NFC West: St. Louis Rams
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
But it was interesting to note that when Kiper released his "Grade A" draft, the draft where he made picks based on what he would do rather than team projections, he sent Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins to St. Louis.
Kiper released the fourth edition of his mock draft Thursday morning, projecting picks through the second round, including the Rams' picks at Nos. 2, 13 and 44.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Given the ascension of the big, physical wideout, teams now find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to find defensive backs capable of matching up. The idea is simple: a big receiver is probably going to win the majority of jump balls against smaller corners so the only way to combat that is to find bigger corners.
On Wednesday afternoon, Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold took a closer look at the NFL's need for defensive backs capable of matching up with the bigger, stronger, faster genre of receivers.
The piece quotes St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher multiple times, including his belief that there are far more bigger receivers than bigger corners.
"If you can find the size and the speed, you're always going to take the bigger player in any matchup," Fisher told Legwold. "But in my opinion, the gap between the height-weight-speed characteristics of the receivers and the DBs is widening, so there is even more of a premium on the taller, longer corner. But when you start looking at it, in terms of finding these players, there are more, a lot more, bigger receivers than bigger corners."
Fisher got a closer look at all parties in 2013, including two games against Seattle, the one team in the league known for having bigger, more physical corners. The Rams got almost nothing done in the passing game in two meetings against the Seahawks. On the flip side, the Rams also don't see many of the bigger, physical receivers in the NFC West.
But it raises interesting questions about where the Rams roster is headed and what it has now while so many teams around the league are looking to add this type of player at receiver and corner. The Rams brought in Kenny Britt this offseason presumably because Brian Quick has yet to show he can consistently provide the physical presence the team needs outside the hashes. Having one of those two step up to fill that role would be helpful, especially in the red zone.
At corner, Trumaine Johnson profiles as a bigger corner with length but Janoris Jenkins doesn't. Since drafting Johnson, many have wondered if he'd eventually end up at safety but the Rams have been steadfast in keeping him at corner. It's reasonable to assume a big part of that decision is based on this very topic: It's hard to find bigger corners who can play outside down to down.
A roundup of Wednesday's Rams stories appearing on ESPN.com. ... In the Ram-blings, we took a look at Mike Sando's piece on which quarterbacks in the league would be considered worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. ... In this week's Buzz video, I offered a grade of the Rams' free-agent activity. ... From there, we took a look at the team's salary-cap situation and how they are spending their money on offense. ... Finally, we looked at just how long the odds are for someone to win the $100,000 guess-the-schedule contest the Rams are having.
In conjunction with Legwold's piece above, ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl offers three prospects who fit the mold of big, physical corners in this Insider piece.
Stlouisrams.com profiles Alabama offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio as a potential fit for the Rams.
FoxSports.com looks at the Rams' needs heading into the draft.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Rams were tied with Green Bay and New Orleans as the least active teams in free agency. St. Louis signed just three free agents who played on a different team in 2013, adding quarterback Shaun Hill, defensive lineman Alex Carrington and wide receiver Kenny Britt.
All of those moves came well after the initial, most expensive wave of free agency and none of those deals are longer than a single season. The Rams' biggest move was the one they intended to make all along, signing offensive lineman Rodger Saffold to a lucrative five-year contract extension after his deal with Oakland fell apart for a failed physical.
It's been long-held NFL dogma that the best teams build through the NFL draft rather than spending big in free agency and the Rams made it clear early on that they intended to be patient if not silent in free agency. They followed through on that promise but what's most interesting is the company they kept among the other teams that were least active in the market.
Nine teams added just three or four outside free agents in the first month of free agency. Of those nine teams, only the Rams with their three additions and Dallas (four) did not make the playoffs in 2013. Joining Green Bay and New Orleans on the list, Seattle, San Francisco, New England, Kansas City and Indianapolis each signed only a quartet of players.
It stands to reason that teams who are mostly happy with their rosters and have won plenty of games wouldn't be looking to spend big money in free agency. While Dallas and the Rams' presence on that list could also be attributed to limited salary-cap space, in the Rams' case it's also indicative of a front office and coaching staff that believes in the ability of its young talent to ascend in 2014.
Rams general manager Les Snead has indicated multiple times that the thing his young team needs the most is experience and there's apparently a strong belief that the young talent in place can all take the necessary steps forward to help the Rams improve in 2014. Whether that happens remains to be seen but at least in terms of free agency, that faith in the team's young players clearly isn't just lip service.
