Jim Thomas - of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch - succinctly summed up the team Jeff Fisher and Les Snead inherited in early 2012:
"Jeff Fisher took one look at the returning Rams at his first team meeting in 2012 — the holdovers from the Steve Spagnuolo regime — and was taken aback. In terms of the eye test, they failed. And if you don’t look physically impressive, how are you going to play impressively? Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering the Rams program Fisher inherited was in the midst of a 15-65 stretch from 2007-2011."
"Earth City was the Death Valley of the NFL."
St. Louis Rams Current Roster And Depth Chart
C Scott Wells Tim Barnes Barrett Jones RG Davin Joseph LG Rodger Saffold Greg Robinson RT Joe Barksdale LT Jake Long Mike Person TE Lance Kendricks Cory Harkey TE Jared Cook Alex Bayer WR Tavon Austin Austin Pettis Chris Givens WR Kenny Britt Brian Quick RB Benny Cunningham Chase Reynolds Trey Watts RB Zac Stacy Tre Mason QB Shaun Hill Austin Davis Case Keenum PK Greg Zuerlein P John Hekker LS Jake McQuaide DT Kendall Langford Aaron Donald DT Michael Brockers Alex Carrington DE Chris Long Eugene Sims DE Robert Quinn William Hayes Ethan Westbrooks MLB James Laurinaitis OLB Alec Ogletree Daren Bates OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar Ray Ray Armstrong CB Janoris Jenkins Brandon McGee CB Trumaine Johnson E.J. Gaines Marcus Roberson FS Rodney McLeod Cody Davis Lamarcus Joyner SS T.J. McDonald Maurice Alexander Practice Squad Reserve/Suspended Injured Reserve OT Mike Remmers WR Stedman Bailey TE Mason Brodine OL Brandon Washington RB Isaiah Pead DT Matt Conrath QB Sam Bradford WR Justin Veltung OC Demetrius Rhaney LB Kevin Reddick TE Brad Smelley QB Garrett Gilbert FS Christian Bryant WR Emory Blake LB Denicos Allen
How The Rams Were Built
The accompanying chart presents the Rams' players - currently on the roster - who were selected in the first five rounds of the NFL Draft:
Draft Round 1 Draft Round 2 Draft Round 3 Draft Round 4 Draft Round 5      Robinson Saffold Bailey B. Jones Stacy Austin Quick Mason Givens McGee Bradford Kendricks Johnson Alexander Donald Pead McDonald C. Long Laurinaitis Pettis Quinn Jenkins Brockers Joyner Ogletree
The accompanying chart presents the Rams' players - currently on the roster - who were selected in the 6'th/7'th rounds of the NFL Draft, signed as Free Agents, and acquired as UDFA's:
Draft Round 6 Draft Round 7 UDFA Free Agent     Gaines Rhaney Barnes Person Zuerlein Bayer Wells Sims Harkey Joseph Cunningham Barksdale Brodine J. Long Reynolds Cook Watts Britt A. Davis Hill Westbrooks Keenum Armstrong Langford Bates Hayes Roberson Carrington C. Davis Dunbar McLeod Hekker McQuaide
Analysis and Observations
- 58 players are included in the roster analysis: The current 53-man roster, 4 players on Injured Reserve, and 1 player on the Reserve/Suspended list.
- 29 players were acquired through the NFL Draft. 13 players were free agent signings. The remaining 16 players were signed as UDFA's.
- Since 2008, the Rams have selected 9 players in the first round of the NFL Draft: Chris Long - 2008, Jason Smith - 2009, Sam Bradford - 2010, Robert Quinn - 2011, Michael Brockers - 2012, Tavon Austin and Alec Ogletree - 2013, plus Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald - 2014. All but Jason Smith are still with the team.
- Since 2008, the Rams have selected 8 players in the second round of the NFL Draft: Donnie Avery - 2008, James Laurinaitis - 2009, Rodger Saffold - 2010, Lance Kendricks - 2011, Brian Quick, Janoris Jenkins, and Isaiah Pead - 2012, plus Lamarcus Joyner - 2014. All but Donnie Avery are still with the team.
- Chris Long, Sam Bradford, Eugene Sims, Robert Quinn, Rodger Saffold, Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis, Jake McQuaide, Tim Barnes, Chase Reynolds, and James Laurinaitis. They're the only players remaining on the roster who were acquired before the hiring of Les Snead and Jeff Fisher in early 2012. Since the arrival of Fisher and Snead, the Rams' roster has undergone an 81% turnover.
- The Rams are the youngest team in the NFL, for the third consecutive year. The players' average age: 25.09. The Week 1 starting offensive line is the teams' oldest unit, with an average age of 28.6 years.
- The Rams are the least experienced team in the NFL, with an average of 3.26 years experience.
- The Rams roster has three players aged 30 and over, tied for first in the league (in fewest players aged 30 and over).
