Burwell: Rams draft may offer Devaney some options

BY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist
Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When allowed to dream their improbable NFL draft fantasies to their fullest, most Rams loyalists imagine the wildest dream of all: somehow Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones will still be on the board when the Rams select at No. 14 in Thursday night's first round.

If that happens, there will be dancing in the streets of the city, as so many folks begin fantasizing of Sam Bradford throwing glorious bombs into the air and Jones racing downfield to haul in these beautiful touchdowns.

I am not that hopeful. I can't think of too many scenarios in which Jones will fall that far down the first round, so I prefer to expect that general manager Billy Devaney will be dealing with a dozen other draft night scenarios that don't involve a big-play receiver and instead leave him considering less glamorous, but equally significant additions, to the green-but-growing Rams.

A year ago, there was little drama and no intrigue as draft day closed in. Devaney and his tag-team partner Steve Spagnuolo had long since made up their minds who they would use to select as the No.1 overall pick in the 2010 draft. As far back as late January at the Super Bowl, Devaney was already zeroing in on Bradford. He had gotten favorable reports about how good Bradford's recovery was going, how healthy his arm was, how much bigger and stronger he had gotten after an off-season of specialized workouts in Florida.

So Devaney sent his scouting sleuths off to various places to dig up as much background information as he possibly could to make sure that there were no skeletons in Bradford's closet. There were none. The kid was checking out with high marks everywhere they looked and by the time they began visiting him to watch his pro day workout at Oklahoma, Devaney and Spagnuolo saw everything they needed to pull the trigger on the most significant draft in recent franchise history.

They had found their franchise quarterback and by the time training camp rolled around, they began to see signs on the field that their hunches were spot-on.

Now one year later, with Bradford's immediate help, the Rams have gone from a 1-15 disaster to a 7-9 work in progress and Devaney is looking to add on more help up and down this draft that is no less significant than a year ago. With the damage from so many bad drafts in the last decade, Devaney still has a lot of work to do. This organization needs to hit more home runs this weekend, and that means finding at least one future Pro Bowl caliber talent and two or three more immediate or future starters.

And when you are drafting at No. 14 in the upper half of this particular draft, you are not quite in range of the players with super-star caliber grades, but certainly in range of countless fascinating scenarios where three or four intriguing (and wildly different) talents could still be on the board. Imagine for a moment the machinations that will go on in the Rams war room on Thursday night if, for example, any combination of these five or six players are still in play at No. 14 ó Julio Jones, Aldon Smith, Mark Ingram, Corey Liuget, Mike Pouncey, Cameron Jordan and Adrian Clayborn?

I already know what the majority of Rams fans would say.

If Jones is there, you draft Jones. Period.

I know what I'd say, too.

The only reason you don't draft Julio Jones if he's still on the board is if A.J. Green is there, too.

But I wonder if the Rams feel this way. Seriously. This is where the intrigue is starting to build. There are enough smoke screens, misdirections and outright lies floating around the closer we get to Thursday night that it is often impossible to find someone telling the truth. But the one thing that I've learned in observing the way things work with Devaney and his crew is that if you listen closely, at some point in the long build-up to the draft, someone will randomly drop in the truth amidst the ocean of misdirection and prevarications.

You're never sure when that gem has been handed to you until the picks are actually announced, so you have to proceed with caution. You spend months measuring the worth of every word uttered and quickly come to understand that there's no such thing as a random or meaningless remark.

So consider this for what it's worth:

Prepare yourself for this unsettling possibility. Regardless of whether Jones miraculously falls down that far, that the Rams will follow the truth of their draft board, popular opinion be damned.

And what does that mean? As mad as this might sound, it means the Rams could have any number of possibilities charted out where they would pass on Jones.

"Honestly, if when we're on the clock and the guy with the highest grade by far is one of those positions, then that's what it would be," Devaney said Tuesday. "But we're certainly not saying we have to come away with one of those guys in the first three rounds. Not even close."

Devaney and everyone else inside the Rams war room knows if as an organization they decide to go with a running back such as Ingram or a defensive lineman such as Smith, Liuget, Jordan or Clayborn and pass on Jones, this could end up as one of the most unpopular decisions in the history of the St. Louis Rams.

I will think they're nuts. You will think they're insane, and we will all scream and shout and lose our minds.

And then I will calm down and realize that it's not my butt on the line and give Devaney a pat on the back for unbelievable guts and tell him I sure as heck hope he's right.

If Devaney is confident enough to make that call when the entire football loving Rams Nation is expecting him to draft a game-breaking wide receiver, the only thing I can do is praise him for the courage of his convictions and remind him that decisions like this are the type that can make a general manager into a personnel genius or an ex-general manager in a hurry.