Billy Devaney: Rams' player personnel director
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
As a young scout with the Washington Redskins in the mid-1980s, Billy Devaney remembers gushing about the ability of a prospect who apparently had some off-the-field issues as well.
"Joe (Gibbs) said something to the effect of, 'I'd rather drop down a level of ability,'" Devaney recalled. —"'Even if this guy's an A-plus ability guy, give me a B-plus guy that's smart and who's a strong character guy. We can win a lot of games that way.'"
That approach by Gibbs and general manager Bobby Beathard helped the Redskins win three Super Bowl titles from 1982-91, landing Gibbs a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a coach.
"That's the way those Redskins teams were built — their foundation," Devaney recalled.
Sure, those Redskins teams had a couple of All-Pro caliber athletes. But for the most part, they had lots of good players — not great ones — who were smart, who cared about winning and who weren't character risks.
Devaney adopted that blueprint as his career in personnel progressed, and he brought it to St. Louis when the Rams hired him as executive vice president of player personnel in February.
"We want smart, productive, and passionate players," Devaney said. "We're not going to compromise on that. I think we have a great core of guys here that fit that mold ... and we're not going to deviate on the character part."
There were no character risks among the Rams' eight draft picks last April. Obviously, that hasn't always been the case on draft day at Rams Park.
"In a situation like this, (Dominique) Byrd, I don't know if he'll ever be a player," said Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys executive who now works as an analyst for NFL.com. "I'm not criticizing, but I'm saying, I don't think you can draft Byrd."
The Rams wasted a third-round 2006 draft pick on Byrd, who made more headlines for his off-field problems than anything he did on the field. He was released April 28.
Another third-rounder in '06, defensive tackle Claude Wroten, currently is serving a yearlong suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse program.
Even in cases of extreme talent, Devaney says it's never wise to bend the rules for a player with off-the-field issues.
"Initially it might be tempting, but after a while you say, 'You know what, it's not worth it,' " Devaney said. "Because nine times out of 10, you get burnt by those kind of guys. Or they never reach their potential. Or they're going to disappoint you and the organization at some point."
Devaney values productivity in college more than stop-watch times or workout numbers.
"I don't get excited about the NFL Scouting Combine or all-star games," Devaney said. "That's not a big part of (evaluation). It's not football, the Combine specifically I'm talking about.
"Guys get downgraded too much, and get elevated too much. There's no contact involved; there's no thinking involved. I mean, it's just not football specific. So it's not a real big part of my evaluation."
Past Rams drafts are littered with draft busts who looked the part and had the measurables, but for whatever reason simply couldn't play the game. Among the recent examples are cornerback Jacoby Shepherd (second round, 2000), offensive guard Travis Scott (fourth round, 2002) and defensive end Anthony Hargrove (third round, 2004). In Hargrove's case, there were also off-field issues.
Continued misses, particularly in the early rounds, catch up with a team eventually. The Rams are living proof.
"In general terms, you try to be solid, hit on your first-day picks," Devaney said. "Those guys need to contribute as quickly as possible."
In the seven drafts from 2000-06, the Rams had nine first-round draft picks. Only three are still with the team: cornerback Tye Hill, offensive tackle Alex Barron and running back Steven Jackson.
The Rams had 11 third-round draft picks over that same period. Only two remain with the team: safety Oshiomogho "O.J." Atogwe and offensive guard Richie Incognito.
The Rams have done a little better in the second round, with three of six players taken there from 2000-06 still around: tight end Joe Klopfenstein, defensive back Ron Bartell and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
But add it up, and only eight of 26 "first day" picks from those seven drafts are still with the team. That, as much as anything, explains why the Rams were unable to sustain the phenomenal success of the Greatest Show on Turf teams of 1999, 2000 and 2001.
"I noticed only 31 draft picks in camp that they drafted," Brandt said during a visit to Rams camp in Wisconsin. "That's a low number."
And not only is there a lack of quantity from recent drafts, there's a lack of quality. Of the 63 total players drafted from 2000-06, the only Pro Bowler in the group so far is Jackson.
When Devaney was hired by the Rams, he didn't study past Rams drafts to analyze what went wrong.
"That was in the past," he said. "That had nothing to do with what we were going to do from this point on. I wasn't here."
Nonetheless, Devaney knows enough to realize there are holes on the roster, and plenty of work to be done.
"We need to put a couple of drafts together where we build up the young base of our team," he said. "That's our intention. We're not looking for this little spike one year and then go backwards. We want to be consistent winners in this thing."