For St. Louis Rams' coach Jeff Fisher, and general manager Les Snead, the 2015 NFL Draft isn't just about shopping for new talent. When the two men arrived in St. Louis three years ago, their task was to rebuild a struggling franchise. The Rams had just enough core players to compete on occasion, but thoughts of playoffs were a pipe dream. Three NFL Drafts in, the Rams have definitely improved, but how much? Which draft picks were hits or misses? Some are easy to see, since they're no longer on the roster. But as Fisher and Snead enter into this pivotal NFL Draft, they'll be forced to make decisions on players who have played well at times, but not enough to help the Rams get past their playoff drought...
A 53 man roster isn't an easy thing to fill. Players develop at different rates, and some just never get to the point where they'll excel. Injuries add to the problem of sussing out if a player is the right guy for the job, but in the long run it's more about whether college performance can translate into success at the NFL level. Position depth charts are filled with place holders as teams bide their time as they wait for the perfect fit. A safety plays well, but gets burned or misses a tackle a few more times than a coach would ideally like to see. A guard blocks well in the run game, but gets beat at the wrong time on a pass play... I'm not singling out these two position, as much as saying EVERY position has its ups- and downs. But it's the "downs" Fisher and Snead will be staring at as they dial in what they've done to date.
Mixing and matching to stay competitive can only take a team so far. For the St. Louis Rams, they've filled their roster with bright young talent - on paper. The last three season were about shopping and filling their position depth chart. But the 2015 season will be the one where Fisher and Snead have to see what they've done so far, and do it with an impartial view. This won't be about the business of the NFL. It's about what a great team has to look like. "Just OK" isn't going to get it done...
Win/loss records over the last few years mean nothing for Fisher and Snead at this point. Players have been picked or acquired in free agency, then coached as they were paid over a third of a billion dollars to audition for 2015. IF they'd found a way to gel and win before now, that would've been icing on the cake. But they haven't, so...
Offensive Line -
This unit has been an underachieving group, and it appears Fisher and Snead will need - once again - to use key draft day capital to find an answer. Or will they? At this point in the "re-do" cycle, Fisher and Snead may lean more toward free agency here. They really can't afford another rookie/developmental tackle or guard if they hope to keep Sam Bradford healthy. Salary cap space will be the issue, and it's why they'll have to make some hard choices in other areas. In 2014, the Rams had their best position depth in years. That's about to change, with highly paid free agents being let go or kept, and there may be cases where it looks odd. Scott Wells had an awful year in 2014, but if you look at the "proven" quality behind him on the depth chart, it simply isn't there. Jake Long is still a great NFL left tackle, but injuries are clouding his resume.
These two players are an excellent example of the decisions facing Fisher and Snead. If they're released, they gather money to be spent in free agency. But if they opt to pull the plug here, and plug in another veteran player at either of these positions, there's still no guarantee they'll be any better off. Mike Iupati, offensive guard for the 49ers, is a name to look at, but he'll carry a heavy price tag. If you look at how the San Francisco offensive line performed in 2014, it really doesn't inspire thoughts of greatness. So why spend big money on Iupati? Fans will say he's an upgrade over Davin Joseph, which may be true to a point. But how much of an upgrade, and at what cost? He'll probably command a 4 year, $28-$30 million contract to sign him. Since the two players I mentioned earlier play center and tackle - respectively - money spent on another area hasn't addressed filling the void left if Long and Wells are cut to make room for Iupati? Greg Robinson taking over Long's roll at left tackle isn't a guaranteed solution, and the thought of Rodger Saffold as key depth at the position has to frighten Rams fans due to his loooooong injury list each year. At center, Barrett Jones has played very little since being taken in the 4th round in 2013, and 2014 late round choice Demetrius Rhaney has yet to see a regular season game.
The idea here is simple: Gage whether a group or individual players have shown Fisher and Snead enough to buy into they're being a solid answer moving forward. If they haven't, move on. Yet, the there's a "wonder quotient" here. Offensive lines operate as a unit, and while made up of individuals, they only succeed after they've found a way to gel.
Some players make others better. A case in point would be Jake Long when he was with Miami. Troubled Richie Incognito played better next to Long. When Long left for St. Louis, Incognito slid backwards into on-field oblivion. If you look at the St. Louis offensive line, you really don't see a strong cohesiveness, and I think that's where their biggest problem lies at a group. So do you wait for this unit to find a way to gel, or do you continue to plug in new players in a hope of finding some kind of chemistry? Fans want things "fixed NOW", but I get the feeling - at this stage of the rebuild for the Rams - it won't be as easy as some may think...
Let's take a look at one of my favorite NFL players for the Rams: James Laurinaitis. A solid middle linebacker, he excels in pass coverage. If I'm being honest with myself though, he lacks a bit in run defense. While I do think he's set too deep at times - 6,7, or even 8 yards off the line of scrimmage - to effectively fill holes and stop the run, it allows him to cover the small pass route window underneath safety coverage. Because of this, it's very hard to truly discern just how good he is at his position. The arrival of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator saw a rise in Laurinaitis blitzing, but it's also heightened just how vulnerable he can be on trap plays. He doesn't have "sideline to sideline" speed, but he makes up for it with taking smart angles to make tackles. His most under rated asset is his on-field awareness. Laurinaitis is wicked smart, and a great team leader.
In 2013, he signed a 5 year, $41 million contract with the Rams:
|2013||Base Salary: $1,000,000||Signing Bonus: $400,000||Roster Bonus: $11,000,000||Option Bonus: $250,000||Cap Hit: $12,650,000||Dead Cap: $22,600,000|
I don't know much about NFL contracts, but I'd say this is pretty fair? It doesn't seem to hinder the Rams long term, with the largest salary cap hit happening up front. In fact, 2015 looks like a steal? But if Fisher and Snead decide Laurinaitis doesn't have what it take to get the Rams defense to the next level, do they sacrifice what he does well for an unknown quantity? How much is his team leadership worth, or his proven stellar pass coverage in a tight end crazy NFL? If he left, would it make the Rams safeties worse, since they'd have expanded underneath coverage to compensate for the assume acquisition of a more run oriented middle linebacker? See what I mean about tough decisions?
Fans see salary numbers, and are all to ready to slash the number, without seeing what's around the bend. In the comment section below, I'd like my readers to expand past the normal "cut this guy" trend. Take a hard look at a Rams player who has played well, but not great. Take out the money, and look at what the player you've chosen does well and no so well. Then make that hard decision, and offer a realistic solution, whether through free agency of the 2015 NFL Draft?
I tried to get a sense of what Rams fans really wanted in the little contest I tried to run last weekend, but not many took the challenge. The idea, was to see if you could take any 5 players in the 2015 NFL Draft, who would they be and why? I thought it would show me who you thought could be improved upon. It didn't work, so let's try this... No player should be considered out of bounds as you consider who the Rams truly need to replace so they can take that next step.