St. Louis Rams: 2012 NFL Draft and Free Agency Priorities Ranked
Make no mistake, the St. Louis Rams' 2012 NFL Draft and free agency period will be Jeff Fisher's as the Rams look to build a team capable of reaching a Super Bowl just as Eli Manning's New York Giants and Tom Brady's New England Patriots did Sunday (as the Giants took out the San Francisco 49ers and the Patriots knocked off the Baltimore Ravens).
Without question, St. Louis will be Fisher's team going forward and constructed according to his overall vision for the Rams.
Fisher will have a say in who ultimately lands at general manager. Normally, the general manager has a big say in hiring the head coach. With that said, Fisher may not technically have final authority in the war room on draft day, but make no mistake: He will have final authority on draft day.
He may not possess a title that says so, but the seasoned head coach with a Super Bowl appearance under his belt will absolutely be carrying the "big stick" around Rams Park.
Knowing this, Fisher's philosophies and style must be factored into the ranking of the Rams' free agent and draft priorities.
If St. Louis owner Stan Kroenke had hired a Mike Martz-type of head coach, for example, the rankings of the Rams' likely priorities would almost certainly be a bit different than that of Fisher's.
Fisher has always believed that a team should be built from the inside out, starting with the lines. Although his Tennessee Titans teams had some very good passing years, his bread-and-butter has been, and will likely continue to be, a power running attack combined with the play-action pass to create a synergy.
Although Fisher had some good receivers in Tennessee such as Derrick Mason, Kevin Dyson, Frank Wycheck, Yancey Thigpen and (gasp) Drew Bennett, none compare with the likes of Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt.
The Rams No. 2 overall selection is valued at 2,600 points. Quite interestingly, rumored potential trade partner Cleveland possesses the fourth and 22nd selections, totaling 2,580 points. The addition of a mid sixth-round pick would bring the Browns and Rams to equal footing based on the NFL's draft value chart.
However, with a new team-friendly collective bargaining agreement in place where top-five picks no longer cost a fortune and teams do not have to be as leery to trade up as before when a busted top pick could set a franchise back for years, teams are more likely to trade up and give up more to get there.
That said, a top-five pick like that possessed by the Rams is even more valuable. If the Rams were to trade with Cleveland, look for St. Louis to attain even more in return than what is depicted above.
With all that said and Fisher's predominant philosophy in mind, let's take a look at how the Rams offseason NFL draft and free agency priorities likely stack up.
7. Defensive Back
The St. Louis Rams were demoralized by injuries at cornerback in 2011.
During preseason, the Rams lost big hitting second-year man Jerome Murphy, the team's projected nickle back, to injured reserve. Early in the season, starting corners Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher also succumbed to the IR.
Before the season's conclusion, St. Louis lost an unfathomable 10 defensive backs to season- ending injuries.
With such a wide swath of injuries, the corner position is one of the toughest to rank heading into 2012.
If Bartell, Fletcher and Murphy all return full throttle, this is a low-priority position. However, if one or two of them fail to bounce back, a significant void appears and corner becomes a greater area of emphasis.
The problem is, free agency is coming quickly and the NFL draft is just around the bend in April.
The Rams cannot afford to completely ignore a position that is flavored with much uncertainty.
Bartell, who turns 29 in February, is said to be full-go. He will be in the last year of his contract, and although his retention is not certain, it is likely.
Murphy should also be ready to roll by training camp.
The question mark is Fletcher, perhaps the Rams most talented cornerback. The main concern is Fletcher's right knee. Unfortunately, he has suffered two season-ending injuries to that same knee (2009 and 2011).
With Fletcher's future as unstable as his right knee, St. Louis may target a proven commodity in Cortland Finnegan.
Finnegan played for Fisher in Tennessee and has, coincidentally or not, already sold one of of his two homes in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Finnegan turns just 28 in February, so he should be good to go for a few more years.
The 2008 Pro Bowl selection brings toughness and grit, like his former coach Fisher, and would solidify the secondary in the event of a Fletcher non-return.
If Finnegan were added and Fletcher were to return, a secondary comprised of Bartell, Finnegan, Fletcher and Murphy would project very favorably.
A more likely scenario, however, might see St. Louis target a third- to fifth-round prospect in the draft.
Notable names that could be looked at include Steven Gilmore of South Carolina, Casey Hayward of Vanderbilt, Xavier Rhodes of Florida State; Coryell Judie of Texas A & M and D' Anton Lynn of Penn State.
The St. Louis Rams have nothing baking in the over at guard after Harvey Dahl.
Perennial disappointment Jacob Bell is a free agent. If not for Fisher arriving in town, I would say he was a lock to leave St. Louis.
However, Bell played good football for the Titans under Fisher, so it is conceivable that the soon to be 31-year-old could return for the Rams as a low cost option to either compete for a starting spot or add good guard depth to the roster.
Bell played well enough in Tennessee that St. Louis signed him to a six-year, $36 million contract in 2008.
Even if Bell returns, the Rams need to add quality and/or depth at guard via the draft or free agency.
