By Jim Thomas, St. Louis Post-Dispatch -
ST. LOUIS — As the Rams began the business of reshaping their roster in February, general manager Les Snead said there was one underlying theme: We’re not one player away.
There was no way of knowing if it would take 10 new players, or 20, or 30 to get the franchise out of its massive rut. But it was going to take more than one.
“The goal was, ‘Let’s get multiple (draft) picks so we can get multiple players to go with our free-agent crop,” Snead said. “And I think we accomplished that.”
To a degree, the “we’re-not-one-player-away” mantra guided how the Rams approached free agency as well. There was no doubt that Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan was their No. 1 target in free agency, and they would do what it took to sign him. But overall the Rams had a budget for free agency, and players rated within that budget.
“Will this player come for this price?” Snead asked. “If he does—great, get him. If he doesn’t—don’t. Move on to the next-best player on the board.”
So now, with June approaching and the Rams in the heart of the spring practice period, the vast majority of players who will be on the final 53-man roster in September already are on hand.
“From the time we got here, progress has been made,” Snead said. “There’s no doubt about that. So we’re happy where we’re at. We don’t want to wait till 2014 (to turn it around). But what we do want to do is be improving, be competing, be thriving—where people can feel the momentum. And then you keep adding parts. Keep jelling as a team.”
Not every roster hole has been filled this offseason, but Snead feels the Rams have noticeably strengthened four units: defensive line, cornerback, running back and wide receiver.
“Let’s call them position groups last year that maybe either were thin, depleted with injuries, what have you,” Snead said. “They are now strong. Now they can be some of your better units, those four.”
A closer look:
In a division in which San Francisco and Seattle like to run the football, it’s imperative that the Rams get better up front.
“We love the fact that we got (Michael) Brockers where we got him,” Snead said. “That was a little bit of our goal when we made the trade back.”
The Rams drafted the big defensive tackle from Louisiana State at No. 14 after a trade-down with Dallas and will pair him inside with free-agent pickup Kendall Langford.
“We’ve got two young ends,” Snead said, referring to Chris Long and Robert Quinn. “We’ve added Langford. We’ve got Darell Scott coming back. Bam! You throw in Brockers, and all of a sudden that unit gets strong. Now the DL becomes a dominant unit.”
With Trevor Laws added in free agency at tackle, and William Hayes and Eugene Sims at end, the Rams believe they could have the makings of a good rotation.
The Rams passed on a chance to draft cornerback Morris Claiborne at No. 6 by trading down to take Brockers. But they picked up a cornerback with the sixth pick of the second round in Janoris Jenkins and added another in the third round in Trumaine Johnson. Jenkins and Johnson enter the NFL with off-field issues, and a lot of teams shied away from Jenkins.
But if the Rams’ gamble pays off, they could have the makings of a strong secondary—particularly at cornerback with Finnegan, Jenkins, Johnson, Bradley Fletcher, Jerome Murphy and Josh Gordy. Fletcher and Murphy are coming back from injuries in 2011, with Fletcher not yet all the way back.
“That’s not a bad pairing—good defensive line and a good secondary,” Snead said. “That usually means the quarterback’s got to get things out fast, and you’ve got tight coverage.”
By drafting Isaiah Pead in the second round and Daryl Richardson in the seventh, the Rams hope they finally have quality depth behind Steven Jackson.
“We’re definitely happy there,” Snead said. “Pead and Richardson give us that element that we didn’t have. It seems like this franchise has always been looking for the backup running back. Maybe it was a little overstated, but I think it’s good just for the offense overall.
“Now you have a bigger back in Steven, but a defense also has to be aware of when Steven and one of these (smaller) guys are in the backfield at the same time. Or if one of them’s back there and not Steven.”
Time will tell if the Rams erred by not drafting Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright or A.J. Jenkins. But Snead flatly stated: “The wide receiver unit is better this year than last year.”
He believes 2010 draft picks Austin Pettis and Greg Salas will be much improved. Danny Amendola is healthy.
“Then you add the new toys in (Brian) Quick and (Chris) Givens,” he said.
Snead believes Givens’ speed will open up things for Amendola inside.
“Quick’s a big guy who’s athletic, who can run—maybe not as good as Givens—and he can go up and get jump balls,” Snead said.
Even if you accept the premise that the Rams have improved at those positions, questions remain at offensive line and outside linebacker.
Even with the addition of Barry Richardson via free agency last week, the Rams are counting on Jason Smith to stay healthy and show improvement at right tackle.
“Jason got picked high here,” Snead said. “When you get picked high (No. 2 overall), and you’ve been inconsistent or you’ve been injured, you’re going to get scrutinized.”
Snead concedes it’s impossible to know if Smith is the answer at right tackle.
“But here’s what I do know,” Snead added. “You’ve got a really good offensive line coach (Paul Boudreau) who’s proven he can make a unit’s sum better than its parts. He did that with us in Atlanta. He’s also proved he can get the most out of an individual. Long story short, I think Jason Smith’s going to have every chance to improve here under Paul.”
Boudreau’s coaching also will be put to the test at left guard, where there are lots of candidates but nothing resembling a “name” player.
Snead feels there is enough talent there and that someone will emerge.
“I don’t think we’re going to lose any sleep at left guard,” he said.
At outside linebacker, it looks as if Jo-Lonn Dunbar starts on the weak side, and either Mario Haggan or Josh Hull on the strong side.
“Obviously, it’s a position that we didn’t bring in—let’s say—a lot of sexy new faces,” Snead said. “But not every year can you get a first-round pick, second-round pick, or a high-dollar free agent. There’s going to be some guys that surprise us, and you’ve got to make do with that unit.”
Whether it’s linebacker, offensive guard or wherever, the scouting department won’t stop looking for talent.
Late last week the Rams claimed two players off waivers: offensive lineman Jose Valdez of Minnesota and tight end Brody Eldridge from Indianapolis. But to a large degree, the Rams now are reduced to looking for role players.