You’ll be hearing this many times in the next two months: the Rams need to hit on every pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. At present, the Rams only have 5 picks, their lowest single-year total in the Snead/Fisher era.
The NFL draft is a complex, multi-faceted endeavor for all 32 NFL teams. Getting it "right" requires plenty of hard work, preparation, skill…and luck. There will always be hits and misses in the draft. It comes with the territory. The goal is to maximize the hits and minimize the misses. How have the Rams fared in the last three NFL drafts with Jeff Fisher and Les Snead at the helm?
It’s relatively easy to examine prior drafts after the fact and pinpoint mistakes/great moves made by an NFL teams’ front office. Such is the benefit of hindsight. NFL teams select collegians without them having played a single down in the NFL. Fans and draft pundits can form their opinions on past drafts based on what they’ve seen of players in their NFL careers. Nonetheless, much can be learned from looking back at the choices Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have made, and adding context to them. What were the thought processes involved in some of their major draft-day decisions? What were some of the alternatives under serious consideration by Fisher and Snead at different points in the draft process?
2012 NFL Draft – Round 2 - #2.45
One of the Rams’ major goals in this draft was to add the maximum amount of talent possible through the acquisition of additional picks. The Rams had targeted LB Bobby Wagner with their third pick in the second round of the 2012 draft. Brian Quick and Janoris Jenkins were the Rams’ earlier picks in the second round. Wagner was still on the board when it came time for the Rams’ selection at #45. Instead of taking him, the Rams traded down to #50, acquiring a fifth round pick in the process. The Rams gambled on Wagner’s availability at #50. He wasn’t available at #50. The Seattle Seahawks selected him with the #47 pick. To compound the error, the Rams then selected RB Isaiah Pead at #50 (passing on LB Lavonte David) and OG Rokevious Watkins in the fifth round. Both Watkins and Pead are certified busts. Wagner is among the best LB’s in the NFL. Like in the war movie "A Bridge Too Far", the Rams went one trade-down too far in the 2012 NFL Draft.
2013 NFL Draft – Round 1 - #1.16
The Rams traded the #16 pick (plus their second and seventh round selections) to the Buffalo Bills, in return receiving the Bills’ #8 pick in the first round. With the #8 pick, the Rams selected WR Tavon Austin. The Rams envisioned Austin as an all-purpose, playmaking centrepiece in their plan to spread out the offensive attack in 2013 (a plan they abandoned 4 games into the 2013 season).
The Rams had shown great interest in WR DeAndre Hopkins throughout the draft process, and he was still on the board when the Rams went on the clock at #16. Hopkins ended up being selected by the Houston Texans later in the first round (#27). He enjoyed a stellar 2014 season (with just under 1,300 receiving yards), and exhibits all the attributes of a #1 WR. Hopkins has thrived despite inadequate QB play in his two seasons with Houston. Had the Rams kept their second round selection, the choice would have been OG Larry Warford. After trading down (with Atlanta) from #22 to #30, the Rams targeted three players (in order) with the #30 selection: LB Alec Ogletree, DL Datone Jones, and Warford. The Rams had placed a first round grade on Warford. He was eventually selected in the third round by the Detroit Lions, and is a rising star in the NFL.
Trading up for Austin was a huge gamble, one that has yet to pay substantial dividends. Austin is under-utilized in the Rams’ offense, and is somewhat miscast: a unique, multi-dimensional weapon playing in what appears to be a conservative, ground-and-pound offense. It reminds me, to some degree, of the Seattle Seahawks’ costly experiment with Percy Harvin. In truth, the Rams haven’t developed a true, consistent offensive identity in Austin’s time with the team.
Austin does play a role in the mixed results achieved to-date. He’s had difficulty adjusting to the speed and physicality of NFL defenses, and trouble maneuvering in the tight spaces allowed by those defenses. His on-field decision-making is questionable at times. He’s not a bust by any measure; however, it’s difficult to envision Austin’s future production (at least with the Rams) ever warranting the exorbitant cost of obtaining him.
2014 NFL Draft – Round 4 - #4.110
Did Jeff Fisher lose some of his nerve in the 2014 NFL Draft? The Rams were on the clock in the fourth round, and Fisher was coveting an obscure SS from Utah State: Maurice Alexander. Fisher understood that Alexander could possibly last well into the sixth round of the draft. But as he later admitted, the Bobby Wagner fiasco was in the forefront of his thoughts at that moment in time. Fisher wasn’t about to let another coveted player slip through his grasp. The Rams turned in their card with Alexander’s name on it.
