Late-round picks could find a home with Rams

BY JIM THOMAS
Monday, May 2, 2011

At a time when only diehard Rams fans were paying close attention, the team selected nearly 40 percent of its draft class late Saturday afternoon.

Three of the team's eight picks were chosen in the seventh round, when scouts and general managers were panning for just a sliver of gold in what was left of the 2011 talent pool.

"You know, when we get down to this point, you're usually looking at developmental kind of guys," general manager Billy Devaney said. "You're not looking at these guys as coming in and making an immediate impact as starters.

"So their quality better include special-teams play. That's how they're going to earn their stripes as they're developing as players. And all of these guys are viewed as major contributors on special teams."

By the time Baylor cornerback Mikail Baker heard his named called by the Rams, 215 players had been drafted. A dozen picks later, the Rams selected linebacker Jabara Williams of Stephen F. Austin, and on the very next pick took free safety Jonathan Nelson of Oklahoma.

None of the three players was invited to the NFL scouting combine, so they're already beating the odds simply by getting drafted.

Devaney said the Rams really liked Baker on tape but brought him in to Rams Park a couple of weeks ago for a physical to check out a serious knee injury that cost him most of the 2009 season.

"McMahon loves him," Devaney said, referring to special teams coach Tom McMahon. "So we put him in the mix and see what we have."

Baker left Baylor as the school's career record-holder for kickoff returns (83) and kickoff return yards (1,963). He had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Iowa State in 2008, and his career return average was 23.7 yards.

The Rams will take a look at Baker as a returner, Devaney said, "but even if he's not a return guy, he'll contribute in other areas on special teams."

Baker, who will turn 24 in June, played in parts of six seasons at Baylor, receiving a medical redshirt in 2007 after suffering an early-season broken collarbone against Rice. He was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA after suffering the knee injury (a torn anterior cruciate ligament, plus a lateral and meniscus cartilage tear) in Game 3 of the '09 season.

The injuries and questions over durability undoubtedly affected Baker's draft status, and so did the fact that he switched positions late in his career. From 2005 though '08, Baker was a wide receiver, with 26 catches for 354 yards and two touchdowns over those four seasons, including four starts. He switched to defense during preseason camp in '09.

"Coach felt like I was one of the most athletic (players), and with our offense we already had a lot of weapons," Baker said Saturday. "He said I could go to the defense and be a standout player. My favorite players were Charles Woodson and Deion Sanders my whole life, so I was really excited about the opportunity and I just made the best of it."

The '09 injury delayed the transition, but Baker was a full-time cornerback in 2010, starting the final nine games and finishing with 49 tackles, one interception, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles.

Not lacking for confidence, Baker said, "I feel like I'm a 'long' guy that likes to get up in man coverage, use a little speed, my athleticism. I know how to play the ball."

Special teams?

"I'm not scared of special teams," he said. "I played special teams basically my whole career at Baylor. I'm just a hard-nosed football player. I love the game."

Baker has good size (5-11, 191) and ran a 4.41 at his pro day with a 38-inch vertical leap. And if the Rams ever get short-handed at wide receiver ...

"I'll go catch passes from Sam Bradford if you want me to," Baker joked. "I'm ready for it all."

The Rams' second pick in the seventh round, Williams, was a two-way player himself as a freshman at Stephen F. Austin.

"I was a running back in high school, but coming in they really gave me a choice of what I wanted to play," Williams said. "I wanted to play linebacker. Some running backs started getting hurt, so basically it was a tryout in practice and I got it."

He played three games at running back, including two late-season games in which he started at both running back and linebacker — and played special teams. His rushing totals in that 2007 season: 230 yards (5.0 per carry) and one TD.

So in a pinch, could Williams fill that backup spot behind Steven Jackson? "I think I could; I still got it," Williams joked.

Alas, any future Williams has in St. Louis will be playing weakside linebacker and special teams. At 6-2, 224, Williams has good speed (4.58) for the position.

"He's another guy that Coach McMahon is excited about because he's a big body that can run," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "And if you're the special teams coach, you can never have enough of those guys."

Williams played outside linebacker his first two seasons in college and then played his last two at middle linebacker. He had 100-plus tackles in each of his last three seasons and was named defensive player of the year in the Southland Conference for 2010.

Like Baker of Baylor, Oklahoma's Nelson was a late bloomer. Redshirted in '06, he played in only six games in '07 and '08, and didn't make his first start until '09. A knee injury (sprained medial collateral ligament) slowed Nelson as a sophomore. As a junior in '09, he was switched from cornerback to safety about a month into the season.

"After that move, I had a whole bunch of playing time," he said.

Nelson weighed only about 170 pounds until that junior season. Since that time he has bulked up to 198 pounds on his 5-11 frame, still on the small side for an NFL free safety. He started every game last season for the Sooners, recording 102 tackles with two interceptions and seven breakups.

"He kind of surfaced this year," Spagnuolo said. "Great range — those are the comments that a lot of scouts made and the coaches. And he played in a lot of big football games, so there's some value there."