With the NFL preseason almost over, it's a good time to look back, review, and share some thoughts regarding the Rams' 2014 offseason to-date. Have the Rams improved their roster enough to challenge for a playoff berth this season? Will the Gregg Williams-led defense wreak havoc on NFL offenses? Can the Rams offense overcome the loss of Sam Bradford, to a season-ending injury? The next couple of weeks are all about fitting together the final pieces of a complex puzzle, and setting the stage for a successful season.
St. Louis Rams 2014 NFL Draft Grades
Round Position Player School Draft Grade 1.02 OT Greg Robinson Auburn A- 1.13 DT Aaron Donald Pittsburgh A 2.41 DB Lamarcus Joyner Florida St. B+ 3.75 RB Tre Mason Auburn B 4.110 SS Maurice Alexander Utah St. B- 6.188 CB E.J. Gaines Missouri A- 6.214 QB Garrett Gilbert SMU B- 7.226 OT Mitchell Van Dyk Portland St. C+ 7.241 FS Christian Bryant Ohio St. B- 7.249 DE Michael Sam Missouri B+ 7.250 C Demetrius Rhaney Tennessee St. C+ Needs B Value A- Overall Grade B+
Greg Robinson - Robinson's selection was a rare example of need matching value almost perfectly. There's little doubt Robinson was the most talented offensive lineman in the draft. His selection - along with the Tre Mason pick - gives a clear indication of the direction the Rams' offense will take in 2014 - one based on a power-running game. The Robinson pick also highlighted Rams GM Les Snead's draft strategy:
"Football teams, you build from the inside out. I always say that's when you are building your foundation. It was definitely a strategy to say 'You know what, we're going to get our foundation stronger' and I think that's going to help us."
Aaron Donald - The Rams were surprised to find Donald still available with the 13th overall selection. Projected as a top-ten pick, he proved to be too much value for the Rams to pass on. DT wasn't a huge need for the Rams, although they did lack a 3-tech who could consistently pressure the pocket. The Robinson/Donald selections were explained by Coach Fisher:
"We felt like we definitely needed to address both sides of the ball upfront. I really felt like this was the best thing for our football team right now."
Lamarcus Joyner - Cortland Finnegan's release left the Rams needing a quality slot corner. Joyner fits the bill to a tee, and is expected to play a significant role in the Rams' secondary this season. Joyner has enjoyed a quality first training camp and preseason. From CBS Sports:
"Jeff Fisher characterized Joyner as a "plug-in day one nickelback", after the Rams selected him with the 41st overall pick. At just 5-foot-8, 184 pounds, Joyner would be easy to write off as too small to make the transition to the NFL -- if he hadn't been so productive (197 tackles, 15 passes broken up, eight interceptions and 6.5 sacks) and durable for the Seminoles, the reigning national champs. Joyner is highly instinctive, athletic and surprisingly physical. He played in every game of his collegiate career (including starting the final 41 contests), logging time at free safety, strong safety, outside corner, nickelback and kick returner."
Tre Mason - Mason may have been the best running back - talent-wise - in the entire draft. He represents very good value for a third round selection. The Rams envision Mason as a change-of-pace back, complementing Zac Stacy and Benny Cunningham. To move up the depth chart, Mason will need to improve his pass-blocking, and gain more experience as a receiver. I'm not entirely comfortable with this pick. With Stacy and Cunningham, the Rams were well-stocked at the position. The selection could have been better utilized to fill more pressing needs [safety and the offensive line]. OG Gabe Jackson or S Terrence Brooks might have been better selections. Both were chosen shortly after the Rams selected Mason [Brooks at No. 79 by Ozzie Newsome's Ravens, and Jackson by the Raiders at No. 81].
Maurice Alexander - In many ways, Alexander is the quintessential Jeff Fisher draft pick. Although the selection came as a surprise to many, it becomes less so when Fisher's draft tendencies are examined in-depth (link). Alexander was a smaller-school prospect, with one year of experience at the safety position. He's an athletic player, with a solid combination of size and speed (6'1"-220, 4.54-40). Alexander is a lower-floor, higher-ceiling pro prospect. Character issues are part of the Alexander equation. He was suspended for the 2012 season, after pleading guilty to an assault charge. Alexander is the latest high-risk/high-reward player the Rams - under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead - have taken a chance on. Alexander will begin his career as T.J. McDonald's backup.
