teams contributor.  And if his health permits, look for him to challenge for a more prominent role.  
Like McLeod, the team has high hopes for Daniels in his second season, thus making him a true Sleeper Horse.

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