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Did Marcus Peters play his way back into the Rams’ long-range plans?

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  • Did Marcus Peters play his way back into the Rams’ long-range plans?

    Did Marcus Peters play his way back into the Rams’ long-range plans?
    By Vincent Bonsignore Mar 26, 2019 5

    PHOENIX​ —As the Rams shift​ attention​ from​ free agency to​ the draft, they​ face two​ urgent and​ obvious roster matters​ — neither​​ of which is easily addressed.

    The free-agent departure of Ndamukong Suh isn’t yet official, and Rams head coach Sean McVay actually cracked open a door on Tuesday for a possible return while speaking at the NFL’s annual league meeting. But the expectation is they’ll soon need to find a replacement for the veteran defensive tackle. The same is true at one inside linebacker position, after Mark Barron was released in a salary-cap savings move and then scooped up by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The Rams are relying on a combination of the draft, in-house options and the second phase of free agency to fill the two holes. But it might not be until training camp that it all gets sorted out.

    Meanwhile, another long-range issue is lurking.

    As it stands now, the Rams will head into the 2019 season with starting cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters entering the last year of their contracts. That’s a vulnerable position to be in and likely will necessitate them investing draft capital in a cornerback this month, or maybe two, given Talib’s age (33) and the cost it might take to lock up Peters beyond this year.

    Peters, in particular, represents an interesting situation, as it looked for long stretches last season like he was playing his way out of a long-term relationship with the Rams. He rallied midway through the season, and finished so strong it prompted McVay on Tuesday to lay out a compelling argument for making Peters part of the plan moving forward.

    “Absolutely,” McVay responded when asked by The Athletic if Peters is someone he’d like to move forward with long term.

    That might seem like a surprise, given how Peters struggled through the first half of the 2018 season while giving up a slew of big plays. The killer was when he got burned for 12 catches and 211 yards by Michael Thomas in Week 9, including a 72-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to secure the New Orleans Saints’ 45-35 win over the Rams. It marked the low point of a rough stretch of games in which Peters seemed to be taking himself out of the Rams’ plans.

    It was easy at that point to write him off as a bust and rule the Rams’ trade for him an abstract failure. Not only was a long-term extension seemingly off the table, so too was the certainty he’d be back in 2019. That wasn’t what the Rams had in mind when they sent a 2019 second-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs last offseason for a player they felt would be a cornerstone of their defense.

    But two things immediately happened.

    First, Peters stood at his locker after the Saints game and held himself accountable for his poor play. He simultaneously vowed to get things turned around.

    Second, the Rams altered their defensive philosophy from an attacking man-to-man coverage scheme to more of a read-and-react zone look. The new scheme was a much better fit for Peters’ skill set. Rather than running with wide receivers in man coverage with his back turned to the quarterback — and losing sight of the play and the ball in the process — he was playing to his strengths by keeping the quarterback, ball and play in front of him and reacting off that. Peters became less of a risk-taker and more of a sound, prudent decision-maker and player.

    The results were obvious.

    After he surrendered 80 or more receiving yards four times over the first nine games, Peters allowed 80 or more yards just once over the last 10 games, including the playoffs and Super Bowl. And after getting burned for four plays of 35 or more yards in the first nine games, it happened just once over the next 10.

    “Sometimes you can be a better football player and the defense can be better as a whole if you’re taking less educated chances and everything is sound, you’re making teams earn it,” said Rams general manager Les Snead.

    In the second half of the 2018 season, Marcus Peters seemingly jumped back into the Rams’ long-range picture, with plays like this interception against the Bears. (Quinn Harris / USA Today)
    Said McVay: “I don’t know where that cutoff was, but really the last half of the season he played really good football.”

    In the process, Peters played his way back into the Rams’ long-range picture. A liability early on, while playing in a scheme that didn’t fit his skill set and while dealing with a calf injury he suffered in Week 3 against the Chargers, Peters became an asset over the second half of the season.

    McVay was as impressed with Peters’ ownership of the situation and diligence in working his way back as he was his actual performance.

    “We know what a great player he’s been throughout the course of his career in Kansas City, and there were some things that … he made plays that weren’t really indicative of what we feel like he is,” McVay said. “And what I loved the most about Marcus is that he took accountability for it. And I think that says a lot about him, where he wasn’t shying away from the fact that ‘I gotta be better, I gotta be more disciplined.’ And then I think, his ability to take the accountability but then also respond and get it corrected with (defensive backs coaches Aubrey Pleasant and Ejiro Evero), who do an excellent job of correcting and addressing some of those issues.”

    In fact, when McVay ran into Peters’ agent, Doug Hendrickson, in Phoenix this week, McVay told him if Peters can keep it up, he and the Rams could forge a long-term relationship. When the Rams traded for him, it was with the intent of making him a foundational piece of the future.

    And while that seemed dubious midway through the season, it very much looks to be on the table now.

    “At this point, yeah, based on age, position and his past,” Snead said. “I give Marcus credit. I give Wade (Phillips) credit. I give Aubrey credit. Everybody adjusted. OK, these are his strengths, these are his weaknesses. This is how he fits in our stuff. And everybody made adjustments. And that’s the goal and that’s the intent.”

    Peters will make $9.069 million this season in the final year of the five-year rookie contract he signed in 2015. The Rams could try to sign him to an extension this summer, although that might be complicated by the cash/budget effect created by contract extensions recently given last summer to Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Rob Havenstein. That likely means the Rams will put off an extension until after the 2019 season. The franchise tag is also an option if they can’t come to terms on a new deal.

    The point is, what looked like a short-term relationship midway through the 2018 season now looks much more promising.

    “I think the thing I was most pleased with with Marcus is that you find out a lot about people when they go through some tough times or some adversity,” said McVay. “And the way that he responded from some of those things early on in the year is what you love about him, and hopefully you get a chance to work with him a while. We’re excited about building into year two and (I’ve) been really pleased with Marcus and especially pleased with what you can find out, with all the experiences we went through in one year. The talent is there. We love the person and he’s passionate about the game. That’s the one thing, we talked about it a lot last year, but when you’ve got guys that love football and that are good people, at the end of the day you can work with that. The passion and different things, you love that and I’ve loved working with Marcus.”

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