It is not a stellar year at guard among free agents in 2012.
Outside of high-priced Carl Nicks of New Orleans and Ben Grubbs of Baltimore, the pickings are somewhat slim. Other lesser targets could include Nate Livings of Cincinnati or Jeremy Zuttah of Tampa Bay.
A guard could be added through the draft in the middle rounds. Some good prospects are Brandon Washington of Miami, Lonnie Edwards of Texas Tech, Rokevious Watkins of South Carolina and Will Blackwell of LSU.
5. Outside Linebacker
The outside linebacker position has needed an overall upgrade for awhile now.
Although Brady Poppinga and Chris Chamberlain held up reasonably well, it is reasonably accurate to say that Fisher will want better players going forward at outside linebacker and both are free agents.
Of the two, Chamberlain came on a bit in 2011 and could compete for a starting spot in 2012, if re-signed. The 26-year-old had 80 tackles, two sacks and an interception in 2011.
Poppinga, on the other hand, who will be 33 in September, is a free agent and likely nearing the end of a solid career.
As for draft options, I would again say this position merits a third- to fifth-round selection although, depending on what the Rams do with the second overall pick, a second-round outside linebacker selection could not be ruled out.
Players likely to go out between Rounds 2 and 6 will likely include Lavonte David of Nebraska, Travis Lewis of Oklahoma, Nigel Bradham of Florida State, Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho of Texas and Darius Fleming of Notre Dame.
4. Running Back
Yes, I understand why some will feel this is too high of a ranking on a team with so many holes and with a back the likes of Steven Jackson on board.
But, when considering how Fisher loves to pound the rock and the fact that Jackson was banged up last year and has 2,138 carries on his resume, this slot makes sense to me.
Steven Jackson, the three-time Pro Bowl player and the franchise's all-time leading rusher, is not quite ready to slow down just yet and is excited to play for Fisher.
However, Jackson will be 29 next season and most NFL running backs hit the wall at age 30.
Jackson has reached the stage in his career where, although all indications point to him still being able to carry the load and play exceptionally, his trade value has diminished significantly as he approaches the (expected) final stages of his career.
Jackson, though, may surprise us all and play at a high level for several more years.
Several feature backs like John Riggins, Warrick Dunn, Fred Taylor; Thomas Jones, Tiki Barber, Curtis Martin; Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith, among others, continued to produce solid numbers well past the age of thirty.
When considering the dedication Jackson shows towards his diet, workout regimen and the overall manner in which he takes care of his body, it would be foolish to rule him out as a player who could produce big numbers into his thirties, just as the players listed above did.
However, St. Louis cannot count on that.
The 2012 NFL Draft could be the time that the Rams look to find his eventual successor, especially with the run-loving Fisher at the helm. At the very least, look for St. Louis to add a good backup/change of pace back this year.
Fisher was on board when the Titans drafted speedy Chris Johnson so it makes sense to figure that Fisher's Rams could look to add a power back in the mold of his former Titans player Eddie George, or a smaller speed back like the previously mentioned Johnson.
Some enticing options via the draft might include Lamar Miller of Miami, Chris Polk of Washington, the speedy LaMichael James of Oregon; Doug Martin of Boise State; Isaiah Pead of Cincinnati and Chris Rainey, the do-it-all player from Florida.
I do not foresee the Rams making a splash at running back in free agency but potential additions include Michael Bush of Oakland, Mike Tolbert of San Diego, Kevin Smith of Detroit and Cedric Benson of Cincinnati.
3. Defensive Tackle
Fisher and former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo share a propensity for building from the lines out, specifically for defensive lineman. One important difference, however, is that Fisher values bigger, penetrating defensive tackles more than Spagnuolo.
If you remember, Fisher got more out of Albert Haynesworth in Tennessee than any other coach since then has.
With that established, look for St. Louis to target a defensive tackle (or two) in the draft and/or free agency.
The Rams starting defensive tackles in 2011, Fred Robbins and Justin Bannan, are getting very long in the tooth.
Robbins, who turns 35 in March, enters the final year of his contract, and, although his play dropped off in 2011, he will probably return in a rotational role. In 2010, Robbins had 26 tackles to go with a very impressive six sacks. This past year, his tackle total fell to 21 while his sacks plummeted to one. However, he possesses the type of size and penetration skills that Fisher covets.
Bannan, who himself turns 33 in April, has two years left on his deal and will return. In 14 games, he produced 25 tackles and no sacks. If reinforcements arrive, Bannan could slide into a backup role in 2012.
Some stud free agent defensive tackles that Fisher might slobber over include Calais Campbell of Arizona, Paul Soliai of Miami, Cory Redding of Baltimore and Jason Jones of Tennessee, who had 33 tackles and 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three pass deflections playing left defensive tackle for Fisher in 2010.
I would not look for the Rams to look at defensive tackle before the second round if trading out of the second overall pick or the third if retaining it, although when considering Fisher's convictions regarding line play on both sides of the ball, a first-round defensive tackle (if the Rams trade out of the second overall pick for extra picks) would not shock me.
