Though the St. Louis Rams were able to fill two of their most glaring offensive holes with the free-agent signings of tight end Jared Cook and offensive tackle Jake Long, providing Sam Bradford with more weapons will be a point of focus in the upcoming draft.
The defection of Robert Turner to the Tennessee Titans has created a hole at the offensive guard position, and they need to add a playmaker at receiver now that Danny Amendola has joined the loathsome New England Patriots.
On the defensive side of the ball, it is well-documented that the Rams need starters at outside linebacker and safety.
The leading organizations use a "best player available" philosophy when it comes to the draft. But considering that history suggests the teams in front of the Rams are likely to do just about anything other than what common perception holds, making any effort at prediction is much more difficult than if the Rams looked to fill needs first.
But, try we must. We'll consider team needs, depth of talent at a given position and who the best player available is likely to be as we go through the latest St. Louis Rams mock draft.
Robert Turner parlayed his surprisingly successful 2012 season into a free-agent contract with the Tennessee Titans. The offer from the Titans was well-deserved and probably in the best interest of the Rams long term.
Now they have an opportunity to not only solidify one of the guard positions for the next 10 years, but also make their offensive line one of the strongest aspects of the team in 2013.
If they add Chance Warmack—a "once in a generation" talent at the position—to Jake Long, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Rodger Saffold, it becomes one of the most frighteningly powerful offensive lines in all of football.
The Rams think much of 2012 fifth-round pick Rokevious Watkins, but that shouldn't preclude the selection of Warmack.
They have two options: pick up a late-round guard for depth, or take a prodigious talent in the first round and use their 2012 late-round pick (Watkins) as the depth.
The latter option immediately improves the team, while the former adds another project player at best, an irredeemably mediocre player at worst.
Warmack and North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper are both projected to be first-round picks. The combine illuminated the biggest difference between the two: athleticism. Cooper has it in spades. Warmack doesn't.
Because of Cooper's superior athleticism, he would be a better fit in a zone-blocking scheme, whereas Warmack would be the better selection for a team that uses power blocking, like the Rams.
Warmack should be there for the Rams.
If the Rams don't take Chance Warmack at No. 16, he likely won't be available at No. 22.
The Cowboys, Giants and Bears all need interior offensive line help, and they could choose to address those needs early if either of the two first-round guards are still available.
Conversely, if Tavon Austin is there at No. 16, he should remain available for the second of the Rams' two first-round picks.
Of those same teams, only Pittsburgh seems likely be in the market for a receiver, and they'll be looking for someone to take Mike Wallace's place on the outside—something the 5'8" Austin could not do.
What Austin can do is provide the Rams with an incredibly explosive offensive play maker to counter Seattle's acquisition of Percy Harvin.
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) February 24, 2013
You just don't see that kind of reaction to a prospect from a Hall of Famer too often.
Austin would immediately provide Sam Bradford with an electric weapon in the slot and out of the backfield, not to mention his kick return abilities—which is also an area of need for the Rams.
What he lacks is ideal size, even for a slot receiver. The benchmark is and may always be Wes Welker, who stands 5'9" and weighs 185 pounds. Austin is an inch shorter and 11 pounds lighter. Harvin weighs the same as Welker but is two inches taller at 5'11."
The main concern born of his diminutive size is whether or not he will be able to stand up to the punishment inherent in playing receiver in the NFL. Toughness is necessary to assuage those doubts, and if his college coach can be believed, Austin has plenty of that (per TurfShowTimes.com):
The best thing about Tavon that nobody really knows is his toughness. I can't tell you how many times he's battled through little aches and pains, a lot of other guys would have taken some time off. In four years of practice...Tavon Austin didn't miss one.
The only remaining concern, then, is how to find touches for both Austin and Jared Cook out of the slot.
Cook lined up in the slot 56 percent of the time he was on the field in 2012. However, Austin's versatility will allow the Rams to get creative in how they use him; he won't solely be a slot receiver.
Again, the comparisons to Harvin are apt. Similar to the way the Vikings used him, the Rams could line up Austin in the backfield and have him run short routes in order to get him the ball in space. They could also give him some rushing attempts to utilize his speed and shiftiness.
With his abilities in space and on underneath routes, Austin would be the perfect complement to Brian Quick and Chris Givens on the outside and Jared Cook's freakish ability to stretch a seam route from the slot.
A lot of people are sleeping on D.J. Swearinger; he won't allow that for much longer.
Rarely mentioned along with Kenny Vaccaro, Mat Elam and John Cyprien as one of the top available safeties in this year's draft, Swearinger is a hard-hitting ball hawk who totaled 79 tackles, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and seven passes defensed in his senior year at South Carolina.
Known for being a hard hitter, Swearinger's versatility is often overlooked. He has played both safety positions and even some occasional duty at cornerback against bigger receivers, which portends well for his ability to cover tight ends in the NFL.
However, the aggressiveness that leads to those hard hits has earned him more than a few penalties and, combined with his less-than-ideal speed (4.67 second 40-yard dash), has caused him to be out of position on some passing plays.
But those are the only knocks against him. His overall athleticism is second to none and his quickness—as evidenced by his 6.7 second three-cone drill (third fastest)—will give him everything he needs to play either safety position at the next level.
He has also shown great leadership skills and appears to have the right idea about how to comport himself as a new member of an NFL team (per Steve Eubanks of FoxSportsCarolinas.com):
A leader is a leader. It really doesn't matter if you're 18 or 22 or 30, people see you as a leader and they respond to that. You have to see how things are and you have to get well with everybody and everything. Once you do that, and you show everybody that you're happy to have the opportunity to be there, it all works out.
