"Less is MORE" may be an oxymoron ( or even a Snead-esk tagline?) for some, but for the St. Louis Rams - who continue to boast the youngest roster in the NFL - it may be time to go with lower volume in terms of draft picks selected. With eight selections (plus compensatory picks) in the upcoming NFL Draft in May - and the prospect of additional choices if they trade down from the #2 overall selection - there's the potential for a herd of young players showing up for the Rams training camp.
Normally, this would be a quality problem of sorts, in that having a wider variety of talent to choose from during camp, let alone having players to help push those who are already on the roster, would be a good thing. Over the last two season - since Jeff Fisher's arrival in St. Louis - the team has gone through not just a rebuilding process, but a re-modeling too. Only five quality players remain from the previous regime led by Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo. That's 5, out of 53 players on an NFL roster. Steve Spagnuolo was a narrow focus kind of coach to me, with very little in what I'd call a "broad scheme" approach to building a successful NFL franchise. Jeff Fisher more than likely took the St. Louis job because he saw an attractive canvas on which to paint his view of what a team should be. To begin with, his color selection was limited. But he could see a small core group of players like Sam Bradford, James Laurinaitis, Robert Quinn, Rodger Saffold and Chris Long being the primary colors he just had to have at the outset.
Shortly after he arrived a carnage began, with players being released by the boatload. It had to happen, and the fact few of the dismissed players were even in the NFL the next year marks his choices as being well thought. I often wonder what his roster board must have looked like after the aforementioned players were swept away? Fisher quickly moved to bring in a couple key position players through free agency - Cortland Finnegan, Kendall Langford, Jo Lon Dunbar, ect... Then he rushed to put his draft day plan together with his handpick general manager Les Snead. Their first NFL draft in 2012 heralded a sweeping, exciting change for St. Louis. They traded away the second overall draft pick for future draft choices, then traded down some more. In the end, they came away with Michael Brocker - a day 1 starter at defensive tackle - in the first round at #14 overall. With added 2nd round choices from the initial trade with Washington and others, the Rams selected nine more players: (#33) Brian Quick, (#39) Janoris Jenkins, (#50) Isaiah Pead, (#65) Trumaine Johnson, (#96) Chris Givens, (#150) Rokevious Watkins, (#171) Greg Zuerlein, (#209) Aaron Brown, (#252) Daryl Richardson.
Hmm... Not a bad batting average, with six out ten proving to be immediate contributors for the "new look" Rams. But fans tend to look at the swings and misses. While the jury is still out on Brian Quick, Pead has disappointed. Watkins was fat, and stayed fat until his release the following season. Aaron Brown was just one of those 7th round whiffs that happen.
In the 2013, they added some big names through free agency: Jake Long and Jared Cook. In the NFL Draft, the Rams hit the trading wheel again with a vengeance, dropping down, then dealing back up, sideways and every other way. They took (#8) Tavon Austin and (#30) Alex Ogletree in the first round, before adding: (#71) T.J. McDonald, (#92) Stedman Bailey, (#113) Barrett Jones, (#149) Brandon McGee, and (#160) Zac Stacy. All but Jones played a significant roll in 2013 for the Rams.
Over the last two NFL Draft-s, the Rams have selected 17 players, with only five that can be seen as marginal/jury's-still-out/busts. Outstanding, right? Well we do have to take into consideration the 2012 blood-letting, which left so many opening that someone - anyone - had to fill in some way. Un-drafted free agents have played a key role in filling the proverbial ranks too. But by and large, Fisher and Snead have done a remarkable job of transforming the Rams' roster in two short years. Which leads us, in a slightly long-winded way, to the subject at hand...
As a longtime fans of the NFL, I and everyone else know there's a "honeymoon" of sorts for new coaches and front offices when they take over a dismal team. But time and tide wait for no one, and this is especially true for NFL coaches. I love the direction the Rams have taken under Fisher, but as I've mentioned once or twice before in other articles, there's got to be some sort of "finished product line", right? We've seen the Rams defense flourish, and offense sputter. There's been coaching changes galore on Fisher's staff since he's arrived, with William-s coming and going, then coming back again. Defensive coordinator has been managed as a group and by an individual. It's been interesting to see how Fisher's been sussing out the right and wrong of things as he molds the Rams.