Some big-time defensive tackle prospects include Devon Still of Penn State, Dontari Poe of Memphis, Brandon Thompson of Clemson, Alameda Ta 'amu of Washington and Derek Wolfe of Cincinnati.
One way or the other, this is a position that will look much different in 2012.
2. Wide Receiver
The St. Louis Rams finished dead last in the NFL in points per game at 12.1 on the year. Dead was a good way to describe the offense, as a matter of fact, and hopefully "last" is appropriate going forward, as in last year and not this one.
The Rams offense was a horror show. A train wreck. If it were a car, it would have been a perfect fit for the cash-for-clunkers program. This offense was certainly a clunker, as it might get you up and down the road (field) once in awhile, but would rarely get you to the desired end location (end zone).
St. Louis finished 30th in the NFL in passing yards and were plagued all season long with dropped passes and an overall lack of speed.
The Rams will bring back promising second year man Greg Salas and veteran Danny Amendola in 2012. Amendola caught 85 balls in 2010 and was solid as a punt returner. Having both back will help the Rams next season.
As for last season, the mid-season addition of Brandon Lloyd certainly helped. Lloyd contributed 51 catches and 5 touchdowns on 13.4 yards per reception in 11 games for the Rams.
Lloyd will be 31 in July but looks to be as nimble and quick as ever. The similarly built Isaac Bruce hauled in 89 catches at age 32 and 74 at age 34 for St Louis, as one of many examples of receivers playing great football well into their thirties. Jerry Rice, after all, made the Pro Bowl at age 40.
Although St. Louis should not throw mega bucks at Lloyd, it would be wise to retain him with a fair contract. He has stated an interest in staying in the Gateway City and playing for Fisher.
Luckily for the Rams, If they do not pursue Lloyd for whatever reason or are unable to sign him, the free agent class at wide receiver is of high quality and quantity.
Some nice free agent wideouts look to be Dwayne Bowe of Kansas City, Vincent Jackson of San Diego, Stevie Johnson of Buffalo; Marques Colston and Robert Meachum of New Orleans, DeSean Jackson of Philadelphia, Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh; Mario Manningham of the New York Giants, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon of Indianapolis; Ted Ginn and Josh Morgan of San Francisco, and yes, Laurent Robinson of Dallas.
Draft targets could include top-ranked receiver Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State, the long Alshon Jeffery of South Carolina, Michael Floyd of Notre Dame; blazer Kendall Wright of Baylor, Tommy Streeter of Miami, T.Y. Hilton of Florida International and former Sam Bradford teammate Ryan Broyles of Oklahoma, among others.
If the Rams do not trade out of the pick, Blackmon will certainly be considered at number two overall and St. Louis will almost assuredly pick a wide receiver no later than Round 2.
If the Rams trade out of the second overall pick, the chances only increase that a receiver is taken in the first two rounds as St. Louis would have extra selections there.
1. Offensive Tackle
I wrested, tossed, turned, flip-flopped, and then hit repeat on that process several times before deciding to label offensive tackle as the Rams and Fisher's top draft and/or free agent priority heading into the 2012 season.
This position got the nod for at least three reasons:
1: Fisher always talks about and has historically placed his offensive and defensive lines, as his top priority and his philosophy is to build from the inside out.
2: Fisher has talked to Bradford already about making protection a key priority going forward.
3: A successful run game and a successful pass game start up front. Regardless of the weapons, their effectiveness will be limited of the quarterback is consistently beaten, bloodied and bruised, as Bradford was too often in 2010.
Rodger Saffold, the Rams left tackle, played very well as a second-round rookie in 2010. However, he was banged up and his play tailed off in 2011, before he landed on the injured reserve with right tackle Jason Smith.
Saffold will return at either left or right tackle and play better in 2012 than he did last year. However, Smith may not return at all.
According to NBC Sports as reported here, Smith faces the option of accepting a pay cut or a cut from the team.
Last year, the 2009 second overall pick fell victim to a second season ending concussion in three seasons in the league.
In those three seasons, Smith has started just 29 out of a possible 48 games due to both poor play and injuries.
Smith does well in the run game, but struggles with consistency in pass protection.
If retained, perhaps a new offensive line coach or a potential switch to guard would help Smith progress further.
Whether he is retained or not, look for St. Louis to solidify the position via free agency or the draft.
Saffold is capable of sliding to right tackle so the Rams could look at players of either tackle spot.
Free agent options are minimal: Two outstanding players likely to be available are Demetrius Bell of Buffalo and Jared Gaither of San Diego.
Possible anchors to the offensive line in the draft include Matt Kalil of USC, Jonathon Martin of Stanford, Riley Reiff of Iowa, Mike Adams of Ohio State; Nate Potter of Boise State and Matt Reynolds of BYU.
If Fisher believes Bradford is a franchise quarterback in the making, it only makes sense that he add the best offensive tackle possible (through the draft or free agency) to keep his quarterback clean, comfortable and healthy going forward.
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