When the 2011 NFL draft rolled around, the St. Louis Rams were coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo and rookie signal-caller Sam Bradford had rejuvenated a once hapless franchise by finishing the 2010 season with a 7-9 record.
Pundits around the league didn’t expect the Rams to turns things around so quickly. The organization was 1-15 in 2009, the wide receiving corps was an absolute train wreck and the defense was trying to rebound from one of their worst statistical seasons in franchise history.
However, a soft schedule and top-notch play-calling had St. Louis maxing out its potential on both sides of the ball. Below average players were playing like mediocre players and mediocre players were playing like Pro Bowlers. Everything that could have gone right for the Rams did.
Despite falling one game short of a playoff appearance, the future was starting to look awfully bright in the Lou.
Fans and media members alike couldn’t stop talking about free agency and the draft during the 2011 offseason. They were convinced that a couple of key free-agent signings and a solid draft would propel St. Louis straight to the top in the NFC West.
The notion seemed plausible at the time, because the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers had yet to establish themselves as dominant forces in the division. Moreover, analysts believed Coach Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney did a great job in that 2011 draft, putting together one of the most sound classes from top to bottom.
The analysts were right; the duo hit on need positions like tight end and wide receiver in the mid-to-late rounds. Yet, without question, their most impressive pick came in the first round when they selected 264-pound pass-rushing phenom Robert Quinn.
Prior to the draft, some viewed Quinn as one of the five best players in his draft class after outstanding freshman and sophomore seasons at North Carolina. Yes, there were off-the-field questions because he lied to the NCAA about receiving improper travel accommodations and jewelry, forcing him to miss his entire junior season, but that didn’t stop the Rams from taking him with the No. 14 overall pick.
In addition to his off-the-field problems, Quinn also fell down draft boards due to the fact he had brain surgery as a senior in high school. Some teams felt the issue could reoccur and crop back up at some point during his playing days, while other teams felt the surgery he had in high school was irrelevant to his current condition.
Obviously, the Rams weren’t concerned about either issue. Immediately following the draft, Devaney and Spagnuolo both knew Quinn would be incredibly successful opposite Chris Long, who was taken in the first round by the Rams back in 2008.
Aside from his speed, short-area quickness and tremendous upside, the Rams front office fell in love with Quinn’s explosion off the edge and pass-rush repertoire. Even though he was only 20 years old, St. Louis knew he would instantly leave his imprint on defensive coordinator Ken Flajole’s defense.
Lo and behold, Quinn did leave his mark by registering five quarterback sacks, nine quarterback hits and 21 quarterback hurries in 341 pass-rush snaps in his first season. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), his 35 quarterback pressures made him the 18th-most productive pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end in the NFL.
In spite of his profound rookie campaign, he knew he needed to become a more consistent player, especially against the run. In fact, PFF graded Quinn as the sixth-worst defensive end in the league versus the run. Missed tackles and blown assignments killed him on a weekly basis.
Fortunately for the Rams, Quinn not only became a better run-stuffer in 2012, he became a more sound tackler. The bad news was his pass-rushing productivity fell off in a big way. His 10.5 quarterback sacks looked pretty on paper, but he was starting to be perceived as a boom or bust player.
Which, in turn, means he would either make a monster play in the backfield or completely disappear. Nonetheless, Quinn’s lack of stability off the right edge wasn’t a concern for head coach Jeff Fisher and defensive line coach Mike Waufle.
Both coaches considered Quinn an unfinished product at 22 years of age. Based on the fact Waufle is observed as one of the best positional instructors in the NFL, all he needed was time to shape and mold a player who was still coming into his own.
This past offseason, Waufle not only helped Quinn hone his craft as a pass-rusher, he continuously pushed him to evolve as a run-stuffer. Whatever the defensive line coach did, it has helped transform Quinn into the most well-rounded 4-3 defensive end in the league.
Through nine games this season, Quinn has tallied 10 quarterback sacks, 14 quarterback hits and 22 quarterback hurries. Furthermore, PFF has awarded him with a plus-6.7 grade against the run. Simply put, the third-year pro is on pace to have one of the most dominant seasons in league history.
Apart from his gaudy numbers, Quinn is validating his play on tape.
Mistakes have been few and far between. Fisher and Quinn both credit that to maturity, growing up and learning the subtle intricacies of the game.
Here’s what the Rams' second-year head coach had to say about Quinn at the conclusion of their Monday Night Football game versus the Seahawks, via Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com, "The pass rush stuff is one thing. His defense against the run is where he's really standing out. He's off to a great start."
Even if Fisher wants to applaud Quinn’s newfound ability to play the run, it’s important to understand why left tackles around the league have failed to shut him down.
In order to gain the upper hand when facing opposing offensive linemen, Quinn realized, at the end of the 2012 season, that he needed to diversify his skill set. He started to notice, prior to the season, that his pass-rushing moves were getting repetitive.
So, what did he do? He stared incorporating more inside moves. Adding an inside move to his collection no longer makes him a one-trick pony.
Here’s what Quinn told ESPN's Wagoner about the strategy behind his inside pass-rush move, "That way offensive linemen don’t just have to focus on one thing. You have to be a master of all, which is tough to do, but that’s our job to do so we work at our craft, try to get better each week."
Quinn’s emergence as a premier NFL pass-rusher has been abrupt, but it’s obvious he is committed to becoming the best defensive end he can possibly be. For him, being good is not enough. The savvy edge-rusher has one mindset.
He wants to be great, and he will do whatever it takes to achieve greatness.