Rams in unfamiliar spot: middle of draft

BY JIM THOMAS
Thursday, January 6, 2011 12:20 am

No matter where the Rams finish in the standings, this always is a busy time and exciting time for general manager Billy Devaney and the personnel department. Even so, after coming so close to a division title and a playoff berth, the season's sudden end was a jolt to the system.

"I sit up in my office and I look out on the practice field, and I'm thinking at this time last week we're geeked up, we're playing, we're practicing, guys are joking around," Devaney said Wednesday.

And now?

"It's awful coming in," he said. "It's quiet. The building's quiet. The silence is deafening."

But with the Rams' offseason now underway, the good news is that at least Devaney doesn't have to worry about picking No. 1 or No. 2 as has been the case the past three drafts.

"It's great, because you're not going to ask me every day who we're taking," Devaney teased. "Who we're thinking about. Because we don't have any idea."

Actually, Devaney already has a little bit of an idea even this early in the pre-draft process. (Not that he's telling.) The Rams held their first round of draft meetings last month, well before the regular season ended.

"About 3-4 weeks ago, we put our tentative (draft) board up and started the process," Devaney said. "We're lining up East-West and Senior Bowl (college all-star game) trips. I mean, it is full go. That is the beauty of this thing. There isn't any down time. You just go."

That's true even with the uncertainty of the NFL labor situation. Those in the personnel department are proceeding full speed ahead; that's the only way they can approach it.

"We go over every draftable player right now by position and what needs to be done (in evaluating that player) between now and the draft," Devaney said. "What concerns there are. We have all sorts of symbols. The guy may have a medical concern. Maybe a character concern. Maybe a learning concern. Work ethic.

"Whatever questions that the scouts have picked up. 'Is this guy a bad character guy or did he just mess up a little bit? Is it something that we really need to dig into?' We started that process. Not necessarily putting grades on 'em, but it gives us a plan (as to) what we need to find out about these guys."

Just like every other NFL team, the draft list isn't complete because underclassmen still have time to declare for the draft.

"The juniors (and third-year sophomores) as they come out now, we have tapes being sent out to our scouts at home," Devaney said. "We haven't done a lot of work on the juniors until they declare."

Devaney and the scouting staff also will start to determine which draft prospects they want the coaches to see.

"These are the important guys," Devaney said. "We'll narrow it down by position. Obviously, Dick Curl, the quarterbacks coach, he's not going to go out to look at the early, the top-rated quarterbacks. So it's that kind of stuff. Just kind of getting a blueprint."

But it's a different kind of blueprint, and different kind of challenge, when you're drafting in the middle of the round as opposed to picking No. 1 overall. The Rams pick No. 14 in this year's draft.

A few weeks ago at an NFL owners meeting, Devaney ran into his Carolina counterpart, Panthers general manager Marty Hurney.

"I said, 'Marty, pray you don't get that No. 1 pick,' " Devaney said. "From the time the season is over, it's 'OK, you're on the clock, who you taking?'''

Carolina ended in the top slot.

"And picking that high — 1 or 2 — it means you had pretty bad years,'' Devaney said. "And we've had some pretty bad years. So it feels nice not to be in that category. Now, we'd much rather be picking lower (than 14th) and that's what's going to be our whole focus this offseason."

Strategically, when you're picking first, you don't have to worry about anybody else. And picking second, you only have to worry about the one team ahead of you, or the possibility of someone trading up to that spot.

But at No. 14, there are tons of variables and 13 other teams to worry about. You have to be ready to go in a lot of different directions, depending on what happens ahead of you.

"Wide open," Devaney said. "You won't be able to target anybody at 14. You just have to be prepared for every scenario. We'll have a general idea of who'll be there at 14, but there'll be a shocker or two (ahead of the Rams) to throw the whole thing out of whack."

Each draft has its own personality, and the personality of the 2011 draft has yet to take shape, particularly because all the underclassmen have yet to declare. For example:

"Last year, there were like three guys talked about (at the top), with the two defensive tackles and the quarterback," Devaney said.

That would be quarterback Sam Bradford, chosen first by the Rams; defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, taken second by Detroit; and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, taken third by Tampa Bay. How many players will be in that first group —the top tier — this time?

"This year, there may be five guys, there may be one guy," Devaney said. "We're not even close to that point. So once that's established, it's usually the top tier guys, and then a line."

The Rams, then, will be dealing with the second tier. Or maybe even a third tier if you draw another line after, say, the 12th pick. In either case, how big will that group of available players be at No. 14 — and how talented?

The Rams are about to find out.

Two ARE signed

The Rams signed linebacker Curtis Johnson and running back Chauncey Washington to "futures" contracts, in other words to their offseason roster.

Washington spent three games in 2010 on the Rams' active roster, appearing in one game, and spent the final 10 games on the practice squad.

Johnson was on the active roster for three weeks but did not appear in any games and was on the practice squad for 12 weeks.