Every top college prospect is as much a question as they are an answer before the NFL Draft. We all like to glare into our personal crystal ball and try to divine what the future holds for a favored player. It's what we do as sports fans in the off season to bridge the gap between seasons. After studying our favored teams performance in any given year, we begin to dissect the good and the bad. Opinions will vary, then like trails marked on a map, we inevitably come to a fork - a point of divergence - with some of us going one way, while others steer a different course...
When I consider the coming 2012 NFL Draft, especially with an eye toward the St. Louis Rams improvement, I'm torn between two schools of thought. The first way to look at the Rams is the team has a desperate need for a play maker; a player that scores points hand over fist - In our minds anyway...
In the coming draft, quite a few Rams fans appear to lean toward Justin Blackmon as the scoring machine of their dreams. I can't buy into to this way of thinking. It's like buying a set of 12" inch wide racing tires for a Yugo. Trust me, it doesn't make the car go any faster. Those tires will also make you hate other parts of the car more than you did before too. You'll still pound on the dashboard to get a different radio station, swear when the door won't open, and while you're pushing the car down the street, you'll compare yourself to the Bible's Jacob as you wail to the heavens : "Why me!"
Justin Blackmon is that racy set of wheels the Rams just aren't ready for - not yet anyway. The path less taken, and the one I happen to be wandering down at the moment, is the one where you build a team from its foundations. If you take a hard look at core positions along the offensive line after last season, you'll find reasons that are at the very core of why the Rams failed. Once you acknowledge that the car can't run, it's time to pop the hood, right? The engine of EVERY NFL team is the offensive line. The offense doesn't move without them. Runningbacks need blocks, and quarterbacks need time to throw. Without offensive line help, a player like Justin Blackmon will only excel at waving his arm in the air as he streaks down the field, hoping for passes that will never come.
When the St. Louis Rams held the #2 overall draft choice, the idea of taking anyone other than Matt Kalil, the gifted offensive tackle out of USC, was considered absurd. So when the Rams traded their pick to the Washington Redskins for the #6 pick and other considerations, the problems on the offensive line didn't disappear, did they?
It puzzles me that so many would assign value to picks the way they do in light of the new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement. In times past, the idea of taking a linemen at the top of the draft, with the enormous contracts that came with them, was rare indeed. You had to pay Jake Long tens of millions of dollars as an unproven rookie. It wound up working out well for the Miami Dolphins, but not so for the St. Louis Rams in 2009. They chose Jason Smith with the second overall pick that year, and to this point, the money spent may just have well have been burned. In that fateful year, the Rams had a number of offensive tackle choices, till fate played her cruel hand. It gave quite a few fans PTSD too. They acquired an aversion to even thinking about spending another high draft pick on yet another attempt to fill Orlando Pace's shoes.
In 2010, the Rams acquired quarterback Sam Bradford out of the Oklahoma University. While Jason Smith stumbled and bumbled, a split in conventional wisdom appeared: Should we protect Sam or give him someone to whom he could throw a pass? In 2011, Bradford was crushed into the turf time and time again, yet the calls for a "playmaker" in the form of a wide receiver began to increase in volume. The call for a true #1 wide receiver became a Siren's song. Rocky shores be damned, fans sailed head long toward any receiver they could find that offered a glimmer of hope for their cause. Enter Justin Blackmon...
Blackmon is a 4 year Junior, which means he began his college career in the 2008 season. Here's a nice overview by NFLsoup.com:
After redshirting his 2008 freshman year, Justin Blackmon started to immediately make an impact.
In his redshirt freshman season, he saw snaps while looking up to former Cowboy (and current Cowboy) great Dez Bryant.
After Bryant departed, Blackmon came out of his shell as a redshirt sophomore to win the 2010 Biletnikoff Award, Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, become a unanimous All-American, and even finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy race.
Blackmon has improved immensely in his route running, and his versatility as a wide receiver is fantastic. He can stretch the field with above average speed, and he can make plays underneath to turn them into big gains.
Blackmon has soft hands, and is very tough. He will fight for the ball and does a nice job of making a play on it whether he can catch it or not.
His athleticism is also exceptional, and he will make even the toughest catches, while also having the awareness to keep his feet in bounds. Blackmon is generally fearless, not being afraid to take a hit after making a catch.
He doesn’t get jammed easily at the line and his physical presence helps him make plays in the red zone, despite not being very tall.
Blackmon needs to learn how to get better separation in man coverage. He has improved on his route running as mentioned before, but he still needs a bit of work. He doesn’t possess elite speed, and won’t be a burner in the NFL.
He seems to have mental lapses, not always concentrating when catching the football. He doesn’t always look the football in, and at times will run before the ball is in his hands.
He has soft, but not strong hands, which could be worrisome in the red zone in the NFL against defenses that can lay the wood on the opposition.