In the interest of keeping Rams fans from re-living the nightmares of drafts gone by, we'll limit our look back to drafts where at least one player remains on the roster.
With that, we turn our attention to the 2012 class.
What's left: The first draft class of the Jeff Fisher/Les Snead era, this is the group that, for better or worse, is the foundation of what this regime is hoping to build. So far, the results have been mixed but the Rams have found some pieces that they believe will be long term starters and contributors. From the original group, only Watkins and Brown are no longer on the roster.
Brockers, Jenkins and Johnson remain as projected starters and the Rams seem to have plenty of confidence in their ability to get the job done. Zuerlein looks poised to hold down kicking duties for the long haul.
After a promising rookie season, Givens took a step back in 2013 but still offers potential as a deep threat. Richardson looked ready to become Steven Jackson's replacement as the starting back but injuries prevented that from happening and he tumbled down the depth chart. The jury remains out on Quick and Pead entering their third year but so far they've been disappointments.
Best pick: The Rams rolled the dice a bit when they traded back twice before taking Brockers at No. 14 but so far the pick looks like a good one. An ankle injury slowed Brockers in his first season but he played all 16 games and was instrumental in the team's improved run defense in the final half of the 2013 season. Although he still has work to do as a pass rusher, he posted five and a half sacks despite regular double teams. When the Rams drafted Brockers, they knew they were getting an unfinished product but he looks headed toward reaching that potential.
Worst pick: While Quick hasn't made the strides many hoped he would in his first two seasons, it was at least clear early on that he would take some time. Which makes Pead the choice here. When the team drafted him in the second round, the expectation was that he would be the change of pace for Jackson and potentially his long-term replacement. He fell behind right away, missing the offseason program because of college rules and hasn't been able to get out of his own way since. Richardson claimed the change of pace role for Jackson and then the starting job when Jackson departed. Pead has meanwhile struggled with fumbling issues when he has played and hasn't earned many opportunities. Now, he's been relegated to a special teams role and will likely find himself battling for a roster spot come training camp.
What could have been: Many will point to the Rams passing on Alshon Jeffery in favor of Quick and based on results so far, that's a fair argument. But Jeffery was never really under consideration by the Rams so let's go to a scenario that was in play. Before the draft, the Rams showed interest in linebackers Bobby Wagner and Mychal Kendricks. Both were on the board for the Rams at No. 45 overall. But St. Louis wanted to recoup the fifth-round pick it traded for receiver Brandon Lloyd during the 2011 season. So the Rams made a deal with the Bears, moving down to No. 50 and getting their fifth-round choice in the process. Chicago took Jeffery with that No. 45 pick, Philadelphia selected Kendricks at No. 46 and Wagner went No. 47 to Seattle. Three picks later, the Rams took Pead and used the fifth-round choice on Watkins. Making matters worse, Tampa Bay's star linebacker LaVonte David was still on the board when the Rams picked Pead.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay's fourth 2014 NFL mock draft came out on ESPN Insider today, and though the two-round exercise has a familiar name for the Rams with their first choice, McShay's selection at No. 13 comes as a bit of a surprise.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
The key decision makers of the St. Louis Rams circa 2009 have long since departed but when it comes to the thought of taking a shot on an unfinished product at offensive tackle with the No. 2 overall pick, the bad memories are still fresh enough to make at least some Rams fans cringe.
That was the year the Rams used the No. 2 choice on Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith, a converted tight end coming from a spread offense with a reputation as a ferocious run blocker but a work in progress as a pass protector. Sound familiar?
At least on paper, one can look at Auburn tackle Greg Robinson's scouting report and see a similar description save for the tight end part. The comparison surely won't play in the minds of the Rams' current brain trust, a group that had nothing to do with Smith's selection but it's fair to at least consider the flip side to Robinson's upside.
"To me, if you look at Robinson and having Jason Smith not that long ago come to St. Louis as the second overall pick out of Baylor, is that something that factors in here?" ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "I don’t necessarily think so because I think Robinson comes out as the much better prospect, he’s the consensus No. 2, No. 3 guy in this draft. But does he need a little work before he settles in and becomes a great left tackle? Yes. But that could happen, that light could go on immediately, he’s that good a football player."
Smith lasted three injury-plagued seasons in St. Louis and bounced between the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints before his release left him without a team last August. Many of his problems were tied to an apparent lack of love for the game, a problem scouts say Robinson doesn't have.