E.J. Gaines - Projected as a 4th/5th round selection, Gaines was a steal for the Rams in the 6th round, and represents great value. Lack of ideal height and length, missing the NFL Combine due to injury, and need for technique work all contributed to his slide into the 6th round. Gaines is versatile, good against the run, and plays with physicality and aggressiveness. He's drawn good reviews in training camp, and has a very good chance of making the final 53-man roster.
Garrett Gilbert - Gilbert is a developmental prospect with talent, albeit raw talent. Gilbert has excellent size [6'4"-221], a strong arm, and proved to be durable over his collegiate career. He projects as a backup in the NFL, with some upside. Gilbert could make the 53-man roster if the Rams carry 3 QB's; otherwise, he'll begin his career on the practice squad.
Mitchell Van Dyk - A small-school prospect from Portland State, Van Dyk was a three-year starter for the Vikings. Van Dyk has good size [6'7"-313] and strength, and excels at run-blocking. He displays marginal athleticism, which hinders his handling of speedy edge rushers. Van Dyk will need plenty of developmental work, meaning a year or two on the practice squad to begin his NFL career.
Christian Bryant - Bryant missed the last nine games of his senior season with a broken ankle. He's a bit undersized [5'9"], and has a lengthy injury history. Both contributed to the fall in his draft stock. Bryant's a rangy, athletic, versatile defender, who plays aggressively and with physicality. He will likely begin his NFL career on the practice squad, and may surprise at the next level.
Michael Sam - This selection was based strictly on value and BPA. Sam was graded as a fifth round prospect before the draft. He excelled in the SEC, and was named co-SEC Defensive Player Of The Year in 2013. He could crack the roster if the Rams carry five defensive ends, as they did for most of 2013.
Demetrius Rhaney - Rhaney became the second small-school - Tennessee State - offensive lineman selected in the 7th round by the Rams. A two-year starter for the Tigers, Rhaney has ideal size for a centre (6'2" - 301). He will likely begin his NFL career on the practice squad.
Value Grade: A-
Overall Grade: B+
The accompanying chart presents the 15 players signed by the Rams as UDFA's, following the conclusion of the 2014 NFL Draft:
Position Player School FS Avery Cunningham Central Michigan RB Trey Watts Tulsa OT Emmanuel McCray Mississippi WR Austin Franklin New Mexico St. LB Aaron Hill Minnesota TE Alex Bayer Bowling Green FB Kadeem Jones Western Kentucky DE Ethan Westbrooks West Texas A & M WR Jamaine Sherman East Texas Baptist LB Johnny Millard Cal Poly DB Jarrid Bryant South Dakota CB Marcus Roberson Florida ILB Tavarius Wilson North Alabama OT Abasi Salimu Nicholls St. DT Deantre Harlan Bacone
A trio of players stand out among the UDFA's signed by the Rams: Marcus Roberson, Ethan Westbrooks, and Alex Bayer. Bayer was a three-year starter for Bowling Green, with size [6'4"-258], reliable hands, and decent blocking ability. Roberson was considered a possible first round selection a year ago. Numerous factors - including injuries, a mediocre NFL Combine, suspension/off-field issues - derailed his draft stock. Westbrooks is raw and can be undisciplined on the field. He brings an intriguing combination of size and athleticism to the Rams, and had a 4th/5th round grade heading into the draft. Westbrooks was the Division II National Defensive Player of the Year in 2012. Westbrooks and Bayer have shown flashes of brilliance in training camp.
Roberson, Westbrooks, and Bayer are the only UDFA signings with a realistic chance of making the 53-man roster. It speaks volumes about the much-improved depth on the Rams' current roster, especially when compared to past years.
The Final RG3 Trade Tally
The first night of the draft marked the end of an era for the Rams. OT Greg Robinson became the eighth - and final - draft selection resulting from the Rams' trade with Washington two plus years ago. Initially, the Rams received three first round picks - 2012, 2013, and 2014 - plus a second round pick in 2012, for the rights to select Robert Griffin III. The Rams acquired four additional picks, in trade-downs involving the 2012-2013 first round selections received from the Redskins. The Rams' own sixth round pick in 2013 was used as part of a trade-up to select RB Zac Stacy.
