6 Moves St. Louis Rams Can Make to Get Right Back in Contention for 2013
Heading into year two of the Jeff Fisher-era rebuilding project, the St. Louis Rams will have needs to fill but those needs will not be many.
All of the Rams' core players—and it's a strong core with Sam Bradford, Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Cortland Finnegan, Janoris Jenkins, Michael Brockers and Robert Quinn—are under contract until at least 2016.
You'll notice, however, that there are a few positions not represented by the players on that list.
The Rams have shown a preference for rebuilding with draft picks. That said, there is no doubt Les Snead will do his due diligence in scouring the free-agent market for ways to cost-effectively improve his team.
In the following pages, I'll look at what the Rams need to do this offseason to address those needs and compete for an NFC West title in 2013.
Draft Luke Joeckel
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I know the prospect of seeing free-agent-to-be Jake Long on the left side of the Rams' offensive line causes many to salivate, but there are problems with that scenario.
For starters, Jake Long is likely to command a salary equal to or bigger than the seven-year $84 million deal given to Joe Thomas of the Cleveland Browns.
That's a lot of money for a guy who doesn't look the same in his fifth year as he did in the previous four.
$10-$15 million a year for a healthy and consistently-at-the-top-of-his-game Jake Long would not be seen by many as a poor investment.
However, Long has been plagued by back, knee and shoulder injuries throughout the last three years. Add to that the inconsistent play that has caused him to fall to No. 47 on Pro Football Focus' list of the highest-graded offensive tackles and the risk becomes too great for me and, I'm hoping, for the Rams as well.
Ryan Clady is another enticing franchise left tackle slated to hit the free-agent market in 2013, but don't get too excited about him either.
He had a chance to sign a 10-year $50 million contract to stay with the Denver Broncos before the season started and turned it down. Apparently, he is seeking Joe Thomas-like money, and while Clady doesn't have the injury and declining performance issues of Jake Long, his price tag will prove too high for the frugal Rams.
Enter Luke Joeckel.
NFLDraftScout.com (along with just about everyone else) has Joeckel ranked as the number one OT prospect in the 2013 draft class.
At 6'6" and 310 lbs, he has definitely got the size.
As for the skill set, he is known as an athletic left tackle with sound technique and great pass-blocking skills—just what the doctor ordered for a Rams offensive line that has struggled mightily to protect its quarterback.
The Washington Redskins—who traded their 2013 first-round pick to the Rams in the deal that netted them RGIII—are on pace to finish with a record that would earn the Rams the seventh overall pick. According to the guys at NFLDraftScout.com, this should be high enough for them to take Joeckel.
If things change and it looks like they may not get him, the Rams will need to trade up. This is an opportunity to lock down the left tackle position for five years for relative peanuts. They cannot let this one get away.
Sign Andy Levitre
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Sadly, the addition of Luke Joeckel will not fix all of the Rams' O-line woes.
With prized offseason acquisition Scott Wells set to resume his heretofore short-lived role as the Rams center, Robert Turner will move from center back to left guard—the position he was supposed to hold before Wells went down with a broken foot in the Rams' Week 1 loss to the Detroit Lions.
Robert Turner is a solid if unspectacular left-guard. Andy Levitre is better.
If the Rams can lure Levitre away from the Bills and every other suitor he is sure to have once the free-agent signing period begins, they could use Turner as a backup capable of playing any of the interior offensive line positions, thereby adding much needed depth to their O-line.
In addition, Levitre has the ability to play tackle. If one of the tackles goes down next year, they plug in Levitre and have a very capable player, in Turner, to man the left guard position.
If the $5-$7 million Levitre is likely to command on the free-agent market proves too rich for the Rams, there are some intriguing options in the draft.
The two top-rated OG prospects (Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones—both of Alabama) are likely to go in the first round, but I don't see the Rams using both of their first-round picks on offensive lineman.
However, there are a couple of likely second-rounders who could fit the bill quite nicely—North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper and Kentucky's Larry Warford, the third- and fourth-ranked OG prospects in 2013's draft.
Still, I'd prefer the experience and proven ability to play at a high level in the NFL that Andy Levitre would bring with him.
Sign Greg Jennings
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St. Louis Rams fans have seen more than their fair share of rookie wide receivers failing to live up to expectations.
2010 fourth-round pick Mardy Gilyard was never able to learn the playbook well enough to get on the field regularly, and now, 2011 second-round pick Brian Quick's rookie season has started in exactly the same way.
Granted, Quick still has half of his rookie season yet to come, but he was expected to make an immediate impact and failed to deliver. I fully expect him to become a very good player for the Rams for years to come, but so far—his touchdown catch against the 49ers notwithstanding—he has disappointed.
