Rams’ defense preview: secondary rated worst in NFL

Rams cornerbacks and safeties could not escape it.

In June, the website Pro Football Focus ranked NFL secondaries for the 2023 season.

The Rams were dead last, worst in the NFL.

Fans took notice.

“We’ve heard it, for sure,” safety Jordan Fuller said.

Second-year cornerback Derion Kendrick said he was “very aware” of the rankings and the perception that the secondary would be the defense’s weak link. Players made printouts of the rankings to put in their lockers, he said.

“Just to motivate us every day,” he said.

Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris apparently is not concerned.

“I didn’t grow up in a social media world where I have to live that life and have to respond,” Morris said at the start of training camp. “Some of my young guys do, so it bothers those guys somewhat some more, but this is a mental toughness game.”

After last season’s disastrous 5-12 finish, the Rams traded, released or passed on re-siging four experienced players in the secondary.

Jalen Ramsey, a three-time All-Pro cornerback and weekly nemesis for offensive coordinators, was traded to the Miami Dolphins. Cornerback Troy Hill was not re-signed and the Rams let safeties Nick Scott and Taylor Rapp sign with the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills, respectively.

The Rams began offseason workouts with second-year pros Kendrick and Cobie Durant as the top returning cornerbacks. Rookie Tre Tomlinson joined a group that included Shaun Jolly and a parade of undrafted free agents.

“That’s what I like about the defense. Everybody hungry. Everybody got something to prove.”

— Derion Kendrick, cornerback, on Rams’ young secondary

Fourth-year pro Fuller, second-year pros Russ Yeast and Quentin Lake and rookie Jason Taylor II were the safeties.

The Rams later signed cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safety John Johnson to veteran-minimum contracts. But the worst-in-the-league label will remain until proven otherwise.

“When you don’t know the people, obviously, you’re going to say they’re the worst secondary, they got the worst whatever,” Morris said. “But that’s part of the challenge is to go out there and let somebody rise to the occasion.”

The Rams need numerous unproven players to step up for a defense that includes only one star: future Hall of Fame lineman Aaron Donald.

 Rams inside linebacker Ernest Jones celebrates a tackle.

Rams linebacker Ernest Jones will be the signal-caller for the defense this season.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Third-year linebacker Ernest Jones is the signal-caller for a defense that also no longer features veteran linebacker Bobby Wagner and edge rusher Leonard Floyd.

Kendrick expects youth to prevail.

“That’s what I like about the defense,” he said. “Everybody hungry. Everybody got something to prove.”

New defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant is in his second stint with the Rams, his first as defensive pass game coordinator.

Pleasant, a member of coach Sean McVay’s original 2017 staff, left after the 2020 season to become defensive backs coach and pass game coordinator for the Detroit Lions.

After the Lions started 1-6 last season, coach Dan Campbell fired Pleasant. The Green Bay Packers quickly hired him as a consultant for the offense. He spent the remainder of the season breaking down defenses for coach Matt LaFleur.

The Rams’ situation this season is similar to 2017, Pleasant said.

“Nobody expected us to do anything except the people that were here,” Pleasant said. “No matter what that talent of that roster was compared to this roster, you have to take the same approach. … I want to be the team that nobody expects this year.

“I’m comfortable with that — and I think my guys are comfortable as well.”

Witherspoon, a seventh-year pro, signed in late June. He brings experience to the young, feisty cornerback group.

“The biggest thing I feel is just the hunger and the desire, and that’s something that’s infectious and something that’s easy to work alongside with,” he said, adding, “It can be a special group, but it’s going to take a unique set of traits to overcome some of the things that we might be lacking, which is experience, but it’s not impossible.”

The addition of Johnson, a Ram from 2017 to 2020 before he played the last two seasons for the Cleveland Browns, added experience and depth at safety. So, Fuller, a team captain, is confident the secondary will assert itself. He compared the worst-in-the-league ranking to other preseason projections that often are proved wrong.

“Every year there’s a whole bunch of talk about who’s going to win the Super Bowl, who’s going to be the best team in the league, who are the worst teams in the league,” he said. “But you don’t really know until you play.”