The draft is more than just teams selecting players; it is a collection of 32 mission statements that reflect the personalities, attitudes and philosophies of every NFL team and often their head coaches.
Some of those mission statements are easy to understand.
Denver spent their first five picks (all in the 3rd round with their sixth pick not coming until the 5th round) on offense, including taking QB Tim Tebow. This is easy to interpret: Josh McDaniels was eager to put together "his" offense. Baltimore had a very Baltimore draft: OLB, DT, TE, TE. Same for Pittsburgh. The fact that these teams have identifiable draft styles means you already know their statement from the ones they've made in previous drafts. Can you go through San Fran's draft and not see Mike Singletary in every pick? I can't.
Some drafts, on the other hand, are very, very, very hard to put into this context. Oakland confused everybody by not being confusing. Opening their draft with Rolando McClaing, Lamarr Houston and Jared Veldheer was, well, smart. And that's not what anybody expected. Of course, they followed those picks with classic Oakland picks: Bruce Campbell (who I had Oakland taking in the 1st round) and Jacoby Ford. You could suggest the statement there was that Al Davis' reign of terror is coming to an end. I'll need to see Oakland get through another draft before I go that far. Buffalo kicked their draft into gear with CJ Spiller (still confused) before getting their NT: not Terrence Cody, not Cam Thomas, but Torrell Troup. Strange.
So what does this draft say about the Rams' state of affairs? Where is this team going? How do you categorize the product Spagnuolo intends to put out this year? For me, I see two direct, intentional statements and an underlying theme from each:
1.) This is Sam Bradford's team, and all offensive-related changes, whether related to on-field strategy or roster moves, will be made to accomodate him.
a.) The underlying statement is what this says about who the offense does not belong to: Steven Jackson
2.) This defense is going to be physical, painful and effortful.
b.) Underlying: this defense will not rely on high-skill players, or those with outstanding bodies of work. It's going to require development, time and commitment.
Those two statements explained in detail after the jump.
The Rodger Saffold pick wasn't as much about Alex Barron or Jason Smith or anyone else on offense as it was about the pick that preceded it. Even more important, it wasn't about now, or soon - it was about the future. The Rodger Saffold pick was a statement that the Rams take Sam Bradford's protection (and his development) as their top priority, a statement reaffirmed by the selection of two TEs to open rounds 5 and 6. Pairing Saffold with the #2 overall pick from the 2009 draft, Jason Smith, gives the Rams, and Bradford, our offensive tackles for the next few years at a minimum, and beyond that if they both develop into dependable blockers. That their timeline coincides with Sam Bradford's is not a coincidence (although, I'm not sure if gramatically something that coincides cannot be a coincidence...). This was clearly a draft that, in drafting Bradford, provided the Rams with an identity as well as giving the coaching staff a QB to mold (both in terms of molding Bradford to their offense and vice versa).
By doing so, it also signaled a lack of a commitment to the running game. Steven Jackson put up an incredible 2009 campaign, doing it while facing ridiculous defensive attention. It was an incredible achievement for both him and the line that allowed him to do what he does best - rack up yardage. Despite what was obviously a Pro Bowl-caliber season, Jackson matched a career low in one category: touchdowns. With the Rams anemic passing offense failing to advance drives (and often cutting them short) all season, the running game, and thus Jackson, was reduced to being nothing more than a yardage factory and not a point scoring machine. It's also worth noting that in spite of Jackson's A+ season, the Rams won one game. This draft sugests that the future of the Rams offense (as well as any improvements in the win column) won't come from the running game; it will come from the air.
Jackson may score more touchdowns this year. He may receive a fairer amount of credit from the national media for being one of the best running backs in the NFL. But if the Rams have any more success in 2010, it won't be because of Steven Jackson. Besides, what more can he do? If he does run for more than the 1416 yards he totaled in 2009, it won't be because he or the offensive line got much better (there's not a whole lot more they can do) - it will be because a more balanced offensive attack will force defenses to play less men in the box, opening up larger running lanes for Jackson to exploit.