The accompanying chart presents the final results of the Rams' trade with Washington in the 2012 NFL Draft:
Year Round Player Position School 2012 First Michael Brockers DT LSU 2012 Second Janoris Jenkins CB North Alabama 2012 Second Isaiah Pead RB Cincinnati 2012 Fifth Rokevious Watkins OL South Carolina 2013 First Alec Ogletree OLB Georgia 2013 Third Stedman Bailey WR West Virginia 2013 Fifth Zac Stacy RB Vanderbilt 2014 First Greg Robinson OT Auburn
The Rams have acquired five starters as a result of the trade with Washington: Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Alec Ogletree, Zac Stacy, and Greg Robinson. Each holds great promise for the future. The Rams expect an expanded role for Stedman Bailey in 2014, although his 4-game suspension is a definite setback. Isaiah Pead remains a big question mark. The season-ending ACL tear he suffered in the preseason - coupled with the selection of RB Tre Mason - might spell the end of his tenure with the Rams. The Rams parted ways with Rokevious Watkins, after one disappointing year with the team.
For Washington, RG3 followed a standout rookie season with a disastrous 2013 campaign. Despite the troubles he encountered, RG3 is expected to rebound this season, under a new regime in Washington.
The final verdict on this trade may not be determined with certainty for another 2-3 years. In the end, both teams could end up as big winners.
Trade Grade: A
Jeff Fisher's Draft History
One thing I'll never have to read again after this years draft is the statement: "Jeff Fisher doesn't draft offensive linemen in the first round". That statement made me cringe every time I read it. In reaction, I attempted to disprove this statement, in a February article for TST (link). The conclusions I drew then were reasonable, given the evidence:
"Jeff Fisher has a preference for drafting offensive linemen in later rounds and developing them, simultaneously not discounting the potential of drafting one in the first round if the teams' situation, big board, targeted player availability, and draft position warrant it."
Les Snead and Jeff Fisher had a good laugh about the widely-accepted notion:
"Jeff and I have laughed about that," Snead said. "He doesn’t have a core philosophy that no (I won’t take one). It’s just over the years, how it evolved."
There are lessons to be learned from the Rams' selection of an offensive lineman in the first round this year. Past draft history is not a reliable indicator of what will happen in the future. Not only did the Rams select OT Greg Robinson, they would have traded back up into the first round - with Baltimore - to select OL Zack Martin, if Dallas hadn't picked him at Number 16 (link).
It's all too easy to spew out a statistic like this one - Jeff Fisher's draft history - without having done one iota of research into the matter. Statistics are tricky ground at the best of times. They can tell you everything...and nothing, depending on how judiciously they are used.
What Might Have Been
It's always fun to look at NFL drafts - once they're concluded - and consider what might have happened had the Rams gone in a different direction. Although it's folly to do so - for many reasons - many of us can't resist the temptation. WR Alshon Jeffery instead of Brian Quick? LB's Lavonte David or Bobby Wagner instead of Isaiah Pead? WR Cordarrelle Patterson and OG Larry Warford instead of Tavon Austin? If nothing else, it sure provides food for thought.
As noted, the Rams attempted to trade up into the first round to select OL Zack Martin. It would have cost the Rams their 2nd and 3rd round selections in 2014, plus a 2nd round pick in 2015. Lamarcus Joyner and Tre Mason would likely not be Rams if the trade had indeed occurred.
The safety position was a glaring need for the Rams heading into the draft. If the Rams had been successful in trading up for Zack Martin, they wouldn't have selected again until the fourth round. I had FS Terrence Brooks rated as a late-2nd-early 3rd round pick. I believe he would have been worth trading up for, back into the third round. Although the cornerback position wouldn't have been addressed until the 6th round, I believe the Rams - who needed a slot corner - would have addressed the position sufficiently enough through the draft [E.J. Gaines], UDFA process [Marcus Roberson], and the addition of Greg Reid. Rodney McLeod and Brandon McGee could also have factored into the equation at slot corner.
