On a late-January evening in Miami Beach, Fla., two days before the Super Bowl, Jalen Ramsey owned the spotlight.
The Rams’ star cornerback was not in an NFL stadium; he stood alone before a rapt audience in an upscale store on South Beach’s trendy Lincoln Road. The shop had been converted into a dimly lit performance space and quasi nightclub replete with bar, DJ and band.
Ramsey, draft prospect Tua Tagovailoa and former league most valuable player Cam Newton were on the bill for a “More Than a Football Player” storytelling event sponsored by Uninterrupted, a digital platform started by business partners LeBron James and Maverick Carter.
“On the field, my life is literally on the line,” Ramsey began. “When I’m all alone on an island with whoever your favorite receiver is, I’m sure as hell not calling out an SOS.”
In the next five minutes, Ramsey delivered a monologue as smoothly as he shuts down receivers.
Ramsey is a three-time Pro Bowl pick, considered by many the best player in the league at his position. And, as one of the NFL’s elite trash talkers, he has no problem reminding opponents of his abilities.
But on this night he spoke playfully of adopting an alternate persona.
“Kind of like a shield or a mask,” he said. “I kind of become somebody else. … A Monstar, like in the movie ‘Space Jam.’ ”
Ramsey earnestly recounted his parents’ and older brother’s influence. He spoke of his desire to become a businessman and to help friends succeed. He shared goals of becoming an expert traveler and virtuoso musician. And of his love of being “a girl dad” to two daughters.
In six months, he would report to Rams training camp.
At age 25, he is likely on his way to becoming the highest-paid player at his position in NFL history.
And, perhaps, more than a cornerback.
Recently, Ramsey arrived at camp in Thousand Oaks without fanfare.
It was a marked departure from 2019, when he showed up for Jacksonville Jaguars camp in an armored vehicle resembling a bank truck. The message at the time seemed clear: The fifth pick in the 2016 NFL draft wanted to get paid.
During the second game of the season, Ramsey got into a sideline argument with coach Doug Marrone. He reportedly asked to be traded, and he sat out three games because of a back injury, illness and the pending birth of his second child.
In October, after trading cornerback Marcus Peters to the Baltimore Ravens, the Rams made a rare NFL move. They gave up two first-round draft picks to acquire Ramsey.
Darius Slay of the Philadelphia Eagles will be the NFL’s highest-paid cornerback this season, earning $16.7 million. That’s just ahead of Byron Jones, who in March received a five-year, $82.5 million deal from the Miami Dolphins that includes $54.4 million in guarantees.
Ramsey, who is scheduled to earn $13.7 million in the final year of his rookie contract, is positioned for a more lucrative payday.
The Rams gave Ramsey “a ton of leverage” by not having a new deal in place at the time of the trade, said Joel Corry, a former agent who writes about contracts and the salary cap for CBSSports.com.
“He’s got the hammer and I have a feeling his agent will be willing to use it,” Corry said.
Ramsey is represented by agent David Mulugheta, who has negotiated record-setting deals for such players as safeties Landon Collins and Kevin Byard. A $20 million-a-year contract for Ramsey that resets the market for cornerbacks is not out of the question, Corry said.
And at $20 million, Ramsey would be underpaid, according to Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders.
Sanders’ relationship with Ramsey dates to 2013, when Ramsey committed to play at Florida State — Sanders’ alma mater — after starring in high school at Brentwood Academy near Nashville.
Top NFL quarterbacks earn $30 million to $40 million per season. Why should a top cornerback be asked to play for less, Sanders wonders.
“How does it work that (for) a football player like Jalen Ramsey, we could be excited that he could make 15 million less dollars a year than a guy that’s scared to throw at him?” said Sanders, an analyst for the NFL Network.
Sanders questions football’s salary structure for different positions. “That’s the ignorance of our game,” he said, adding that basketball and baseball are different.
“If you’re dominant,” he said, “you make dominant money.”
In June, Ramsey told reporters that the Rams “know where I stand” regarding a new contract. He said this week that he was not worried about it, that the Rams and his agent were “on the same page from the jump.” He said he instructed Mulugheta to not call him until a deal was done.
The Rams have a recent history of awarding massive contracts to star players. In 2018, they gave receiver Brandin Cooks an $81 million deal, running back Todd Gurley a $60 million extension and defensive tackle Aaron Donald a $135 million extension. Last year, quarterback Jared Goff received a $134 million extension that included $110 million in guarantees.