Add to them the disappointments that are former fourth-round pick Greg Salas and former third-round pick Austin Pettis and I, for one, cringe at the idea of the Rams taking a wide receiver early in the 2013 draft.
Greg Jennings knows how to run routes. He knows how to get open. He will know where he is supposed to be when the ball is in the air.
Sam Bradford will know he can trust Greg Jennings from the first time he steps onto the practice field, which is something you won't get with another rookie.
Aside from Danny Amendola and current free-agent Mark Clayton, Bradford has not had that trust in any of his wide receivers. The importance of getting Bradford another dependable wideout cannot be overstated. It is just as important, if not more so, than getting help on the offensive line.
And Greg Jennings is attainable. That the Packers have Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb under contract for next year means Jennings is expendable, especially considering he is likely to command a contract in the neighborhood of the five-year, $55 million deal Vincent Jackson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year.
$11 million a year is a lot of money, but if Jennings is fully recovered from his groin/abdomen injury, he will be worth every penny—if for no other reason than Sam Bradford will finally have a bona fide No. 1 he can trust.
Draft Eric Reid
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I have to be honest with you, there are a lot of ways I could see the Rams going with the second of their two first-round picks.
I'm partial to Eric Reid because they need help at safety—as much as I like Craig Dahl, and I do, he's not a starting safety on a championship team—and I think their bigger need, wide receiver, would be better addressed by signing an established No. 1.
The Rams also need an outside linebacker, and there are three of them who will likely go in the first round. If the Rams brought one of them to St. Louis, I would not be upset.
If the Rams take Eric Reid, there are options in the free-agent market to fill the OLB need, namely Shaun Phillips (SD), Anthony Spencer (DAL) and Connor Barwin (HOU). Barwin seems the most likely of the three to get a franchise tag, but the other two should be available. Phillips will be the easiest—read cheapest—to acquire, as he will be 32 next year and the Chargers have plenty of depth at linebacker.
There are also intriguing options in the free-agent market for safeties should the Rams decide to draft one of those first-round OLBs.
If the San Francisco 49ers don't re-sign Dashon Goldson, he will be the prize free agent at the safety position. The problem is they are probably going to re-sign him or at least franchise-tag him. Even if they don't, Goldson will likely command a salary close to the $7-$7.5 million range of Antrel Rolle, Eric Berry and Troy Polamalu.
William Moore of the Atlanta Falcons is a more realistic free-agent option at safety. And he is a Mizzou product, which may give the Rams a leg up if they choose to pursue him.
From Pro Football Focus:
William Moore isn’t a household name, but he is a key piece on the defense of the undefeated Falcons. Moore has played every snap thus far this season and has an overall grade of +4.9. While he isn’t flashy, he is a very dependable player. The Falcons have expanded his role this year and utilized him as a blitzer 23 times. He has responded with six total pressures with one of those a sack, making him the second most productive blitzing defensive back in the NFL. Moore is just now coming into his own and his best days are ahead of him. He is offering a potential new team a dynamic, playmaking safety.
The only problem with William Moore is his injury history.
Eric Reid could be an A+ NFL safety for a long time. If I'm the Rams, I draft Reid this year, take an OLB in the third round or later and/or bring in Shaun Phillips as a temporary stop-gap until I can draft another OLB next year or the year after that.
Draft a Tight End in the 2nd Round
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Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert (pictured) may not be there for the Rams in the second round; he is projected to go at the end of the first or somewhere in the early half of the second.
If he is not available, either Zach Ertz of Stanford or Jordan Reed of Florida could wind up wearing Rams blue in 2013.
Jordan Reed was selected to the John Mackey Award preseason watch list. The award is presented annually to college football's best tight end. But Zach Ertz appears to have the edge at this point in the season.
Many Rams fans are looking at Dustin Keller on the free-agent market. I can't deny that he would be a good fit, having played in Brian Schottenheimer's offense when Schottenheimer was the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets.
I would not be surprised to see Keller with the Rams next year, but in my scenario, it makes more sense to draft one of the top three tight ends because you could potentially get a very good player and you'll definitely pay a lot less for him than you would for Dustin Keller—even though Keller's inconsistent play this season has cost him a chance at a huge payday.
And the Rams need to save a little money because they still have one more free agent to sign.
Re-Sign Danny Amendola
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Even with the offseason acquisition of an established No. 1 receiver and the continued maturation and development of Brian Quick and Chris Givens, it is still absolutely imperative that the Rams re-sign Danny Amendola.
Every team needs a slot guy, and Amendola is one of the best in the business. Perhaps most importantly, he's the only receiver currently on the roster that Sam Bradford trusts implicitly.
Whatever anyone else offers him, the Rams have to match it.