As the Rams try to figure out what to do with the second and 13th picks in the first round of May’s NFL draft, they will have to react quickly to what happens in front of them. But some planning and thinking ahead could make life on draft night incredibly easy. I’ll explain.
There are a lot of directions to go. The Rams still need explosiveness offensively, especially on the perimeter. They need to dramatically improve in the secondary, where they allowed the third-highest completion percentage in NFL history in 2013. The offensive line had injuries at virtually every position. Right tackle Rodger Saffold went down with a knee injury in game two and was replaced by Joe Barksdale. Right guard Harvey Dahl suffered an MCL injury midway through the season that virtually ended his campaign. Center Scott Wells was lost for the season in Week 12 with a broken leg, and Jake Long’s torn ACL in the second-to-last game knocked him out of 2014’s offseason program.
In addition to receiver, defensive back and offensive line, the Rams can list linebacker and backup quarterback as desires. There are a lot of ways to go.
Let’s start at wide receiver. Last year, the Rams drafted Tavon Austin as a slot receiver with the idea that Chris Givens and Brian Quick would continue to progress as their every-down guys. Austin never was and is not regarded as an every-down, outside-the-numbers receiver. He’s a return man and a slot guy who will be on the field for perhaps 40 offensive plays per game. His running mate from West Virginia, Steadman Bailey, got a chance late in the season and showed the potential to be a playmaker on the outside. But Givens dropped from 42 to 34 catches, went from a rookie-record five straight games with a 50 yard catch to a long of 47 in 2013, and failed to get into the end zone. Certainly there were extenuating circumstances, with Sam Bradford getting hurt and the Rams turning more to the running game, but Givens had disturbing drops and can’t be counted on.
The expectation among fans and media was that Quick would have a breakout season last year. But for all of his physical prowess and practice dominance, Quick has yet to translate that to the field on Sundays. It would be one thing if he could be counted on, but it seems his breakout is farther rather than closer. The Rams have to get a game-breaking receiver either in free agency or the draft.
There’s no doubt the offensive line needs to get younger and more durable. But the Rams found a way to produce with Long and Barksdale at tackle. From Week 5-15, when Long, Barksdale and Zac Stacy were in the lineup together, the Rams were second in the NFL in rushing at 142.1 yards per game and allowed 19 sacks in those 10 games – a pace of 30 sacks over 16 games.
Granted, the more mobile Clemens started seven of those games. But keep in mind that in the final two games of 2012 and the first two of 2013 with Bradford under center, the Rams didn’t allow a single sack. Those were four sackless games that included Barry Richardson at right tackle for two and an inexperienced Saffold at right for two more, Saffold at left for two and Long for the two in 2013, and five different players on the interior.
The point is that Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau is great at forming units that do solid work, even without players that require a huge investment. Where the Rams will need help most is at guard, where Chris Williams left something to be desired on the left side last year. Barrett Jones and Tim Barnes should battle for the starting center spot, and if Saffold is on hand, he’ll ideally play the right side. They need a starter on the left side and depth throughout.
It would seem that with the Rams paying Cortland Finnegan a $3 million bonus that was required five days after the Super Bowl to keep him, he will be back. Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins are the starters, and Brandon McGee made progress last season. There is a need for depth and development at corner. We don’t know if – or when – Finnegan will be done. He could be now. Jenkins and Johnson will be free agents after 2015. So at some point in this draft, the Rams have to get some cornerbacks.
Last year when T.J. McDonald got hurt, the Rams had real problems at safety. Rodney McLeod is quite willing, but doesn’t rise to the level needed at the position. The Rams can’t plan on Matt Daniels or Matt Giordano being factors, so it might be smart to get two safeties in the draft, and getting one who has a history of making plays should be an important target.
There isn’t a corner like Patrick Peterson or Darelle Revis who seems apparent in this draft. At safety, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville are both impressive, but don’t have the pre-draft hype of Eric Berry or Earl Thomas (who went to Kansas City and Seattle, respectively) a few years ago. Both would seem logical candidates to fall to the 13th pick.
We don’t know if Jo-Lonn Dunbar will be back at linebacker, but the Rams aren’t going to spend a first-round pick on a strong-side linebacker who plays 35 percent of the time. It’s possible that Dunbar’s replacement could be Ray-Ray Armstrong. They should take a quarterback, but are thoroughly committed to Bradford, so that pick will come later, too.
Of course, many draft experts believe that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is the best player available, and Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com reported that the Rams did some background work on Clowney in his hometown of Rock Hill, S.C. Even with their defensive line depth, the Rams have to be interested in the BPA. The question they must ask themselves is not only what’s best for 2014, but what’s best for 2018?
There’s a long way to go before the draft, 2 ½ months, pro day workouts and free agency will happen between now and May 8. Re-signing Saffold might change things. But it seems the Rams won’t take a DB second overall. With Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis on hand, there isn’t a necessity for a first-round linebacker, and with Bradford at quarterback, they won’t take one of those with their second or 13th pick, either.
Long’s rehab will play a role. If the Rams get to draft day and don’t expect him to play in 2014 (and he turns 29 on May 9), it would make sense to take one of the offensive tackles, Jake Matthews of Texas A&M or Greg Robinson of Auburn. If Long is coming back (and half of his $8 million salary is guaranteed), it makes no sense to use that high of a pick on someone who won’t play left tackle next season.
Barring a trade down – which is a distinct possibility – that leaves Sammy Watkins and Clowney. The Rams plan on competing for a playoff spot next season. Should they get an immediate every-down receiver who is being called the best coming out since A.J. Green and Julio Jones? Or should they take a supremely gifted pass rusher and add him to a young group that’s been in the top three in sacks in each of the past two years under Jeff Fisher?
At this moment, assuming health for Long, if I’m running the first round and haven’t made a trade, I’m taking Watkins No. 2 overall and Clinton-Dix at No. 13. Then I can get my cornerback, quarterback, guard (s), linebacker and development tackle later on.