As the Rams continue vetting the top three offensive tackles -- a group that includes Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan in addition to Robinson -- they'll have to weigh the downside of each prospect in addition to the potential.
Robinson probably has the highest ceiling of any of the trio but he also might have the lowest floor. In Auburn's offense, Robinson was the most feared run blocker in the college game but rarely had to pass protect. That isn't to say he can't do it, just that he hasn't done it much.
“Robinson, obviously, (is) very athletic," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. "He’s got a tremendous upside, probably has not taken as many snaps in a pro-style offense as Lewan, but very athletic, there’s flexibility, think he could move in and play guard or other tackle as well. It’s going to take him a little more time.’’
Matthews, in many ways, is the opposite. A polished pass protector with experience at both tackle spots, Matthews also comes with the famous bloodlines (he's the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce) that would seem to limit any potential downside he might have. It's unfair to say Matthews has reached his ceiling but he doesn't carry the same size and athleticism combination of Robinson, either.
Fisher coached the elder Matthews in his time with the Oilers/Titans and can see the similarities between the father and son.
"Bruce having played all the positions and having been selected to the Pro Bowl at all the positions, probably one of the more flexible offensive linemen to ever come out," Fisher said. "I think (Jake) has got some similar traits, we haven’t seen Jake play center yet, or guard, but athletically could do both I’m sure.’’
Like Matthews, Lewan also projects as a ready-made tackle capable of stepping in and limiting the risk in terms of his on-field projection. But Lewan will also have to answer some questions about some off-field red flags before the draft.
“(He's) just very well coached, very consistent, finishes plays, he’s what I think, what you see on tape is what I think everybody would look for in that type of tackle,’’ Fisher said.
Since the arrival of Fisher and general manager Les Snead in 2012, the Rams have had no problem choosing players who aren't as polished as other options. Much of that stems from their belief in a veteran coaching staff, but so far that has yielded mixed results. For every Michael Brockers who seems to be trending in the right direction there's a Brian Quick, who the team is still waiting on to produce consistently.
As with all draft prospects, there's no guarantee any of the tackles will pan out.
"Matthews isn’t the talent that Robinson is," Kiper said. "Matthews did have a couple of games in pass protection where he showed he needed a little work at left tackle. Remember he had come over from right tackle. Robinson the same thing. From that offense, he’s going to need a little bit of work but all of the skills are there. You look at Lewan, he’s probably the most ready to be a pure left tackle."
Should the Rams decide to choose one, they'll have to decide whether most ready is more valuable than long-term upside.
Widely regarded as the best player in the draft, there's a strong possibility Clowney will be drafted as such and go to the Houston Texans with the first pick. But there also remains the chance that the Texans will pass on Clowney and select a quarterback No. 1 overall.
It's too early to say which way Houston will go but much of what happens after that pick, especially for the Rams, will hinge on that decision.
In the best-case scenario for the Rams, the Texans would choose a quarterback at No. 1. It wouldn't matter which one would go so long as it leaves Clowney on the board.
"I think it would be much better with Clowney because there is a consensus on Clowney as the best defensive end to come out in years," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "You don’t see a Clowney but maybe every 10, 15, 20 years coming out. And that’s not an exaggeration. So he’s the guy."
First and foremost, if Clowney made it past the first pick, it would give the Rams the option of simply drafting the player that Kiper and most everyone else agrees is the best player in the draft.
While Clowney plays a position where the Rams are loaded with talent like Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims, the Rams and coach Jeff Fisher subscribe to theory that you can never be over saturated with pass-rushers.
The task of finding a way to get Clowney on the field with the other ends might prove difficult at first but it also wouldn't be asking too much. Beyond the first year, there are other factors to consider such as Quinn's coming contract negotiations.
The Rams have showed plenty of interest in Clowney, too. General manager Les Snead and defensive line coach Mike Waufle attended Clowney's pro day last week and Waufle even went so far as putting Clowney through a portion of his workout.
When Clowney was done, he told reporters that he's planning a pre-draft visit to St. Louis and expected to host the team for a private workout in South Carolina.
“I’ve learned over the years you can never have enough pass-rushers," Fisher said. "And I think not only us, but other teams that are in our situation are creative enough to find ways to get him on the field and put him in position to make plays.’’
