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The defense, the draft, and the future of the Rams

The Scouting Combine starts in a week...kind of. Officially, it starts on Wednesday, February 20, but workouts don't start until Saturday, February 23. That's according to the NFL's official site for the event.

The league certainly has the event well covered through the site. Here's the list of participants. And, with the second overall pick, this list from Mike Mayock of the top five prospects at each position is a helpful guide to some of the names we're most interested in.

Sedrick Ellis is quickly moving atop the rankings for DTs, and you can see in the above list, Mayock puts him above the once consensus top talent in the draft, LSU DT Glenn Dorsey. Ellis had a phenominal weekend at the Senior Bowl, combine that with concerns about Dorsey's knee and you get a pretty good sense of why he's suddenly "hot" right now.

Virgina DE Chris Long, a top talent Rams fans have debating taking with the team's #2 pick versus Michigan OT Jake Long, may be gaining momentum as the top overall pick. As this article by Adam Schefter points out, Long the DE represents the least risk of other potential #1s such as Dorsey, McFadden or Matt Ryan.

Another possibility not mentioned above that we need to throw in here is Ohio State DE Vernon Gholston. Gholston ranks second on the list of DE prospects, and could easily be a top five pick.  A good Combine and he could suddenly see his stock rise further. He could also play OLB in a 3-4 defense. Think Witherspoon with Gholston.

And now that we've broached the subject of defensive schemes, that'll be a big factor in determining which pick to make at #2 if the Rams opt to go for a DE or DT with their top pick. It certainly seems like Haslett is leaning toward making the Rams defense a 3-4 first team. We certainly have some of the talent we'd need for that in house already. Adam Carriker would likely move from a DT to DE as his primary position, if the Rams move to 3-4. Along with Witherspoon who excelled in the 3-4 package last season, that scenario might make a DT like Ellis or Dorsey the more attractive pick. Ellis seems to be the better pick for a 3-4 defense, where he can play nose. That scenario would put this year's rookie surprise Clifton Ryan right behind Ellis on the depth chart, a number two that looks like he could be the number one for lots of teams. Dorsey would likely be better suited as the under tackle in a 4-3...replacing bust Claude Wroten. La'Roi Glover's contract expires after this season.

Picking Chris Long would likely mean Carriker stays primarily a DT. Here's my biggest question though if the Rams move to primarily a 3-4 approach: what about Leonard Little? Last year, when there was some question about whether or not moving to a 3-4 would better suit the Rams, Leonard Little was cited as a key reason for the Rams to stay with the 4-3, a system he's excelled at through his career. When Little got hurt, the switch to 3-4 became a necessity to keep opponents from racking up points against an offense that just couldn't score. In a 3-4 scheme, LL would probably switch to outside linebacker. Little turns 34 this season, and would likely have too many seasons left with the Rams, not at his current cost anyway (the article linked here also notes that the Rams would like to restructure Little contract, a pricey one that runs through 2009). Drafting a DE now would leave the Rams in a good position when LL retires or the team parts ways.

Picking any of the four defensive prospects discussed here would help the Rams, giving our defensive front young, blue chip talent that could become the core of the team for seasons to come. That's quite a paradigm shift from the old Turf Show days, no? Doubters of the benefits of this approach need look no further than this year's surprise Super Bowl champs...or even the Tennessee Titans, who earned a wild card ticket to the playoffs with a 10-6 record despite scoring the fewest points of any AFC postseason entrant, based on the strength of their defensive line.

The real choice facing the Rams with the second overall pick is whether to go for the defensive talent rather than using the pick to address what is probably the biggest need, the offensive line.