The accompanying charts present my vision of the Rams' 2014 draft, if the trades had occurred:
|St. Louis Rams
|2.44 - 3.75 - 2015 2nd
|4.110 - 5.153 - 6.188 - 7.241
Round Position Player School 1.02 OT Greg Robinson Auburn 1.13 DT Aaron Donald Pittsburgh 1.17 OL Zack Martin Notre Dame 3.73 FS Terrence Brooks Florida St. 6.214 CB E.J. Gaines Missouri 7.226 OLB Christian Jones Florida St. 7.249 RB Isaiah Crowell Alabama St. 7.250 QB Connor Shaw South Carolina
St. Louis Rams' Current Roster And Depth Chart
C Scott Wells Tim Barnes Demetrius Rhaney RG Rodger Saffold Davin Joseph Travis Bond LG Greg Robinson Barrett Jones Brandon Washington RT Joe Barksdale Sean Hooey LT Jake Long Mike Person Mitchell Van Dyk TE Jared Cook Justice Cunningham Alex Bayer TE Lance Kendricks Cory Harkey Brad Smelley WR Tavon Austin Stedman Bailey Austin Franklin WR Brian Quick Austin Pettis Emory Blake WR Kenny Britt Chris Givens Justin Veltung RB Tre Mason Chase Reynolds Trey Watts RB Zac Stacy Benny Cunningham QB Shaun Hill Austin Davis Garrett Gilbert PK Greg Zuerlein P John Hekker LS Jake McQuaide DT Kendall Langford Aaron Donald Deantre Harlan DT Michael Brockers Alex Carrington Matt Conrath DE Chris Long Eugene Sims Michael Sam Kourtnei Brown DE Robert Quinn William Hayes Ethan Westbrooks MLB James Laurinaitis Phillip Steward Aaron Hill OLB Alec Ogletree Daren Bates Etienne Sabino OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar Ray Ray Armstrong Sammy Brown Lawrence Wilson CB Janoris Jenkins Brandon McGee Marcus Roberson CB Trumaine Johnson Greg Reid Darren Woodard CB Lamarcus Joyner E.J. Gaines S Rodney McLeod Maurice Alexander Christian Bryant Avery Cunningham S T.J. McDonald Cody Davis Matt Daniels IR Mason Brodine IR Isaiah Pead TBA Sam Bradford
Heading into the 2014 NFL Draft, the Rams' roster consisted of 63 players, and had fewer holes/needs to be filled than in many a year. This was a far cry from last year before the draft. The roster then numbered 51 players, had numerous holes/needs, and was bereft of quality depth. A brief look at this years roster - before the draft - identified the Rams' most glaring needs and depth issues (link).
Tier One: Safety - Offensive Guard - Cornerback
Tier Two: Offensive Tackle - #1 Wide Receiver
Tier Three: Outside Linebacker - Defensive Tackle - Center - Tight End
Tier Four: Running Back - Developmental Quarterback
Tier Five: Inside Linebacker - Defensive End
Did the Rams adequately address all of their major needs in the 2014 NFL Draft? To some degree, yes.
From their selections - and the interest in trading up for Zack Martin - the Rams obviously viewed the offensive line and the cornerback position as their biggest areas of need heading into the draft.
The selection of Greg Robinson filled a major need on the offensive line. He will begin his NFL career at left guard, and provides immediate depth at both tackle positions. The Rams waited until the seventh round, before selecting a pair of offensive line developmental prospects. Should they have double-dipped earlier in the draft? The depth on the offensive line remains thin and questionable.
The Rams double-dipped at the cornerback position, selecting Lamarcus Joyner in the second round, and E.J. Gaines in the sixth round. Their additions provide an immediate upgrade - and quality depth - to the secondary.
The free safety position was right near the top of the Rams' needs list heading into the draft. Although they double-dipped at the position - selecting Mo Alexander in the fourth round and Christian Bryant in the seventh round - the Rams didn't devote significant draft capital to upgrading the position/selecting a starting-calibre player. The safety position remains the weakest - and most under-drafted - unit on the team.
Before the draft, Les Snead endorsed the existing wide receiver corps, hinting the unit wouldn't be addressed in the draft. He was true to his word, as the Rams didn't select one wide receiver, in a draft noted for the quality and depth at the position. The Rams are gambling on the continued growth and development of their young receivers, and the re-emergence of Kenny Britt.