Perhaps more important to the Rams' cause is that Clowney also represents the player teams would be most likely to move up for in a trade.
The Rams have made it clear they would be open to trading down again and though it's a quarterback that originally netted them the bounty that contained this pick, there isn't one as coveted in this year's draft.
"The quarterbacks -- some like and some don’t," Kiper said. "There’s such mixed opinion on the quarterbacks you are not going to get all these teams clamoring to move up to get a quarterback when you could end up with a bust."
If Clowney does go No. 1, be it to Houston or a team moving up to get him, the Rams would still have their choice of talented players but they'd be less likely to find a trade partner. And, if they did, the Rams would have to be willing to take less in a deal than they would for Clowney.
"If Houston does surprise -- and it would be a surprise -- and does not take him and Clowney gets to 2 then you have Quinn, you have Long and you’re going to have teams like Atlanta, I think, would be the primary one," Kiper said. "But you’d have a lot of other ones, but Atlanta would be the one that makes the most sense to move up and get Clowney from 6 to 2 and you would still be in a great spot for an offensive tackle."
That pick is the final piece of the haul the team received from the Washington Redskins in 2012, and the Rams would undoubtedly like that deal to continue perpetuating itself as long as possible.
But the Rams also need to add some difference makers if they want to keep up in the arms race that is the NFC West. So while a trade down would allow them to add more good players with later picks, it also could prevent them from getting an elite talent if they move down too far.
Which begs the question, if the Rams do find a trade partner, how far can they move while still maintaining the chance at a top talent?
Of course, the quality and rankings of the talent is purely in the eye of the beholder so while one team may see five players separated from the group, another team might see seven, including some that aren't in the other team's top five.
In the 2014 draft, there does seem to be at least a little bit of a consensus forming on who the top players are, though there's room for differences of opinion behind South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who is widely regarded as the No. 1 overall player.
According to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., if the Rams want to walk out of the first night of the draft with an elite talent, they'll need to ensure that any move down still garners one of seven players. Those seven players are Clowney, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans and Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan.
"That’s your super seven," Kiper said. "After that, I don’t see anybody that belongs in that group right now. I don’t think any of the quarterbacks do and I don’t see any other players jumped up that far. So that’s your sensational seven, if you want to say that. Then you’re getting into the range where the eighth guy could be the 18th guy on some boards. To me, the seven are the consensus seven."
Now, just because those are Kiper's seven players doesn't mean the Rams view it that way. There could be more, there could be less. But given their apparent willingness to move down, it's reasonable to conclude that they have a number of players they view as worthy of taking in the top 10 or so of the draft. They've showed at least some level of interest in all seven of the players Kiper mentions.
Beyond that, the Rams have made it clear they have no intention of taking a quarterback in the first round. Which is what makes how other teams view the top quarterbacks the overriding X factor in trying to assess how far the Rams could comfortably trade down to secure one of the top talents.
It'd be easy to say there are seven players you covet and follow with the logic that you can't move any lower than No. 7 to get one. But quarterbacks perpetually complicate projecting the draft. No other position gets over drafted more as teams desperately seek franchise signal-callers at the expense of someone who might be a more sure thing at a less important position.
Of teams picking in the top 10, Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, Minnesota and possibly Tampa Bay could use help at quarterback. So it's possible the Rams could move down a little past that seventh spot.
Still, finding a trade partner, especially if Clowney is off the board, might prove difficult because of that lack of excitement about this year's quarterback prospects. And it's not out of line to say that just because the Rams could move down doesn't mean they should. If indeed there's a super seven, the Rams might be better off taking their pick of the litter than rolling the dice on the player at the bottom of that group.
The league announced the starting dates and all of the organized team activities (OTAs) dates for all 32 teams on Thursday afternoon. Included in that group, of course, is the St. Louis Rams.
Because the NFL allows teams hiring new head coaches to get underway earlier than others, some teams will start their offseason conditioning programs as early as next week. As Jeff Fisher enters his third year as Rams coach, the Rams will have to wait until April 21 to begin the offseason program.
Until OTAs begin, the Rams can do strength and conditioning work. But all teams will have to wait until after the draft to start OTAs, the time when they can actually begin doing the on-field activities most closely resembling a practice.
Here are some key dates of the Rams' offseason program:
First day: April 21
OTA dates: June 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 16, 17, 19, 20
The Rams are getting started on OTAs s little later than other teams, but that's been common practice under Fisher. Fisher prefers to give his rookies a chance to come in, learn how the team wants things done and then mix in with the veterans. So it's safe to assume the rookies will come in soon after the draft and begin getting acclimated, likely with a rookie minicamp mixed in.
