Sunday, April 26, 2009
By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer
For any team entering the NFL Draft, the ultimate goal is for the value of the players taken to meet the needs of the team heading into the next season.
And after two days of exhaustive drafting, the Rams believe they did that as well as possible.
After seven rounds, the Rams stood pat on all of their draft picks and came out with seven players they believe fit the mold of what they are looking for and fill the needs they had on both sides of the ball.
Each player selected filled a different spot, also, as the Rams took seven players from seven positions though general manager Billy Devaney said that was just the way things fell.
“We were hell bent on taking good players that were going to be part of this process,” Devaney said. “It wasn’t a case of we have to have one receiver, we have to have a quarterback, we have to take a tackle. It wasn’t anything like that at all. We are like 31 other teams. We are pleased with the way it went. We missed on some guys. It never goes perfect. That happens. For the most part, it went according to plan and overall we are really happy. Now we have to see if these guys can play.”
The Rams kicked it off by filling their biggest need with a big man. After a long internal debate, the team opted for Baylor tackle Jason Smith with the second overall pick in the draft.
Smith will be tasked with filling the large shoes left behind by recently released mainstay Orlando Pace.
Although in the interim Smith might start out at right tackle with Alex Barron on the left side, Smith eventually projects to the left side where the team hopes he can be like Pace and hold down the position for a decade plus.
“It’s like any other team that you put together,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “You get them in here. We’ll do what’s best. You have to give us a little time to get him a helmet and pads first but we’ll work that all out. It gives us a little bit of versatility and gives us another quality player at the offensive line position.

“Anything is possible. We’ll use the versatility of him and some of the other guys but that’s viable.”
For his part, Smith has no fear of stepping into what he figures are a large pair of shoes left behind by Pace. Smith was widely considered the best tackle in the draft and his aggressive, physical style on the field combined with his hard working, charismatic attitude made him a good fit for what the Rams are hoping to build.
“Well obviously Orlando Pace was a great tackle,” Smith said. “He was drafted high. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler. And he’s a grown man. To this day, he is still a great tackle. He wears probably a size 18 and I wear a 14. He had his shoes, I have to make mine.”
With the need for a tackle filled, the Rams turned their attention to finding a linebacker or wide receiver in the second round. After a run on receivers that saw plenty of the top wideouts come off the board, the Rams turned their attention to finding a middle linebacker.
With plenty of talented players on the board, the Rams zeroed in on Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis.
Laurinaitis was one of the most productive linebackers in college football history for the Buckeyes, winning the Butkus Award as the nation’s best at his position as a junior.
In 51 games in Columbus, Laurinaitis started the final 39 and finished with 375 tackles, 13 sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
Laurinaitis played in the middle for most of his time in Columbus and is likely to step into that role for the Rams.
“To me, he is a middle linebacker and that’s where he’ll line up,” Spagnuolo said. “We have a good group of linebackers there now. We’ll get him out there and get to work this weekend and we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
Heading into the draft, the Rams had Chris Draft penciled in as the middle linebacker with Pisa Tinoisamoa and Will Witherspoon on his flank.
Laurinaitis played some on the weak side at Ohio State but says he is most comfortable in the middle where he can be a leader and positive influence on his teammates.
“I love playing the middle,” Laurinaitis said. “I think middle is a thing I succeed at pretty regularly and it’s just where I’ve been comfortable the last three years. I’ve played “Mike” and I’m used to it and if that’s where Coach wants to put me then that’s where I’ll be absolutely happy to play.”
At the outset of the second day, Devaney says the board begins to fall apart and every team has a different idea on where they have players graded. With the second pick of the third round, the Rams stayed with defensive players from the Big 10 in taking cornerback Bradley Fletcher of Iowa.
Fletcher is a big corner at a shade over 6 foot and 196 pounds. Fletcher really boosted his stock with a strong performance in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina and followed with a very strong week at the East-West Shrine game.
And though he didn’t become a full time starter until his senior season, Spagnuolo and Devaney believe he is a good fit for what the Rams are trying to do defensively.
“We felt strongly about that,” Spagnuolo said. “He played behind a pretty good (player) two years ago and he actually started four games in there. And he has started games all the way through. He started games as a sophomore. He started them as a junior. And then he surfaced this year. It’s just like Billy said, when you put on the tape, he fits well for what we’re going to ask those guys to do. That was the biggest thing.”
Despite speculation that he could work at safety, the Rams view him strictly as a corner in St. Louis.
In the immediate term, Fletcher will get a chance to compete with the likes of Justin King, Jonathan Wade an others for his spot on the depth chart.
Like Spagnuolo, Fletcher believes he is only scratching the surface on his potential as he sports a resume much like the one Ron Bartell possessed when he arrived in St. Louis.
“I feel that I have my best football ahead of me right now and I’m looking forward to showing that on the field,” Fletcher said.
After addressing the secondary in the third round, the Rams moved to find some help up front in the fourth as they grabbed Clemson defensive tackle Darell Scott.