On the surface, this pick appears to be a relatively benign decision on the Rams’ part. Although a backup/special team’s player in 2014, Alexander does show some promise. It’s too early to determine whether this selection is a hit or a miss. The issue isn’t regarding the selection of Alexander per se. It’s about the opportunity cost of reaching for him in the fourth round, and the Rams’ deviation from their original draft plan.
Before the 2014 draft, the Rams had made their intention of selecting a quality developmental quarterback abundantly clear. The Rams had shown a keen interest in many mid-round QB’s before the draft, including Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray. Mettenberger and Murray were still on the board when the Rams picked in the fourth round. After the selection of Alexander, and without a fifth round pick, the Rams ended up waiting until the sixth round to select QB Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert is no longer with the organization.
If the Rams had stuck to their original draft plan, Mettenberger or Murray would have been the selection in the fourth round. Maurice Alexander likely would have been available in the sixth round. At any rate, the Rams had more than enough draft capital remaining to move back up into the early part of the fifth round (or higher) to select Alexander.
At present, a partial Rams needs list includes QB, OG, LB, and #1 WR. A list that would be much shorter with Mettenberger, Warford, Wagner, and Hopkins on the team. 4 players the Rams had on their radar at the time.
2012 NFL Draft – Round 1 - #1.02
The trade involving the #2 overall pick (Robert Griffin III) in 2012 is easily the most significant draft-related transaction the Rams have made under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead. The Rams ended up with 8 picks (spread over three drafts) as a result of the trade. The draft haul included four promising, quality starters (Michael Brockers, Greg Robinson, Janoris Jenkins and Alec Ogletree). All four have the talent and potential to become All-Pro’s. Stedman Bailey is an integral part of the Rams’ receiving corps, and will push for a starting role in 2015. Zac Stacy has been surpassed on the depth chart by Tre Mason, but remains a high quality backup.
When Jeff Fisher and Les Snead took over the Rams in early 2012, they decided to gut the roster and undertake a complete rebuilding of the team. They also decided to rebuild primarily through the draft. There’s little doubt they made the right decision on both counts. The successful RG3 trade was the first key building block in Fisher and Snead’s plan to rebuild the Rams virtually from scratch.
The accompanying chart presents the 8 players acquired in the draft as a result of the RG3 trade:
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
2013 NFL Draft – Round 1 - #1.22
After trading up to select Tavon Austin earlier in the first round, the Rams’ thoughts turned to the #22 selection (their second pick in the first round). The Rams targeted LB Alec Ogletree with the pick. Ogletree was a top-15 talent who fell in the first round due to character concerns. On a strategic level, the Rams also wanted to trade down to recoup some of the draft capital used to trade up for Austin. They found a willing trade partner in the Atlanta Falcons, who wished to trade up from #30 to secure CB Desmond Trufant. The Rams consummated the trade with Atlanta, gambling on Ogletree falling to #30.
In addition to their #22 pick, the Rams sent Atlanta a seventh round pick in the 2015 draft. In return, the Rams received Atlanta’s #30 pick, plus additional third and sixth round picks in the 2013 draft. The gamble paid off. The Rams selected Ogletree at #30. WR Stedman Bailey was selected in the third round. The Rams packaged up their pair of sixth round picks to move back up into the fifth round, where they selected RB Zac Stacy.
Individual Player Hits & Misses
In their three drafts with the Rams, Fisher and Snead selected a total of 28 players. 22 of them are still on the roster. The other 6 (no longer with the team) were selected in the fifth round or later. Only 1 of the 28 players has earned post-season recognition. Aaron Donald was invited to the Pro Bowl and named Defensive Rookie Of The Year in his first season with the Rams. Donald represents Fisher and Snead’s biggest draft hit to-date.