Adding to the reality was the fact that the Rams opted not to draft a backup running back. Yes, there were undrafted free agents, and yes, Brian Westbrook is still a possibility, but neither of those will give the Rams as much comfort as the 49ers got last year when they drafted Glen Coffee to spell Frank Gore in the 2nd round of the '09 draft, or, more recently, when the Vikings took Toby Gerhart to give Adrian Peterson more rest in this year's 2nd round. You could argue that backup running back wasn't vitally important to improving the team overall, but the more important interpretation is that helping Steven Jackson isn't vitally important to this team's future overall. Helping Sam Bradford is.
Playing with fire
In the 2009 draft, the Rams spent their 2nd, 3rd and 4th round picks on defense, taking MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Bradley Fletcher (aka BradleyFletcherBradleyFletcherBradley) and DT Darell Scott. Laurinaitis excelled in his rookie season adding a techinical consistency that Will Witherspoon was unable to provide during his tenure in the middle in St. Louis. BFB's physical approach proved very useful until a freakish knee injury took him out of action for the rest of the season. Scott didn't factor much until after the week 9 bye, and even then was a minor component of the defense, but flashes of the power that convinced the Rams to call his name. The common tie wasn't their individual styles as much as it was another facet of their games: their fire. Laurianitis played every down with commitment and effort. Hell, Fletcher's injury came when he played a pass that was going out of bounds. You can chalk Scott's effort up to rookie desire or playing for PT in 2010, but regardless of the reason, it was there.
The two defensive picks taken before the 6th round this year, CB Jerome Murphy (soon to be aka JeromeMurphyJerome) and DE Hall Davis, are known for their physical approach and strength for the positions. This defense is shaping up to be a power, effort defense similar to the one that carried the Giants to a Super Bowl victory. Now I'm not saying this is a top-caliber defense. Far from it. I have serious questions about the ability of this defensive line and the talent levels at OLB (on both sides). But one thing I don't have a question of is how hard they're going to play and how physically they're going to play. For all the talk about the 49ers playing "smashmouth football" (a term I hate since face guards make mouth smashing virtually impossible), the Rams are forming a defense that will play as physical as any other teams, especially in the secondary. True, James Butler isn't the hardest hitting safety, but he did lay a couple hits at times last year. And with improved pass coverage, he can focus more on tossing his weight around and less on providing safety help for the corners.
Still, the issues up front will undoubtedly be the biggest issue going into 2010. Can Spagnuolo extract a similar level of productivity from the Rams' D-line as he did in New York? It's hard to see that happening with this group. And what about the linebackers? Too often, Laurinaitis hesitated to commit to his assignment; I wouldn't be afraid to ascribe many of those hesitations to a concern that the linebackers playing alongside him would be unable to maintain their assignments, especially in run support plays. Having physical corners who are capable of shedding blocking WRs and containing the run would go a long way. But more important is establishing a defensive identity.
My biggest gripe with the 2010 defense was that it played too safe, willing to allow shorter gains to prevent longer ones in the hopes that a turnover or botched offensive play would be enough to end a drive. Obviously, that strategy failed more often than not. Playing more individual assignments requires tenacity, consistency and discipline. That has to be the approach for this defense. There aren't many high-talent players on the roster (hell, even Chris Long, the #2 overall pick isn't what I would call a high-talent player). We do have a lot of high effort players who have shown a willingness to scrap both at the NFL level and in college. That quality has to be implemented more frequently and to a larger degree this season if the defense is to improve.
Putting it together
Our 2010 season will not be pretty. It won't be easy. It likely won't be incredibly successful from a win-loss standpoint. But looking at what this draft tells us (especially on the back of the 2009 draft), I have no problem saying I am comfortable with the personality this team is adapting. We have a quarterback who will lead this team for years to come, and we're building this offense on his back. We have a defense that is more about work ethic and collective discipline than star talents and raw ability. I'm comfortable with both of those, and it's obvious both the management and coaching staff is as well. If they're willing to risk their professional lives on as much, I'm willing to invest some faith in them.