In my experience, teams who turn the corner toward being a winner do so by finding that missing piece. Widely dispirit opinion abound on this subject, so I'll leave you to your own devices here. But if you're being honest with yourself as you study the Rams as a team, you can tell something is missing, can't you?
Is it a quarterback? It's ALWAYS a quarterback, and unless the NFL gods bless you with an Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, it will be what it will be. Sam Bradford - in my opinion - has the skill set to be one of the elite signal callers in the NFL. It's the constant injuries he has on his resume no one could have foreseen, and will likely continue to be why fans of this classy young man will hold their collective breath every time he takes a snap from center. Plus, the free agent quarterback market looks pretty bleak...
NFL.com's Adam Schein wrote an article recently about how the Rams should cut Bradford outright. He lost me when he recommended signing Mark Sanchez, or Brian Hoyer - who has a few injury bugs of his own. But his article is a prime example of the dilemma facing Fisher and Snead. Taken in the broad view, releasing Bradford has to at least be taken into the thought paradigm. On the plus side, it saves money. Yet, the negatives of this train of thought far out weigh the positives. Simply put: There is no one of the Rams' roster who comes close to Bradford's talent base.
St. Louis has the #10 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, and it's no where near high enough to snag a better option than Bradford. Schein moves his thoughts along the free agent solution line, and hints the Rams should have taken Blake Bortles instead of Greg Robinson in the 2014 NFL Draft. I think Adam needs to polish up those hindsight glasses, because adding ANY quarterback to a team who can't block wouldn't have helped...
Jeff Fisher and Les Snead could reach for another lineman at #10, but are there any tackles or guards who could slide right into the mix Day 1 and make a telling difference? Dallas lucked out with rookie Zack Martin in 2014, so many hold onto the hope lightning can strike twice if the Rams find the right guy. The NFL Draft is a crap shoot at best when it comes to hitting on a Day 1 starter.
I've made no secret of my thinking Fisher and Snead should grab Clemson's Vic Beasley - the star outside linebacker. I truly feel it's what's miss on what otherwise is a pretty talented defense. Others want to build up the offensive line thru the coming draft, but my patience for yet another learning curve at the NFL level is waning. What many don't consider, is that guys like La'el Collins, and Brandon Schreff both are projected to at least start their careers by sliding inside to guard instead of the tackle position they've played in college: New position= learning curve... Eeek! Can any quarterback for the Rams take the beating coming their way while a rookie learns just how fast and powerful NFL players can be? This line of thought potentially puts fans in the "next year" loop...
Money is the issue when it comes to free agency, and finding the coin to fix a position with a savvy veteran player isn't going to be easy... "So cut Sam Bradford and Jake Long, then we can...?" Do you see the Catch-22-ish trap Fisher and Snead find themselves in?
If the Rams hit free agency, it won't be for a long list of players. They'll center in on a key position or two, and that's it. Why? Well, if you look at the option year contracts headed the Rams' way, salary cap space becomes the linchpin that's holding up a potential house of cards. All the work Fisher and Snead have done to date to build the St. Louis roster to date hinges on the ability to divine which players need to stay, and the ones who can be let slip away. All the high round draft picks the Rams' have had over the years could come back to bite them in their wallet...
While I think the salary cap is a great idea - helping to keep parity among large and small market teams - , the NFL should've put a codicil in place for struggling teams to have higher salary ceiling during the player development process. It's become commonplace for losing teams to get to the edge of winning, only to begin losing foundation players to free agency as their rookie deals expire. The Rams are in this position, or will be as the 2016 season draws near. If they can't find a way to financially fit in the slew players they've chosen and developed - guys like Janoris Jenkins, Trumaine Johnson, Michael Brockers, Chris Givens, Brian Quick, ect... - will be headed for the door.
It's hard to imagine a 6-10 team being in "win now" mode, but that's exactly where the Rams' Jeff Fisher and Les Snead may find themselves in 2015. Usually the province of teams validly vying for the Super Bowl each year, St. Louis has to make a drive toward a finished product in the coming season. To that end, the Rams need a difference maker on offense and defense. Here's a few names to consider in the 2015 NFL Draft class who I think can fit the bill, regardless of draft day stock or round, and in no particular order:
Vic Beasley, OLB, Clemson ***
Jaelen Strong, WR, ASU
Kevin White, WR, UWV
DaVante Parker, WR, Louisville
Randy Gregory, OLB, Nebraska ***
La'el Collins, OT/OG, LSU
Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota
Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan St.
