ST. LOUIS — As a general rule, NFL players do not lose their job just because they get hurt. Seems fair enough. To get demoted because of a hamstring pull would be like penalizing a 9-to-5 worker for catching the flu.
But general rules can be broken, too.
Look at the Rams. Safety Rodney McLeod has all but taken over the starting job that belonged to Darian Stewart entering the preseason. While an ailing hamstring has sidelined Stewart since early in the second exhibition, McLeod has stepped in and moved up his standing on the Rams’ defense.
Coach Jeff Fisher is not guaranteeing a return to the status quo in his young secondary when Stewart gets healthy, either.
“Typically, guys don’t lose their jobs because of injury,” Fisher said. “But we’ll re-evaluate when Stew comes back.”
Why mess with what’s working? While numerous Rams, including Stewart, were run over early by the Packers, McLeod was wrapping up everyone in range. Against Peyton Manning and the Broncos last Saturday, McLeod provided good enough pass coverage that Fisher singled him out.
“Rodney tackled well,” Fisher said. “He was in the right place. He’s a good player. We will be fine there.”
What does McLeod think about cracking the starting lineup?
“I don’t make those decisions,” he said Tuesday. “Whatever the coaches tell me, that’s what I do.”
McLeod said this as he was being interviewed by numerous of us media types after Tuesday’s practice. That we were jumping on his bandwagon provided a clear indication of his elevating status. The media aren’t all who have noticed, either. Besides Fisher, McLeod says props have been coming his way from teammates as well as assistant coaches.
A second-year player who signed as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia, McLeod reported to camp this summer with “job No. 1 definitely being make the team.” He made it with an impressive preseason in 2012 and played in all 16 games, though almost exclusively on special teams. He led the team with 16 special teams tackles.
With the departure of both starting safeties from last season, McLeod saw an opportunity to play more than on special teams this year. Because of a lack of experienced hands, McLeod actually entered OTAs as a starter alongside Stewart. Rookie T.J. McDonald, however, soon had something to say about that. By the first preseason game, McDonald had moved ahead of McLeod on the depth chart and alongside Stewart.
Early in the second preseason game, Stewart missed a couple of tackles and, by the end of the first quarter, McLeod moved into his place. As it turned out, Stewart came out not because of his lackluster play but because he had pulled a hamstring. He hasn’t been back in pads since and with the regular-season opener just 11 days away, he might not be ready to play against Arizona, much less start.
Stewart wasn’t entrenched in the lineup to begin with. Going into his fourth season, he gained starting status by default as much as ability. He was the team’s only returning safety with more than a year’s experience.
McLeod is viewed as a solid pass defender and sure-hands tackler but at a listed 5 feet 11, 195 pounds, is considered a bit undersized. But he has added 12 pounds to his listed weight from a year ago and his size hasn’t looked much like a weakness. Though McLeod didn’t get on the field with the defense much last season, he says all those meetings and practices still paid off. The confidence that comes with experience has put him in a different place this summer.
“Coach (Chuck) Cecil always says recognize the setup, and I feel like certain formations I see quicker than I did last year,” McLeod said. “I’ve done my job, made some tackles, been where I needed to be, but I still have a lot of work to do.”
Working against the likes of speedy receivers Tavon Austin and Chris Givens in practice has its benefits, too. “We’re going against great competition each and every day,” McLeod said.
McLeod is no stranger to Austin. While McLeod played at DeMatha Catholic High in Washington, D.C., Austin was starring for Dunbar High in Baltimore. Both schools are considered regional powers and they have met in football. McLeod, however, had already left for college when DeMatha scrimmaged Dunbar in Austin’s senior year.
“I got word that he did damage,” McLeod said. “So I already knew about him.”
Though Austin always has been a headliner on the elite all-star teams, McLeod has settled for also-ran status throughout his young career. He has been given nothing along the way.
That includes a starting job at safety for the Rams, too, even if an injury did open the door.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.