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How Les Snead Built a Contender out of the St. Louis Rams

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How Les Snead Built a Contender out of the St. Louis Rams

About 21 months ago, the St. Louis Rams walked off the field against the San Francisco 49ers after losing 34-27 in what would be Steve Spagnuolo's last game as their head coach. It was the end to a 2-14 campaign that seemed to be a precursor for further struggles from a team that was void on talent across the board. 

For Spags, it was a bitter end to a thee-year tenure that saw him lose 38 of a possible 48 regular season games as the team's head man. 

Despite winning only two games that season, St. Louis was unable to secure the No. 1 overall pick and thus the rights to select former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. Though it did have a first pick in the form of Sam Bradford on the roster, that selection would have been pure gold as it relates to the NFL trade market. 

Another name, Robert Griffin III of Baylor, was making headway atop the draft towards the end of the 2011 season. Little did St. Louis know that it would be able to turn that seemingly "out of the blue" prospect into the bounty it would later receive. 

More on that in a bit. 

Not only did the brass in St. Louis send its head coach packing, it completely cleaned house within the front office. General manager Billy Devaney was also fired immediately after the regular season came to a conclusion. 

For vice president Kevin Demoff and owner Stan Kroenke, it was all about completely erasing the last three years from their memory and moving forward anew. 

Enter into the equation Les Snead, who had just come off five successful seasons in the Atlanta Falcons front office as their director of player personnel. Snead at general manager and Jeff Fisher at head coach would form one solid tandem for a Rams team looking to rebuild a talent-stricken roster. 

Kevin Casey/Getty Images
Hiring Jeff Fisher was the first step for the Rams.

The ability of the Rams to bring in not only a well-known figure, but also someone who had a ton of success as a coach in the league was absolutely huge here. 

It indicated that St. Louis wasn't going to sit back and rely on washed-up head coaches or unproven coordinators to help move the franchise forward. Instead, they were going to be players in the NFC West and prove to the rest of the NFL that they weren't satisfied being bottom feeders for the class of the league. 

It also sent a message to both the players on the team and possible outside free-agent acquisitions that it was serious about building winning in relatively short order. We wouldn't be looking at a lengthy rebuilding process in St. Louis. 

The first move that laid the groundwork for rebuilding was when St. Louis sent the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft to the Washington Redskins for a plethora of picks. 

Originally, this is how that deal looked. Washington obtained the second pick, which eventually became Robert Griffin III. Meanwhile, Daniel Snyder and company sent three first-round picks as well as a second-rounder to the Rams, per The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
With no need for RGIII, Snead was able to get quite the bounty in return.

St. Louis sent the sixth overall pick it acquired from Washington for the 14th pick (Michael Brockers) and a second-round pick (Janoris Jenkins). The Jenkins selection was utilized after a trade down with Chicago that enabled the Rams to pick up both Isaiah Pead and Rokevious Watkins later in the draft. 

In essence, Snead picked up two immediate contributors who were first-round talents for RGIII. He was also able to keep the other two first-rounders he acquired in the deal. 

As of now, this is how the deal breaks down with a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft still coming the Rams way. 

 

Year Round Player Position Team
2012 First Michael Brockers Defensive Tackle Louisiana State
2012 Second Janoris Jenkins Cornerback Northern Alabama
2012 Second Isaiah Pead Running Back Vanderbilt
2012 Fifth Rokevious Watkins Offensive Tackle South Carolina
2013 First Alec Ogletree Linebacker Georgia
2013 Third Stedman Bailey Wide Receiver West Virginia
2013 Sixth Zac Stacy Running Back Vanderbilt

 

The parameters are a bit convoluted here. St. Louis traded down in the first round with the pick it originally acquired from Washington and selected Alec Ogletree this past April. It also picked up the pick that it used for Stedman Bailey in that deal as well as a sixth-round. That sixth-rounder was eventually dealt to move up about a half of round to get running back Zac Stacy. 

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch breaks the entire trade down in a much less confusing manner than I just did. 

However, that's essentially the bounty that Snead has been able to get in return for RGIII. While it's too early to tell how many of these players will pan out, trades like this have been successful around the NFL in recent history. 