The accompanying chart presents the 28 players selected by Fisher and Snead in the last three drafts. Each selection is graded as a hit, miss, or "yet to be determined". The grades are based on a players’ production/value to the team relative to their draft position:
Year Round Player Hit Miss TBD 2012 1 Michael Brockers x 2012 2 Brian Quick x 2012 2 Janoris Jenkins x 2012 2 Isaiah Pead x 2012 3 Trumaine Johnson x 2012 4 Chris Givens x 2012 5 Rokevious Watkins x 2012 6 Greg Zuerlein x 2012 7 Daryl Richardson x 2012 7 Aaron Brown x 2013 1 Tavon Austin x 2013 1 Alec Ogletree x 2013 3 T.J. McDonald x 2013 3 Stedman Bailey x 2013 4 Barrett Jones x 2013 5 Brandon McGee x 2013 5 Zac Stacy x 2014 1 Greg Robinson x 2014 1 Aaron Donald x 2014 2 Lamarcus Joyner x 2014 3 Tre Mason x 2014 4 Maurice Alexander x 2014 6 Garrett Gilbert x 2014 6 E.J. Gaines x 2014 7 Mitchell Van Dyk x 2014 7 Michael Sam x 2014 7 Demetrius Rhaney x 2014 7 Christian Bryant x Totals (28 Players) 11 7 10
Of the seven misses, six were selected in the fifth round or later. The other miss (Isaiah Pead) was selected in the second round.
Ten players are categorized as "To Be Determined". Each of the ten could end up as hits or misses.
Brian Quick has shown flashes of the talent that made him the Rams’ pick at #33 in the 2012 draft. A season-ending shoulder injury early in the 2014 regular season put his development on hold, and cut short a season where Quick had delivered some promising results/production. Quick is eligible for Free Agency in 2016. Can he make a full recovery and take his game to a higher level next season?
Greg Robinson had his share of struggles in his rookie season. Robinson is likely entrenched at LT for the foreseeable future. Much is expected of him in 2015. Robinson has the potential to become an All-Pro offensive lineman.
With a new offensive coordinator (and the return of Sam Bradford), Tavon Austin will hopefully be better-utilized by the Rams’ offense this coming season. Austin’s continued development is one of the keys to a higher scoring offense in 2015.
Lamarcus Joyner, Brandon McGee and Maurice Alexander saw limited action in 2014. They’re expected to challenge for more playing time this coming season. Barrett Jones has battled through two injury-plagued seasons with the Rams. The injuries have limited his development and playing time. If Scott Wells becomes a salary cap casualty, Jones may challenge for a starting role in 2015.
After a stellar rookie season in 2012, Chris Givens has regressed and gradually worked his way down the Rams’ WR depth chart. Givens undoubtedly has missed the connection he had developed with Sam Bradford. Will Bradford’s return be the spark Givens needs to challenge for a bigger role in the Rams’ offense?
Demetrius Rhaney spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve. Christian Bryant was released in August, and subsequently signed to the practice squad (where he spent the entire season). Bryant was signed to a reserve/futures contract in December, and is currently on the Rams’ offseason roster. Rhaney and Bryant are unknown quantities at present.
Jeff Fisher and Les Snead
There’s little doubt the 2015 St. Louis Rams are more talented and deeper than the team Fisher and Snead inherited in 2012. The vast majority of that talent and depth was added through the NFL draft.
Looking back at the Rams’ last three drafts as a whole, Fisher and Snead have had more hits than misses. Good drafts but not great ones. To elevate those drafts to the status of great ones, the following must occur: players like Brockers, Jenkins, McDonald, and Ogletree need to take the next step and become among the best at their positions, and early round selections who are "TBD" (Joyner, Austin, Quick, and Robinson) need to become draft "Hits" this season. A succession of "great" drafts helps produce playoff teams; "good" drafts 8-8 teams.
Fisher and Snead have never been shy about moving up and down the draft order. They’ve consummated 9 trades involving draft picks in the last three years (4 trade-downs, 3 trade-ups, and 2 trades involving NFL players). The Rams only have 5 picks in the 2015 draft due to the trade for safety Mark Barron, giving up fourth and sixth round picks in the deal. Look for the Rams to once again be active traders in the 2015 NFL Draft.
When it comes to the NFL draft, Jeff Fisher and Les Snead are true riverboat gamblers. They move up and down the draft order with abandon. Many of their selections are dynamic athletes, with high ceilings and lower-to-middle floors. No one can accuse them of being averse to taking risks. The 2015 NFL Draft is a critical one for Snead, Fisher, and the future of the Rams. Three-of-a-kind won’t be a winning hand this year. They need to catch a straight flush. Deal em’ up!
The Rams gave Michael Silver (2012 and 2014) and Peter King (2013) rare opportunities to be in their war room during the last three NFL drafts. The insight provided by both King and Silver was invaluable in looking back at the Rams' drafts under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead.
Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams embrace Michael Sam: An inside look: NFL.com - Michael Silver
The Panic Room: Sports Illustrated - Peter King