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Examining The St. Louis Rams' 2015 NFL Draft

How did the Rams fare in this years NFL Draft? Will the establishment of a definitive offensive identity produce results on the field? Can we learn about the Rams' future from looking back at their past?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 NFL Draft is now in the history books. Reflecting back on the Rams' selections this year, one word keeps coming to mind: throwback. This draft was essentially a "throwback" to many Rams drafts of the 70's and early 80's. A decade where running the football predominated offensive schemes and influenced positional value in the NFL draft.

Los Angeles Rams 1974-1975 NFL Drafts

The accompanying chart presents a condensed version (15 picks in total) of the Rams' 1974 draft selections, highlighting the many similarities between their 1974 and 2015 drafts:

Round Position Player School
1.11 RB John Cappelletti Penn St.
3.76 OT Al Oliver UCLA
4.99 QB Norris Weese Mississippi
4.102 OT Frank Johnson California-Riverside
11.284 OT Rick Hayes Washington
12.310 OG Roger Freberg UCLA
13.336 OT Pete Solverson Drake

Of the five offensive linemen selected by the Rams in the 1974 draft, not one ended up playing a single down in the NFL. The Rams quickly remedied the mistakes made in the 1974 draft, selecting another 5 offensive linemen in the following draft (1975). Both Harrah and France became mainstays on the Rams' OL for many years:

Round Position Player School
1.11 OG Dennis Harrah Miami (Fla.)
1.20 OT Doug France Ohio St.
3.61 C Geoff Reece Washington St.
3.67 OG Dan Nugent Auburn
5.126 C Rick Nuzum Kentucky

Los Angeles Rams' Draft Selections (Running Back) - 1972-1983

Much has been made of the Rams' propensity for drafting running backs in the Snead/Fisher era. In 2012, the Rams selected Isaiah Pead in the 2nd round, followed by Daryl Richardson in the 7th round. The following year, a pair of 6th round picks were traded to move up and select Zac Stacy in the 5th round. Tre Mason was selected in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft. Todd Gurley was chosen with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Given their depth at running back, and in a league now dominated by the passing game, many believe the Rams have "overdrafted" the running back position over the last 4 years. The Rams' recent draft history of selecting multiple running backs is reminiscent of how the Rams drafted for the position in an earlier era and the emphasis they placed on the position, more of a "throwback" than "overdrafting".

In the 12 drafts encompassing the years 1972 to 1983, the Rams spent a considerable amount of early-round draft capital on the running back position. Results ran across the whole spectrum, from spectacularly successful (Eric Dickerson) to colossal busts (Barry Redden and Elvis Peacock).

The accompanying chart presents the running backs selected by the Rams in the first three rounds of the NFL draft between 1972 and 1983:

Year Round Player School
1972 2.30 Jim Bertelsen Texas
1972 3.70 Lawrence McCutcheon Colorado St.
1973 2.31 Cullen Bryant Colorado
1974 1.11 John Cappelletti Penn St.
1977 3.79 Wendell Tyler UCLA
1978 1.20 Elvis Peacock Oklahoma
1979 2.54 Eddie Hill Memphis
1980 3.58 Jewerl Thomas San Jose St.
1982 1.14 Barry Redden Richmond
1983 1.02 Eric Dickerson SMU

Comparing Draft Strategies (Offense): 1972-83 vs. 2014-15

From 1973 to 1984 the Rams had a regular season record of 113-61-1. 10 winning records, 10 playoff berths, and one Super Bowl appearance in 12 seasons. Those teams were characterized by top-ten defenses, powerful rushing attacks, average QB play, relatively balanced offenses, and consistently dominant offensive and defensive lines. The Rams' offensive identity was clearly defined in those years, and how they approached each draft (and who they selected) was a reflection of that identity.

Have the Rams developed a consistent, clearly defined offensive identity since the arrival of Fisher and Snead in 2012? The answer is NO. Watching the games, poring over statistics, and looking back at the Rams' drafts/player acquisitions from 2012-14 is all the evidence one needs to answer no. I'm still scratching my head about the brief flirtation with a spread offense in 2013, and the cost (in terms of draft capital and salary cap space) of that misadventure.

In the 2014 NFL Draft, the Rams took the first steps towards developing an "offensive identity". They drafted OT Greg Robinson with the second overall pick, then added a pair of OL in the 7th round (Mitchell Van Dyk and Demetrius Rhaney). In addition, they selected RB Tre Mason in the 3rd round. In a draft class filled with outstanding WR's, the Rams passed on selecting one. If OL Zack Martin had fallen to the Baltimore Ravens in the first round, the Rams had a deal in place to trade up for him.

