By Bryan Burwell
Sunday, Apr. 20 2008

With less than a week to go, the intentional subterfuge and accidental
confusion at the top of the NFL draft is to the point of whimsy, with a
delicious twist of absurdity. When Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland
made what he said was a harmless slip of the tongue during a Thursday pre-draft
news conference, his words shook up the pro football world with the force of a
Wabash Valley temblor.

Owner of the No. 1 overall pick in next Saturday's first round, Ireland began
describing what he was looking for. "This guy is going to be ... you hope he's
a pillar of your defense for a long time."

''Defense?'' one of the reporters said.

''What's that?" Ireland replied. ''What did I say?''

''Pillar of your defense?'' someone else said.

Ireland laughed uncomfortably and called it a Freudian slip. Yet now his words
were flashing all over the airwaves and Internet, and it spawned seismic
reactions across the NFL landscape. Everyone had a theory. Some less adventurous souls believed Ireland
accidentally tipped the Dolphins' hand. Conspiracy theorists were convinced it
was another purposeful bit of brilliant misdirection.

So because I have one of those conspiracy-theorist minds, it didn't take long
for me to be stricken by the same overactive suspicious virus. So I went back
and decided to dissect every second of my most recently taped conversation with
Rams vice president Billy Devaney.

Had Devaney accidentally offered some subliminal hint to me about the Rams'
intentions at the No. 2 pick that I'd simply overlooked? Fortunately, for my
own sanity, I decided to delve into the Rams' drafting past to get a better
understanding of what lurks ahead. We often talk about how foolish it is to
pass out grades to a franchise on the day after the draft, because no one knows
anything about how good or bad an individual draft class will be immediately.
It takes time to see how well teams do on draft day. It also takes time to see
a pattern develop.

So I decided to compare the last eight years of the Rams franchise against the
New England Patriots. Since 2000, the Rams and Patriots have both made it to
multiple Super Bowls (Rams twice, Patriots four times). They have both selected
the majority of their first-round picks near the end of the first round (the
average first-round draft position for St. Louis was 20.6; the average
first-round slot for the Patriots was 21.2).

Back in the spring of 2000, the Rams were coming off a victory in Super Bowl
XXXIV. They had a new offensive genius taking over the helm in Mike Martz, and
everyone expected the success to go on forever. Or so we thought. Meanwhile,
the Patriots were coming off an 8-8 season, and a defensive genius named Bill
Belichick was taking over in New England in his first year.

Since then, the Patriots have experienced only one losing season and seven
consecutive winning seasons, and have reached the Super Bowl four times and won
it three times, while the Rams disintegrated from Super Bowl champs to a 3-13
mess. So what went so wrong for the Rams and so right for the Patriots?

A good place to start is examining how both franchises fared in the NFL draft.
In the eight years since that first Super Bowl appearance, the Rams have
drafted 71 players. Of those 71, 22 remain on the current roster. However,
those eight drafts have produced only eight starters (not including long
snapper Chris Massey) and just one Pro Bowl player (Steven Jackson).

Meanwhile, the Patriots have drafted 70 players and retained 23 draft picks on
their current roster. However, there is a dramatic difference in the success
rate of the Rams' draft picks and the Patriots'. New England produced 13
starters and three Pro Bowl players (Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, plus recently
departed free agent Assante Samuel). Only Seymour was a first-rounder, with
Samuel coming in the fourth round and Brady in the sixth.

It hardly mattered what position they chose, the Rams proved they could fail up
high (Jimmy Kennedy was the 12th player selected in 2003 and is now on his
fourth NFL team) or down low (Trung Canidate, selected 31st in 2000, is out of
the league). The Patriots hit successfully high (Seymour was the sixth overall
pick in 2001) and low (32nd overall selections Logan Mankins in 2005 and
Benjamin Watson in 2004 were both key starters on the '07 AFC champs).

That has to change. The scrutiny will be on the revamped Rams front office to
alter that history. I honestly don't care if they take Chris Long, Jake Long,
Glenn Dorsey or trade the pick for greater value. I just want to be able to
trust that whatever move they make is the right one. I just hope this new
regime can alter that ugly past.