Last year, we discussed how the draft is more than just a selection of players; it is a message to the other teams, to fans and even to ownership. By choosing certain players at specific points in the draft, every team communicates their interests.
Seattle gave us a pretty blunt message by drafting two offensive linemen who come in well over 300 lbs. with their first two picks. Atlanta, of course, sent a handful of picks to Cleveland for Julio Jones. How obvious is that message? Or consider Buffalo, who spent seven of their nine picks on defense, including Marcell Dareus and Aaron Williams.
So what did Billy Devaney and the St. Louis Rams say this weekend? What are the key points in the memorandum they crafted with the seven picks we made?
Like last year, I took away two statements, again one on offense and one on defense. Bear in mind that I'm not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with the philosophy being tested. I'm simply parsing the drafts of this team to understand how Devaney and HC Spagnuolo approach football contextually. That being said, here are the two statements from this year's draft:
1.) The decisions to draft TE Lance Kendricks and WRs Austin Pettis and Greg Salas were part of hiring Josh McDaniels.
2.) The DT, OLB and FS positions aren't important to our defensive system.
More on those two statements after the jump.
McDaniels was officially hired this weekend
The Rams announced the hiring of Josh McDaniels, Jan. 18. The Rams' selections in rounds two through four were the press conference. In selecting McDaniels to be the Rams' next offensive coordinator, the Rams did more than just hire a coach or signal caller. They hired a system, and this draft gave us a serious bit of information on that system before the team has even had a chance to practice it.
Maybe the most interesting pick was Kendricks in the middle of the second round. While adding more sure-handed WRs implies something relatively predictable, the idea that McDaniels offense would need more from a TE than Mike Hoomanwanui can provide is surprising. And that might be an understatement.
The key is diversity and distribution. In adding Kendricks, the Rams now have the opportunity to work the field inside and out with a variety of receiving options and formations. As Devaney said:
Receivers don’t have to be the ones all the time stretching a defense. I think Josh used a great term during our meetings about stressing a defense. Not stretching it, but putting stress on a defense, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to do, just with adding players that are multi-dimensional. You can use (Kendricks) in a variety of ways and he’s going to cause matchup problems for defenses.
McDaniels' history as an offensive coordinator and head coach should be taken into account as well. In 2006, TE Ben Watson finished with the second most receptions on the team. The Pats' leading receiver that year, Reche Caldwell, finished with just 61 catches for 760 yards. Brandon Gibson last year finished with 51 receptions for 620 yards. In 2007, the Pats added Randy Moss (who opened the offense vertically) and Wes Welker (who exploited that space), and Watson's production fell off the map.
In Denver, Tony Scheffler was largely abandoned in McDaniels' first year as head coach before he left for the Lions. You would have a tough time remembering any production at tight end for the Broncos last year. Daniel Graham, the leading tight end receiver, finished with 18 catches for 148 yards; playing in just 8 games last year, Hoomanawanui had 13 catched for 146 yards.
So it's a bit surprising that McDaniels would suddenly push for a tight end. The logical conclusion is that the Rams' braintrust saw something in New England's two-headed tight end monster that they wanted to replicate for Sam Bradford. And that's where Pettis and Salas come in.
Neither has the speed to threaten NFL cornerbacks downfield. Neither is the physical specimen that can destroy press coverage consistently. But both are sure-handed, precise route runners who can work the field both on the sidelines and between the numbers, especially in short yardage situations such as goalline offense. Bernie Miklasz believes the statement from this draft was specifically related to red zone offense. I don't think it's that limited.
I think it's more about the passing offense in general. In adding Kendricks, Pettis and Salas, the Rams have made it clear that Sam is going to spread the ball around. A lot. In the end, it won't be Bradford's production that justifies this class, but those three aforementioned picks. If they provide the versatility needed in McDaniels' offense to sustain drives and open things up for Steven Jackson, this class will look fine. If not, the complaints will get louder. In either case, the Rams told fans what to expect from the offense this season. I'm entirely sure that NFC West defenses got the message too.
In the weeds with needs
Speaking of defense, what happened to defense? The Rams were handed a great BPA option at 14th overall with Robert Quinn, a phenomenal talent who gives Spagnuolo a pass-rush beast to play with on his defensive line. What happened to defensive tackle, outside linebacker and free safety? The message was pretty clear: those aren't as important as you think.
Spagnuolo's defenses have been historically defined by agility on the defensive line and physicality from the secondary. So is it really that surprising that the Spagnuolo-led Rams avoid spending much capital on defensive tackles who, save for the once-in-a-decade type of talent like Ndamukong Suh, don't provide the agility in the pass rush game that Spags covets? Or free safeties who, compared to the strong safeties next to them, lack the physicality his system requires?
Take Jim Thomas' piece from just before the draft, where he said this:
Defensive line. Middle linebacker. Big corners. Those are the money positions on Spagnuolo's defense, a defense that played better than expected in 2010.
Why then would we expect different? Spags' philosophy doesn't change from season to season, nor should it. It got the Giants a Super Bowl victory in 2008, and the results are trending in the right direction in St. Louis. This again from Thomas' article:
The Spagnuolo template worked well last season. The Rams allowed 108 fewer points in 2010 than in 2009. In terms of sacks, they were tied for the most-improved pass rush. Both the Rams and Detroit were a league-high 18 sacks better in 2010 than they were in '09. And although the nickel back position was a headache, the Rams got solid play from starting corners Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher.
It's not so much doubling down as it is continuing to make the same bet over and over. The statement was made both by prioritizing offensive developments in rounds 2-4, but also by stockpiling late picks and spending all of them on the defensive side of the ball. Spags and Devaney know what they like, and they're not going to change it with the team moving in the right direction.
Putting it together
Last year at this time, we were coming off of a 1-15 season. We had just taken a franchise quarterback at #1 overall. There was little reason to expect the Rams to come within one game of the NFC West crown.
Like last year, there were many crowing about the inability to fill "needs." As much as I've tried to distance people from the importance of the RB position, people were still wondering why we didn't do more to set up Steven Jackson to lead the team. In the end, those "needs" weren't vitally important to the team at the time, and Steven Jackson matters less to the trajectory of this team than Sam Bradford does.
Sure, free agency will fill some holes with veterans that don't seem to offer much. For every Fred Robbins, there's a Hank Fraley. But if we listen to what this draft told us, it'll be at those positions that aren't that valuable to the system. And with McDaniels' offense stacked with weapons, there's reason to be optimistic.