Fast forward to the 2015 NFL Draft. The Rams' selections left little doubt as to what their offensive identity would be in 2015 and beyond. The selection of Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick, plus adding 4 offensive linemen (all proficient run blockers) in the 2nd to 6th rounds, sealed the deal.

Many have already defined the Rams' 2015 draft (and by extension their new-found offensive identity) as a re-invention of "Fisherball", and an attempt to mimic some of the more successful team building strategies employed by division rivals San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. In reality, the blueprint/origins of what the Rams tried to accomplish in this years NFL draft can be traced back to those Rams teams of the 70's/early 80's. Old-school, smash mouth football.

Offensive Identity: The Power Running Game

Can the Rams replicate the success of those run-centric teams of an earlier era, in today's pass-happy NFL? Clearly Jeff Fisher believes they can. An offensive identity emphasizing a power running game is based on sound football principles that transcend eras:

  • Minimizing turnovers. Keeping the ball on the ground creates fewer turnovers than through the air. Austin Davis and Shaun Hill combined for 20 turnovers last season (16 interceptions and 4 lost fumbles). The Rams' running backs were responsible for only 4 lost fumbles last season. Seattle might have won their 2nd consecutive Super Bowl if they had handed off to Marshawn Lynch instead of passing the ball in the dying moments of the game.
  • If a team controls the clock and the football, it allows the opponents' offense less time on the field, and less time to put together scoring drives.
  • Controlling the clock and the football keeps your defense off the field, and allows the unit to remain fresh throughout the game (especially in the 4th quarter).
  • Emphasizing the running game makes a whole lot of sense if your team doesn't enjoy the benefit of having Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers throwing the football. High quality running backs are much easier to find than franchise quarterbacks.
  • The more an offense can keep a defense guessing, the more successful that offense will be. A reasonably balanced offense will always keep defense's on their toes. A strong rushing attack opens up the passing game, especially play-action.
  • In today's pass-happy NFL, defense's are becoming more and more geared/built to stop the passing game. A powerful stable of running backs, behind a massive, quality offensive line, can create mismatches similar to those enjoyed by Calvin Johnson-type WR's against smaller CB's.

St. Louis Rams 2015 NFL Draft Grades

Round Position Player School Grade-Need Grade-Value Overall Grade
1.10 RB Todd Gurley Georgia C+ A- B+
2.57 OT Rob Havenstein Wisconsin B+ C+ B
3.72 OT Jamon Brown Louisville B C- C+
3.89 QB Sean Mannion Oregon State B C+ B-
4.119 OT Andrew Donnal Iowa B B B
6.201 WR Bud Sasser Missouri C+ B- C+
6.215 OG Cody Wichmann Fresno State B- B B
7.224 ILB Bryce Hager Baylor B+ B B+
7.227 DE Martin Ifedi Memphis B- B B
Overall Grades B B- B-

Looking back at the Rams' drafts under Les Snead and Jeff Fisher, they've had the most success with picks that represented very good value/were close to BPA at the time of their selection. They've had less success with picks that were costly in terms of draft capital and/or perceived as reaches. Examples of excellent value/BPA selections: Aaron Donald, Tre Mason, T.J. McDonald, Janoris Jenkins and E.J. Gaines. Examples of costly picks/reaches: Tavon Austin, Brian Quick and Isaiah Pead. This years draft gave us some of both: selecting a top-5 talent (Gurley) with the 10th overall pick, and reaching (by at least a round) on all 3 picks (Havenstein, Brown and Mannion) in the 2nd and 3rd rounds.

The Rams entered the 2015 NFL Draft with a four-point plan:

  1. A strategic focus on improving the offense as a whole, with the primary goal of drafting players who would help in creating a power running offensive identity.
  2. Selecting RB Todd Gurley in the first round. Gurley was at the top of the Rams' draft board.
  3. Selecting multiple offensive linemen. The offensive line was the Rams' biggest need heading into the draft.
  4. Selecting a mid-round developmental prospect at the QB position. The Rams don't have a QB on the roster signed beyond 2015.

The Rams stuck to their plan throughout the draft, and deserve credit for doing so. They certainly accomplished what they set out to do, at least on a strategic level. The biggest questions arising from the Rams' 2015 draft are regarding the quality of their selections. Will Todd Gurley produce results closer to Eric Dickerson's career numbers, or closer to those of Elvis Peacock and John Cappelletti? Will the 4 offensive linemen selected turn out like the Rams' OL draft class of 1974, or produce at least a pair of quality starters?