Shaq Thompson, OLB, Washington ***
T.J. Clemmings, OT, Pitt
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Leonard Williams, DT, USC
Arik Armstead, DT/DE, Oregon ***
All of these players are most likely Day 1 or 2 picks. The guys with the (***) after their names are players who'll need game plan/scheme fits. Remarkable for their high caliber athletic skill sets, none will come without some kind of need to fit their strengths into a defense. They won't just "plug n' play" into a given system. In a way, it's what makes them remarkable and troubling at the same time. Coaches will really have to study these guys in depth before deciding whether to risk draft day capital. Can they be a key part of a defense, or are they potentially complex overlays making a 3-4 or 4-3 defense into something that needs a asterisk, with "10-1" added to it; singling out one of these players with a narrowly defined mission on the field?
If the Rams are looking for the 2015 version of Zack Martin, then T.J. Clemmings is their guy. But unless they part ways with right tackle Joe Barksdale, I don't see them using a first round draft pick on Clemmings, who looks like a top right tackle prospect. They have 2014 #2 overall choice Greg Robinson set to take over for Jake Long. Clemmings isn't going to thrive as a guard - a key position need for the Rams. He strikes me as a guy who needs room to set or move? So the real question is: How important is adding a tackle?
All the receivers mentioned could contribute Day 1, but the Rams already have a packed pass catching corp. Do they take a player with a high draft pick who'll struggle for catch opportunities? Corner back Trae Waynes is a prototypical NFC West coverage guy, and could represent insurance against salary cap issues when it comes time to re-sign Janoris Jenkins or Trumaine Johnson in 2016. With the rise of E.J. Gaines, do they need to use a high draft pick on Waynes right now?
The same can be said for tight end Maxx Williams, who could be special at the NFL level in the right system. If there's a murky position for the Rams, it has to be tight end. They really haven't shown what they want to do at the position over the last few years. Yes, they want a tight end who can block. Catching passing is a great thing too. But splitting out wide, or playing in the slot is something they want... See what I mean? It goes back to how Schottenheimer almost telegraphed his play calling intentions at times with personnel sets. Opposing teams couldn't see what the offense was going to do based on which tight end was on the field, but they could glean its limitations.
A guard fix through the draft runs straight thru snagging La'el Collins, but it's going to take either the #10 pick, or trading future draft stock to move back into the late first round if he falls that far. Even with the 2011 CBA making it more viable to select a position need like guard in the first round, it's going to be a tough pill to swallow for Fisher and Snead...
Hit or miss, hit or miss...
I don't envy the situation Fisher and Snead find themselves in. It's something every team's coaching staff and front office goes through at some point, and it's happening this year for the St. Louis Rams. The fact is, Rams fans are going to see some tough choices made, and players who they thought were solid being shunted to the back end of the roster, or simply let go. The toughest part, will be for fans who have watched this collection of young players through the last 3 years as they developed, only to be let go.
Fisher and Snead have two choices when it comes to the 2015 NFL Draft: Either play the cards they've already dealt themselves since 2012, or mortgage the future on draft day to add last key components. Don't be surprised if the latter is the choice, with a 2016 or 2017 first round pick being shipped off if they feel it's the only way to grab the player they want. If it happens, it will be for a quarterback like Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston. They'll be risking everything - including their jobs - if they go this route. Snead will be checking his hair daily to see if it's falling out, and Fisher's weekly show at Buffalo Wild Wings will feature a large bottle of Tums on the table before him.
In a way, as tough as this off season will be for Fisher and Snead, it really won't be for Rams fans. For the first time in a long while, they'll actually have a good idea of who the Rams are truly going to be in 2015. The stage has been all but set, the script written with only a few scenes to be added. When the 2015 season curtain rises, the players will take the stage, and try to hit their marks. Critical acclaim or lambastes will come fast and heavy, and more than likely be accurate, whichever direction they take week 1 of the season...