Four games into the 1989 season the Dallas Cowboys sent running back Herschel Walker packing to the Minnesota Vikings in a trade that surprised the football world. Dallas ended up receiving five veterans and a bunch of picks in the deal. While those veterans wouldn't make huge impacts for the rebuilding Cowboys, the picks that Jerry Jones and Co. acquired helped build the dynasty of the 1990s. 

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
St. Louis followed a model utilized by the Cowboys, among others, by stockpiling picks.

In short, Dallas ended up acquiring Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson and Alvin Harper, among many others in return for Walker. 

This could have acted as somewhat of a guide for Les Snead and Co. about a quarter-century later. 

Despite attempting to rebuild through the draft, St. Louis did hit free agency in 2012. It signed former Pro Bowl cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The idea here was to team the veteran up with youngster Janoris Jenkins at cornerback. 

St. Louis also added solid veterans in the form of linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, center Scott Wells and defensive end Kendall Langford, among others. These three players had major impacts on the Rams' improvement from 2011 to 2012. 

The Rams also hit free agency pretty hard this year. 

By adding the likes of tight end Jared Cook and franchise left tackle Jake Long, St. Louis filled two huge positions of need on the offensive side of the ball.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Jared Cook gives the Rams a physically-imposing tight end.

Cook will provide Sam Bradford with an immediate down-field threat between the hashes. He averaged 15.5 yards per reception in 2011, before struggling this past season due to injuries and inconsistent quarterback play.

Long, a four-time Pro Bowl performer, also had a down season in 2012 but was at one point considered one of the best left tackles in the NFL. If healthy, Long will provide a major upgrade for Bradford on the blindside.  

While it had to be hard to part ways with veteran running back Steven Jackson, it's a move that the Rams had to make. They were moving forward as a young team, while Jackson was looking for a realistic shot at going out on top. 

What seems to be a major loss on the surface, Snead had already started the process of replacing Jackson by selecting Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson in the 2012 draft. 

Richardson, a seventh-round pick from Abilene Christian, surprised many by going for over 600 yards as a rookie last year. Pead, on the other hand, struggled to make an instant impact. 

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
With rookie Zac Stacy in the fold, St. Louis now has three young running backs.

St. Louis then went out there and nabbed the underrated Zac Stacy from Vanderbilt in the fifth round this past April. Stacy was an ultra-productive running back in what has to be considered the toughest conference in college football, the SEC. He put up over 2,600 total yards and 24 touchdowns in his final two collegiate seasons.

While unsettled, the running back situation in St. Louis is a prime example of building talent through the draft. 

It is this type of tough decision-making that enables a franchise to move forward to the future. Though Jackson did a lot for the Rams, this was the perfect time for both sides to part ways. 

With the talent currently around him, Bradford has no more excuses. He needs to take that next step from game manager to someone that can lead an offense down the field for touchdowns on a consistent basis. The electric Tavon Austin will help him all over the field, while the emergence of three other young receivers could help on the outside. 

If Bradford is able to take that next step, there is no reason to believe the Rams can't contend for a wild-card spot in 2013. If not, questions will be raised about his ability to lead the team moving forward. 

And you have to believe that Snead will make the decision that best suits the team, not the quarterback. His ability to do so in his first two offseasons as the Rams general manager tells us all we need to know. 

St. Louis has a strong young core on the defensive side of the ball with as many as a half of dozen expected starters currently 26 years of age or younger. 

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Quinn and Chris Long might be the next great defensive end tandem in the NFL.

The strength of this unit sits in the front seven, as Robert Quinn and Chris Long form one of the better 4-3 defensive end tandems in the entire NFL. Depending on the growth of 2013 first-round pick Alec Ogletree, the Rams could also be set at linebacker. 

One major issue this unit might face in 2013 is safety play. Does T.J. McDonald have what it takes to be a strong cover free safety? Who else might step up along the back end of the Rams secondary? These are two huge question marks. 

As it is, St. Louis has rebuilt its team from the bottom up over the past 18 months. The relative quickness that it took to go from bottom feeder to legitimate playoff contender nearly rivals that of the top dog in the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers. 

If that's the model that St. Louis has decided to use, it is going to be in good shape moving forward. It's now up to the young core to take that next step and close the gap between themselves and San Francisco as well as the Seattle Seahawks

Even if it doesn't happen in 2013, St. Louis will be a team to watch for the foreseeable future and it has Les Snead to thank for that. 

 

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.

Vincent is the head sports editor at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio (which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. ET) and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.

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