The last time that a team was good and then took a nosedive without any first round picks, it was the Houston Texans in 2020-present. Though the Texans didn’t get the ultimate prize and win the Super Bowl like the Los Angeles Rams did, Houston was a playoff team in the divisional round prior to falling flat on their faces with a 4-12 record in 2020. But the Texans lacked first round picks in 2020 and 2021 because of a blockbuster trade for tackle Laremy Tunsil, not making selections until 40th and 67th overall in those drafts.
The team picked defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, edge Jonathan Greenard, quarterback Davis Mills, and receiver Nico Collins on day two in those drafts.
Houston may want to return all four of those picks and there is a lesson somewhere in there for the Rams to learn before Les Snead makes choices at picks 36, 69, and 77 this Friday, day two of the 2023 NFL Draft: Go big or go bust.
Briefly summarizing the Texans’ four picks—and feel free to disagree with any of these assessments in the comments because counterpoints are welcome and assessing a prospect’s potential future is a more abstract concept than we usually give it credit for—Houston’s general managers (Bill O’Brien in 2020 and Nick Caserio in 2021) seemed to swing for doubles instead of home runs. This meant that the Texans were filling their needs in spite of how unlikely it is that Houston was going to compete for more than seven wins in any of those seasons.
You could make a similar argument for the Texans deciding to select cornerback Derek Stingley and guard Kenyon Green in the first round last year, potentially setting them up as the biggest disappointments for any team in the 2022 draft if those prospects don’t turn it up soon.
Blacklock drew some comparisons to Gerald McCoy, which is quite the praise given that McCoy was the third overall pick, but that was probably unfair. McCoy had 33 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks in three seasons at Oklahoma; Blacklock had 15.5 TFL and 5.5 sacks in two years at TCU. Blacklock posted a blazing time of 4.9 at the NFL Scouting Combine, but for what purpose? As TCU head coach Gary Patterson noted, Blacklock weighed 290 at the combine, but he showed up to camp at 305-310 with an intention to play at 315.
Yet another reason that the combine can be such a meaningless exhibition for anything other than medical evaluations and interviews. And why Snead and Sean McVay don’t care enough to show up.
At his best, Blacklock was going to be a run-stuffing defensive tackle, not a heart stopping pass rusher, and last August he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings after only two seasons in Houston. He played only 139 snaps in 11 games.
Greenard flashed more ability than most Texans when he compiled eight sacks in 12 games two years ago. But he lacks good athleticism and scouting reports said things like “a lack of juice limits his ceiling” and “Greenard projects best as a rotational EDGE player”. Right position, wrong player, and Greenard has missed a ton of time in three years. Nico Collins could have also been the right position and he possesses good size at the position at 6’4, 215, with a 4.43 40-yard dash. But there were concerns that Collins didn’t know how to use his size well and that maybe in an ideal world he could move the chains and catch 80 passes for 1,000 yards.
I know. Drafting a third round receiver, what more can you expect? But maybe that’s another reason why the Texans shouldn’t be drafting a position that will rely so heavily on quality play from the quarterback position when they were entering a season with Davis Mills in a competition against Tyrod Taylor.
Mills has all the prototypical size at the quarterback position, athleticism, but the odds of third round quarterbacks panning out in the league as anything other than backups is so low...why waste a pick in the third round when Houston could have taken swings on players who have higher odds of contribution? The Texans could have found quarterbacks as good as Mills after the draft in free agency or trade.
Instead, they’ve started Mills for 26 games in the last two years and he’s thrown 33 touchdowns with 25 interceptions. To what end? Two years as one of the worst teams in the NFL and his experience didn’t turn into development, as the Texans are weighing the options at quarterback this Thursday with the second and 12th overall picks.
How does this matter to the Rams?
Los Angeles enters the 2023 draft with a lot of picks but most of them are in the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds. I don’t really care how Snead uses this picks, if he wants to take swings on Bruce Feldman’s freaks or fill his kicker and punter and longsnapper positions, that’s perfectly fine with me. It’s the picks on day two that give the Rams opportunities to maybe come out of the other side with one or two impactful players who can help the team’s long-term vision.
Otherwise, what’s the point of playing safe and saying, “Wow, the L.A. Rams got a high-floor defensive tackle with no pass rushing juice!”? I don’t even think a high floor really exists. “High floor” players seem to wash out of the NFL quickly all the time, as teams are happy to push them aside for prospects who have high ceilings.
Who would you rather start on the edge next season? A prospect with a high floor or one with a high ceiling? Inevitably, we’ve heard more calls for Terrell Lewis to start in the last few years than your Troy Reeder or Justin Lawler types, right? And yes, Lewis failed in the NFL and he’s now off of L.A.’s roster.
But you can’t let a few strikeouts deter you from trying to win the game, right?
The Rams haven’t hit that grand slam on day two since Cooper Kupp in 2017, a year in which Snead also landed Gerald Everett and John Johnson. Kupp didn’t test well at the combine, but he was the most productive receiver in FCS history. Good ceiling there.
