Sunday, April 23, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

With one minicamp knocked out and two to go, the Rams can now turn their attention to the next phase in what coach Scott Linehan likes to refer to as a new era in St. Louis football.

That phase is one of the most important pieces in any team’s offseason: the NFL Draft. The draft is set to begin Saturday and teams around the league are now making their final preparations.

Armed with the 11th pick in the first round and nine total selections, the Rams now face the task of finding a way to make their needs fit the value of their picks. That process begins now.

“You always want to take the best players,” Linehan said. “The draft is about getting players, regardless of how deep you are at a position; it’s hard to find players. There are certain ways you evaluate players based on ability, based on production, all those things come into it. At some point, if you set your board right, you’re able to address both.”

This weekend’s minicamp was an opportunity for the coaches and players to get to know each other, but it was much more than that for the coaching staff. Teams that add new coaches are allowed an extra minicamp so as to get acquainted with the returning players and staff.

For the Linehan and Co., it was an opportunity to get a first-hand look at the talent on the roster and evaluate where the biggest holes might be. Then, when the team is making some of its selections next weekend, it knows where the greatest needs are and who could fill those needs.

Generally, that won’t have an impact on what happens in the first round, but it could later on according to Linehan.

“I don’t think it will affect us in the first round, second round,” Linehan said. “I think it might affect us where we think we are good as far as depth. When you get in those later rounds you have a tendency to take the best player, but you have a real tendency to look at that side of the board to bolster your team. That probably does more to help us in the end of the draft than the initial, first couple of rounds.”

Using linebacker as an example, Linehan said he has gotten a better grasp of what’s what during this minicamp. For instance, he knows that Brandon Chillar and Raonall Smith are his top two candidates for the starting SAM linebacker position. Without indicating his thoughts on the legitimacy of those candidates, Linehan was able to watch and evaluate those players to see just how much better an A.J. Hawk or Chad Greenway would be.

On Saturday night, Linehan and staff sat for three hours evaluating the current roster to get a better handle on the talent already in place.

“There were some really good surprises in this camp as far as guys that may have had a question mark that we now feel better about than when we started camp,” Linehan said. “There are also a few areas of concern as far as our depth, that we’re going to have to address at some point in this draft or free agency. We haven’t put our roster together yet; we haven’t started our final training camp, so there’s a few more things that can still be done before it’s all over, just to make sure our roster’s where we think we need it to be.”

As far as the draft is concerned, the Rams are still in the process of finalizing their draft board. Linehan said the team has stacked the general ideas of where certain players might go in the first four rounds, but has yet to stack its board specifically. That will happen in the next couple of days and then the Rams can begin to play out the many scenarios and how they will react to what happens.

Many draftniks and wanna be draftniks are calling this year’s go around an eight or nine person draft. In other words, teams picking at No. 11 are probably not going to get a great player. But Linehan said he doesn’t quite see it that way and there’s no accounting for what teams in front of the Rams might do.

“They probably say that every year,” Linehan said. “I never really understood that. When we get to 11, ten players would have been drafted so it will be an 11-player draft when we get there. Someone will pick 10 and we will pick 11 if nothing changes. We won’t cash it in because the eighth player goes in the draft.”

That said, it is pretty clear that there is strength at the top and the bottom and maybe a little bit of a soft spot at the end. Plenty of people are proponents of trading down and grabbing an extra pick or two.

“We’ll look at any possibility,” Linehan said. “One thing that I’ve learned, and I learned this from (President) Jay (Zygmunt), and I think Jay has been around this business as much as anybody in this league, it’s not so much about the picks, it’s about the player. If you can get a player for two picks, that is the way that you want to go.

“So, if we can get the player at the pick we have, then that is what we are going to do. If there is a reason to trade back or if we can get the player, or think we can or we have the ability to, it takes two to trade, so to say that you are going to trade back doesn’t mean anything because it takes two to get that done anyway, so those possibilities never come up until just about the time that you are about ready to make your pick. Nobody is showing their hand right now. That is going to be our philosophy.”

And that is the same philosophy the team will use to evaluate whether to trade up to land a Hawk, tight end Vernon Davis, Texas defensive back Michael Huff or any of the other top players.

“You have to look at it logically and say, is there a player worth moving up and giving away depth in your draft, and that could include picks or giving away players on your team,” Linehan said. “Obviously when you trade, you have to give something to get something, so we will make that same assessment. Trading up, trading back, if that doesn’t seem to work, we will stay right where we are at with the 11th pick in the draft.”

Without naming names, Linehan said there are players worth trading up to get in this year’s pool. That list likely includes Hawk, Davis and Huff, among others, but Linehan wants to be realistic about the possibilities, too.

“This isn’t fantasy football,” Linehan said. “It’s still about making a good decision. We all want to have the Reggie Bush’s of the world on our football team, but it’s not reality.”

One area that might not necessarily be a need, but has become a hot topic is the issue of drafting a quarterback in the first round. The Rams appear set at the position with Marc Bulger, Gus Frerotte, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jeff Smoker on hand, but that could change should any of the top three – Vanderbilt’s Jay Cutler, USC’s Matt Leinart and Texas’ Vince Young – fall to the Rams at No. 11.

St. Louis is sending offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier to Houston tonight to meet with Young and get a better feel for what he’s about. It’s unlikely that any of those top three will be on the board, with the possible exception of Cutler, when the Rams make their selection.

Even with needs all over the defense, Linehan said the Rams will make that move on a signal caller should the opportunity arise and it makes sense in terms of the draft board.

“If you look at the group of quarterbacks that are there, and there are some other ones, but I think that it is obvious that it is three that are worthy of picking, because it is still about the player,” Linehan said. “Whether you like it or not, or if it makes sense on paper, it’s hard to get your hands on players that can be great in this business. We feel strongly enough about one of those guys and if he’s there and falls wherever he falls, I think that it is a big possibility that we’ll take one. I’m not just saying that as a smoke screen, they are what they are and you can’t deny that.”