STRAUSS: NFL draft figures to be volatile this year
• Joe Strauss
Anyone who claims to know how the Rams will navigate the early rounds of this week’s NFL draft is pulling on your lower extremity.
Truth to tell, the Rams don’t know, which in a perverse way is a good thing.
As recently as last spring the Rams helped establish the tone for the draft. The privilege typically falls to organizations that have demonstrated ineptitude during the regular season. The prerequisite makes the Rams the closest thing to a trendsetter for most of the last decade.
The Rams’ reward for a 7-8-1 season and a welcome brush with relevance comes in part with the 16th and 22nd overall selections. Given the NFL’s ability to manufacture suspense — yes, NFL Network devoted three breathless hours to “analyzing” the 2013 schedule — general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher might not exercise both first-round selections before Thursday evening’s late local news. (Insert glass half-full comment here.) This is very strange. It’s as if St. Louis actually enjoys a real, live pro football franchise.
The Rams were good enough last season to flirt with .500 and to defeat their conference’s champion but they remain far enough removed from elite status to retain a basket of needs on both sides of the ball.
Thursday’s backdrop is potentially the most volatile draft in recent memory. The perceived absence of a franchise quarterback and a paucity of signature receivers and running backs create the look of a low-gloss pool. There might exist better value in picks Nos. 15-50 than at the top of the board.
This is good news for the locals.
The Earth City cabal has held to mature, long-range thinking.
In many ways this represents Year 2 of a three-year plan required to address a roster pitifully thin when Fisher arrived. The Rams still require broad strokes more than a surgeon’s knife to remedy lacking depth.
The Rams prefaced the draft by signing versatile free-agent tight end Jared Cook and a former No. 1 pick, left tackle Jake Long.
So far, so better.
As one Rams mover and shaker emphasized before free agency, “Our key number is 25.” The Rams ranked 25th in the league in offense last season compared to 10th on defense.
Thursday may offer the Rams little offensive star power while allowing several avenues to improvement.
One can cite needs at safety, wide receiver, outside linebacker, left guard and for a “big back” and not be wrong.
A regime that found four starters after trading last year’s No. 2 overall pick to the Washington Redskins can reasonably expect to repeat its 2012 success.
Snead scored well drafting small-school talent last year. The new administration also deftly navigated the transition from coach Steve Spagnuolo’s Four Pillars approach to drafting Tuesday’s child. Last year’s road map included productive stops at Appalachian State, Montana, North Alabama, Missouri Western and Abilene Christian. One suspects this draft will feature more talent from larger programs. But it need not involve an immediate lurch toward a skill position.
Do the Rams still need a difference-making wideout? Well, does Fisher speak in monotone?
Will they acquire one (a wideout, not a monotone) Thursday? Well, West Virginia’s smurf-like Tavon Austin would work nicely but it’s unlikely he’ll be available at No. 16. Team sources insist they won’t reach to address the need. Trading down seems far more likely than moving up the board.
Yes, the Rams’ receiver situation has become the equal to the Cardinals’ search for a long-term shortstop and the Blues’ 40 years in the desert without a signature goalie.
Yes, the Rams last season failed to place a receiver among the league’s top 50 in yardage. Danny Amendola ranked No. 40 in receptions before taking his act to New England. Among holdovers, Chris Givens ranked highest, at No. 99 league-wide.
But unless Austin remains available at No. 16, it probably doesn’t make sense for the Rams to invest heavily at a position that often requires a significant learning curve.
With three picks in the first two rounds, there’s flexibility enough for Fisher and Snead to devote the first round to finding more immediate impact. That said, it appears logical that the Rams invest one of their top three selections in a receiver. As of today, they employ only three wide receivers who appeared in a NFL game last season.
This draft is deep in offensive linemen and safeties. The Rams could draft a tackle, slide him to left guard and wait until Roger Saffold plays out his contract at right tackle or is traded. They could commit to Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro.
The Rams did not even scout quarterbacks in preparation for this draft but what happens at the position might heavily influence how they react Thursday night.
If a run on the position (Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel, Matt Barkley, Landry Jones) occurs within the first 15 picks, the Rams might be tempted to trade down with one of their first-round selections. Even if no such run occurs, the temptation still could exist at No. 22.
Do the Rams pursue “big back” Eddie Lacy as the complement to darters Isaiah Peed and Daryl Richardson?
The Rams did invest the 50th overall pick of their last draft on Peed, who averaged 5.4 yards in only 10 rushes.
Richardson averaged 4.8 yards in 98 carries. One gets the vibe that the Rams had little issue with Steven Jackson moving on because of their belief in the younger legs. Lacy might be the draft’s only signature rusher but last year demonstrated that value at the position could be found on Days 2-3. (See: Washington’s Alfred Morris.)
If the Rams are reactive to their environment, investing on defense makes sense as San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson create unique challenges as read-option quarterbacks.
Safety and linebacker make sense within that scenario while delaying offensive gratification until at least Round 2.
It says here that the Rams crafted the blueprint for this year’s draft in 2012, when they exercised four of the draft’s first 50 picks. Indeed, that marked the first time since 2001 the franchise enjoyed more than two of the top 50 selections.
Trading down to gain an additional pick might frustrate those looking for a high-gloss cover. More importantly, the approach again could address more needs for a franchise finally in possession of a big picture.
Unsaid is that 2013 is a means toward 2014. Another season spent consolidating talent should provide the Rams enough traction to challenge within their division, no matter how robust the NFC West.