Rams’ Jalen Ramsey neutralized top receivers all year. Next up: Packers’ Davante Adams
Former NFL safety Ryan Clark remembers meeting with Jalen Ramsey before the 2016 NFL Draft, and the two talked briefly about how an NFL team might use him.
Clark was aware of the defensive back from watching Ramsey at Florida State. But he underestimated his size until he saw him in person.
“You don’t realize how freaking big he is until you get up on him,” Clark said, chuckling. “His arms reach his knees.”
Ramsey was a projected first-round pick and played various positions in the Seminoles secondary for three seasons. Clark, who won Super Bowl XLIII with the Pittsburgh Steelers, told Ramsey he would be impactful in a similar role in the NFL.
Ramsey disagreed, Clark said.
“He was 100% certain that he was a No.1 cornerback,” said Clark, an ESPN analyst. “He listened to me, he didn’t argue, but he was honest. He was like, ‘I’m an outside guy.’”
There’s no Pro Bowl because of COVID-19, but that hasn’t stopped the Rams’ Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey from earning Pro Bowl selections.
Five years later, both of their perspectives ring true. Under Rams first-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, Ramsey completed the best season of his career.
His versatility helped the Rams become the NFL’s No.1 passing defense, a unit that also surrendered the fewest total yards and points.
Ramsey, 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, neutralized star receivers Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, DK Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks and DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals.
Now, in the Rams’ NFC divisional-round playoff game Saturday, he’ll have another opportunity to showcase his evolution against Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams.
“His effectiveness this year, but more importantly his effect on the defense, has been the biggest of any corner in the league,” Clark said.
Ramsey’s impact is not obvious on a traditional box score.
For example, Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard had a league-leading 10 interceptions, Ramsey only one. Howard defended 20 passes, Ramsey defended 10.
Both were voted All-Pro, the second time Ramsey earned the honor.
But quarterbacks rarely tested Ramsey. When they did, he gave up 36 catches on 71 targets for 354 yards and two touchdowns, according to Next Gen Stats/Zebra Technologies. The 50.7% completion percentage is the seventh-lowest in the NFL. Ramsey gave up 23.6 yards per game, which also ranks seventh among defenders targeted at least 60 times.
In six games against Hopkins, Metcalf and Evans — all of whom posted 1,000-yard seasons — Ramsey gave up an average of 24.6 yards receiving while shadowing 73% of their routes.
Each receiver presented a different threat. Metcalf and Evans look to overpower defenders downfield. Hopkins’ leaping ability lets him grab contested footballs. In Adams, who caught 115 passes for 1,374 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, Ramsey will face an agile route runner who is shifty at the line of scrimmage. Ramsey’s coverage adapted with the opponent, Clark said.
Ramsey’s reputation and performance created opportunities for others. Cornerback Darious Williams intercepted five passes, including one he returned for a touchdown in the Rams’ 30-20 wild-card victory over the Seahawks. Cornerback Troy Hill intercepted three passes and returned two for touchdowns.
“You know they’re not going to throw to Jalen,” Hill said. “They’re just trying to pick their poison on who they’re going to throw it to.”
On a balmy night in Lubbock, Texas, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes met in one of the wildest games in college football history.
Ramsey created that dilemma for quarterbacks and opposing coaches throughout his career.
At Brentwood Academy in Tennessee, Ramsey dominated with his athleticism, speed and intelligence, coach Cody White said. Ramsey’s primary spot was cornerback, but against run-dominant teams, he often shifted to safety.
“No one was going to throw to him, and it’s silly to lose a guy that impactful at corner when the safety is involved a lot more when you’re playing I-formation or power teams,” White said. “He enjoyed the physicality. He was an eraser.”
Florida State recruited Ramsey to play cornerback but former coach Jimbo Fisher said he knew within a few weeks they could rotate Ramsey, who started as a freshman and intercepted a pass in his first game.
Those results started in film study, Fisher said.
“It was very evident early how quick he could pick things up,” said Fisher, now coach at Texas A&M. “He always wanted to know why and how things were happening, and he almost knew the answer before you asked. That makes for a great player, especially when you’re as blessed athletically as he is.”
In three seasons playing cornerback, safety and nickel back, Ramsey intercepted only three passes, but was a 2015 Consensus All-American.
The Jacksonville Jaguars selected Ramsey with the fifth pick in the 2016 draft, and he established himself as one of the NFL’s rising stars, earning Pro Bowl recognition in 2017 and ’18 and All-Pro honors in 2017.
The Rams in October 2019 gave up two first-round picks in a trade for Ramsey. They extended his contract on the eve of this season, making him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history.
“He probably had the best training camp I had ever seen from a football player, period,” Rams receiver Cooper Kupp said. “The phrase that came to mind was ‘black hole,’ because whoever he was guarding completely disappeared.”
As the season progressed, Staley deployed Ramsey from different spots. In the fourth game against the New York Giants, Ramsey played mostly inside and nearly recorded his first sack on a blitz. He also made highlight-reel tackles in several games.
With a heroic performance at Green Bay, Jared Goff can show that he is the quarterback that can take the Rams to their highest heights in the future.
“I think he’s really showing why he’s the most complete DB in this league and the tape doesn’t lie,” coach Sean McVay said. “When you have an elite talent, who also has great football instincts and intelligence, let’s make sure we maximize the ability for him to influence and affect the game.”
“You saw a true veteran who wasn’t playing off sheer athleticism,” Clark said. “When you can play all of these positions and play them so well with that level of understanding, that’s a high-level of football I.Q. that people might not necessarily attribute to him.”
That intelligence — coupled with his size, length and speed — has enabled Ramsey to develop his own techniques and habits en route to becoming one of the NFL’s most impactful players, as both he and Clark predicted five years ago.
“I think the best thing about his technique is that Jalen has perfected being Jalen,” Clark said. “He’s comfortable in his space. And when you look at it, what’s amazed me is that from a technical standpoint it’s not perfect, but the result is.”
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