It's reasonable to suggest that Gurley (if he stays healthy) will become a top-ten running back in the NFL, and produce multiple 1000-yard rushing seasons. Havenstein and Donnal (if moved inside) could become solid starters, although neither are ideal solutions for the Rams' OL in 2015. Expect the OL to go through growing pains this season, for the Rams may end up having to start 4 players with less than a season of starting experience.

Benny Cunningham, Isaiah Pead and Chase Reynolds all become Free Agents after the 2015 season. Don't be surprised if the Rams once again select a running back in the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. After selecting 3 offensive linemen in the 2014 NFL Draft - and 4 offensive linemen in this years draft - it should come as no surprise if the Rams invest multiple draft selections on the line in next years draft.

The 2016 NFL Draft promises to be an interesting one for the Rams. The needs list next year could be much longer than in 2015. The Rams will have 20 players eligible for Free Agency after the 2015 season. Among the more prominent names on the list: Nick Foles, Brian Quick, Nick Fairley, William Hayes, Greg Zuerlein, Trumaine Johnson, Janoris Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and Mark Barron.

St. Louis Rams 2015 NFL Draft: Dubs' Do-Over

Round Position Player School
1.10 RB Todd Gurley Georgia
2.57 OG A.J. Cann South Carolina
3.72 OT Rob Havenstein Wisconsin
3.89 DT Carl Davis Iowa
4.101 QB Sean Mannion Oregon State
6.215 OG Cody Wichmann Fresno State
7.227 OL La'el Collins LSU

In this draft do-over, the Rams make one additional trade. They move up 18 spots, from 4.119 to 4.101, to select QB Sean Mannion. The Rams give up their 4th round pick (4.119), plus 6th and 7th round selections in 2015, and a conditional late-round pick in 2017. In return, the New England Patriots give the Rams their 4th round pick (4.101) in 2015.

The draft do-over retains much of the composition of the Rams' actual draft, and addresses the Rams' major needs in an in-depth manner. Gurley, Wichmann, Havenstein and Mannion are holdovers from the Rams' actual draft. Havenstein and Mannion represent better value selected a half-round later (and in all likelihood both would have been available later in the draft). The three "new" selections (La'el Collins, A.J. Cann and Carl Davis) are all excellent value picks that significantly upgrade the quality of the Rams' draft.

A.J. Cann was the 2nd-highest graded pure guard in the draft, a late 1st round/early 2nd round talent who fell to the 3rd round (similar to Larry Warford and Gabe Jackson in prior drafts). A 4-year starter for the Gamecocks in the SEC, Cann is a powerful drive-blocker, ideally suited to the Rams' power-running scheme.

In the offseason, the Rams added DT Nick Fairley through Free Agency. They also released Kendall Langford, and didn't re-sign Alex Carrington. These moves left the Rams one player short on the DT depth chart. In addition, Fairley becomes a Free Agent after the 2015 season. Carl Davis was regarded as a late 1st round/early 2nd round talent, who fell to the third round due to concerns about his work ethic and poor pre-draft interviews. It's a telling sign that perhaps the best GM in the NFL (Ozzie Newsome) and the Baltimore Ravens thought highly enough of his talent to select Davis one pick (No. 90) after the Rams' actual selection in the 3rd round.

The La'el Collins story is well-known. Collins dropped off of or was severely downgraded on every teams' draft board due to a murder investigation (he was never named a suspect) shortly before the draft. What's not so well known is the fact that many teams (including the Rams) were interested in selecting Collins at various points in the draft. Why did Collins end up becoming a UDFA? Robert Klemko of MMQB uncovered the truth, in a detailed look at Collins and the draft:

"Collins' agents told teams that if he was drafted after the third round, he would not sign with the team and would instead sit out a year and enter next year's draft. It was a gamble with multiple risks, and teams could have simply ignored the threat. After the draft, one of Collins' agents admitted that the move was a bluff."

"We can put it on the record now: We were never going back in the draft," his agency's general counsel, Rick Smith, told Klemko. "If someone had drafted him, we would’ve had a long, long discussion about it, but at the end of the day you can’t go back in the draft. He could get injured, gain weight, or 10 great tackles could come out. Too many risks. The bluff worked."

If the Rams had called the bluff, and taken Collins with a 7th round pick, they would've had themselves a 1st round talent (and probable starter) at RT for the 2015 season. A gamble worth taking in my estimation. I was also a proponent of the Rams signing center Stefen Wisniewski in Free Agency. He signed a one-year prove it contract with Jacksonville for $2.5 million.

The Rams would have had a much better chance of establishing their offensive identity behind an offensive line that looked like this (and with selections more like their 1975 draft):

RT - La'el Collins

RG - Rodger Saffold

OC - Stefen Wisniewski

LG - A.J. Cann

LT - Greg Robinson