With all of the debate going on about what the top need is, I figured I'd make a complete guide to each of the positions of need with a bit of my own personal take on each of the positions mixed in. Much more after the jump.
First, let's take a look at what many view as the positions of need.
While the addition of Scott Wells should do wonders for the Rams' pass protection, there are still only four starting-caliber linemen on the roster: Rodger Saffold, Harvey Dahl, Scott Wells, and Jason Smith. Even then, some would say there are only three starting-caliber linemen, omitting Smith. This leaves a few options for the front office.
The first option is to draft or sign a FA guard. Many are calling for the FO to draft David DeCastro with the sixth pick, however, there are a few problems with this plan: Jeff Fisher has never drafted an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft, DeCastro excels in run-blocking which is less of a need than pass-blocking, and picking DeCastro at 6 is a sizeable reach. As for free agents, I see the best option still available being Vernon Carey, the former Dolphin. He has been in the league for 8 years and is now 30 years old but is undoubtedly the best guard available and is a great pass-blocker. Offensive lineman typically last quite a long time when compared to other positions in the league and Carey could bring a certain element of veteran leadership to the inevitable future draft picks that would eventually replace him.
The second option would be moving Jason Smith inside to the guard position and drafting or signing a FA tackle. There are more top-tier tackles in this draft then there are guards which gives the FO more flexibility for trading down. The top 3 tackle prospects in this year's draft are Riley Reiff, Jonathan Martin and Mike Adams. All three would be even bigger reaches than DeCastro at 6 so trading down would be an absolute necessity unless Mike Adams were to fall to the second round. The best FA OT available, in my opinion, is Marcus McNeill with Demetrius Bell being a close second. Some may counter with Kareem McKenzie but McNeill has only been in the league 6 years and Bell only 3 years and the difference in production between the two and McKenzie is not nearly worth signing a 33 year old tackle. While guards can be signed at older ages, tackles require far more mobility and with age comes a lack of it.
No matter which option the new regime decides is best, Jason Smith MUST restructure his contract. Even if he were to come back from his many head injuries at 100%, he is not worth the amount of money that the Rams are currently paying him and expecting Smith to become the lineman he was toted as in the 2009 draft is simply wishful thinking at this point.
Currently, the Rams' receiving corps looks like this (in alphabetical order):
Keep in mind, Austin Pettis is suspended for the first four games of the season and this is assuming that Amendola is re-signed.
This may be the worst group of receivers in the NFL. However, there is good news: The Rams have only set aside around 3 million in cap space for these guys, excluding Amendola who has yet to re-sign. I would much prefer having a cheap, terrible receiving corps to overpaying for a slightly-better than terrible receiving corps. Yes, I'm looking at you Jaguars.
With little to no genuine threats at receiver, there are a multitude of options available to the Rams' front office.
The first option is to sign a FA receiver like Plaxico Burress, Braylon Edwards, Jerome Simpson, Roy Williams, Steve Smith, or Jerricho Cotchery. Personally, the only FA left that I would even remotely consider signing is Braylon Edwards and that comes with the requirement that the contract must be at a reasonable cost, there is no reason to overpay free agents when there are a multitude of holes as well as myriad draft picks in the upcoming years to fill them. Edwards has experience in Schottenheimer's offense and is a deep threat, something the Rams have been desperately lacking. I don't think he would be a #1 receiver or anything like that but currently, he is the best FA option because he actually offers something that the Rams don't have, unlike the great majority of other receivers left in free agency.
The second option is drafting a receiver or receivers. The WR that the majority of Rams fans have been clamoring for is Justin Blackmon. It seems that most people either love the guy and think he will be an instant impact, #1 receiver or they hate him with a fiery passion, thinking he will be a #2 at best and more likely a bust. There are however, a small group of people that are one the fence about him. I would associate myself with the third group, I can see Blackmon becoming a Hakeem Nicks/Terrell Owens type but I can also see a Michael Crabtree type future. Other options available in the draft that could be available when the Rams pick in the second round include: Kendall Wright, Stephen Hill, Alshon Jeffery, Reuben Randle, Mohamed Sanu, Joe Adams, Brian Quick and Nick Toon. I would like to see the Rams get Claiborne or Richardson at 6 and draft two wide receivers in the second round. A combination of any of the five receivers mentioned above would be a huge boost for the offense. My ideal combinations would be getting a deep threat like Wright or Hill paired with an endzone threat in Jeffery or a solid possession receiver with YAC ability in Sanu.