Another quirk to Fisher's offseason plan that differs from other teams is the absence of a mandatory full-squad minicamp. In fact, the Rams are the only team in the league without one scheduled.
All offseason work is closed to the public.
They've backed up those words by forgoing any major signings in free agency, only recently adding a trio of players to provide depth at quarterback, defensive tackle and wide receiver.
But with a dozen picks in May's NFL draft, it will be interesting to see just how many of those choices get used or if the Rams again move up and down the board in an effort to end up with more quality than quantity. Those 12 selections are tied for the most of any team in the league.
By the fifth round of the 2013 draft, the Rams had completed their business by selecting running back Zac Stacy. They won't be able to duplicate that this year since they have three compensatory picks, one in Round 6 and two in Round 7. Compensatory picks can't be traded.
It is, however, fair to wonder whether the Rams will want to continue trading down to accumulate more picks if they're as happy with the roster as they say they are.
“You’d like to say you hit on all 12, but when it’s all said and done we may not make 12 selections, we don’t know,’’ Fisher said.
If indeed the Rams do make a trade down or two in the first round, don't be surprised if they also look to aggressively move up in the later rounds. The draft is considered one of the deepest in years and though they can't trade the three late compensatory selections, it would be logical for the Rams to try to package some of those picks together to get another pick in the range of the fourth or-fifth rounds. Barring that, they could also look to move out of some of those late picks in exchange for late picks in future seasons.
That would give the Rams the chance to have an earlier shot at some of the better players available in those rounds while also preventing them from having to try to find a spot for 14 or 15 drafted rookies.
Here's a look at the Rams' picks in this draft:
Round 1: Nos. 2 and 13
Round 2: No. 44
Round 3: No. 75
Round 4: No. 110
Round 5: No. 153
Round 6: Nos. 188 and 214*
Round 7: Nos. 226, 241, 249*, 250*
Note: * indicates compensatory selection
As one of two teams with a pair of first-round picks, the Rams can go different ways with their top selection, which is No. 2 overall. A common prediction among the mock draft crowds has seen offensive linemen regularly mocked to St. Louis at that spot. In this edition of Mel Kiper Jr.'s mock, he takes a slightly different tact and offers his preference for the player each team should take in the first three rounds. When it comes to the Rams, that flexibility allows for him to stray from so-called conventional wisdom.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
Britt spent his first five seasons with the Titans; the first two under now Rams coach Jeff Fisher's guidance.
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky has been there for all of it so who better to ask about Britt's potential impact on the Rams?
Kuharsky and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner discuss the Rams' latest move.
Kuharsky: I think Britt needs a disciplinarian and Fisher is more likely to qualify as an enabler. I obviously don't know the style of coordinator and position coach in St. Louis. The late Mike Heimerdinger, Fisher's coordinator in Tennessee, was the big Britt backer and the guy who knew how to get to him and use him, I believe. I don't know whether Fisher can pick up on those things and reconnect with him.
Wagoner: Will be interesting to see whether the Rams can find the recipe to try to rekindle that early success. I'm sure offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will comb through that old film and try to find ways to use him. On the bright side, Britt seems to have the ability to get off press coverage and win contested balls. That should be helpful.
Speaking of that, it seems Britt has always tantalized with potential but never been able to put it all together. How much has injury held him back and how much of it is his own doing? Do you think he can make the changes necessary to succeed?
Kuharsky: Britt always has a smile on his face. It's preferable to pouting, sure. But he's pretty happy-go-lucky whether he is lighting it up or completely tanking, as he did last year. I think that one-year contract is a reasonable risk. A team counting on production from him, instead of thinking any numbers he puts up are a bonus, is living dangerously. Certainly he's not been the same since the major knee injury. From my vantage point, at the end it was way more about his head than his knee.
Wagoner: The Rams have long been desperate for a No. 1 receiver. It seems expecting that from Britt is too much but what do you think would be reasonable expectations for him in St. Louis?
Kuharsky: Look at what Donnie Avery and Darrius Heyward-Bey did the past two seasons in Indianapolis after joining the Colts on one-year deals. I would hope Britt can get it together and be a bit better than those guys were. But if you made me bet? It's more likely he's close to those results.
