Rams Have to Tackle This Draft
By Howard Balzer
Friday, April 24, 2009

Everybody has an opinion. And nowhere is that more true than the NFL draft. In baseball, we second-guess the manager because we all think we could make decisions just as good as they do.

In football, we second-guess the talent evaluators because we read a draft book and believe we know as much about picking players as they do. At this time of year, people that have never watched a minute of game tape in their lives scream and yell at the TV set because they believe their team “reached” for someone they never should have picked.

Of course, what emboldens everyone is the inescapable fact that many players selected never live up to the expectations heaped upon them as a first-round pick. And somehow, that means the team picking that player made “a mistake.”

What is overlooked in the unending effort to assess blame is another inescapable fact: The player picked by your favorite team that flopped would have been picked by somebody else. The truth is some players have peaked in college, while others simply don’t have the passion for the game necessary to compete at a high level on a consistent basis.

So it is that the Rams are ready to draft this weekend, the first one with general manager Billy Devaney in charge and with Steve Spagnuolo as head coach. Once again, everyone has an opinion. Many say the Rams have to pick a tackle like Jason Smith because teams are built from the inside out. One of the guys saying the latter consistently has been Spagnuolo. Others want the Rams to select linebacker Aaron Curry. Still others point to wide receivers Michael Crabtree or Jeremy Maclin, or quarterback Mark Sanchez.

What’s somewhat odd are the reasons being given for some of the opinions. There are those that say the Rams shouldn’t pick Smith or Eugene Monroe because they aren’t as good as Orlando Pace was when he was selected No. 1 overall in 1997. How that’s relevant escapes me. Using the same logic, the Rams shouldn’t take Curry because he isn’t as good as Ray Lewis or Lawrence Taylor, or Sanchez because he’s not Peyton Manning.

The reality is that teams can only select the players available. How they compare to other players in the past doesn’t matter. What’s also odd about the infatuation many have with Curry is that the fact he would be switching positions is being ignored. For several years, Rams fans have said the team should move Will Witherspoon from middle linebacker to the outside because he is better on the outside. Yet, somehow it supposedly makes sense to pick Curry second, pay him more than $20 million in guaranteed money, and put him in the middle, a position he didn’t play in college and where he won’t be as good as he would be on the outside.

The other reality is that NFL defenses simply don’t feature 4-3 outside linebackers, and middle linebackers have to be protected by the defensive tackles to be effective. Curry has been pushed to the top of a decidedly mediocre defensive class that is short on pass rushers and top-flight cornerbacks. There’s a reason there has been just one 4-3 linebacker picked in the top three of the last 11 drafts.

As for Sanchez, the chatter in the NFL is that numerous teams have become enamored with him. Maybe it’s warranted. But the risk of taking a quarterback high is enormous and increases when the player is an underclassman. Pat Kirwan, a former NFL executive who now works for Sirius NFL Radio, rated the risk factor at 4 (the worst) for underclassmen quarterbacks, compared to other positions. All three top-rated quarterbacks this year – Sanchez, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman – are underclassmen.

For every high-picked quarterback that makes it, there is one that busts. And, for every Peyton Manning, there is a Tom Brady, who was a sixth-round pick. Mark this down: There will be several quarterbacks selected in this year’s draft from the fifth round on that at some point will play every bit as well as Stafford, Sanchez and Freeman. The challenge is to find them.

Thus, it still comes down to a tackle. The Rams had high-level playmakers from 1999-2001, but would they have been able to do their thing without Pace, and without an offensive line unit that missed a total of seven of a possible 240 regular-season starts in those three seasons?

Currently, the Rams have just two tackles under contract – Alex Barron and Adam Goldberg – not counting street free agents with no experience. There’s a question whether Barron will be back in 2010, so it could be argued the Rams need two tackles, not just one. Those that say pick Curry and take a tackle later have it backward. Last year, there were eight tackles selected in the first round and one 4-3 linebacker. There were no tackles picked in the second round, but the Falcons got a starting middle linebacker, Curtis Lofton, in the second round.

Those first-round tackles started a combined total of 93 games, with Jake Long, Miami; Ryan Clady, Denver and Duane Brown, Houston starting all 16 games. Kansas City’s Branden Albert started 15, Detroit’s Gosder Cherilus started 13 and Carolina’s Jeff Otah started 12. Only injuries kept Albert and Otah off the field, the same for Atlanta’s Sam Baker, who started five games, and Chicago’s Chris Williams, who suffered a back injury early in training camp and failed to start a game.

Albert, by the way, started at left tackle after playing guard in college because teammate Eugene Monroe was the team’s left tackle.

Assuming Devaney can’t entice a team to make an outstanding offer to trade up, Saturday at about 3:20 pm, there is only one way for him to go when the Rams hand in their card and that’s writing down the name of either Smith or Monroe. Ten years from now, we will all still be glad he did.

When the Rams held their pre-draft media conference this past Monday, Devaney did something unusual: He recognized the team’s scouts that were sitting in the auditorium.

He said, “Before I get going, what I’d like to do first is acknowledge some people that are in the room that you may not be familiar with and that’s our player personnel department, both the college scouts and the pro scouts. Please raise your hands so everybody knows where you’re sitting. Many of you know that we’ve kind of shifted gears a little bit this year, changing philosophies regarding the scouts’ involvement in the draft process. What we’ve done is we’ve put greater emphasis on their input and their evaluations and it’s worked out tremendous for us, just as we had hoped. Between the cooperation, the coaching staff, the college scouts and the pro scouts, they’ve done a great job putting us in a position where, right now, we’re pretty close to ready to go.”

In the past, the scouts would submit their reports and then be seen and not heard, having no contribution in the ranking of players and stacking the draft board. That was done by the coaches. That also means the Rams made the head-scratching decision to allow coach Scott Linehan to set the draft rankings when he had just four years of NFL experience as a coach before being hired by the Rams.

Does anything more need to be said?