Despite playing in the toughest division in football, the St. Louis Rams are an upward-trending team eyeing a playoff berth in 2013—their first in eight seasons.
To understand how they got to this point, it's important to look at the moves they've made in recent years.
Thanks to the presence of a well-respected veteran head coach in Jeff Fisher, players are suddenly attracted to St. Louis. This has allowed the Rams to make better quality acquisitions, whereas after the 2009 season—following a one-win campaign—the team had to overpay and settle for what they could get.
The Rams are suddenly an alluring option for free agents, and to show the difference between the Fisher moves and the moves of the Steve Spagnuolo era, this article will grade the top offseason acquisitions from the past five seasons.
We'll leave out draft picks, and instead, focus on free agency. The grades will be based on the player's price tag, quality of play and number of seasons spent in St. Louis.
Jason Brown, Center
Coming off a two-win season, the Rams were forced to overpay for Brown and offered him a sizable five-year deal worth $37 million, according to ESPN.
The investment in Brown immediately paid off, and he was one of the better centers in the league during the 2009 season, but his play steadily declined until his miserable 2011 season, where he missed two games due to injury and was brutal on the field when healthy.
To be fair, Brown had a brother in the military who was tragically killed overseas, according to ESPN, and the overwhelming mental distraction likely contributed to his NFL downfall. After being released in 2012, Brown chose to retire from the league, despite the fact he was under 30 years old and still generating interest from other teams.
Either way, Brown was a disappointment. He was a three-year starter and only missed two games, but he didn’t come close to earning his monster contract.
James Butler, Safety
James Butler played under Spagnuolo in New York and was signed by St. Louis to help ease the team's transition into the Spagnuolo defense by bringing in a player with experience in the scheme.
Butler was signed to a four-year deal worth $14 million, according to Spotrac.com and was expected to be a valuable starter, but he managed to start just 17 games over a three-year stretch.
Inconsistent play and injuries hurt Butler during his time in St. Louis, and he didn’t start a single game in 2011—his final season with the Rams.
Butler was an underwhelming player and failed to win over the starting job on a consistent basis, making him another botched signing by the Rams.
Overall 2009 Grade: D
Fred Robbins, Defensive Tackle
Fred Robbins was a key part of the New York Giants pass rush during their 2007 Super Bowl run, and St. Louis brought him aboard hoping for the same effect.
Robbins was a vital member of the 2010 defense, and his presence allowed Chris Long to have a breakout year.
Robbins’ age caught up with him in 2011, and his play drastically declined, but he was still extremely valuable as a one-year rental.
Na'il Diggs, Linebacker
Like Robbins, Na’il Diggs was a one-year rental, but he was a solid contributor when on the field.
He started 12 games in 2010 after missing four games due to injury and complemented James Laurinaitis nicely when it came to the run defense.
Diggs didn’t have a lengthy tenure with the team, but he did his job in St. Louis and earned his paycheck.
Overall 2010 Grade: B-
Quintin Mikell, Safety
Quintin Mikell was signed to a four-year deal worth $27 million, according to Spotrac, and while the contract was steep, Mikell was, by far, the best free-agent acquisition of the Spagnuolo era.
Mikell was a high-end starter in 2011 and 2012, but he was released this past spring for salary cap reasons.
According to STLtoday.com, there’s still a chance Mikell will be back with the team by training camp at a reduced price, as he remains unsigned in the free-agent market.
Mike Sims-Walker, Wide Receiver
Mike Sims-Walker was signed by the Rams after several years of mild production in Jacksonville and was expected to solidify a very weak group of Rams receivers.
Sims-Walker struggled with drops in 2011 and ended the year with just 11 catches and under 200 yards.
He was released after just four games with St. Louis.
Cadillac Williams, Running Back
Cadillac Williams earned a very bad rep in St. Louis after failing to recover a fumble against the Giants in what was undoubtedly a bone-headed play that contributed to the loss.
I’ll be scorned for saying this, but if you can ignore that one play, Cadillac was actually a somewhat decent No. 2 back during his one season with the Rams.
He ended the year with 387 yards and a 4.1 yards-per-carry average.
Overall, he’ll be remembered as a disappointment, but he was better that he’s given credit for.
Overall 2011 Grade: D+
Scott Wells, Center
Once again, the Rams were in search of a center, leading up to the 2012 season, and settled on Green Bay’s Pro Bowl center—Scott Wells.
They signed Wells to a four-year deal worth $24 million, according to Spotrac, but he suffered a Week 1 foot injury and sat out for nine consecutive weeks.
On the bright side, the line played at a much higher level upon his return late in 2012, and he appears to finally be healthy for 2013.
The injury was unfortunate, but Wells can make it up by starting all 16 games in 2013.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Linebacker
Jo-Lonn Dunbar was viewed as a low-end acquisition and didn’t carry a lot of expectations, but turned out to be a steal.
Not only was Dunbar a playmaker and stout against both the run and pass, but he had tenacity and brought attitude to the defense.
Dunbar will be a key part of the defense in 2013 and the third wheel in what should be a terrific linebacker trio in St. Louis.
Cortland Finnegan, Cornerback
Cortland Finnegan was a blockbuster free agent and St. Louis had to fork over a five-year deal worth $50 million to secure him, according to Spotrac, but he was worth every penny.
Finnegan is a playmaker—he recorded an interception in each of the first three games of 2012—and brings an attitude to the defense that can’t be taught through coaching.
Not only that, but he’ll team up with James Laurinaitis and Chris Long to provide the Rams with a great trio of veteran leaders on defense.
Finnegan still has four years remaining on his contract. But so far, Finnegan is as good as it gets as far as free agent acquisitions go.
Kendall Langford, Defensive Tackle
Kendall Langford was signed to a four-year deal at $24 million last offseason, according to Spotrac, and was expected to be the team’s anchor at defensive tackle, but rookie Michael Brockers outplayed him.
Langford played in a 3-4 scheme with Miami and was making the transition to a 4-3 system in St. Louis, so that surely slowed his progress.
He was a mildly productive in 2012 and started every game, but he hasn’t reached his potential, at least not yet.
He’ll be expected to improve in 2013 and will be part of a fierce defensive front in St. Louis.
Overall 2012 Grade: A-
Jake Long, Tackle
Jake Long was brought in to secure the blindside and is expected to be the best left tackle the Rams have had since Orlando Pace.
Long didn't come cheap and cost the Rams a four-year deal worth $34 million, but the contract is more than reasonable if he plays up to his potential.
The Rams are taking a bit of a gamble with long considering he has dealt with health issues and has missed six games over the last two seasons. But overall, top-notch left tackles are impossible to find in free agency, which makes Long worth the risk.
Jared Cook, Tight End
The Rams had to pay top tight end money for Cook, signing him to a five-year deal worth $35.1 million, but his potential is well worth the financial risk.
Cook still has a lot to prove on the field, which is why he doesn't have a higher grade, but he'll be given every opportunity to shine in St. Louis.
Overall 2013 Grade: A-