The biggest key for the St. Louis Rams may lie in how Jeff Fisher approaches the coming season. Known far and wide as a "player's coach", he needs to turn this to his advantage. He has to shift from being warm and fuzzy with his young charges, to a bit of a beast. 2015 is graduation day, and he needs to make his young players realize the time given them to get use to the NFL is at its end. In his press conferences after each game since arriving in St. Louis, he bent his comments toward the positive growth of his team. I'm not saying he should start bashing his players, but he needs to begin taking them to task more readily. Fans just won't buy platitudes anymore, and his credibility as a head coach in the National Football League will begin to fade.
Shackled to a possible move out of St. Louis, Jeff Fisher's team is going to have to focus on the games, and not empty stadium seats as local fans begin to show their wrath if owner Stan Kroenke doesn't solidify his position soon. What's more, top free agents may very well turn away from the uncertainty looming large at Rams' Park.
In the latest search for an offensive coordinator, its become apparent the St. Louis job wasn't considered an attractive one. Top candidates weren't really interested, regardless of what Fisher said in his press conference introducing Frank Cignetti Jr. Whether it was about the location uncertainty, Bradford's health - or a defense minded head coach - no one will likely ever know. But the fact the Rams didn't attract a top OC is both puzzling and concerning to me...
The toughest division in the NFL...
The NFC West will be wide open. Seattle is going to lose some players to free agency, but not many. It's the coaching losses on defense that could prove crucial. San Francisco is in a troubling position, with a first time head coach, and an all but complete gutting of staff. Player losses to free agency are going to hit this team hard, as is the draft misses the last couple years. Arizona has played well, but I think they've hit their ceiling...
This division is still going to be a nightmare for any team in the NFL to face in 2015. Yet, I think there could be a shake up in the standing by season's end. Seattle still has to be the favorite to win the West, but it will be harder if Marshawn Lynch isn't there. Without "Beast Mode", the Seahawks wide receiver corp could be exposed for its shallow talent pool. Running the ball for Russell Wilson will lose some luster off of read option plays, since Lynch commands multiple players to react to wrestle him to the ground.
Speaking of "ground", the Arizona Cardinals need to hit the coming NFL draft hard for a running back like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon or Georgia's Todd Gurley. Additionally, the future suspended of linebacker Daryl Washington could weigh in heavily for the Cardinal's defense. A back up quarterback may be a good idea too, since Carson Palmer is returning from a second knee injury.
San Francisco could be the 2015 version of the Dallas Cowboys last season. As talented as this roster appears to still be, many will pick them to struggle in 2015. They won't place high in pre-season power ranking, since the coaching situation will be seen as a work in progress. All anyone can tell is that the 49ers plan to let quarterback Colin Kaepernick run the ball more? The team will likely be without the presence of Frank Gore, or defensive Tackle Justin Smith this season.
For the St. Louis Rams to earnestly join this pack of teams, all they really have to do is maintain the upward trend seen in 2014, right?
There's a fan crushing gravity, and it comes in many forms. Time creeps in to end a team's play level. Money causes players to leave. Injuries, schedules, off field issues... It always seems there's something that bends our "hopes" back to the point of breaking? But if history teaches me anything, it's that, well... OK, history hasn't taught me anything. I'll continue to hope and see what only my mind's eye gleans. My thoughts on the Rams - and who they can be - isn't really based on the same things someone like Jeff Fisher or Les Snead sees. My playing time consisted of a 30-or-so page playbook, and teammates who went on to be insurance salesmen, accountants, lawyers, construction worker; family guys who sit watching the same TV channel I do... We look at college players, do mock drafts, and most of all, we see what we want to see.
Faith is mine to allocate, and when it comes to the NFL, I slather it on when it comes to the Rams. My biggest hope for Frank Cignetti Jr. is that he steals a few of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' nutty pills. I mean, I want Cignetti to go wild and crazy. Yes, he plans to run the ball, but I can't help but think there's room for a bit of bonkers?
To win in the NFC West, a team has to be able both handle what's coming there way, and confound expectations. It's as much about physicality, as it is polish and finesse. Mistakes have to be eliminated, or at the very least limited to those outside of critical situations. An interception is one thing, but letting it turn into a score is quite a different thing all together. Holding calls in the red zone have to stop... You get where I'm going here, right? Simply put, the Rams have to mature and play up to their potential. The final score will take care of itself...
In Part 3, I'll be taking on individual players across the St. Louis Rams' roster. We'll be taking a look at some weird choices, and not the common thoughts tumbling around. Exploring the hard to imagine could be fun, right?