As soon as the draft ended in 2012, safety Rodney McLeod was a hot commodity. A multitude of organizations called his agent and expressed interest in signing the University of Virginia product. They loved the fact that he was versatile enough to play both cornerback and safety.
Yet, despite the strong interest from teams around the league, McLeod knew he wanted to ink a deal with the St. Louis Rams:
“Jeff Fisher is a great coach. He has been in the game for a long time, and he can make a lot of things happen. Plus, it was the best fit for me. The Rams didn't have a lot of safeties on the roster, and they told me it would be an open competition. So, I figured it was a fair chance for me to either compete for a safety spot or a spot on special teams.”
McLeod took advantage of his chances in training camp and made the 53-man roster as a special teams contributor.
Being a special teams contributor isn’t a glorious job in the NFL, but it does serve as an opportunity to make a name for yourself. And that’s exactly what McLeod did in 2012.
As a rookie, he led the Rams in special teams tackles and garnered a plus-one grade overall on kickoffs and punts from the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). St. Louis’ coaching staff took notice and brought him back in 2013.
Even though McLeod’s role was uncertain for the second straight year, he made it a point to work hard and approach the game the same way he always had. His hard work eventually paid off and he won the starting free safety job prior to the 2013 season.
This is where McLeod’s young career took off.
"You saw a Rodney McLeod who is gonna start at safety for us, come in and play nickel with this group," Snead said.— Nick Wagoner (@nwagoner) August 30, 2013
For the first time since his playing days at Virginia, McLeod was asked to utilize his versatility. In addition to playing free safety, Coach Fisher approached the second-year player and asked him to man the slot cornerback position in nickel-and-dime packages after Cortland Finnegan went down.
To any other young player, this type of responsibility may have been intimidating, but McLeod took it in stride. In fact, he embraced the role because Finnegan had been his mentor since his rookie season.
“From day one, Cortland was a guy I wanted to be like. I consider my game and his game somewhat similar. We are smaller, scrappy, quick twitch type guys. I respected the way he approached the game on a daily basis. He was always a pro, which I take a lot of pride in as well.”
McLeod is right: Their games are somewhat similar. This is why St. Louis’ defense didn’t take a hit when he took over for Finnegan in nickel-and-dime packages. Per Pete Damilatis of PFF, McLeod only surrendered one touchdown and 218 yards receiving in the slot.
Those are impressive numbers considering 24 percent of his defensive snaps came from the slot. Here’s what McLeod had to say about his role as the Rams’ jack-of-all-trades player:
“My role was all over the place. Every week I had to be ready and prepared to drop down and play nickel or got outside. So, I look at myself as a safety/corner. I just have those abilities. It's a position that I love to do. There's a lot going on a that nickel position. It's almost like you're another linebacker.”
According to McLeod, his role is still up in the air for the 2014 season, but that doesn’t faze him. He knows his versatility is proving to be exactly what the Rams defense needs.
Even Coach Fisher took notice and lauded McLeod’s versatility, via Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com: “He’s a guy you can trust to go in the game and play either safety position and be productive.”
@DezRalston31 It's weird. I've got about two-dozen names of confirmed visits to Rams. Not one safety.— Jim Thomas (@jthom1) April 24, 2014
Based on his sophomore season, the versatility he brings to the table and the heaps of praise the coaching staff has thrown his way, it sure doesn’t sound like St. Louis plans on replacing McLeod in the draft.
And to be frank, the Rams shouldn’t replace McLeod. He earned his stripes in 2013. When Finnegan went down with an injury, he single-handedly held the back end of St. Louis’ defense together.
Fans are quick to rip on McLeod because of his less than impressive PFF grade (negative-8.7), but they have to remember PFF is not the end-all, be-all.
Very few players can come in and man two positions the way McLeod did last year.
Furthermore, McLeod’s success and versatility doesn’t stop on the field.
He has taken it upon himself to be an ambassador for the Rams off the field. Aside from the fact he has built a strong relationship with the Salvation Army in St. Louis, McLeod is holding a youth football camp in his home state of Maryland on June 28.
The camp will host 300 kids between the ages of nine and 14 and will be free of charge. McLeod told me why it was important for him to give back off the field in the form of a youth football camp:
“I want to give these young kinds an opportunity to develop some of their skills and be in an atmosphere where they can talk, have fun and do drills with NFL players like myself. That was something I was never able to do, so I feel like I’m in a position to help the youth out.”
Off-the-field doings rarely matter when a particular player’s performance isn’t there on Sundays, but McLeod has proven in two short years that he is the real deal. He not only brings it on game day, he brings it every other day of the week as well.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.