Then after picking Joe Noteboom in 2018, Snead went with Taylor Rapp, Darrell Henderson, David Long, and Bobby Evans in 2019. The best you could probably pick there is Long, but Rapp and Henderson were rather limited in what they could do for the Rams at their positions and with their skillsets. Then 2020 brought in Cam Akers, Van Jefferson, Lewis, and Terrell Burgess, while 2021 had Tutu Atwell and Ernest Jones. Finally, Snead had one day two pick last year, choosing guard Logan Bruss, to which the Rams were so excited that a scout jumped into the pool in their Malibu beach house.
Receivers like Jefferson and Atwell are not the boom or bust types, they aren’t big swings other than to say that Atwell is an outlier in size—but not in a good way. Akers has probably actually played at his ceiling already, he’s had about the number of “flashes” at the NFL that I would have expected, and that almost got him traded last season. Then you’ve got a safety, an inside linebacker, and a guard.
Not this time.
What positions or types of prospects should the Rams target then?
What about what positions should the Rams avoid?
When it comes to pick 36, avoid drafting a quarterback. What a terrible time it is for the Rams to be thinking of drafting a quarterback. They have no way to support him and the worst defense in the NFL.
Don’t draft a running back. Don’t draft a safety. Don’t draft an inside linebacker. Don’t draft a defensive tackle unless you think he has the juice to disrupt the passing game. Don’t draft a guard. Don’t draft a center.
Then there are types of players not to draft: Don’t draft a “possession receiver”. Don’t draft “a defensive end who can set the edge but not get to the quarterback”. Don’t draft a nickel cornerback. Don’t draft “a blocking tight end”.
The L.A. Rams have so many needs, so many directions they could go in, that there’s no reason to think that they would have to settle for this guy or that guy with their first pick in the draft just because they know that he could accumulate starts right away. Almost ANYBODY they pick will accumulate snaps in his first year. It’s almost impossible at any position to not get the chance to start right away for the 2023 Rams.
So their list at 36 should be so long that they have no excuses to not try and target players who play important positions and have a ceiling that makes them worth taking that risk—and what does “ceiling” mean in the NFL today? It means you could impact THE PASSING GAME at a high level. But not a QB. And I know how nice it would be for the Rams to have a better offensive line, but unless that player is a potentially game-smashing left tackle, they must avoid the temptation.
Unless that receiver could become Tee Higgins, they must avoid the temptation.
Unless that edge rusher could become T.J. Watt, they must avoid the temptation.
Like the Texans in the past three years, you’re damn straight that it is possible to WASTE your day two draft picks by playing it safe and trying to get prospects who you believe have high odds of contributing to your team instead of maybe “lower odds” of becoming great players. What do the Texans actually need right now? Great players. Even if just one of their day two picks had become great and the other three were cut from the roster, that would be better than where they’re left today.
The Rams must try to be GREAT, not GOOD.
Who could that leave at pick 36?
Offensively, we could be looking at tight ends who may have the athleticism and receiving ability to impact this offense for a long time. Since Dalton Kincaid is probably off the board by then, I’d look to Luke Musgrave, Sam LaPorta, and Tucker Kraft. Although, it’s hard to say if they won’t be available in the third round. The probable mistake here would be Darnell Washington, an enticing prospect for his size and blocking ability, but not one who is likely to ever become a premier receiving threat. Maybe the depth at this position would allow Snead to make this pick in the third round instead of the second, as names like Josh Whyle, Luke Schoonmaker, and Zach Kuntz will come off the board in the middle of the draft.
Michael Mayer is going to make a lot of contested catches and block well and be a great teammate, but I don’t know if he’s truly a “home run” swing.
At receiver, I would target size. Someone like Quentin Johnston, if he falls out of the first round. Perhaps Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman or Jalin Hyatt. We can talk about speed, but many of those day two steals lately have been 6’ or taller with wide frames. Deebo Samuel, DK Metcalf, Higgins, and so on.
Edge players need to have some chance of becoming those 10+ sack, 30+ pressures type of outside linebackers. Will McDonald stands out immediately in that regard, although he is quite light for the position. Nolan Smith may have limitations as a pass rusher in spite of his speed. Perhaps Keion White out of Georgia Tech, commonly mocked to the Rams, has that type of impact. And in the third round, Byron Young of Tennessee and Zach Harrison of Ohio State might be interesting targets for the edge with a higher ceiling than most in that range.
Then at cornerback, players like Kelee Ringo, D.J. Turner, Julius Brents will stand out at the top of the second round. If Emmanuel Forbes falls that far because he weighs 170 lbs, then that might be the ideal option for Snead.
There won’t be many pass rushing defensive tackles on the board probably, but maybe if Bryan Bresee—once the top recruit in the nation—makes it of the first round because he didn’t play well in the last two seasons, that could be the biggest of home runs.
Don’t play it safe. There’s no such thing as safe. Go for players who play key positions but who also possess the athleticism or experience or production to maybe be better in the pros than they were in college, not players who figure to have higher odds of being as good as they were in college and who play “safer” positions.
This is not the time for safe. This is the time to try and have foundational pieces when the Rams are trying to compete again in one or two years. Safe is how we got here.