Grading a draft is always a dicey proposition, especially when the draft ended not a week ago. We talked about Bradford earlier, and I want to continue with my thoughts about how the rest of the St. Louis Rams draft grades out with this post.
I challenge you to think about it a little differently. We've broken down the draft round by round, considering picks based on their position, skill set and where they were taken in the draft. Set aside the issue of opportunity cost, since there's no going back for the players the Rams could have drafted at various spots within the draft. Think about the draft in terms of the strengths it creates and the weaknesses it exposes within the context of creating a well-balanced team.
Ok, that came out a little more Zen-y than I intended, but I'll clear things up after the jump. Today, the strengths.
People either love or hate the Rams' decision to use their second round pick on OT Roger Saffold. First off, it's worth mentioning that the trade offers for that pick just weren't there. Adam Schefter tweeted that the Rams had just one team, the Panthers, call them overnight Thursday about pick #33. Whether you wanted a trade to happen or not, it didn't. Let's look at the reality that now exists with Saffold on board.
With the addition of Jason Brown as a free agent and Jason Smith with the second overall pick in last year's draft, Billy Devaney lined the offensive side of the trenches with some serious dollars. Those moves came a season after the team added OG Jacob Bell, who lived up to his contract after disappointing in his first season with the Rams. To many, that was investment enough, making the Saffold pick seem excessive. I disagree. I think it takes an improved unit and turns it into the team's top asset. That will help make the runners and receivers look better than maybe they actually are.
Saffold is versatile. He's better suited for RT than LT, and he might even be the Rams starting RG this season where his explosiveness and power as a run blocker could immediately improve the offense by making Steven Jackson more of a threat and open things up for the new kid under center. The best things a team can do for a rookie QB is give him good protection and a potent running game, a la Mark Sanchez and Matt Ryan. Balance, it's a beautiful thing.
Making the offensive line into a strength (when was the last time you said that about the Rams?) comes at a time when teams are investing heavily in pass rushers. The Rams may not have a pass rush comparable to some of our NFC West rivals, but they will have an offensive line more than capable of neutralizing that threat, keeping the offense effective and making Sam Bradford and his uncanny accuracy a playmaker. Don't undersell this pick. Yes, some of the playmakers available would have been nice, but a stout offensive line is a luxury all its own.
For all the talk about Spagnuolo replicating the sack-first defense that put him on the map in New York, the real comparison is the defense he helped build in Philadelphia. That defense derived a lot of its strength from a potent secondary, the unit Spagnuolo coached from 2001-2003 (he was LB for three seasons after that before moving to NY). You think the Rams were nuts for drafting two cornerbacks (Murphy in the second round and Johnson in the seventh), in 2002 the Eagles used their first three picks, a first and two second rounders, for their secondary. CBs Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown and SS Michael Lewis became stalwarts of the Eagles' defense, forming the foundation of a defense that kept the Eagles competitive year after year...that and an offense led by Donovan McNabb.
The Rams have the ingredients for a very strong secondary. Both Jerome Murphy and Marquis Johnson bring lots of potential to the roster, and should edge out guys like Quincy Butler and even Justin King. They also have a solid veteran presence in Kevin Dockery, added as free agent this spring.
Running against the Rams was easy, but passing was easier and even more successful. The Rams allowed more than 250 yards passing in 8 games last season and were constantly burned by the big play. Only three teams in the NFL allowed more passing plays of 20+ yards than the Rams. They allowed the third most passing plays of 40 yards or more. Physical corners become even more important to shutting down YAC and defending big, physical receivers. As for the pass rush, a secondary that can lock down the backfield and pose a threat for an INT will also balance out the defense and make the pass rush more effective. There it is again, balance.
True, the converse could be said about a threatening pass rush improving the secondary. In truth, you need both units to be effective. However, the Rams secondary seems to be a little closer to its full potential than the defensive line, and I also get the sense that the Rams staff felt like adding more situational pass rushers was the priority up front.
There's also the secondary's role in the run defense. Last year, according to Football Outsiders' stats, the weakest area of the Rams run defense was allowing big gains well beyond the line of scrimmage. Per the Open Field Yards measurement (defined as Yardage gained by running backs at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries) the Rams ranked 21st in open field yardage. They tied with the Detroit Lions for carries of 40+ yards allowed, with six, and had 12 carries of 20+ yards go against them, among the ten worst in the league. Some of that falls on the secondary.
Later, the unknowns.