Addressing Needs In The 2014 NFL Draft: Grade: B
Free Agent Acquisitions
In contrast to the previous two seasons under Fisher and Snead, the Rams made very few splashy headlines in Free Agency this year.
They first took care of business on the home front, re-signing a key pair of their own free agents: OL Rodger Saffold and OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar.
The Rams then proceeded to add quality depth players to the roster - all on team-friendly, incentive-laden terms -with little impact on their salary cap structure. QB Shaun Hill, DL Alex Carrington, and OG Davin Joseph are experienced veterans, and represent upgrades on the depth chart at their respective positions. WR Kenny Britt has stayed clean and given every indication he could be the answer for the Rams at the WR1 position. If he continues to impress during the regular season, Britt could be the steal of the offseason. CB Greg Reid was added as an intriguing, young depth player, who could make the roster as both a backup CB and kickoff return specialist. OL Travis Bond has an outside chance of making the final 53-man roster.
The Battles In The Trenches
I'm a firm believer in one of the oldest tenet's in football: Football games are won in the trenches. The Rams' first round selections - OT Greg Robinson and DT Aaron Donald - are indicative of their belief in that tenet. Rams GM Les Snead, explaining the selection of Greg Robinson in the first round:
"We felt like Greg was a piece of the puzzle that's going to help us control that line of scrimmage. In our division, you have got to be physical. All three of those teams have really good front sevens."
The Rams spent considerable resources this offseason upgrading both the offensive and defensive interior lines. Jermelle Cudjo, Harvey Dahl, Chris Williams, and Shelley Smith were not re-signed/released. In their place, the Rams re-signed Rodger Saffold to play right guard, selected Robinson and Donald in the draft, plus signed DT Alex Carrington and OG Davin Joseph as free agents.
Winning the battles in the trenches will be a key to the Rams' playoff hopes , as noted in an April article for TST (link).
A New Defensive Coordinator
The hiring of Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams - replacing Tim Walton - may be the Rams' most important addition this offseason. He's fiery, innovative, and his schemes will apply the heat on opposing offenses. His addition adds another dimension to the Rams' defense, one which should propel them into a top-ten unit. Former defensive back Matt Bowen lent some insight into what a Gregg Williams defense will look like, in a 2013 article, " The Insider's Guide to a Gregg Williams Defense". Bucky Brooks - in an article for NFL.com - suggests the Rams' defense will fully blossom under Gregg Williams.
St. Louis Rams' Offseason Grade
There was nothing sexy or flashy about the Rams' offseason. Then again, there's nothing particularly sexy or flashy about the type of smash-mouth football played in the NFC West. The Rams are clearly building a roster that can go 12 rounds with any of those teams.
The Rams' offseason has been characterized by solid personnel moves, both on and off the field. The Rams now field a deeper - and more talented - roster than the one that ended the 2013 regular season. A roster capable of contending for a playoff berth - and achieving double-digit wins - in 2014, despite the loss of Sam Bradford. If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens can win Super Bowls with Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer as their QB's, then surely the Rams can contend for a playoff berth with Shaun Hill at QB. Concerns regarding depth - on the offensive line and defensive back-seven - are the only things preventing the Rams from receiving an "A" grade for their efforts this offseason. I'll gladly change it to an "A" if Shaun Hill can be productive in Sam Bradford's absence!
I realize the limitations of statistical analysis. But it's a bit comforting to read about Shaun Hill, in an article by Football Perspective, "Who is the Best Backup Quarterback Ever". Hill ranks 15th all-time on the list.
As noted in an earlier article for Turf Show Times (link), roster depth will be a key to the Rams' fortunes in the upcoming season. Mason Brodine and Isaiah Pead are already gone for the season, Trumaine Johnson is out for approximately 4-6 weeks, Stedman Bailey is suspended for the first four regular season games, and Barrett Jones will need recovery time from back surgery. Most importantly - and tragically - Sam Bradford will be lost for the entire season.
Similar to their division rivals - the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks - the Rams will feature a talented, tough defense, combined with a power-running offense. If you can't beat em, might as well join em...then beat em!!