In the 2014 NFL Draft, there's a building pressure by the Rams' fan base to see the team's past losing trend turn upward. The NFC West is flat out brutal, and I'm not sure even Jeff Fisher saw just how tough this division would be when he signed on in 2012. Quite simply, there isn't a team in the NFC West that can't be considered a Super Bowl contender, except possibly the St. Louis Rams. This doesn't sit well with fans of a team who've patiently waited for a return to some kind winning status. While I'm sure my ideas of how to build an NFL franchise are founded solely on the angle of my Lazy Boy recliner, the base need I have as a fan is more real to Jeff Fisher and Les Snead than I think they'd like it to be.
This draft class has been called the deepest ever by some NFL gurus. If that's the case, the Rams have to fight not just getting the selections on draft day right, but the relative aspects of the talent pool too. If it's as rich a class as some think, won't EVERY team get better, and not just the Rams? So finding and selecting the uber-talented players in this draft seems more important to me than continuing to pound the roster with as many names as possible. If true, I think Rams fans better gird themselves toward the possibility Les Snead isn't all that anxious to trade down as some may think. Position depth will be well fed by this draft class, but the supremely talented player pool isn't any deeper than in any other year, or at least it seems that way to me. Again, if true, this could bode toward the Rams taking a Greg Robinson-Sammy Watkins-Khalil Mack-Jake Matthews-Jadeveon Clowney, and not collecting picks for days two and three of the draft.
Almost every draft-nic is saying the second round of this draft will have a boatload of talent. But if I could point something out to you, it would be what's happened for the Rams in the last two drafts. You may have noticed a lack of success in round #2 for Snead and Fisher? To me, it looks like they hit big in rounds 1, 3 and 4, but there's an on little "boo-la-boo-la" thing going on with the second round. Janoris Jenkins is the only 2nd-rounder to make a real difference for the Rams, and they didn't even have a choice in this round last year.
So I guess the question that's currently swirling around my oh-so-roomy-skull is: Would it be so bad if the Rams stayed put at #2 overall? If so, I'd want it to be for a player who'd make a serious impact. That said, for me anyway, it takes an offensive lineman out of the equation. When it comes right down to it, it also takes a wide receiver like Sammy Watkins out too, since we have to consider the defensive strengths of the NFC West. Will a receiver really make a difference against Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona? I know, this is where the offensive lineman fans will scream the running game needs guys like Robinson/Matthews to flourish, but I don't want to draft a left tackle to play guard while Jake Long's full recovery isn't in doubt. Honestly, I'd draft a true guard like UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo before I'd take one of the top tackles.
You mad at me yet? Well stop it, because I'm about to go where only the fearless go. I'm going to say - gulp! - the Rams need to take the very best defensive player available at #2 overall. For me, that means either Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Argue and slam your heads on your computer keyboards all you want, but each of these three players would add an instant impact to a just-out-of-elite range defense for the Rams. They'd represent true value and forward growth, while someone like Sammy Watkins would be added to a crowded wide receiver corp vying for pass catching opportunities.
The bottom line for me, is I think the time to re-mold the Rams is over. From the block of rock Fisher and Snead started with, a form has taken shape. It's time to sharpen the image, and chip away those last vestiges of what the Rams were, and show everyone what they'll be. Sam Bradford can throw, Tavon Austin can catch, and Paul Boudreau can coach linemen. Zac Stacy can run, and Robert Quinn can sack a quarterback. Chris Long will drive opposing offensive linemen nuts, and guys like Stedman Bailey are on the verge of breaking out. The pieces are there, so stop denying it. What's needed now is a REAL difference maker; one that'll change either the offense or defense into something truly special. For me, it's Khalil Mack on the same side of the defense as Robert Quinn. How about you?