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Vinny on Natrez Patrick and Obo...

August 19, 2019 11:31AM
[theathletic.com] ... =twittered

A rookie linebacker moved outside, and perhaps up the Rams’ depth chart, in Hawaii

By Vincent Bonsignore

HONOLULU — Life moves pretty fast in the NFL, and it’s never been known to sit around and wait on anyone. You either maintain pace or you get lapped. Adapt or get shown the door.

It’s not a particularly forgiving or understanding system.

So when Rams coaches approached rookie undrafted free agent Natrez Patrick recently about moving from inside linebacker to outside linebacker, he instinctively knew it wasn’t really a request; it was an iron-clad decision. They weren’t asking him. They were pretty much telling him.

“I was willing to do whatever they asked me to do,” Patrick said Saturday after a solid all-around performance in the Rams’ 14-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at Aloha Stadium, a game in which he recorded three tackles and combined on a sack.

Injuries to backup candidates Justin Lawler and Trevon Young, and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo’s nagging hamstring injury, depleted some of the depth at edge rusher. With the Rams intent on resting their key defensive players in the preseason and on the lookout for reserve help, they decided to slide Patrick to the outside.

Of course, they gave him the respect of sitting him down and talking it over. Not that he really needed to be convinced that it was in his best interest to accept the assignment. As a young player trying to work his way up from the bottom of the roster, just trying to get noticed enough to force the decision-makers to think long and hard about keeping him around when cut-down day arrives, he understood his lack of leverage.

So it didn’t take long, once the coaches described the plan, before Patrick had a simple response: “I’m in,” he basically told them.

Saturday’s game marked the second consecutive week the Rams’ young linebacker has made his presence felt in a preseason game, after last week’s four-tackle game against the Oakland Raiders. Only this time, he did the bulk of his damage at a new position, having made the move to start at outside linebacker on Saturday.

Patrick is new to the position, but he looked comfortable creating pressure off the edge, dropping back in pass coverage and nimbly getting around the field in run support.

“Natrez has done a nice job,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “Really, we just transitioned him to outside linebacker a couple of weeks ago almost by necessity, as a result of Justin Lawler’s injury and ‘T-Young’ being banged up. He’s really done a good job. I think (outside linebackers coach) Chris Shula’s been outstanding, in terms of helping him develop and progress quickly.”

Said Patrick: “They just came and told me the plan and honestly, I just handled it and adapted. … You have to be adaptable at this level. And I just rolled with it.”

Based purely on skill — it’s been obvious, watching him in games and in practice, that he has a great feel for the game and an instinctive and explosive element in how he reads situations and accelerates to action — Patrick probably should have heard his name called during the draft last April.

But issues off the field — mostly self-inflicted — pretty much guaranteed Patrick would have to fight his way onto a roster as a free agent. A former highly ranked recruit out of Atlanta, Patrick chose Georgia over scholarship offers from Alabama, Clemson, Auburn and Florida. It was a pretty exclusive list, and it speaks to his level of talent.

He backed that up by earning a starting role as a freshman, and at that point it looked like he was on his way.

But three arrests for marijuana possession over the next three years and a failed drug test while on probation resulted in a stint in rehab and in Patrick having to watch Georgia play in the national championship game in Jan. 2018 from the sideline.

What it didn’t mean, thankfully for him, was expulsion from the football team. Georgia coach Kirby Smart never gave up hope that Patrick could find the necessary help and balance to keep his life in order, so rather than kick him out of the program he threw him a life preserver.

Patrick returned as a senior for the 2018 season as a leader and a productive player, and while he recorded 44 tackles (including 4.5 for loss), that wasn’t enough for the NFL to invest a draft pick in him. He’d get his chance, for sure, but he’d have to do it the hard way.

Patrick completely understood. The draft came and went without his name being called. And he never once felt sorry for himself.

Quite the opposite.

“For me, given everything I’ve been through, it was a blessing just to still be in that conversation,” Patrick said. “So there was no disappointment. In fact, I just feel blessed.”

Natrez Patrick recorded three tackles in 34 snaps Saturday night. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)
Two weeks into the preseason, Patrick has seized the opportunity. McVay puts a lot of emphasis on game tape, believing there are certain aspects of football that simply can not be simulated. And he’s using these preseason games to monitor who can translate practice work into game production. Those who do begin to separate themselves from the pack.

Patrick is doing just that. And now that he’s shown he can play inside and outside, he’s forced his way into a possible roster spot.

That’s an incredible amount of progress for someone who was in a treatment center less than two years ago, wondering what his college football future held.

“It’s a great feeling just to come in here, undrafted as I was, and have this opportunity,” Patrick said. “I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get. So it’s a great feeling to be able to put good things on film.”

‘Obo’ on the field

Rams outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo hadn’t played a game since Jan. 1, 2018, in the Rose Bowl for the Oklahoma Sooners.

Things got pretty weird after that for the Rams’ 2018 fifth-round pick. A broken foot in OTAs cost him all of his rookie year and a nagging quad injury has limited him during training camp this year and kept him out of last week’s preseason opener.

In fact, counting last year’s games and this preseason, 24 Rams games passed with Okoronkwo watching from the sidelines. It was highly frustrating for Okoronkwo and the Rams and even their fans, who were eager to see what the athletic edge rusher could bring to the table.

His day finally arrived Saturday, and he didn’t disappoint.

It was only the preseason, but Okoronkwo displayed explosion and pass-rush ability in his first action with the Rams. He got pressure on the quarterback — and even drew a holding call — showed skill in some stunt calls and even got his hand up to knock down a pass at the line of scrimmage.

It was pretty much everything he and the Rams could have expected after a long absence.

“It felt amazing,” Okoronkwo said afterward. “It’s been a long time coming…just had some bad luck with injuries but so thankful to (trainer) Reggie (Scott) and the rest of the training staff. They do such a great job. They were patient with me. The coaches kept telling me to keep my spirits up. We have a great support system here. It’s a family here and they just kept me into it and every day I just kept on doing what I had to be doing. And I finally got a chance. I had a lot of fun.”

Said McVay: “You see some of the flashes of why we liked him so much, why he was such a productive player at Oklahoma. He drew a couple of holdings tonight and made his presence felt.”

It was a stepping stone for Okoronkwo, who is trying to create a role for himself as a situational pass rusher. The Rams’ starting outside linebacker rotation consists of Dante Fowler Jr., Clay Matthews and Samson Ebukam, but there are supporting roles to be earned.

Okoronkwo, with his ability to potentially bring heat, certainly can create a niche for himself with some more solid outings.

“I’m just grateful to be sitting here today,” he said. “I felt good. It was fun. It was fast, it’s been a while. But I had a ton of fun. It was cool getting back up to speed with everything. And all my teammates were happy with everything, kept my spirits up, encouraging me. Today was great.”

  Vinny on Natrez Patrick and Obo...

Rams43428August 19, 2019 11:31AM

  Re: the recruit status with Patrick is telling

merlin187August 19, 2019 01:07PM

  Patrick is from Georgia. nm

max99August 19, 2019 01:10PM