- The Rams' top-ten salary cap hits for 2014 (in order): Sam Bradford, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Jake Long, Jared Cook, Kendall Langford, Scott Wells, Rodger Saffold, Greg Robinson, and William Hayes. They account for $79 million in 2014 salary cap charges, which represents 59% of the Rams' entire adjusted salary cap for 2014. That percentage ranks among the top five in the entire NFL. 7 of the 10 players listed are offensive/defensive linemen. For comparative purposes, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' top-ten salary cap hits for 2014 total $74.8 million. QB Russell Wilson isn't included in their top-ten salary cap hits ($817,302). The Seahawks will be looking to sign Wilson to an expensive extension in the offseason.
- Of the Rams' 22 starters, 9 were acquired through free agency, 12 were acquired through the draft (5 1'st round, 4 2'nd round, 2 3'rd round, 1 5'th round picks), and one was signed as a UDFA. Surprisingly - given the Rams' commitment to building through the draft - 40% of the starters were free agent signings.
- Since the arrival of Fisher and Snead, roster turnover has materialized in virtually equal yearly increments. As noted, 11 players remain from the pre-Fisher/Snead era. Of the remaining 47 players, 15 were acquired in 2012, 16 in 2013, and 16 in 2014. Roster turnover can only be accomplished in increments. The salary cap - and the structure of the NFL Draft - limit the amount of turnover that can be successfully completed in any given year. It's one of the reasons why teams only begin reaping the benefits of a complete rebuild/regime change in the third year of a long-term plan.
- In their 3 drafts with the Rams, Fisher and Snead have selected 28 players in total. 21 of them remain on the team, 2 are on the current practice squad, and 5 of them are no longer with the organization (Darryl Richardson, Aaron Brown, Rokevious Watkins, Michael Sam, and Mitchell Van Dyk). All but Watkins (5'th round) were 7'th round picks.
- Hitting on draft picks is an important component of team building. A crucial - but often overlooked - component of a teams success is hitting on UDFA signings. As noted, 16 players on the Rams' roster are UDFA's - 27.5% of the team. The Rams have successfully added quality depth - and starter Rodney McLeod - via the UDFA process.
Evaluating the roster rebuild
The NFL Draft
Since the arrival of Jeff Fisher and Les Snead in early 2012, the Rams have had the benefit of 10 premium picks - 5 first round and 5 second round - in the NFL Draft. The Rams accumulated the additional picks as a result of the trade with Washington in 2012, for the 2'nd overall selection in the NFL Draft. Only 9 players were selected with the 10 picks; the Rams traded their 2'nd round pick in 2013 to move up and select Tavon Austin.
A+ All Pro A Excellent A- Very Good B+ Above Average B Average B- Below Average C+ Serviceable C Minimal Impact C- Backup D Poor
The accompanying chart presents my grades for the 9 players selected by the Rams - since 2012 - in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft:
Player Grade Player. Grade. Michael Brockers B+ Brian Quick C+ Tavon Austin B Janoris Jenkins B Alec Ogletree B+ Isaiah Pead D Greg Robinson B Lamarcus Joyner B+ Aaron Donald A- Overall Grade B+
It can take 2-3 (or more) years to accurately assess the merits of a draft selection. For current grading purposes, all we can do is evaluate what we've seen from each player to-date (including the offseason), factor in their draft position, and look at their potential and future prospects in the NFL.
The Rams passed on several notable names in the three drafts (instead selecting the above-mentioned players): Alshon Jeffery, Bobby Wagner, and Lavonte David in 2012, Cordarrelle Patterson, DeAndre Hopkins, and Larry Warford in 2013, plus Sammy Watkins, Jake Matthews, and Zack Martin in 2014. Ten players chosen in the 2012 and 2013 NFL Drafts have made the Pro Bowl. Not one of them is a Ram.
Of the 9 players selected, 4 have become starters for the Rams: Austin, Brockers, Ogletree, and Jenkins. 4 more could potentially become starters in the near future. My vote for who will be the most improved player in 2014? Brian Quick.
The early round draft haul of the past three years has brought many promising young players to the Rams. The Rams have a tendency to draft athletic players with high upsides, and have shown a willingness to take risks with many of their selections. The dearth of "A" grades is somewhat troubling. At present, I don't foresee any of the 9 players selected reaching the elite performance level of Robert Quinn (2011 1'st round pick). The selections all have plenty of potential, potential that must be turned into results on the field before earning higher grades. Quality results on the field will remove nagging doubts about the Rams' selections, and quell suspicions that the Rams could have done better.