Ramsey’s impending deal, and the salary cap implications it will bring, led to the Rams releasing Gurley and trading Cooks.
If the trend continues, Ramsey will have a new deal in place before the Sept. 13 opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
If not …
“Whatever he’s asking for today,” Corry said, “won’t be what he’s looking for tomorrow.”
New Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley does not consider Ramsey merely a cornerback. More like a multipurpose defensive back.
“This guy can do anything,” Staley said.
Neither Staley nor Ramsey has specified how the 6-foot-1, 208-pound Ramsey will be deployed in the Rams’ 3-4 hybrid scheme. But it is not difficult to envision Ramsey lining up at cornerback, deep as a safety, in the slot or as a linebacker.
Ramsey hinted as much in May — “My talents will be shown thoroughly, not just in one aspect, if you’re kind of catching my drift,” he said — and again this week.
“I don’t really have like an exact, exact role on the defense yet,” he said, adding, “Nobody’s done what I’ll be asked to do or what I’m going to try to do on this defense.”
Said Rams general manager Les Snead: “There’s a vision and goal to use to him in a way that’s never been used before.”
Nate Burleson was an NFL receiver for 11 seasons. As an analyst for NFL Network and CBS, he has watched Ramsey utilize his mind, speed, height and wingspan to evolve into one of the league’s most dominant cornerbacks.
“When you face a guy like Jalen it’s like you’re facing a safety but he has the hips of a cornerback and the feet of a running back,” Burleson said. “And he has those long, long Avatar-like arms.”
An expanded role for Ramsey harkens to Charles Woodson, Burleson said, recounting a game he played against the Hall of Fame defensive back. Woodson, with the Green Bay Packers at the time, lined up deep at safety, as a slot cornerback, as a linebacker and on the edge of the line of scrimmage as a defensive end. All in the first half.
Ramsey could play a similar role, Burleson said.
“It’s one thing to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league,” he said. “It’s another to be the best defensive player. So when you start to move a guy around like that that can do it, you really put him into that position-less category and that right there is some legendary stuff.”
Hall of Fame defensive back Aeneas Williams played as a cornerback, safety and combination of both during his 14-year career. Williams said it took several seasons for him to develop the confidence needed to lock down an opponent’s top receiver.
“Jalen,” Williams said, chuckling, “he can wake up out of his sleep and think that.”
Ramsey’s new challenge — and Staley’s — will be proving that he is capable of influencing the game from multiple spots on the field. Expect opposing coaches to test him, Williams said.
“I’m going to move my guy around to see if Jalen is comfortable doing that not just man to man, but if he’s comfortable doing it in zones,” Williams said.
Sanders has no doubt about Ramsey’s football acumen and skill set. In his four NFL seasons, Ramsey has “matured in his understanding of the game,” learning coverages, offenses, formations, personnel, quarterbacks and tendencies of opposing coordinators, Sanders said.
But he cautions that changing Ramsey’s role might be a mistake in a league that features so many premier receivers.
“You don’t have time to be moving a guy like Jalen to safety,” Sanders said, “when you have a dog outside the numbers.”
After playing eight games with Ramsey last season, his teammates are eager to benefit from his skills during a full slate of games.
“I’m definitely expecting huge things from him,” said Donald, a two-time NFL defensive player of the year.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced NFL teams to conduct offseason programs virtually. They are in a training camp acclimation period and will not practice until Aug. 18.
Ramsey’s first opportunity to rehearse his new role came during closed walkthroughs.
Brand-new SoFi Stadium will be Ramsey’s home stage this season and, probably, for years to come. The venue is scheduled to host Super Bowl LVI to cap the 2021 season.
As he prepares for what could be a long run with the Rams, and rare use of his talents, it’s worth revisiting Ramsey’s night in the spotlight in Miami Beach before last season’s Super Bowl.
“Every bit of life is a process,” he told the audience, adding that mistakes will be made and there is no secret formula to success.
“The only answer really is having a commitment to growing,” he said. “You can’t just go through life — you got to grow through life.”
Then he finished.
“Thank you all for your time,” he said. “I’m Jalen Ramsey. I’m more than a football player.
“I’m anything I want to be.”
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