Last year at this time,
It was a position he didn’t expect to be in after a successful career at South Carolina. When he went undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft, Stewart signed on with the Rams and found himself amongst the hundreds of little-known players hoping to do something to stand out and become the next diamond in the rough to make a NFL roster.
On Wednesday, for the second day in a row, Stewart’s status in this league was less in question than ever as he once again took repetitions with the top defense at strong safety.
“It’s a big difference,” Stewart said. “I am very comfortable with the playbook. I have still got a lot of stuff to learn but I have grown up a lot since last year.”
Not that Stewart had much of a choice in how quickly he acclimated to the league. The NFL doesn’t allow for much of a learning curve, particularly for its undrafted free agents.
Sure, there is the practice squad but if a guy does enough to land on an active roster, he has to get up to speed sooner than later. Making matters more difficult was the sheer volume of things the Rams threw at Stewart in his rookie season.
In addition to learning both safety spots, Stewart was asked to begin working as the weak side linebacker in nickel packages and to learn a variety of spots on special teams.
Needless to say, it would have been a daunting task for anyone, let alone a rookie just getting used to his new surroundings.
“He’s come a long way since his first year as a free agent,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “His head was spinning. Sometimes it still spins, but I think he’s done a nice…I think, my guess is that the rest of the team respects the way he plays. He still has a little bit of learning to do with the defense but we do like the way he plays.”
Apparently, everyone is fond enough of the way Stewart plays that he now has a legitimate chance to win a starting job in just his second season. It’s a path similar to the one carved by the man he lined up next to at safety,
Mikell also came into the league as an undrafted free agent but his chance at becoming a starter didn’t come quite so quick as the one Stewart seems to be traversing.
After fighting his way on to the roster as a rookie, Stewart says he did set his sights on the next logical step for this year: working his way into the lineup.
“Most definitely,” Stewart said. “It’s something I am working on. I am never satisfied so I feel like this year will be a good year for me.”
Not that Stewart’s first year in the league was a bad one. Emerging seemingly out of nowhere, Stewart impressed coaches with his willingness to take on a heavy workload that he says had him studying his playbook deep into the night most nights.
Stewart’s initial introduction into the league saw him working mostly on special teams but by week three, the Rams started integrating him into the defense in nickel packages.
A rash of injuries at safety eventually opened the door for Stewart to get more time on defense. By November, he was playing on defense regularly as the weakside linebacker in the nickel and he posted his first career sack on Dec. 12 against New Orleans.
It was in that role as a pass rushing linebacker that the Rams coaches really began to take notice of Stewart.
“He came in our nickel situations for us and played our WIL,” defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. “He’s got a real knack. Some guys just have a real knack for pressure, how to find ways to beat a blocker. We kind of call it a ‘slither ability,’ I don’t if that’s a real word or not, but he’s got good speed, he’s got good burst and he’s got a real knack for when you pressure and bring him, finding a way to get to their quarterback. Believe it or not that’s not something that’s learned. Sometimes guys just have a sense on how to do it.”
All told, Stewart finished with 11 tackles, that sack, two passes defended and a fumble recovery in 13 games as a rookie. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story as Stewart consistently generated pressure on the quarterback with six combined knockdowns and hurries in a limited blitzing role.
That role will almost certainly continue on third and long but it seems that it could just be a piece of what he does on Sundays this year.
“Now what he needs to do is he needs to continue to progress at the safety position and that will be the things that I’m sure will be foremost in his mind,” Flajole said. “Those will be the things we need him to do next year are continue to become a real viable guy in our sub package but also make the same kind of improvement as a base safety.”
In his first appearance with the top defense on Tuesday, Stewart said he felt pretty comfortable but wants to see how things play out. With the third preseason game generally being the “dress rehearsal” where the starters play the most, Stewart seems poised to get his opportunity to show what he can do with the first group.
Stewart acknowledged that he’s taken a moment to appreciate how far he’s come in just a year but said that was only for a quick spell. After all, he’s got a lot of work left to do.
“I always think it could be a lot worse,” Stewart said. “I could not be here. I am just thankful for the opportunity they gave me and just continue to move forward.”
INJURY REPORT: The Rams made no changes to their injury list on Wednesday as Spagnuolo ruled out a quartet of players for Friday night’s game against Kansas City.
RAM BITS: The Rams wrapped up the training camp portion of this preseason with Wednesday’s practice…Because of the heat, Spagnuolo moved the practice indoors but kept the session open for fans to watch…The entire team signed autographs after the workout…Spagnuolo said he wants his starters to play the entire first half and possibly a series into the third quarter depending on how many snaps they’ve taken…He also confirmed that