The accompanying chart presents my grades for the top dozen Rams Free Agent signings since 2012:
Player Grade Player. Grade. Cortland Finnegan D Jake Long B+ Scott Wells B- Jared Cook B Kendall Langford B Kenny Britt B+ Jo-Lonn Dunbar B Davin Joseph C+ William Hayes A- Shaun Hill B- Joe Barksdale B+ Alex Carrington C+ Overall Grade B
The Rams' free agent signings have produced a mixed bag of results. Again, the dearth of "A" grades is troubling, especially given some of the Grade "A" contracts handed out by the Rams. Lower cost free agents - Barksdale and Hayes - have provided the most value. Cortland Finnegan - the most expensive player signed - was also the most disappointing. The Rams were noted for their splashy free agent signings in the first two years of the Fisher/Snead regime. They eschewed taking that route in 2014, instead signing low-cost, low-risk depth players to one year contracts. In addition, they re-signed a pair of their own free agents: Rodger Saffold and Jo-Lonn Dunbar. The Rams' free agent signings are proof positive of the risks associated with signing players from other teams.
Jeff Fisher is an experienced, well-respected, quality head coach. He has brought stability and leadership to the Rams organization, and led the team back to respectability. Fisher has the ability to lead the team to greater heights, and should be the Rams' head coach well into the future.
For all the good he has brought to the Rams, Fisher is not beyond making mistakes. Two stand out in particular: his decisions regarding coordinators, and his failure to establish a consistently clear team identity.
Brian Schottenheimer is now in his third season as the Rams' offensive coordinator. In his time with the Rams, Schottenheimer has not distinguished himself as being one of the better, more effective, or inventive coordinators in the NFL. Simply put, the Rams can do better.
The Rams have suffered from a coaching carousel of defensive coordinators. In Fisher's first season, the Rams ran the defense by committee. In his second season, Tim Walton served as the DC, and was fired shortly after the season ended. The fiery, aggressive Gregg Williams was hired in the offseason. Hopefully, he can bring stability to the position, and elevate the play of the young, promising defense.
The Rams identity has undergone seismic movements during the Jeff Fisher years. Spread offense. Power running game. Soft-zone defense. Press-man coverage. The list goes on and on. What makes it worse is the Rams signed/drafted particular types of players to fit each "identity of the year". No better example exists than the drafting of Tavon Austin - and signing of Jared Cook - to enhance a move to a spread offense, an offense that was abandoned in the opening weeks of the 2013 season.
In contrast, there's little doubt about the team identity Pete Carroll/John Schneider have created with the Seattle Seahawks. Organizational moves, drafts, personnel decisions, etc. are all made with their system in mind, with a clear vision, and with attention paid to team fit.
One of the biggest reasons Jeff Fisher came to the Rams was the presence of Sam Bradford on the roster. With Bradford suffering two consecutive season-ending ACL tears (How unlucky is THAT?), the once-promising QB situation is now a huge question mark. Will Bradford recover and successfully lead the Rams in 2015? Will the Rams part ways with their franchise QB? Will they select a successor early in the 2015 NFL Draft? For the Rams to reach the next level - and challenge for a playoff berth - they must address these questions, and determine the right course of action.
Five For Thought
Worst mistakes made in the Snead/Fisher era - 1) Signing free agent CB Cortland Finnegan. 2) Passing on LB's Bobby Wagner and Lavonte David in the 2012 NFL Draft. The Rams traded down from No. 45 to No. 50, missing out on Wagner (a player Fisher coveted). The Rams then passed on David, instead selecting RB Isaiah Pead with the No. 50 pick, and OL Rokevious Watkins in the 5'th round. 3) Not significantly addressing the offensive line in the NFL Draft until 2014, with the selection of Greg Robinson in the first round.
Best decision(s) made in the Snead/Fisher era - Gutting the roster, putting a long-term plan in place, and committing to rebuilding through the draft.
Decisions that define the Snead/Fisher era to-date - 1) Trading the No. 2 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft to the Washington Redskins. 2) Trading up in the 2013 NFL Draft to select WR Tavon Austin. 3) The organizations commitment to QB Sam Bradford - and their handling of the quarterback position. 4) See "best decisions made" above.
Pleasant surprises/Best values - William Hayes, Joe Barksdale, Rodney McLeod, John Hekker, Benny Cunningham, Cory Harkey, and Zac Stacy. The first two were low-cost free agent acquisitions. The next four were signed as UDFA's. Stacy was selected in the 5'th round of the 2013 draft.
Gems from the prior regimes - James Laurinaitis, Robert Quinn, and Chris Long.
Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson is recognized as one of the best at building an NFL team. His words sum up the complexities - and good fortune - involved in team building (and are a reminder to me of the way the GSOT was built):
"Building a team is an imperfect process. We believe that drafting and developing is the best way to go, particularly in a salary cap-oriented system. However, in the right situations, free agency can really help you. Trades help. Bottom line is, no matter how you do it, sometimes you've got to get lucky."
Now I know why Jeff Fisher rubs a 1901 $20 gold coin for good luck. How's his luck been holding out so far? The clock is ticking...