Since 2008, the St. Louis Rams have quietly solidified a defensive line that is, without question, a monstrous group that has the potential to grow into one of the best overall units in recent NFL history.
Although, the word "quietly" is not a totally accurate descriptor. The team has used four first-round picks on the defensive line in the last six years, so the Rams have actually been quite obnoxious about their desire to own the league's best line.
However, the development of the line has depended on more than just first-round selections. Those high picks certainly help, but the process has been a bit more subtle than you might think.
Coaching Loyalty and Success
The previous two regimes deserve some credit for landing superstars Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
Former general manager Billy Devaney made other discoveries on the line as well, such as veteran Fred Robbins, and former Rams draft picks George Selvie and Eugene Sims (who is still an underrated contributor for the team.)
What the past regimes lacked, on the other hand, was the ability to coach up the lesser talents and get the most out of them. That's one area where the current coaching staff separates itself from its predecessors.
Jeff Fisher is a defensive guru, and defensive line coach Mike Waufle is one of the best in the business. They can not only find players with great upside, but unlike the past regimes, they have the coaching skills to help low-end players reach their maximum potential.
Fisher has been teaching the techniques for over two decades, but more importantly, he's a natural motivator. During his first minicamp with St. Louis in 2012, he set the bar high by stating the season's goal was to break the NFL team sack record (72, 1984 Chicago Bears).
The Rams fell short of the goal, but players bought into his vision. The team finished with an NFL-high 52 sacks in 2012 and finished third in 2013 (53).
The players have a special connection with Fisher. They're more than eager to go into battle with him and fight by his side. The last thing Rams players want to do is be viewed as disappointments in Fisher's eyes.
Examples of this loyalty are plentiful.
When the Rams were wining and dining free agent Jake Long last year, an unknown Rams player sent a text to Long, explaining that he'd rather retire than play under any coach other than Fisher, per Sports Illustrated's Peter King.
Long signed with the Rams.
When William Hayes entered free agency in 2013, he was coming off a good year as a backup defensive end and certainly had the option of leaving for a starting role elsewhere.
Rather than taking the big bucks and leaving town, Hayes signed a modest three-year contract for $10.25 million and opted to retain his role as a rotational player. He'd rather be a No. 3 in St. Louis than a No. 2 anywhere else.
Loyalty. It's a trait all too common in Fisher's players. And that's what he brings to the table—the desire to win and succeed and the ability to sell that mindset to his players.
Sure, the current St. Louis defensive line would still be a strong force under any other head coach. But under the guidance of Fisher, the group has the chance to accomplish something special.
Developing and Grooming Low-End Talent
The blue-chip linemen allow the Rams' defensive line to be good (comfortably above average), but it's the depth that truly makes this an elite group.
St. Louis has been supplementing its top-tier players with late-round prospects and mid-level free agents who carry incredible upside.
Hayes was a four-year veteran when the Rams signed him in free agency during the 2012 offseason. In his first four years, he averaged just two sacks per season and was basically an underwhelming player.
Now, after recording 12 total sacks in the last two seasons (and even an interception in 2013), Hayes has established himself as perhaps the best No. 3 defensive end among all 4-3 defenses. (Bleacher Report's Matt Miller certainly agrees.)
Not bad for a mediocre acquisition on a one-year contract.
The team did the same for Eugene Sims. The current regime inherited Sims, with many assuming that he was a leftover player with no future under Fisher, but that notion was dead wrong.
Sims has five sacks in the last two season despite playing a part-time role. He contributes on special teams but can certainly step in and start if needed.
The coaching staff was so impressed with Sims, they inked him to a two-year, $2.8 million contract to keep him in St. Louis through 2015.
Kendall Langford is another example. Langford is not exactly a bargain player, as he signed a four-year, $22 million contract in 2012, but he was considered a project coming from a 3-4 defense. He has quickly adapted to his new position at defensive tackle, however.
First-round draft pick Aaron Donald will likely replace Langford as the starter, but thanks to St. Louis' ability to spot Langford's talent, they'll have the luxury of using him as depth.
Obviously, not all the low-key pickups work out.
The Rams signed free agent Trevor Laws in 2012, but he couldn't shake the injury bug. The team has also picked up a number of undrafted rookies who were unable to produce, such as Gerald Rivers.
In order to win the lottery, you have to play the game. As such, the Rams will continue with their influx of low-level talent on the defensive line in hopes that a portion will pan out.
The Rams added 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL draft (I'm sure this is the first you're hearing of it), and signed pass-rushing guru Ethan Westbrooks out of West Texas A&M as an undrafted free agent.
With St. Louis' top-notch coaching staff, these are not irrelevant pickups. These players can be groomed into eventual replacements for Sims and Hayes (in case either ever leaves for more money), which keeps the depth strong. And if the depth stays strong, the unit stays elite.
The depth players on St. Louis' defensive line are not just adequate. They're elite. You can sort through every NFL roster without finding backups up to par with the Rams' depth players.
When it comes to producing a defensive line of historic proportions, these are the guys that will ultimately make the difference. Depth separates good from great.
Hitting Home Runs with Blue-Chip Players
Let's be honest. The thriving defensive line isn't just the result of veteran coaching and shrewd offseason pickups.
The Rams are also the benefactors of extraordinary luck, mainly in the form of Black Lightning.
Black Lightning is, of course, the famous pseudonym of Quinn—the most dominant player to wear a Rams jersey since Torry Holt (maybe beyond Holt, depending on his future consistency).
During Quinn's five-sack rookie season, it was clear that he had incredible athleticism and a nose for the quarterback. Anyone could have predicted that he'd produce a few double-digit sack seasons in his career, but there was no guarantee that he'd become one of the most dominant defensive players in all of football.
And that's a lucky break.
If Quinn turned out to be merely an above-average defensive end, the Rams would still have a stout defensive line, but it's Quinn's elite status that truly gives the St. Louis line a chance to be special.
Every great unit needs a thoroughbred—a superstar. The Legion of Boom has Richard Sherman. The Fearsome Foursome of the Los Angeles Rams had Deacon Jones. The Indianapolis Colts' aerial attack had Peyton Manning. The Greatest Show on Turf had Marshall Faulk.
The Rams have Quinn.
St. Louis hit a home run with that draft pick. A grand slam. Now, it's time to reap the benefits.
It doesn't end there, either. St. Louis' ability to hit home runs with its other blue-chip draft picks adds to the danger. Long (aka White Thunder) has lived up to his potential, and Michael Brockers is on the same path.
The jury is still out on Donald, who has yet to play a game, but if St. Louis' recent draft history tells us anything, it's that he's in good hands.
The franchise's ability to nail these selections has put it in an incredible position.
Sit Back and Watch It All Fall into Place
Clearly, the development of St. Louis' defensive line has been boosted by high draft picks, but other factors have contributed to its growth as well.
The team had to hit the lottery on a few low-end talents, establish a coaching staff that demands loyalty and production and combine those two aspects with its blue-chip players.
It's certainly no secret that the Rams have been stockpiling defensive line talent over the past six years. It's clear the unit was going to be performing at or near an above-average level by 2014.
However, this group goes beyond that. There's a perfect storm brewing in St. Louis. Opposing teams have felt the White Thunder and Black Lightning, but the storm is about to get far worse: hurricanes, tornadoes, monsoons and more.
Fisher and the Rams are cooking up something special under the arch.
Great units give birth to Super Bowl champions.
Steven Gerwel is the longest-tenured Rams Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and serves as the Rams' game-day correspondent. You can find more of Gerwel's work by visiting his writer profile or by following him on Twitter.
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