The moment the Rams selected Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner in the second round of May’s NFL draft, I couldn’t get Tyrann Mathieu out of my head.
Before tearing both his ACL and LCL in a December victory over the Rams, Mathieu was one of the better surprises of the 2013 NFL draft. His versatility allowed Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to be creative with his game plans, moving the rookie around the field like a playing piece on a chess board.
Mathieu made headlines in Week 1, causing a turnover by knocking the ball out of Jared Cook’s hands right before the tight end could reach pay dirt. In Week 2 against the Lions, he lined up outside the hash on a fourth-and-four with 1:22 remaining and was immediately pushed back by receiver Nate Burleson at the snap. But he recovered quickly, bringing Burleson down well before the first-down marker to seal the win for Arizona. One week later, he picked off Drew Brees in the end zone for his first career interception.
Seeing time at both nickelback and free safety, the end result saw Mathieu rack up 68 tackles, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a sack. Even though he was a first-year player, opposing quarterbacks had to know where he was on every play. He established himself as a sideline-to-sideline defender, capable of changing directions on dime and flying to the football. Outside of Packers running back Eddie Lacy, you would have been hard-pressed to find a better rookie from the middle rounds of the ’13 draft.
And thus the reason I couldn’t get Mathieu out of my head following the Rams’ selection of Joyner back in May.
At 5-foot-8 and 184 pounds, Joyner has a similar build as Mathieu (5-8, 186 pounds). He’s also versatile, spending time in the slot and at free safety in Jeremy Pruitt’s defense a year ago.
He’s a perfect fit for a Rams team that needed help at safety, as well as more depth at corner. He’s undersized, but he has experience lining up in the slot, as a safety and outside the numbers as a corner.
What I liked most about watching Joyner play at FSU were his instincts, awareness and his knack for always being around the ball. He does the little things, such as looking for the strip when tackling, avoiding blockers on his way to the ball carrier and selling blitzes before dropping into coverage. He has the ability to make an impact on Day 1, especially in the hands of a creative defensive coordinator like Gregg Williams.
Just like Bowles used Mathieu, Williams can line up Joyner all over the field in efforts to utilize his speed, aggressiveness and athleticism. Rodney McLeod remains the incumbent at the free, but it’s going to be interesting watching the Rams cross-train Joyner at nickel back and safety in training camp this year. It’s no different than how the Cardinals approached Mathieu’s development a year ago.
Not every team is fortunate enough to find a Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed in the draft. But the Cardinals proved a year ago that having defenders like Mathieu can make your defense more versatile. (Rob Ryan’s use of first-rounder Kenny Vaccaro is another example of how a defense can become more flexible.)
Barring injuries or a steep learning curve, it would appear as though the Rams have found their Honey Badger.