Scott fills the need for a big body in the middle of the defensive line. At 6’4, 312 pounds, scouts believe Scott has room to add 10 to 15 pounds to his frame to potentially fill the void as a run stuffing nose tackle.
Despite his potential to step in as a nose tackle, Devaney says Fletcher has the ability to play either spot inside because of his athleticism.
“For somebody that is 320 pounds, he does have some pass rush ability,” Devaney said. “He’s got a knack for rushing the passer. Again, he’s going to put himself in the mix. I think we kind of like the idea of having wave players on the defensive line where you can roll those guys in and out. The big guys go and it’s nice to have there or four that you can rotate in there and we see this guy as being a part of that rotation.”
Before choosing Scott, the Rams didn’t have much in the way of bodies to form a rotation with just Adam Carriker and Clifton Ryan as tackles with experience in the league.
As a sophomore and junior, Scott averaged 50 tackles and four sacks per season. Scott was a three-year starter at nose tackle for the Tigers, getting 38 starts at the position in his career. He recorded 161 tackles with nine sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in his career.
Before his senior season, Scott had hopes of being a high draft pick but says an injury limited him and hurt his stock.
“I had a knee sprain early on in the season, but, yeah, it wasn’t the season that I had hoped for,” Scott said. “But we had a young group of guys and I was forced to take a lot bigger role than I had previously, so it was okay though.”
The Rams finally addressed the need for help at receiver in the fifth round when they drafted one from North Carolina. Of course, it wasn’t the one many expected as they opted for Brooks Foster with Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate long gone at that point in the draft.
It was fitting that those two went before Foster because they were the ones who directly affected his draft status by being so productive ahead of him on the depth chart for the Tar Heels.
“They had two first round players,” Devaney said. “I forget where Tate went, I don’t think it was the first round. I think it was more because of injury but if he wasn’t hurt he probably would have gone before Nicks. To be the third receiver on a team with two-first round picks, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Foster is coming off a knee injury he suffered during the season. He played through the injury and had surgery after the season finale against Duke. According to Foster, the injury is fully healed and he is back to full speed.
At his best, Foster says he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds but his listed time is closer to 4.47. In addition, Foster set the team receiver record in the bench press (405 pounds) and power clean (353 pounds).
All told, Foster finished his career with 97 catches for 1,237 yards and six touchdowns, numbers that aren’t too bad for someone who went through as much as he did in Chapel Hill.
“Being that I had four or five different quarterbacks and four or five different offensive coordinators and stuff like that kind of affected me,” Foster said. “But I don’t even worry about that. That’s just the past now. I’m looking towards the future. I’m just ready to roll.”
In St. Louis, Foster will be given every opportunity to step in and make a difference. The Rams don’t have a lot of depth at the position behind youngsters Keenan Burton, Donnie Avery and Laurent Robinson so a strong offseason could land Foster immediate playing time.
Along the way, Foster is sure to get the opportunity to catch plenty of passes from the team’s sixth round pick. In that round, the team grabbed a developmental signal caller, drafting a quarterback for the first time since taking Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2005 when it selected West Texas A&M’s Keith Null.
Null spent his first two seasons at West Texas A&M as a backup to Dalton Bell before moving into the starting lineup as a junior. There, he worked under the tutelage of former No. 2 overall pick Ryan Leaf, whom Null credits with helping in his development.
“Coach Leaf is a great guy,” Null said. “He just knows the game. As everyone knows he tore it up in college. To have him around and have that experience, he really taught me a lot. It was great to have somebody who had done it.”
Null has good size at 6’3, 220 pounds and has a strong arm according to the scouts that have seen him play. He compiled big statistics in college but drew the attention of some teams for his performance at the Cactus Bowl, the Division II all star game.
“He had a heck of a game in the Cactus Bowl,” Devaney said. “We try to measure him against better competition and it’s not the Senior Bowl but it’s still pretty good draftable players.”
In the final round, the Rams added another piece to the offensive backfield when they grabbed slashing running back Chris Ogbonnaya of Texas.
Running backs coach Sylvester Croom began campaigning for Ogbonnaya around the fifth round and eventually got his wish.
“He’s a physical, slashing runner,” Devaney said. “He’ll fit what we are trying to do. He’s a downhill, power kind of guy.”
In 2008, Ogbonnaya posted 73 carries for 373 yards and four touchdowns with 46 catches for 540 yards and three touchdowns. In three seasons before that, Ogbonnaya had just 66 carries while serving as the backup to Jamaal Charles.
Ogbonnaya will step into a situation where he can compete with other backs for a spot on the depth chart. Behind starter Steven Jackson, the Rams have Antonio Pittman, Brian Leonard, Samkon Gado and Kenneth Darby.
Now, the Rams will turn their attention to filling out the roster with undrafted free agents and will continue to keep their eye open for potential help from the veteran free agent market.
“After the college guys are signed, we go back to the pro personnel side again and just start watching the waiver wire and go through it,” Devaney said.