By Hal Schaeffer | June 5th, 2008

The play of St. Louis Rams’ cornerbacks in the last few years has left a lot to be desired, to put it mildly.

Perhaps it was the selection of Jacoby Shepherd in the 2000 draft that put the jinx on the position for the Rams. That unfortunate choice laid the groundwork for forgettable future cornerback picks such as Jerametrius Butler (2001), DeJuan Groce (2003), Shane Walton (2003), and Kevin Garrett (2003). Notwithstanding that it takes real drafting talent to score a complete miss on three cornerbacks in the same draft, the loss of time caused by all of these failures really put the Rams’ defense behind the eight ball heading into the 2005 draft, which saw the selection of Ron Bartell of Howard University. Bartell joined Travis Fisher, who was selected in 2002, and the first signs of a potentially competent cornerback tandem were being noted.

Fisher has since moved on to other pastures, but Bartell has continued to develop his skills for the Rams. He is a player with good size (6′1″, 205 lbs.) who has also seen some time at safety. He was joined by Fakhir Brown, a free agent from the Saints, in 2006, when another cornerback, Tye Hill, was selected with the Rams’ first draft pick. Jonathan Wade, a corner from Tennessee, was selected in 2007. This quartet has formed the core of the St. Louis corner defense since then.

Last season, Brown missed four games while serving a substance abuse-related suspension, and the threat of another, possibly lengthier suspension, hangs over him this year. He failed another drug test earlier this year, but he successfully appealed the result. However, under the somewhat Byzantine rules applicable in such cases, he remains at risk for a suspension if Commissioner Roger Goodell chooses to levy one. In the meantime, he has returned to the Rams and has been practicing with the team. His return made it possible for the Rams to draft for other positions of need early in the draft and, at least for now, to avoid overpaying for a veteran corner like Lito Shepard of the Eagles.

But the Rams hedged their bets by drafting Justin King this year and by adding undrafted free agent Justin McKinney of Kansas State. They also acquired journeyman David Macklin, ostensibly to provide depth. I think he serves simply as another pylon for the wideouts to run past on their way to the end zone. Darius Vinnett, a practice squad member last season, is on the fringes.

So, going into training camp, the starters look to be Brown and Hill, with Bartell and Wade the primary backups and nickel/dime backs. King is extremely fast, but his coverage skills need some work. He would be fortunate to play this year as a nickel. I think that McKinney has a chance, particularly if he performs well on special teams.

Brown, Hill, Bartell, and Wade are under considerable pressure from coaches and fans to start playing some serious defensive back this season. Brown seems solid in his position, barring a suspension, but Hill and Bartell will battle for time on the other corner. Both players have been around long enough that it’s time for them to step up and show some skills. Wade can continue to develop this season, but expectations will rise for him in 2009. All four men must improve their tackling. Further, if the defensive line increases its QB pressures and sack totals this season as expected, then the corners will be looked upon to raise their interception totals. They will no longer have the excuse of a poor pass rush to justify lackluster play on their part.

In summary, I don’t yet feel fully confident about the Rams’ corner play. I’m going to keep a close eye on the situation during camp and, especially, during the preseason games to see who is coming forward. The group has potential, but that’s what people have been saying for a while now.

Let’s see which of these guys plays like he really wants to be a starting corner in the NFL.