ST. LOUIS — The Rams spent their offseason adding young talent rather than finding veterans to bolster an already-young secondary that struggled at times against the pass in 2014.
The Rams are counting on the core group of strong safety T.J. McDonald, free safety Rodney McLeod and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson to improve with additional experience and time to develop chemistry. But their margin for error might be getting thinner thanks to the mostly new group behind them.
So far, a rookie class of eight defensive backs — four drafted, four not — has done plenty to impress coach Jeff Fisher despite some mistakes in two preseason losses. But he gave few hints Tuesday as to who might have the inside track to fill the two to three roster spots likely still up for grabs.
"We’ve got a good group, starting with the draft choices with Lamarcus (Joyner) and Mo (Maurice Alexander)," Fisher said. "E.J. (Gaines) missed a little bit of time, but he’ll get back on the field. He was doing some good things. It’s good to get Christian (Bryant) back."
Bryant, a seventh-round pick from Ohio State, hadn’t played since suffering a broken ankle in the fifth game of his senior season. But after opening camp on the non-football injury list, he finally practiced for the first time Aug. 6 and saw limited action in the second preseason game against the Packers.
Meanwhile, Gaines left his mark with four tackles in the preseason opener against New Orleans before a minor injury suffered in practice kept him out against Green Bay. Fisher is hopeful the sixth-round pick out of Missouri will be back on the practice field soon after watching from the sideline Tuesday.
Even undrafted free agents Marcus Roberson of Florida and Avery Cunningham from Central Michigan have made plays that caught Fisher’s eye, though both still seem like long shots to make the 53-man roster.
Joyner’s spot was never really in doubt after the Rams selected the standout Florida State corner with the ninth pick of the second round. He’s earned significant reps as the nickelback on the first team and also figures to play a role on special teams with his energy and aggressiveness.
"Whatever I got to do," Joyner said. "Special teams, whether it’s gunner, the vice, nickel, corner, D-end, whatever role they give me, that’s what I’m going to do."
There might not be a less likely candidate on the roster to play defensive end than the 5-foot-8, 184-pound cornerback, but Joyner said he’s never really paid attention to what people think of his size or how he compares to opponents. Whether a receiver is "5-6 or 6-5," Joyner said, his goal of shutting them down remains the same.
Still, the laws of physics would seem to make tackling and covering bigger receivers easier for a player such as Alexander, a fourth-round pick who played linebacker early in his career at Utah State. The 6-1, 220-pound strong safety knows that’s one of his strengths, and so does new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
"That’s why I play mostly down in the box, to get off the edge a little bit, things like that," said Alexander, who has also seen time on special teams. "Whatever comes at me, I’m playing it."
He’s eager to keep learning from the four returning starters in the Rams’ secondary, though it would be a stretch to call any of them veterans. McDonald played in 10 games as a rookie last year, and the other three are all heading into their third NFL season.
That group had some growing pains in 2013, when five teams threw for over 300 yards against St. Louis. The Rams allowed 242.1 passing yards per game, an average that sat smack-dab in the middle among NFC teams, and ranked 12th in the conference with 14 interceptions. The Seahawks had twice that many.
It wasn’t exactly encouraging when three New Orleans quarterbacks not named Drew Brees threw for 252 yards and a touchdown in the preseason opener, though they also had passes intercepted by linebacker Johnny Millard and end Chris Long. Perhaps more troubling was the ease with which Aaron Rodgers completed 11 of 13 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown against most of the first-team defense in Green Bay’s 21-7 win at St. Louis last Saturday.
Joyner had an impressive day, according to the stat sheet, recording a team-high five tackles and forcing a fumble. But his own evaluation wasn’t so positive.
"If you watch the film and you know football, I did more bad than I did good, so it’s a lot of things I have to correct," Joyner said. "It’s good to show the coaches that I have effort and toughness, but now I have to get the mental part of the game together."
That’s often the biggest hurdle for rookies as they learn new terminology and coverages from unfamiliar coaches. But Joyner and Alexander both said they’re learning plenty from the older players, whose relative youth has actually made them more patient while helping teammates.
Even though they’re still learning their third defensive system in three years, Johnson said the returnees have developed some solid chemistry and are eager to welcome the rookies with open arms. Significant playing time this season could be difficult to come by for even the highest of the draft picks, and defensive backs such as Cunningham, Roberson, 23-year-old Florida State rookie Greg Reid and South Dakota’s Jarrid Bryant are locked in a dogfight to make the roster.
You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at email@example.com.