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St. Louis Rams impressed with growth of safety Rodney McLeod

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- From undrafted rookie to special teams contributor to competing for a starting spot, St. Louis Rams safety Rodney McLeod has climbed the NFL ladder the hard way.

But for those who still wonder whether McLeod has staying power as the team's starting free safety, the Rams offered an emphatic answer this offseason when McLeod became a restricted free agent. The team didn't simply tender McLeod an offer at the lowest level, they tendered him at the second-round level, guaranteeing him $2.356 million and the Rams a second-round pick in exchange for him if he had received an outside offer they chose not to match.

In three years with the Rams, it was clearly the biggest public vote of confidence for McLeod yet.

"It says a lot," McLeod said. "I just appreciate them for recognizing what I’ve been doing the past three years."

McLeod arrived in St. Louis in 2012 when Rams coach Jeff Fisher and his staff took over. Then, he was an undrafted rookie out of Virginia who quickly became a stalwart on special teams. In 2013, McLeod claimed the starting job at safety but had enough ups and downs that many thought he'd be replaced. McLeod kept his job and returned in 2014 in the same role.

Each season, Fisher has been increasingly impressed with what he's seen from McLeod.

“Every year he just steps it up a huge notch," Fisher said. "From being our best special teamer the first year, to starting last year to now he’s in a role as a starter. He gets the game. Moves very well. I thought he played really well last year. He misjudged a couple deep balls, but everybody does that. But I thought he was really active, knew what to do, and run-supported very well.”

The Rams have added to McLeod's role in each season. Last year, McLeod found himself playing more single-high coverage than in any of the previous years, often serving as the last line of defense while fellow safety T.J. McDonald spent most of his time near the line of scrimmage.

That added responsibility did occasionally result in the costly mistakes to which Fisher referred. Against Arizona in Week 10, Cardinals receiver John Brown got behind McLeod for what turned out to be the game-changing touchdown.

Despite those types of hiccups, the Rams clearly believe in McLeod in the present and for the future. He's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, one of many the Rams will have to re-sign. It's a group that includes fellow defensive backs Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins.

The Rams valued McLeod enough to put the second-round tag on him this year which would indicate they'll make a push to bring him back after this season. For his part, McLeod said he's set a goal to make the Pro Bowl this year but is more concerned about winning than individual accomplishments or signing a new contract. Still, there's no doubt where McLeod wants to play his football in the future.

"I love this organization and I love coach Fish and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here," McLeod said. "We all came in together from Tru to Jenkins. It’s a lot of us. Our chemistry is amazing on and off the field. I want to be a Ram forever if I can."