The third and final option would be to trade for a receiver. Some have floated the idea of trading for restricted free agent Mike Wallace. However, this is no longer an option after the Rams traded the second pick to the Redskins as one of the requirements for RFA tenders is that the pick must be the original pick assigned to the team. Other options before the beginning of the FA period were Desean Jackson and Steve Johnson as they were expected to be franchised and then traded. Both signed extensions however. The only trade option I see that would make an impact would be a trade for Dwayne Bowe who received the Chiefs' franchise tag this year, especially now that Manning signed with the Broncos. If the Chiefs are unable to come to a long-term agreement with Bowe, he may hit the trade block and with plenty of draft picks, the Rams would instantly become a top suitor.
One last thought on the group of receivers the Rams already have: For all the people saying the Rams should release DX or Gibson or whoever it is this week, you deserve a slap upside the head. We're paying these guys next to nothing and they can all become viable options once a #1 or even a couple #2 receivers are added. We all saw what happened last year with the cornerbacks, what if the same thing happens to the receivers and we're left with a bunch of practice squad crap? I'd much prefer having plenty of depth for nearly nothing than scrambling to find undrafted FAs when the injuries come. Think for a second.
With the release of Justin Bannan and Fred Robbins, the Rams needed at least two starting-capable tackles and they've found one so far. Kendall Langford was signed to a reasonably-priced deal that I really liked because it leaves a lot of room for upside as Langford reaches his prime years.
The first option the Rams have is looking to free agency for their second DT. The top player available, in my opinion, is Antonio Garay. While he will be 33 come next season, he has only been a starter for two years so he doesn't have the wear and tear typically seen in a 33 year old DT. He has put up solid stats in his two years starting, posting 37 tackles each year and averaging 4 sacks.
The second option, you guessed it, the draft. The top DTs available, in no particular order, are: Dontari Poe, Michael Brockers, Fletcher Cox, Jerel Worthy, Devon Still and Kendall Reyes. Drafting Poe, Brockers or Cox, in my opinion would be a reach at 6, the only possible exception being Poe for his nearly limitless potential. Brockers or Cox would require a trade down but Worthy, Still and Reyes should be available in the early second round where the Rams have two picks. If the FO plans on waiting until the third round, Alameda Ta'amu would be a good value pick if he falls a few spots.
Subpar play from Brady Poppinga and Ben Leber left the Rams' run D decimated, the only solid OLB last year, Chris Chamberlain, was just snapped up by the Saints. Currently, the Rams are speaking with Jo-Lonn Dunbar, a young FA with experience in Gregg Williams' defensive scheme and a decent amount of upside.
There are quite a few options in free agency outside of Dunbar. I would like to see the Rams pursue David Hawthorne and Manny Lawson. Hawthorne has played multiple LB positions, including MLB, providing versatility. He excels in zone coverage, racking up 7 interceptions in the last three years, he flies to the ball and is an excellent tackler, something the Rams lacked last year, leading to huge gains on plays that should have been stopped near or behind the line of scrimmage. Manny Lawson is slightly older, 27 to 26, but is quite the physical specimen, measuring 6'5" and weighing 240 lbs. He is a better pass rusher than Hawthorne but does not have the coverage skills or ballhawk mentality that Hawthorne brings to the table.
In the draft, there are not many OLB prospects that project to be first round picks but there are a handful of solid prospects in the later rounds. Lavonte David isn't a physical freak but he has consistently put on good weight and has very quick acceleration. He never missed a game due to injury and is said to be a very hard worker on the field and in the film room. David is a beast against the run, has excellent play recognition and while he isn't a big hitter, he seems to always finish his tackles, rarely missing. David projects as one of the first players off the board in the second round which lines up perfectly as the Rams have the first pick in the second. Some lower level prospects are: Zach Brown, Ronnell Lewis and Sean Spence. None of these three are complete players that would make an immediate impact but all have upside and project as decent starters or excellent depth.
Some positions of lesser need but still worth mentioning: HB CB S TE
The only HB on the roster other than Steven Jackson is Quinn Porter, a special teams player. Obviously Steven Jackson needs a backup and, as he gets up there in age, a replacement. Some free agent options include: Ryan Grant, Brandon Jacobs, Joseph Addai, Tim Hightower, Ladainian Tomlinson, Ronnie Brown and Justin Forsett. I really wanted the Rams to go out and get Mike Tolbert but the Panthers snapped him up at a very reasonable price and I went back to my weeping corner. Plenty of people, myself included, would love if Trent Richardson fell to the Rams at 6 but I don't see him dropping especially with the new CBA. Some other draft options available in the later rounds include: Lamar Miller, Doug Martin, David Wilson, Lamichael James and Isaiah Pead. I'm partial to Lamar Miller but I don't see the Rams spending that high of a draft pick on the halfback position unless it's Richardson. It seems more likely that Lamichael James or Isaiah Pead would be the choice in the third or fourth.