Intangibles could be a concern. He seems to be a bit of a show boat player, and also has been arrested with a DUI, in which he was suspended for one game for in 2010.
When you look watch tape of Blackmon, you see a player that’s very confident in his ability, and is generally an over achiever. Blackmon is a big time competitor and a hard worker off of the field.
Like previously mentioned, he isn’t a burner and won’t stretch the field as much in the NFL. His best fit looks to be in a West Coast Offense, where a quarterback can take advantage of his ability to make plays off of short-intermediate routes.
Blackmon is likely to be a first round pick, and could be the first receiver off of the board in 2012.
I think that's a fair evaluation of Blackmon, don't you? So let's move on...
Let me step back a minute to the 2011 NFL Draft. With the exception of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, it was considered one of the weaker receiver draft classes in years. Some thought Blackmon would head to the NFL that year, but instead decided to return to Oklahoma State University. Many, including myself, thought Blackmon's returning to OSU had more to do with the fact he would have been the third best receiver in the 2011 class. If that was the case, it raises two points: First, Blackmon is a smart guy. Looking at the 2012 crop, he definitely stands out more than he would have in 2011. Second, it means that talent wise, he wasn't on par with receivers taken where the Rams could pick him this year at #6.
This is a sellers market at the wide receiver position, and it looks like the best value at wide receiver is Blackmon, or is he? Say what you will, but I can't - and don't - see any NFL team thinking of trading up for the OSU star as Atlanta did for Julio Jones in 2011. Blackmon is a receiver that will make or break his career at 20 yards and under routes. He does possibly offer some great "after catch skills", but that is a projection at best. What he will do with the ball after a catch at the NFL level is only a guess right now. His concentration issues are another item that just doesn't seem to go away.
Want another "Oops" moment? Here you go!
Ok, just one more...
If anyone wants to know why every team isn't banging down the door to get a chance at Blackmon...
I'm really not here to bang on Blackmon. I think he'll have a super career in the NFL. He'll be great on a team that already has a true #1 wide receiver. Blackmon really doesn't show me #1 talent. Sure, he's won all sorts of honors in college, and his statistics are beyond impressive. I get all that, but what I don't see is Blackmon being a wide receiver that can carry an NFL team's passing game on his shoulders. He's going to be a great #2 wide receiver. I've said before that if we had TWO Justin Blackmon's, I could care less if we ever have a Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. This means that if we draft Blackmon at #6, we won't be done shopping for wide receivers. He's a part of a picture that is a work in progress. So I guess it all comes down to how you build a great NFL team?
The offensive line holds the key to Rams team being a better, and not just in the 2012 season. I've already mentioned Matt Kalil, but he won't be there at the #6 pick. To build a team that will last beyond this or any season, Rams fans need to take a closer look at offensive line prospects in the 2012 Draft. I mentioned offensive guard prospect David DeCastro a few days ago. I'm not alone in my thinking that he'd be a great choice to improve a position of need for the Rams:
The Way We See It:
Strong, physical and coordinated, DeCastro was bred in a pro-style offense where he consistently played at an elite level. Fits seamlessly in any blocking scheme, is ready to step into a starting lineup and grades out as one of the best guard prospects in a decade.
Do I think Decastro is a "must pick" for the Rams? Not really, but I wouldn't be disappointed at all if he were the pick. He would represent a trend toward building a truly solid team. Yes, wide receiver is a position of need for the Rams, but so is defensive tackle, outside linebacker, corner back, and as it turns out - Defensive Coordinator.
I can't help but think fans of Sam Bradford are pinning their hopes on the fact the former O.U. phenom simply needs a wide receiver to prove his greatness at the NFL level? They'd be wrong if they hold this hope. Great NFL quarterbacks earn their Olympian bona fides by leading at team. Say what you want about how great Tom Brady is, but Matt Light, Logan Mankins and company had more than a little bit to do with his success.
If Justin Blackmon ends up being the Rams choice on draft day, I'll be OK with it. Draft-nics will pat themselves on the back for calling this pick months ago. There will be fans that pump their fists in the air, then rush to buy Blackmon's jersey online. Then training camp will open, and reporters will tout the Rams possible rise from the depths of the win - loss column because they finally have a passing game. The season will begin, and Sam Bradford will be seen running for his life once again. Maybe Blackmon will help him up after Sam's get sacked for the thirtieth time? As they limp off the field together, they can commiserate about how one was wide open down field, while the other screamed at the wall of defensive gorillas that brushed his offensive line aside...
The Rams need to shift from patchwork, to well built. Drafting new and talented offensive linemen is just one path to take, but taking it will keep the Rams from staying lost, as they have for what seems like a lifetime. Maybe it will come down to the flip of a coin?