ST. LOUIS Cortland Finnegan entered the NFL with an attitude, a competitive streak that will help the St. Louis Rams rebuild.
His reputation was formed before the trash talk on Sundays. It was formed before his aggression, the "dirty player" label among some and the fists thrown at Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson in 2010.
It was formed with a nickname given to him as a rookie in 2006. Finnegan was starstruck as Samford's first draftee in 37 years after the Tennessee Titans took him in the seventh round in the same class as Vince Young and LenDale White.
Finnegan was eager to show he belonged. He played nickelback in early workouts with veterans and chased wide receivers on pure ambition. Yet there were times when he shadowed the wrong player within the coverage scheme, as if he were a lost Bloodhound sprinting after traffic.
It didn't take long before Finnegan became known in the locker room as an unseasoned sparkplug from tiny Milton, Fla.
Within days, he became known as "Fido."
"It hasn't carried here," Finnegan said of the nickname with a smile. "So we'll try to leave it under wraps."
The 5-foot-10, 188-pound cornerback has a sly and smart way about him. It's why he was called confident during the St. Louis Rams' organized team activities this week. It's why he was said to have the skill to shutdown top wide receivers. It's why he earned 388 tackles and one Pro Bowl trip in six years with the Titans.
It's also why he became the Rams' marquee offseason acquisition when he signed a five-year, 50 million contract in March. He has Fisher to thank for his start as well as his new beginning: The coach made Finnegan the 215th overall selection in the 2006 NFL Draft. The young player was eating a doughnut at a mall in Fort Myers, Fla., when Fisher called, because he was tired of waiting out the suspense in front of a television.
Fisher ended Finnegan's uncertainty more than six years ago. But Finnegan's mother, Linda, offered valuable advice: She told her son never to settle after his big break. After all, his work had just begun.
"He's very smart along with his talents," said Rams cornerback Josh Gordy, who had 43 tackles last season. "If you have that mentally to go along with your physical (strengths), that makes you a complete player in my mind. He's a professional. That's kind of what you want to see out of the guys who want to be leading the group."
Finnegan's work as a leader has evolved. In the fall, he'll be asked to help improve a young secondary that allowed an average of 206.3 yards passing per game last season.
An edge always has been part of Finnegan's on-field persona, and it will help him in a mentor role. It's his strongest trait as a defender, and it's why he was an attractive free agent to Fisher.
"He just brings a new attitude to the secondary fresh ideas," said Rams safety Craig Dahl, who had 61 tackles last season. "He's definitely a playmaker out there. Watching film on Tennessee, he's all over the place. He's aggressive. He brings the veteran leadership added to the secondary with (safety) Quintin Mikell and myself. He also brings a lot of positivity. You see the guy smiling all the time."
That's part of Finnegan's complex personality. Make no mistake: The trash talk and bravado he blames it on his Irish side are part of who he is and why he has enjoyed success in the NFL. Both are signs of an intense passion that allowed him to develop from a scrawny 5-foot-10, 150-pound freshman at Samford into one of the best secondary talents as a professional.
But there's more to Finnegan. It's seen in his grins on the practice field and in the lessons traded between him and rookies during OTAs at Rams Park this week.
He views the Rams' rebuilding effort as a group challenge, and he's doing his part to help create a winning culture.
"We're building," said Finnegan, who had 75 tackles last season. "I like where we're going. We're building. We're pushing each other. And we look to be a good football team. If we could all push each other, I like what we're going to do this year."
Fisher does too. The coach introduced Finnegan in March as "the first of many great, exciting days for the future of this organization."
The comment showed a comfort with Finnegan. The day was a sign that Fisher was willing to turn to his past to shape the Rams' future.
That history shows consistent production from Finnegan. He had as many as 100 tackles in 2010 and never earned fewer than the 63 he had in 2009.
Beyond numbers, though, he shares similar visions of leadership and worth ethic with his mentor. And a strong bond between the two men has led to an anticipated reunion.
"If two people know each other any better, I challenge you to find those two people, because we've had a great relationship in the first phase of his career, and I'm really looking forward to this relationship in the second phase," Fisher said. "He will continue to help to make our defense better with his leadership skills, his work ethic, both on and off the field."