Now that the Rams signed Cortland Finnegan, the CB position isn't nearly the giant hole it was before the FA period. However, it is always possible that Bradley Fletcher and Jerome Murphy don't come back from their injuries at 100% or even close to it. Therefore, CB is a minor need that, unless Claiborne were to fall to six, should be addressed in the later rounds. Some options include: Brandon Boykin, Dwight Bentley, Josh Robinson, Trumaine Johnson, Leonard Johnson and Alfonzo Dennard. Personally, I'm partial to Trumaine Johnson for his blend of elite size and speed, measuring 6'2" 204 lbs.
Personally, I don't see the safety position as much of a need, but many fans that have posted here listed it as a need and I figured I might as well address it. Quintin Mikell had a pro-bowl caliber season, racking up 91 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles and a sack. Darian Stewart also looks to be a solid, young player but I suppose there is always room for improvement and there are plenty of free agents still available at the safety position. Some of these players include: Bob Sanders, Gerald Sensabaugh, Deon Grant and former Ram O.J. Atogwe. In the draft there is no way the Rams draft a safety in the first two rounds unless a player were to drop an entire round and the value was just too much to resist. Therefore, some late-round options are as follows: Brandon Taylor, Antonio Allen, and Phillip Thomas.
While some Rams fans feel that Lance Kendricks is already a bust and we should give up on him, I am not one of them. With some veteran leadership and the new regime in place, I think Kendricks will be able to excel. The FO has already met with Matt Mulligan, a blocking specialist with experience in Schotty's offense who should be a younger replacement for Billy Bajema, there is still the question of whether Hoomanawanui will be able to produce and stay healthy. I think signing Dallas Clark to a one or two year deal at a reasonable price could do wonders for teaching not only Lance Kendricks but Sam Bradford as well. His veteran experience is something missing from the Rams' current tight ends and is something I feel should be addressed. Because I feel the Rams require veteran experience at the TE position, I'm not particularly partial to any TEs in the draft but there are a few that would be decent late round options. Coby Fleener, Orson Charles and Dwayne Allen would all add a new dimension to the offense and I could see the FO taking one of them if they fall to a spot where there is plenty of value.
My Position Rankings by Need
I feel that wide receiver is the biggest need for a few reasons. First being that Sam Bradford has not only been devoid of a #1 receiver for his entire career but he arguably hasn't even had a #2 receiver. The only receiver he has been able to develop chemistry with is Danny Amendola and possibly Danario Alexander. Amendola might not be back next year and Alexander has only played in 18 games out of a possible 32 due to injury. Sam needs chemistry with a wide receiver ASAP and the sooner he has a #1 (I'd even settle for a legit #2) the better. Second, once the Rams add one or two receivers, the rest of the group instantly gets better. Receivers that were once being covered by the opposing team's #1 DB are now facing their #3 DB or a LB. This allows each receiver to get open on a more consistent basis and allows Bradford to get the ball of quicker, resulting in less sacks. While some feel the OL is the #1 need, I see where you're coming from, Bradford needs time, I get that. However, I think the line can be addressed through free agency or a mid-round draft pick as the staff that Fisher has assembled should be able to coach up the line and Fisher has a history of coaching up mid-round picks. Finally, Sam needs a young target that he can grow old with. What is the one common thread throughout the history of great QBs? They all had #1 receivers, most of which were able to mature together. I think one of the main reasons the OL looked so bad this year is that Bradford had to learn a new offense, call out line adjustments and then sit there and allow McDaniels' routes to develop for ages. All of this in a lockout-shortened season. These problems will all be rectified this year as the Rams signed Scott Wells, a center notorious for being one of the smartest in the business and one of the best at line adjustments. Bradford will be switching to an offense coming from the same scheme he ran in college and he will have the entire offseason to learn the offense because there won't be a lockout. Finally, the new offense doesn't require millenia to develop and he will be able to get the ball out much sooner (pun intended).
Whether the need is addressed by drafting Blackmon, Wright, Floyd, Jeffery, Hill, Sanu or a combination of them, the WR position is clearly the biggest need going into the 2012 season.
Thanks for reading and here's to a better year than last and a bright future.