Good crop at DE could push Rams to pick one

BY JIM THOMAS
Monday, February 28, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS • It's the year of the defensive end in the NFL draft, with eight or nine projected to go in the first round. That leaves the Rams with plenty of options at No. 14 overall, including Aldon Smith of Missouri and Adrian Clayborn of Iowa (and Webster Groves High).

The hallmark of Steve Spagnuolo's defenses as coordinator with the New York Giants was a stable of pass-rushing ends. He popularized the concept of playing four defensive ends on passing downs and has used the same concept in St. Louis but with less success since the Rams don't have as much overall talent at end.

So even with starters Chris Long and James Hall returning after strong 2010 seasons, the Rams could very well go DE in the first round, particularly if wide receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones are both gone, as expected.

Clayborn (6-2, 281) has the size and versatility to perform in that Spagnuolo role of playing end on "regular" downs and moving inside on passing downs.

"I can play a regular 4-3 defensive end," Clayborn said. "I can play a 3-technique (tackle) in a 4-3. I can play a '5-tech' (end) in the 3-4."

Then he jokingly added, "Lose a lot of weight, and I can play outside linebacker. It doesn't matter."

But seriously. "There's a lot of defensive ends in this class, so having a range of positions that you can play is definitely going to help me out," Clayborn said.

Meanwhile, Smith (6-4, 264) is an edge rusher as a 4-3 end who some 3-4 teams are considering as an outside linebacker.

"Aldon, he's a freak," Mizzou quarterback Blaine Gabbert said. "I've known Aldon since high school. I've seen the transition he's made coming from a 220-pound D-end out of Kansas City, and now he's close to 270 pounds. And just seeing him play on the football field is pretty special. The things he can do for how big he is — it's pretty crazy to watch."

Smith set the Missouri single-season record for sacks in 2009 with 11 1/2. A broken fibula in his right leg last season caused Smith to miss three games and limited him much of the year. He posted a modest 5 1/2 sacks.

Keep in mind, Smith bypassed his final two seasons of eligibility at Mizzou, so he's only 21. He has rare burst off the line of scrimmage, and as long as teams are convinced he's over the leg injury, he could shoot up draft boards with strong workouts today at the NFL scouting combine, and March 17 at Mizzou's pro day.

"The leg's fine," Smith said. "I got some X-rays (Saturday) actually. This is the first time I've seen my leg (on an X-ray) since I was back in school, and it looked real good to me and the doctors."

So Smith knows how to read X-rays?

"A little bit," he said, laughing. "I've been in enough of them."

Smith got a lot of questions from teams — and team medical officials — about the injury. "Yeah, they all thought it was an ankle, because I guess they thought it was lower, and that's what was X-rayed at first," Smith said. "But other than that, it wasn't a big deal."

Smith isn't a late bloomer in football, just a late starter. Basketball was his game growing up, and he didn't start playing organized football until his junior year at Raytown High in Kansas City.

Smith got an early hint about his pass-rush ability after his first sack for Raytown. "My coach pulled me aside after my first game and just told me that I had a little special ability," Smith recalled.

More than a little. Smith will have to build up his strength and work on his run-stopping ability to be an every-down player in the NFL. But former Ram Leonard Little had a similar build coming out of college and over time became surprisingly good against the run.

With such a strong defensive end class, what can Smith do to separate himself?

"Be myself," Smith said. "Just show off my athleticism. Everybody's talented in different ways, and I think the thing that separates me is just being athletic."

Smith hopes to run in the 4.6s or 4.7s in the 40-yard dash today. No fewer than 28 teams have requested formal interviews with him at combine.

Clayborn, meanwhile, is facing a few questions this week. For one, why did his production fall from 20 tackles for loss and 11½ sacks as a junior, to seven tackles for loss and just 3½ sacks as a senior in 2010?

"Just double-teams and triple-teams," Clayborn said. "And tight ends chipping me and running backs chipping me. It was a lot of different stuff going on. Frustration at the beginning of the season; not knowing how to take on that type of stuff."

Clayborn also has gotten lots of questions about a nerve condition he has known as Erb's palsy.

"I have heard that too much this weekend," he said. "It's something that happened at birth. It's nerve damage in my right shoulder. It's not a big deal. I've been playing with it since I was in seventh grade.

"Of course the teams are going to try to see what it's all about….Most of the teams have been saying it's incredible that you've been playing through it, and it's nothing, really."

Scouting combine medical examinations are notoriously thorough, and Clayborn ended up getting an MRI to check out the shoulder. The combine has been fun, Clayborn said, "Minus the MRI machine. I never want to do that again."

All the poking and prodding on the shoulder may explain why Clayborn is waiting until Iowa's pro day March 21 to do the bench press.

"I'm just waiting so I can be stronger — just like you," he teased a reporter.

Despite the decline in production in 2010, Clayborn still has good quickness for his size. Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, one of the top offensive tackles in the draft, calls Clayborn the best player he faced in college. How so?

"His initial burst," Carimi said. "He just has uncanny initial burst that no else really has."

Make no mistake, the Rams have taken notice. When asked what kind of feedback he has gotten so far from the Rams, Clayborn said, "Just talking. I think they like me, but we'll see. It's a long process."