By Jeff Gordon
STLTODAY.COM SPORTS COLUMNIST
Tuesday, Feb. 12 2008

Scott Linehan has taken two big steps toward becoming viable NFL head coach.

He added a strong offensive coordinator, Al Saunders, and made room for a
well-respected personnel expert, Bill Devaney.

So two of the teams biggest 07 shortcomings have been addressed. There is no
need to set aside money for playoff tickets just yet, but you may actually have
a pro football team worth following this year.

Saunders will energize the Rams offense, with the help of the healing holdovers
and a few key additions through the draft. He ought to revive Marc Bulger,
maximize Steven Jacksons value and add more big-play potential to this attack.

Devaney will pay immediate dividends when the free-agent marketplace opens. Don
t look for the Rams to go crazy in free agency due to the slim pickings and
intense bidding -- but Devaney arrives from Atlanta with great expertise.

After all, the Falcons, like the Rams, need a major overhaul. So Devaney has
spent a LOT of time on potential free agents.

I think it can supplement your team, he said of free agency. Youre not
going to build your team. If you get a starter or two in free agency then I
think youve done a great job.

You just have to prioritize. Free agents are stacked kind of like the college
players. You have your marquee guys. You have different levels of free agents.
Do you go and find just one guy, a premium guy, and take a shot or do you say
Id rather drop down a notch and maybe sign two from level B or just sign
three or four level C players for depth? I think thats what we need to decide
in the next week or so.

Tony Softli will still have big say in the draft, since he has directed
preparations to this point. Devaney worked mostly on pro personnel for the
Falcons, so he needs to get caught up on the 08 draft class.

He knows the Rams cant blow this opportunity. The team needs to land a
potential Pro Bowler with its first pick and another starter with the second
pick. And on the second day, the Rams need to add some additional assets to
upgrade their battered talent base.

It could set you up for a long time if you put a couple of good draft classes
together, or it could really set you back if you miss out, Devaney said. Im
not talking about a player or two. If you have a couple of drafts that really
arent productive, what it forces you to do, and Ive seen this happen, you
start playing catch-up.

You start going the free-agency route and trying to compensate for the lack of
nucleus of young players. You start signing marginal NFL players to compensate
for it. So I think everybody has come to that conclusion. You dont build a
championship team through free agency, its the draft and its a couple of
consecutive drafts together.

Rams fans were hoping to see magic want solutions at Rams Park. They were
hoping for total overhauls.

Instead, there will be change significant, but collaborative change. Saunders
wont lock Linehan out of the offensive meeting room and Devaney wont run
roughshod over his head coach on all personnel matters.

Linehan and Softli will have big says in the draft, as will player personnel
director Lawrence McCutcheon and scout Dick Daniels. During this transitional
ownership phase, Jay Zygmunt should emerge with more overall control of the
franchise -- so he will have a voice as well.

Well put the stacking board together, Devaney said. It wont be Ill come
in and say I dont care what four of you guys say, Im elevating this player.
Well do it together and if there are any disagreements well sit down and we
ll go over all the information again and well get on the same page.

The same goes for free agency, where Linehans evaluation of team strengths and
weakness will be key.

I have some ideas coming in, Devaney said. Ill sit down with the coaches
and get their input, what they view as the major needs. I know the players that
are available so that part will be easy. Its not going to be the case where I
come and say, I disagree. I think youre in great shape here at a certain
position. Im going to lean on them heavily and trust their judgment. I think
what Ill be able to do, besides the people here that already had the
evaluation, Ill just be another voice and another opinion on the free agents
that are available.

Can these guys really make it work? Devaney, a NFL long-timer, has learned how
to navigate. He has the confidence of John Shaw and Zygmunt and the respect of
Linehan.

His transition should be smooth and fruitful. Soon, the Rams will start using
all available means to upgrade their roster and raise expectations for next
season.

This isnt like this is a rebuilding process or its going to take a couple of
years to get things up and running, Devaney said. I really feel strongly that
there are a lot of pieces in place. And again, with the injured players back
and if we add a couple of people in free agency and knock it out in the draft I
love our chances.

Well, its a start . . .