The NFL is changing. Nowhere is the league's transformation happening as fast as it is in the NFC West. Suddenly, the division is a more competitive place. The 49ers are playing in the NFC Championship game next weekend. The Seahawks, the youngest team in postseason history, very nearly punched their ticket to make it an all-NFC West battle for the Super Bowl. The task for Les Snead and Jeff Fisher is keeping the St. Louis Rams on pace to compete.
St. Louis established itself against those two teams this season, notching a 2-1-1 record largely on the strength of the defense. Challenging those two teams next season will hinge largely on how well the Rams can defend the read option quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell WIlson.
Let's get something out of the way right now: The read option, pistol or whatever you want to call it is no fad. It's here to stay. So as we start this long conversation about free agency and the draft that will last the next four months, think long and hard about personnel moves that will keep the Rams defense able to contain the new look NFL and speedy young signal callers like Wilson and Kaepernick.
This morning we looked at the latest mock draft. It featured two pretty standard projections for the Rams' two first-round picks, an offensive lineman and a wide receiver. I could certainly live with that scenario.
I also think it's worth talking about some players that would improve the Rams defense, players that add the kinds of skills needed in this topsy turvy new world of NFL offenses.
There are a lot of finer points in defending the read option that much smarter Xs and Os guys than me can get into. The basics of it are strength and power among the front four, particularly the inside men, along with smart, speedy linebackers and defensive backs. In fact, more and more you're seeing five defensive backs on the field as a standard, versus three linebackers and four defensive backs.
One reason the Rams were successful against the Seahawks and 49ers this season was that the defense features a power front and tough corners capable of taking receivers out of the play. Outside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar proved to be a real asset too, reversing the old trend of the Rams defense getting fooled by any play fake or slight shift happening in front of them.
But Fisher's team could still use more, another smart, speedy linebacker and safeties competent inside and outside the box.
The idea of taking a linebacker in the first round seems crazy. It shouldn't. Safety is another position mentioned as an option for the Rams, and for good reason.
Texas A&M linebacker/defensive end Damontre Moore is going to be one of the first 10 players off the board. Many will view him strictly as a pass rusher because NFL opinions calcify faster than just about any naturally occurring combination of minerals. Moore is a superb defender of the read option because he's smart, gifted with field vision and athleticism. The first and more important step in stopping quarterbacks like Wilson and Kaepernick is the combination of the defensive end and the linebacker, reading and reacting to that first move.
Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown is a potential second-round pick to keep an eye on, a guy with some proven ability in defending these very same offenses. Put Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene on your list too.
Safeties are a fairly obvious one. Like linebackers, the basics is a smart, disciplined player not prone to overcommitting. Speed and recognition matter as well. Kenny Vaccaro from Texas and Eric Reid from LSU look like two first-round safeties with the speed and smarts you want as well as the the ability to work well in coverage.
We'll get into the individual players much more as the weeks go by. For now, as you read scouting reports and follow the experts, self-proclaimed and otherwise, keep an eye out for the players best suited to life in the new NFL.