Aqib Talib trade gives Los Angeles Rams one of the NFL's best secondaries

Jay Asser 9/03/2018
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New Rams cornerback Aqib Talib has 34 interceptions in his career.

The Los Angeles Rams aren’t afraid to shake up their roster, that’s for sure.

Less than two weeks after they traded for one talented cornerback with character concerns, the Rams added another to continue their defensive makeover.

Los Angeles finalised a deal to bring in Aqib Talib from the Denver Broncos for a fifth-round pick on Thursday, according to multiple reports, reuniting him with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and pairing with newly-acquired Marcus Peters to form one of the best cornerback duos in the league.

At 32, Talib is on the backside of his career, but remains one of the game’s premier pass-defenders. Though he failed to intercept more than one pass for the first time in his career last season, Talib was graded as the 15th best cornerback in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.

With the Rams, he won’t have to match-up against the opposing team’s best wide receiver every snap as the younger Peters will share the responsibility.

In Talib and Peters, Los Angeles now have two ball-hawks capable of turning any throw outside of the numbers into a turnover. While the Rams were tied for the sixth-most interceptions in the league in 2017, only seven of those came from cornerbacks. Peters alone had five last year, whereas Talib averages 3.4 per season.

Add in the recent low-cost signing of former Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields – who has 23 interceptions since entering the league in 2010 – along with the return of safeties Lamarcus Joyner and John Johnson, and Los Angeles have managed to construct one of the best secondaries around.

Not only have the Rams improved the back-end of their defence, but they’ve done it by saving cap space.

If the acquisition of Peters was the nail in the coffin of Trumaine Johnson’s tenure with the team, the trade for Talib was the extra swing of the hammer.

After keeping Johnson on the franchise tag for the past two years, the Rams will now almost certainly let the cornerback walk in free agency, with his $16.7 million salary coming off the books.

Peters and Talib, meanwhile, will combine to make $12.7m in 2018 – $11.0m of which is owed to Talib, who is also slated to make $8.0m in 2019.

Talib’s contract was the impetus behind the decision to move on for Denver.

With the younger and better Chris Harris Jr already on the Broncos roster, along with the up-and-coming Bradley Roby, Talib became superfluous.

Considering the situation they were in, Denver did well to get anything in return for a player they were almost surely going to release.

With Talib’s salary wiped away, the Broncos could potentially use their savings to hand Roby a new contract – his contract will expire after his fifth-year option in 2018 – or make a stronger push for quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Regardless of what the fifth-round draft pick they received nets them, Denver have put themselves in a better position to address their biggest weakness at the cost of a modest toll to their greatest strength.

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Le'Veon Bell's future unclear as Pittsburgh Steelers set to franchise tag running back

Jay Asser 6/03/2018
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Le'Veon Bell is one of the best running backs in the NFL.

Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers are at an impasse, with neither side budging from their position.

With no long-term contract agreed on as of yet, the Steelers will franchise tag Bell for a second consecutive season, paying him $14.5 million for one year.

The running back stated back in January that he’ll consider retirement if forced to play on the franchise tag again and ahead of Tuesday’s deadline he told ESPN that he’s not backing off his stance.

“I just have to decide if I’m going to play when the time comes,” Bell said.

The deadline to work out a long-term deal, however, runs into the summer with the sides having an additional four months to reach an extension before July 16.

If an agreement isn’t reached by then, Bell may choose to skip training camp and even sit out regular season games.

“We’re not coming to a number we both agree on – they are too low, or I guess they feel I’m too high,” Bell said. “I’m playing for strictly my value to the team. That’s what I’m asking. I don’t think I should settle for anything less than what I’m valued at.”

While the $14.5m he’s set to receive on the franchise tag for 2018 is a hefty figure – 120 per cent increase from the $12.12m he played on last season – Bell could be in search of a contract that pays him that much annually over multiple years.

That figure would nearly double the $8.25m per year Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman makes, which is the highest for any player in the same position.

Based on past production though, Bell has a case for setting a new benchmark. Entering last season, no player had ever averaged more yards from scrimmage per game during their first four seasons in the NFL than Bell’s mark of 128.7.

And while his 2017 per-game production didn’t match what he did the previous year, Bell still earned first-team All-Pro honours for racking up 1,291 rushing yards on a league-high 321 carries, while adding 655 receiving yards on 85 receptions. He also found the end zone 11 times (nine rushing, two receiving).

Few running backs in the league can do what Bell does as a three-down player who’s elite as a runner, receiver and pass-blocker.

Other than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, it’s arguable no one on the Steelers is as valuable as Bell.

The problem for him, however, is that he plays a position with a relatively short shelf life and while he’s only 26, it’s possible Pittsburgh believe his best days may be behind him after the heavy load he’s already carried.

Add to that the growing expendability of running backs in the league and Bell may have to settle for something less than the payday he’s looking for.

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Considering Lamar Jackson as anything other than an NFL quarterback has racial overtones

Jay Asser 5/03/2018
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Lamar Jackson throws at the NFL combine. Picture credit: Twitter/@NFL

Forget the question of whether or not he’s a quarterback, Lamar Jackson may end up as the best prospect of any player at the position in this year’s NFL draft.

The 21-year-old had already proved his potential before the scouting combine even got under way in Indianapolis this past week, having put together a stellar college career that included the Heisman Trophy in 2016, but that hasn’t stopped unfair criticism from putting Jackson under the microscope.

Rather than focusing on what he can do as a quarterback, the rhetoric at the combine has centred on if Jackson should be playing an entirely different position.

The ridiculous narrative started when former Indianapolis Colts general manager and NFL analyst Bill Polian suggested Jackson would have to play wide receiver at the next level back in September, before doubling down on his claim in the lead-up to the combine.

Then, an NFL Network report surfaced on Friday that stated multiple teams had asked Jackson to work out as a receiver, but the Louisville product shut down the rumours and stood firm on his belief that he has one position and one position only.

“No teams have asked me to be a wide receiver,” Jackson said. “I don’t know where that comes from. Strictly quarterback.”

Plain and simple, the notion that Jackson should play receiver is an insult and one that comes with racial overtones.

The thinking has less to do with Jackson being better as a receiver because he’s fast and athletic, and more to do with him being an underwhelming quarterback prospect because of his lack of accuracy.

Jackson’s 59.1 per cent completion rate this past season was far from stellar, but it still topped Josh Allen’s mark of 56.3 per cent. And yet the Wyoming quarterback – who, as you can guess, is white – Is being hailed as the potential number one overall pick, while Jackson has to deal with countless questions regarding his position.

Allen is 6-foot-5 and 233 pounds. Why not turn him into a tight end?

This isn’t to pick on Allen or even suggest he shouldn’t be the first pick – it’s to show how laughable the Jackson criticism is.

It’s fine to think Jackson’s raw and needs further developing, but to suggest he play another position is a veiled attempt to stereotype quarterbacks.

‘Pocket passer’ or ‘cerebral’ are often code words used to describe white quarterbacks, while black quarterbacks are usually defined as ‘scramblers’.

Just because you have athleticism doesn’t mean you can’t also stand tall in the pocket, read the defence and deliver an on-time pass. And if you watched Jackson at all in college, you saw he has a range of abilities that make him almost impossible to game plan against.

With the way modern NFL offences are trending, a quarterback like Jackson has the potential to thrive under a creative offensive coordinator or head coach. If players like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton – three of the best quarterbacks in the league who also use their feet nearly as much as their arm – can dominate, why can’t Jackson?

Add in his leadership qualities and relatively clean record off the field and the only reaction the team that drafts him should have is excitement, not a desire to make him something other than he is.

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