Picking the Best Available Talent: Smith vs Curry

Okay, so we've heard a lot of talk around here lately about the best strategy to use when drafting during a rebuild.  Do you pick for need or pick best available talent.  Obviously, there can be an argument made for either strategy, but you have to take each situation as a unique situation.  For the Rams, I think the consensus around here is they went "need" followed by "best available".  I'm not 100% sold on that though, so I figured I'd take a deeper look into what was known last year heading up to the draft to try to see if I can find anything.

So, as we all know, the Rams chose not to pick Aaron Curry (or Mark Sanchez) with their 2nd overall pick (btw, neither did the Lions.......but I'm not sure that's a vote of confidence) and instead took OT Jason Smith.  There were plenty of draftniks and experts who lauded the combine performance of Aaron Curry which vaulted him into almost super-human ranks.  And as we know, the media never over-reacts to things like the draft or an awesome game and extrapolates that performance over a player's career.  Never, right? 

Anyway, let's look at Aaron Curry's college career at Wake Forest. 

Well, he was pretty good (to say the least).  One could say he was a tacklin' machine recording 81, 99, and 101 tackles his final 3 years at WF.  However, one might look at his big play stats (turnovers and sacks) and think they should be a little higher for someone labeled the best player in the draft.  In 2006, Curry recorded 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 INT.  In 2007, he tallied, 3 sacks, 2 FF, and 4 INTs.  Then in 2008, he had 2 sacks, 1 FF, and 1 INT. 

Jim Laurinaitis, whom the Rams picked in the 2nd round, had total tackles of 116, 121, and 130 in his last 3 years.  In 2006 he combined for 4 sacks, 3 FF, and 5 INTs.  In 2007, he had 5 sacks, 0 FF, and 2 INTs.  Then in 2008 he totaled 4 sacks, 1 FF, and 2 INTs.

Over the same 3 seasons, Curry amassed 281 tackles, 8 sacks, 5 FF, and 6 INTs while Laurinaitis had totals of 367 tackles, 13 sacks, 4 FF, and 9 INTs.  By the way, Laurinaitis had 251 tackles in his last two seasons which is almost as many as Curry totaled in his final 3 seasons at WF.

Just looking at those rough stats, I think one would have a diffucult time making the argument that Curry was better than Laurinaitis, let alone the best player in the draft hands down.  Was Curry over-rated or was Laurinaitis under-rated according to those stats?

Okay, so in looking at that, it doesn't look like Curry was head and shoulders the best player in the draft.  But, that's not exactly what it's all about, right?  We need to know how athletic a guy is and what kind of character he brings.  Curry was definitely a physical specimen at the combine and made front page news on ESPN.com with his physical prowess.  Let see what was being said:

From NFL.com:

He has very good athleticism making plays in front of him, but bites often on play-action, lacks good depth playing in the zone and is a bit too stiff to generate the sideline-to-sideline range to make impact plays on the outside, where he struggles to stop the runner's forward momentum. He can clog the rush lanes when he stays low in his pads. Put him inside in a 3-4 alignment and he can be equally productive getting to the quarterback as he did in college. Play him on the outside and he will be exposed in a quick and deep passing game.

Okay, so it seems his athleticism was by far his greatest asset and I doubt many here would disagree with that.  Then again, this might be why he was so popular with the talking heads after his performance at the combine.  He blew the competition out of the water at the combine, but as we all know there have been plenty of players who impressed there but did less than impress once they stepped on the field.

Was there too much importance placed on Curry's combine?  Probably.  Don't get me wrong, he was a heck of a player at Wake Forest, but was he, hands down, the best player available?  I don't think that's completely clear, especially when a guy who put up better numbers than he did got drafted in the 2nd round.  Why was Laurinaitis drafted lower?  Answer: It all had to do with physicality. 

Alright, so we've talked about Aaron Curry for a while here but we've yet to discuss Jason Smith.  Well, finding stats on an college Offensive Lineman that gives us a good idea of his impact is a little difficult so let's just look at what was said about him on NFL.com:

Smith needs to add at least another 20 pounds of bulk to handle the rigors of playing left tackle at the next level. His lack of great footwork and need to improve his stance could be covered up better playing inside for a year or two because he's still a neophyte at the left tackle position (19 starts). Once his body matures, his athletic skills will make him a quality left tackle in the mold of another former college tight end, Jason Peters (Buffalo).

Guess what sticks out to me?  Two words....."tight end".  I remember making the statement before the draft that I was sick of hearing about Smith being a "converted tight end" but let's not look past that and realize what is being said here.  Smith was always been looked at as someone who needed to put on weight and was still developing, but his "athletic skills" were never in question and were always lauded.  Every where you look on that page (if you click the link) you'll see descriptions like "ultra-athletic", "tall, athletic", "outstanding athleticism".  It also talks about him being a "neophyte" at the left tackle position and that once he matures into his body he'll be a "quality left tackle".  He's "raw".

Guess, what I'm noticing....  Curry and Smith were probably the two top athletes in the draft and which one was more "athletic" might not be so clear. 

Sure, we all remember how much Curry was lauded because of his performance at the combine, but for some reason we fail to remember that Smith was talked about in the same vein.  He was a "converted tight end" with "outstanding athleticism".  We also have forgotten that he wasn't supposed to step right in and be Orlando Pace.  Honestly, he may never be Orlando Pace, but is that even a realistic expectation?  All along he was supposed to develop over time and with only having three games under his belt, it might be a little early to be making any judgements.

So, back to the question at hand.  Did the Rams employ the "need" strategy or the "best available talent" strategy.  I was starting to think it was "need" but now after remembering the hype that surrounded Smith, I'm thinking it might have been a combination of the two. 

What happens when you have two guys who are both considered great athletes and are at the top of your list?  How do you differentiate between the two?  Well, I think in that case you figure it's a no-lose situation and you go with the greater need.  Now, at this point, it all comes down to opinion.  No matter what, the Rams weren't going to draft a QB in the first round so if anyone is out there thinking "hey, what about Sanchez?" well, it wasn't going to happen with Bulger's contract situation.  But, where the decision lies is, what does the team need more?  A Left Tackle or a Middle Linebacker?

And I think an arguement could have been made for either, but the stronger arguement probably lies with Left Tackle, since they could always just keep Witherspoon in the midde, which is what I suspect is the conclusion the Rams draft team arrived at on that day.

So, in the end, the Rams drafted an extremely athletic Left Tackle who is expected to and should mature and develop into a very good Tackle down the line and a hell of a middle linebacker who has the ability to lead the defense for years.  It could have been much worse.  We could have drafted Nate Davis to be our new Nickle Back.

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