Turnaround is the buzzword for the St. Louis Rams heading into their season opener this Sunday. Excitement around the team has been fueled in large part by rookie QB Sam Bradford's strong preseason showing. This year's first overall pick shrugged off four sacks to start the preseason before stringing together two performances against the Patriots and Ravens that were far more than even the most optimistic fans expected.
The Rams turnaround starts on top, as we've numerous times, with new leadership in the front office. One of the most visible signs of improvement from the new sheriff, GM Billy Devaney, has been a much improved April performance, adding real contributors via the draft and breaking a troubling cycle of drafts that failed to add much beyond payroll to the team prior to that.
Just days away from the start of Devaney's second season as GM and Steve Spagnuolo's second season as head coach, the most current iteration of the Rams roster is heavy on youth and potential. Players selected in the last three drafts make up almost a full third of the roster, 17 of 53 (which does not include WR Donnie Avery who is on IR), 6 of those 17 players have starting jobs on the team.
Starting with 2008, when Devaney came on board as a personnel guy, let's take a look at the players taken in those three drafts and their role with the team.
Chris Long put himself on the map in the second half of last season, collecting sacks and getting to opposing QBs with enough regularity that he is expected to cement his place as the team's leading pass rusher this year. Donnie Avery would be starting this season had he not suffered a knee injury that landed him on IR, ending his year before it really began. It's too bad because Avery was really starting to put the pieces together, part of that magical third year for receivers. OL John Greco and CB Justin King, third and fourth round picks, provide solid depth. The Rams' other fourth round pick that year, Keenan Burton, was cut today after being plagued by injuries most of his tenure in St. Louis. Fifth round pick OL Roy Scheuning is long gone, but the Rams two seventh rounders that year, LBs Chris Chamberlain and David Vobora, are essential role players. It can be argued that Chamberlain is the Rams top special teams contributor, after the kicker and punter, and Vobora showed out well starting at SLB last year. Vobora could easily be a starter and can play all three LB spots.
2008 total: 8 players drafted, 1 starter, 6 still with the team
Jason Smith had the best and worst of times during his rookie year. He earned the starting RT job late in the preseason, and looked very much like a rookie through his early play. Like his scouting report said, he proved to be a smart player who worked hard and really began to emerge with more playing time...until a concussion ended his season. He had to claw his way back up this year, ending up on the right side after being expected to move to the left. Regardless, he's looked like a vicious run blocker in the preseason and expectations will be high for his sophomore campaign.
James Laurinaitis has had the biggest impact of any recent draftee not named Sam. Animal Junior, or whatever you prefer to call him, earned a few looks for the league's Defensive ROY award last year and has given the Rams their first legitimate MLB, defensive QB, since Arch Delux left town. Taking nothing away from his impressive rookie season, Laurinaitis should be even better this year, knowing the scheme better than his own phone number.
Behind those first two picks, CB Bradley Fletcher caused more than a few to scratch their head when the Rams made him their third round pick. Now he's starting opposite Ron Bartell, giving the Rams two solid, underrated corners.
DT Darrell Scott, a fourth rounder, quietly emerged as a solid run defender for the Rams last year. Though he doesn't start, he figures to be an important part of a personnel group that should go a long way toward improving the Rams defense.
Those are the only players left from last year's draft. QB Keith Null was waived in favor of undrafted rookie QB Thaddeus Lewis. RB Chris Ogbonnaya failed to make the final cut after having plenty of preseason opportunities; he's now with the Texans. WR Brooks Foster went straight to IR last season and was let go last month.
2009 total: 7 players drafted, 3 starters, 4 still with the team
The jury is still out on the most recent draft class, and regardless of how the other players turn out, it will be judged exclusively on the performance of QB Sam Bradford, the first overall pick in the draft. Early returns suggest a very bright future for the Oklahoma product. He cemented the starting job with a preseason that hinted at just what a special talent the kid is.
Rodger Saffold was another one of those surprise picks that's turned out to be an important player. The Rams shocked the NFL world when they made him their starting left tackle, and the Indiana product has not disappointed. Besides that, he allowed the Rams to cut ties with perpetual disappointment Alex Barron, who did little more than collect costly penalties and remind the team of the high cost of keeping first rounders that fail to live up to their potential.
CB Jerome Murphy reminds you of Bradley Fletcher, it's not a coincidence. Murphy has the kind of skills to make an impact this year. Ditto WR Mardy Gilyard. After plenty of grumbling about the Michael Hoomanawanui pick, the Illinois TE has been one of the biggest surprises of the preseason, showing great hands to go with a natural blocking ability. TE Fendi Onobun has intriguing potential, as does seventh round pick DE George Selvie. Only DE Hall Davis has been released and CB Marquis Johnson is on the practice squad.
2010 total: 11 players drafted, 2 starters, 9 players still with the team, 1 on the practice squad