Whether the Rams had any interest in using one of their top picks (Nos. 2 and 13) in May's NFL draft on a wide receiver, Britt's signing should have no bearing on those plans.
This isn't like signing a DeSean Jackson or Mike Wallace or Vincent Jackson to a multi-year mega-contract. Those are the types of contracts that can significantly change draft ideas.
Teams that are able to win consistently look beyond the next year and plan for the next four or five years. It's hard to see how the Rams can do anything but look solely at this spring and this training camp with Britt. If he hits and it works out, great, but that won't be determined until well after the draft.
Maybe the more interesting takeaway from Britt's signing is that the Rams are at least acknowledging the need for help at a position that coach Jeff Fisher and Les Snead have indicated multiple times they have confidence in. If that is the case, perhaps they actually are curious about adding more help at receiver in the draft.
It's also possible the Rams wouldn't have added any receivers if it wasn't for the availability of a player Fisher knew well and believed in. Either way, the Rams still don't have a receiver who has ever posted more than 775 receiving yards in a season.
Since the Rams aren't going to reveal what their draft plans are, there is no way of knowing how they view the possibility of taking a wideout. But it's probably a safe bet that signing Britt won't make a difference one way or the other.
Whenever St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher or general manager Les Snead have been asked about the potential to add help at wide receiver this offseason, both have reverted to the vote of confidence method, choosing to express their faith in the team's current crop of young receivers.
Apparently that confidence goes only so far, as ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported Monday evening that the Rams agreed to terms on a one-year deal with former Tennessee wide receiver Kenny Britt. According to Schefter's report, the deal with Britt is for one year and $1.4 million with $550,000 guaranteed and could be worth as much as $2.9 million with incentives.
In every sense of the word, the contract is a "prove it" deal, which will give the perennially underachieving Britt a chance to establish himself and take another bite of the free-agent apple again next year. If there's any place where Britt can get his once promising career on track, St. Louis would seem to be it.
Britt entered the league as a first-round pick of Fisher's Tennessee Titans in 2009 and had his two most productive seasons under Fisher as a rookie and in 2010. That familiarity almost certainly made the Rams appealing to Britt as he searched for a fresh start.
There are also reasons why adding Britt doesn't make much sense, either.
Back in January, Snead made it clear that for the Rams to add help at receiver they'd want that player to be a clear upgrade over the players already in place so as not to take away much-needed reps from the youngsters.
"A guy like that always can help your team," Snead said. "Here’s what you've got to weigh: If you think this particular player is close and the only way to get from close to there is play, when you bring in [another player] ... he's not going to play as much. You're still waiting. I think what seals the deal, if the process works, all these guys get experience, they grow together and, guess what, at the end of the year you have more than seven wins and if that's the case everybody goes, 'OK, it's worked out.'"
Whether or not Britt fits the bill as a clear upgrade is certainly up for debate. Since entering the league, he has had no shortage of off-field troubles, enough to earn him a one-game suspension in 2012. He also has had his share of injury troubles, tearing an ACL and MCL in 2011 and battling with persistent knee troubles the past few seasons.
Be it injury issues or off-the-field incidents, Britt's on-field production has taken a major hit since Fisher left Tennessee. In two years under Fisher, Britt had 84 catches for 1,476 yards and 12 touchdowns. In three seasons since, he has posted 73 grabs for 974 yards and seven touchdowns as drops and penalty issues became a factor.
By the end of the 2013 season, Britt's struggles earned him a place on the inactive list in three of the final four games.
Where Britt fits with the Rams remains to be seen but it seems like a pretty large leap to expect someone who has produced so little in recent years to come in and take over the No. 1 duties despite past flashes of potential.
In five years, Britt has never had more than 45 catches or 775 receiving yards in a season, numbers that hardly put him in the discussion of a proven wide receiver. In fact, those numbers actually fit in quite nicely with the rest of the Rams' current crop of receivers.
Fortunately for the Rams, Britt's not being compensated in a way that requires No. 1 type of production.
It's fair to wonder if Britt, who is only 25, can ever reach the potential he once flashed in Tennessee, and if his presence could be a negative for an impressionable group of young receivers. Of course, if anyone can get Britt's career back on track, it's probably Fisher.
Like the rest of the Rams' free-agent moves this offseason, adding Britt is a low-risk proposition. But it's also one that shouldn't come with the great expectations that Britt's career once carried.