Monday, April 25, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

Finding an NFL organization that isn’t happy with its draft right now would be an exercise in futility, so everything that is said has to be taken with a grain of salt.

The fact is, nobody can know how this draft class will turn out until years from now. However, one thing that can be determined is how well a team evaluated its needs and proceeded to fill those needs through the draft.

To do this, one doesn’t have to look at the names, rather the positions next to the names. Entering the annual selection meeting, the Rams had some clear examples of what their needs are.

Instead of taking chances on guys at positions that are already filled, St. Louis elected to use its choices on the best players available at the spots where it needed the most help.

Those needs were easy to see heading into the draft. With 11 additions to the roster, St. Louis created depth and competition at a number of formerly shallow positions. Coach Mike Martz said that was the idea.

“Like all of us, without that little push behind you…it’s just very healthy,” Martz said. “It brings intensity. You have got to have competition within the team.”

First and foremost, the Rams needed to fortify their offensive line inside and out. Specifically, St. Louis needed to find a right tackle that it could pair with Pace for the foreseeable future and keep quarterback Marc Bulger upright.

With that in mind, the Rams started the draft with a big bang in the form of Florida State tackle Alex Barron. Martz said Barron should be able to step in right away and start at right tackle, opposite Pro Bowler Orlando Pace.

“We really wanted to get an offensive lineman on the first day, particularly for that right side, it was very important,” Martz said. “This was something that we have always gotten by in the last six years. I didn’t realize how good I would feel after getting that question after all of these years and having these guys in and out. Not only do I think we have a very solid unit, but we have some very substantial players on that second line.”

St. Louis didn’t stop there, electing to build depth behind the starters with two more offensive linemen. While Barron had questions about his intensity, but not his athleticism, the other two have no worries about intensity.

Former Nebraska lineman Richie Incognito and New Mexico’s Claude Terrell were brought in to add depth and competition at guard and tackle. Incognito can play any of the positions along the line, but will probably get a shot at guard and tackle when he returns from knee surgery.

Terrell, who was drafted in the fourth round played three years at guard for the Lobos before finishing at tackle, is probably going to spend most of his time at guard.

No matter where either player lines up, their versatility and attitude has certainly fortified an offensive line that was one of the most hectic and constantly changing in the league last year.

“You’re looking for guys that the toughness and the violent way they play the game because that’s the way it’s played in the NFL obviously,” Martz said. “I think that sometimes you get caught up with great numbers in terms of measurables and speed and vertical jumps and all of that, but it really comes down to how productive they were and how they play the game.”

If the season started today, assuming all are healthy, the depth chart would probably look something like this: Pace at left tackle, Rex Tucker at left guard Andy McCollum at center, Adam Timmerman at right guard and Barron at right tackle. That would leave Scott Tercero, Blaine Saipaia, Larry Turner, Terrell, Incognito and Darnell Alford in competition for backup spots. All of those players can play more than one position on the line, making this a versatile group capable of playing when needed.

Offensive line wasn’t the only need the Rams filled in the draft. At No. 1 or 1A was the need for help in the secondary. St. Louis set out to correct that problem immediately, grabbing cornerback/safety Ronald Bartell out of Howard in the second round. The Rams added to that in the third round with safety Oshiomogho Atogwe from Stanford. Finally, St. Louis added Florida State safety Jerome Carter in the fourth round.

Those three additions give the Rams much-needed depth at a spot that was particularly thin at safety. Heading into the draft, Adam Archuleta was the only true safety under contract.

Secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer said there was little doubt the team needed help in the defensive backfield.

“Obviously this is an area of need for us and we have had the ability to acquire a couple of safeties now and of course a big corner,” Schottenheimer said. “We are looking for as much competition as we can find in that secondary. We will probably go to camp with 14 players and I would like to believe that every one of those 14 players has a chance to play in the National Football League.

“We can only keep so many of them and I am not a big believer in just having camp guys. I want guys who have a chance to play in the National Football League and we are acquiring those types of players.”

Now, St. Louis has added the three draftees, Michael Stone and Michael Hawthorne to its stable of defensive backs that included Archuleta, Mike Furrey Jerametrius Butler, Travis Fisher, DeJuan Groce, Kevin Garrett and Dwight Anderson.

Sorting out who plays where will work itself out in training camp, but as it stands it should look something like this: Butler and Fisher as the starting cornerbacks backed up by Bartell, Hawthorne, Groce and Garrett or Anderson. Archuleta is one starting safety with Stone, Atogwe, Hawthorne and Furrey competing for the other.

Martz is pleased with all of the additions to the defensive backfield.

“I feel good,” Martz said. “We have a lot of speed and athleticism there and I think most of these guys are proven tacklers.”

The other area of need was perhaps the most dire of the Rams’ situations. Not so much a position, but a phase of the game, the special teams was one of the worst units in the league last year.

In an effort to improve that area, St. Louis signed Stone and Hawthorne, a pair of defensive backs that have reputations as good special teams players. That trend of adding players who can help on defense and special teams carried over to the draft, especially the defensive backs.

Atogwe, Bartell, Carter, Collins and receiver Dante Ridgeway have special teams skills that will almost certainly be put to use right away. With the second sixth-round choice of the day, St. Louis added punter Reggie Hodges. Hodges will likely compete with incumbent Kevin Stemke for the punter job.

New special teams coach Bob Ligashesky, the other addition to the special teams, said he likes the potential of the newest Rams to help the ailing unit.

“I am extremely excited,” Ligashesky said. “If you watch those guys and the way they run around and the way they play the open field and the passion in which they play, I look forward to those guys contributing to special teams.”

Collins, in particular makes for an intriguing prospect to help on coverage units. The tight end out of Notre Dame impressed tight ends coach Frank Falks with his hustle on coverage enough to get the Rams to trade up in the fifth round to grab him.

“On punt coverage, at 270 pounds, he will be the first one down the field every time and make an open field tackle,” Falks said. “That is a real intriguing thing about him.”

With Furrey’s move to safety making him more likely to suit up every week and the addition of more special teams’ minded players in the secondary, St. Louis should be able to correct the problems of a season ago.

“I think we have upgraded ourselves terrifically in special teams with these guys,” Martz said. “Remember, a backup safety on any team should be the premiere special teams player on your squad and I think these guys can do that.”
It appears the Rams have taken a step in the right direction, but like any draft that remains to be seen.