The quality of the safeties in this year's draft, combined with Swearinger's underwhelming 40-yard dash time, has likely ended any chance of him being selected in the first round.
If I'm the Rams, I'm ecstatic about that.
To be able to pick up a safety in the second round who is that athletic, hits that hard and carries that much energy with him every time he steps onto the field is an opportunity that doesn't come around very often.
Marcus Lattimore's 2012 knee injury against the Tennessee Volunteers was gruesome. It is not something those with a weak constitution will want to watch. Before the injury, Lattimore was widely considered to be the top running back prospect in the country.
Subsequently, his draft stock has tumbled.
But knee injuries—even simultaneous tears to three of the four ligaments—ain't what they used to be.
Even 10 years ago, knee injuries weren't the career killers they had been previously.
Gore's teammate at the University of Miami, Willis McGahee, tore three ligaments in his knee in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl and went on to have a successful NFL career, though he had to sit out the first year after being drafted to continue the rehabilitation process.
And that's where the more recent advancements have come: the rapidity of the recovery process.
Robert Griffin III is currently recovering from his second reconstructive surgery on the same knee so rapidly that Dr. James Andrews—the renowned orthopedic surgeon who worked with Peterson—has labeled him "superhuman."
Actually, Dr. Andrews has labeled four of his knee surgery patients "superhuman," Peterson, Griffin, Bo Jackson and Lattimore.
Dr. Andrews also described RGIII and Lattimore as "superhuman," in their ability and motivation to recover. Compared to Bo Jackson and AP.
— Stephania Bell (@Stephania_ESPN) March 22, 2013
The Rams' current running back situation could be worse. In the 2012 draft, they were able to find a seventh-round gem in Daryl Richardson after they spent a second-rounder on Isiah Pead, who, it was believed at the time, was the heir apparent to Steven Jackson.
Then they were able to snatch 2012 sixth-round selection Terrance Ganaway away from the Jets after they cut him in training camp with the hope of re-signing him to their practice squad.
But, Lattimore has the potential to be great.
It was his second reconstructive knee surgery; many players are never the same after even one. That will cause much concern throughout NFL front offices come draft time and is the reason why he is currently projected as a third-round pick.
But if Dr. Andrews puts him in that kind of company, who are we to argue?
The Rams need an athlete at outside linebacker, someone with good sideline-to-sideline speed in order to chase down Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Percy Harvin.
Jelani Jenkins was made from that mold.
Showcases good speed, moves well from sideline to sideline. Good burst. Athletic. Works well in pursuit, able to track ball carriers and then make tackles. Possessing good blitzing ability. Best trait is his ability to cover. Can run with backs and tight ends. Easily flips hips, and turns his head to find the football.
He is everything you want in a 4-3 outside linebacker in today's NFL.
Well, almost everything. One of the biggest knocks on him is that he struggles to disengage from blockers. His bench-press total from the combine (27 reps, tied for fourth best) shows that it's not strength he lacks, but rather proper technique with his hands.
Sadly, the other major concern about Jenkins is the same thing that caused him to miss every other event at the combine: injuries.
Jenkins' decision to bypass his redshirt senior season was a bit of a surprise considering he missed two games with a broken thumb, another with the broken foot and was also hampered by a hamstring injury he suffered in his first game back from the broken thumb. He had 29 tackles, two sacks, an interception and two quarterback hurries.
Based solely on the 2012 season, it is entirely fair to label Jenkins as injury-prone. But, before last season he had missed only one game in his two-year college career.
It seems much more likely that Jenkins just had a run of bad luck. Okay, really bad luck.
Concerns over his health will cause Jenkins to drop in the draft. If he is there for the Rams in the fourth (most people think he will be), he has the potential to be one of the biggest steals of the whole thing.
The Rams still need to add a fourth cornerback now that Bradley Fletcher has gone to the Eagles.
East St. Louis native Terry Hawthorne has the size, strength and penchant for a physical style of play to be the type of NFL defensive back that Jeff Fisher covets.
As a member of the Illini, Hawthorne played mostly on the defensive side of the ball and displayed quick reactions, strong footwork and an ability to throw even the biggest receivers and tailbacks to the ground.
A 2012 concussion and perceived limitations in coverage will cause him to fall to the fifth round, where he would be a solid pickup for a team looking to add cornerback depth.
Jeff Fisher likes big-bodied defensive tackles, and the 6'3" 310-pound Josh Boyd could push Matthew Conrath or Jermelle Cudjo (neither of whom has a very high ceiling) onto the practice squad.
As you can tell from the video, Boyd is a high-motor guy who keeps his legs churning until the whistle, and he has a good burst off the line.
As a sixth-round prospect, he will need some work—mainly in attaining a consistent pass rush—but coaches love high-motor guys and the energy they bring to the field.
With the recent release of Wayne Hunter and their apparent lack of interest in re-signing free agent Barry Richardson, the Rams are a little thin at the offensive tackle position.
Braden Brown is another of the athletic tight end-to-tackle converts, but the switch has not been recent. Brown moved to the line halfway through his redshirt freshman season and has started at right tackle in all 38 games since.
At 6'6" and 310 pounds, Brown has the size to be a mauler of a right tackle, especially if he adds a little more bulk to his long frame.
He excels in pass protection with enough agility to head off the edge-rushers and solid punch to keep them at bay.
What he lacks is adequate power to be consistently effective in the run game. But, that can be remedied by the strength coach in training camp.