Draft could provide a critical lift for Rams at cornerback

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Rams now have what appears to be a desperate need at cornerback, but their timing seems right.

The 2018 draft can provide a major lift.

One of the major strengths of this upcoming draft -- taking place from April 26-28 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas -- comes in the secondary, especially with regard to first-round talent. Mel Kiper Jr.'s latest Big Board listed five defensive backs among its top 25 draft prospects, tied with offensive linemen for the most at any position. Todd McShay's latest Top 32 identified six defensive backs, tied with defensive and offensive linemen for the highest representation.

Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick, who can excel as both a cornerback and a safety, will probably come off the board within the first 10 picks. But the Rams still have a solid chance to land a quality corner at No. 23, especially with four quarterbacks -- USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Wyoming's Josh Allen and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield -- expected to come off the board before then.

Iowa's Josh Jackson, linked to the Rams in Kiper's second Mock Draft, is a ball-hawking corner with ideal size and length. Auburn's Carlton Davis, linked to the Rams in Kiper's first Mock Draft, brings a similar skill set. There's also Ohio State's Denzel Ward, a gifted cover corner who might slip in a quarterback-heavy first round. And Colorado's Isaiah Oliver, who adds great speed and leaping ability to a long, 6-foot-1 frame. More possibilities include Central Florida's Mike Hughes, who makes up for a lack of size with physicality, and North Carolina's M.J. Stewart, who's athletic and skilled enough to handle a heavy dose of man coverage under Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

The Rams' primary cornerback, Trumaine Johnson, is coming off back-to-back seasons under the franchise tag and probably will command a salary among the game's highest paid at his position. Their No. 2 cornerback, Kayvon Webster, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in December, an injury that typically comes with a six- to nine-month recovery. Their slot corner, Nickell Robey-Coleman, is set to join Johnson as an unrestricted free agent. And beyond them there isn't much, besides the undersized Troy Hill, who will now be an exclusive rights free agent.

But Kiper said during a conference call with the media on Wednesday that the draft will "fall really well" for the Rams and their need at cornerback. Here's his full answer:

"I think it's going to fall really well for the Rams late first round. I really do. I think Josh Jackson, if he were there, he's a [6-1] corner, he's got great ball skills, great awareness. I think he would definitely be in the mix. Mike Hughes from Central Florida had a great year. He's a return man. M.J. Stewart, North Carolina. Donte Jackson, LSU, is a little raw, but he's talented. He's probably going to run the fastest 40 of any of the cornerbacks in the draft, I would believe. Carlton Davis from Auburn has the great length at the cornerback spot. Like I said, it's going to fall well. It's going to be one of those corners still there. I gave them [Josh] Jackson [in the latest Mock Draft]. Now if Jackson runs well [at the combine], I think he'll be long gone. If he runs just average, I think he can be there."

The big question is how the outlook of the draft will affect negotiations with Johnson, who spent his first six years with the Rams and accumulated $30.69 million in salary in 2016-17.

The Rams, who haven't burned their first selection on a defensive back since Tye Hill went 15th overall in 2006, need to add far more than a rookie first-round pick at this position. But the hope of getting the right guy at No. 23 might keep them from offering Johnson something in the neighborhood of $13 million a year to stay.