In a long phone conversation with Frank (Ramsfan1313), we discussed the Rams possibly being younger in 2014, and the coming NFL Draft. By the way, make sure you take time to read Frank's ongoing 2014 Rams' Primer. It's going to touch on a variety of aspects many haven't considered, including this one...
"Rebuilding", "remodeling" - or whatever verb you choose to use when talking about the St. Louis Rams - may not be totally accurate. When Jeff Fisher and Les Snead arrived in 2012, they had an "Everything Must Go" moment. Shedding marginal talent, they moved toward what anyone could describe as a NFL franchise re-do. "Youth" became a watch word, but I think it more accurately can be described as a search for who the Rams should be going forward. Key players like Sam Bradford, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis and Robert Quinn gave them a starting point, but that's about it. While the aforementioned players gave the team a quality benchmark, it was lost on many how close some of them were to the end of their rookie contracts. A team dangerously close to the salary CAP, the Rams had to re-sign these players, while trying to add free agents to shore up a variety of positions.
The best way to gain control of a team's salary situation can be found in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. The new rookie salary cap made young skill position players more attractive than their veteran counterparts. You don't want to pay big bucks for a marginal quarterback? Well, draft a new one! That veteran left tackle wants $10 million a year? Ha! There's a guy in the 3rd round who can fill his shoes for chump change! An oversimplification to be sure, but for teams trying to find their identity and direction, it makes sense. Sort of...
For teams in rebuilding mode, winning isn't as high on their list when it comes to the immediate future. Yes, winning games is a big deal. Fans won't by tickets to watch a guaranteed loser, and the NFL is about revenue. Yet, you have to wonder what a coach like Jeff Fisher was thinking when he took over as head coach for the Rams? There's absolutely no way he thought his team could contend for the postseason, so he set about making them competitive. Players need to know they have at least a shot at winning so they'll strive and try to improve. It's this experience Fisher needed for his players, and wins/losses were a part of his long term game plan.
The Robert Griffin III trade gave Jeff Fisher and Les Snead an interesting road to follow. With multiple high first round draft picks, the wheeler-dealer Snead help set the Rams' course to a young team with more high round draft picks on their roster than any other team in the NFL. Herein lies both a quality problem, and a potential situation. Even with the CBA rookie CAP, the Rams have a payroll which reflects the high draft picks scattered across their roster. These aren't NFL minimum wage draft choices. They cost just a tad more than a normal 6th or 7th round player when they're taken in the first round. Based on this - I haven't checked, so this is conjecture - I think it would be interesting to carve out the salaries of Rams veterans, and see what the average salary is for the "youth" side of the Rams payroll compared to other teams?
In my round about way, I'm inching toward a thought that really hasn't coalesced just yet. I've begun to wonder when the Rams will end the "youth movement" begun two years ago? If they continue to edge toward young, inexperienced players, there has to be a stopping point, right? If not, they're in danger of being like a guy who keeps buying new cars, but never has a chance to drive them. The Rams will be busting with high draft round talent, and be at the mercy of the salary CAP just as a player blossoms; creating an unending cycle of promising mediocrity.
So what will it look like when Fisher and Snead decide to call a halt, and play the hand they've dealt themselves? Well, in my conversation with Frank, I babbled that I thought it could happen in the 2014 NFL Draft if Les Snead can't wangle more future first round picks for their #2 overall draft choice. Think about this for a moment, then tell me what you'd do in Snead place? If it were me, I'd look at his other first round asset at #13. In 2013, Miami moved up from #12 to #3 by trading their first and second round picks. Would Fisher and Snead be willing to give up a second round pick - and #13 overall - to move up to #3 in this draft? I think they would, since there is a duo of players who'd instantly make the Rams better on both sides of the ball: DE/OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA, and Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
In doing so, the first round draft frenzy the Rams have had would end. Establishing position strength would be left to the later rounds of the draft. The idea of this situation - being so filled with potential - is hard for anyone to resist. The Rams salary cap situation wouldn't really improve in the long term unless some veterans like Cortland Finnegan, Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl aren't let go. What's more, the Rams would instantly have to be more active in the free agent market to add key position players. One key tool for off-setting the high draft pick salaries has been the healthy helping of undrafted free agents who the Rams seem to find in abundance post-draft. This strategy would continue, as adding two top three picks to the roster won't come at bargain basement prices, regardless of the rookie wage scale.
It would shift the Rams coaching staff from one that's been solely turned toward player development, to applying the talent they have toward long term success. But all this hinges on whether the moves Fisher and Snead have made thus far have been the right ones, and I think they have to a great degree. It would turn Sam Bradford - who's been under a media microscope already this post-season - into a "make or break" guy in 2014. Rams' skill position players would be placed in a situation they very well may not be ready for, but this is the real world. Training time lasts only so long in the general population workforce. Then it's time to step up, or be shown the door for someone who can do the job. In other words, the Rams would be committing to major shift in how they'll be playing the game of NFL football if they end the "youth" trend this year.
It's going to happen, whether it's this year, or in 2015. So why not make the most of it, and wow the NFL world in the process, eh? Adding Barr and Watkins would be solid, upward roster moves few could deny. They'd enhance the offense and defense to a huge degree, and move the Rams ever closer to their NFC West division foes - San Francisco and Seattle.
But there's a downside, isn't there? Cutting off the "rebuild" mode too early - if the players on the Rams' roster aren't the right ones - could cement St. Louis into a mediocre mode it may be tough to overcome. While I think the honeymoon period is over for Jeff Fisher and Les Snead, they still have the ability to control forward pace for the long suffering franchise. It must be hard to balance the difference between creating, and actually making something function. Is this the year Rams fans stop relying on potential to see them through an NFL season? It could be, and if it is, it won't be just the rookies actingbeing nervous as the Rams take the field. Jeff Fisher and Les Snead will feel a small trickle of sweat run down their necks, and more than likely take passing glances up at Stan Kroenke's owner's suite. Then they'll nod, and maybe even wink at each other as the thought - "Game on!" - runs through their minds...