The weekend of May 8-10 is undoubtedly one of the biggest turning points thus far in the Jeff Fisher & Les Snead era. The 2014 draft will provide the Rams with ample opportunities to continue to build this roster in hopes of catching the divisional front-runners, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Of course, it would be foolish to leave out the emerging Arizona Cardinals who under Bruce Arians in year 1 obtained their first double-digit win total for only the second time since 1976.
As it sits now, the Rams have a total of 9 picks highlighted by 2nd overall pick courtesy of the 2012 pre-draft trade with the Washington Redskins, with more compensatory picks on the way. Over the next couple of days we will try to provide you with a little bit of a cheat sheet for the NFL Combine, which runs from Feb 22-25.
While game tape is always important, NFL Combine performances may be particularly relevant to Rams fans given Les Snead's preference for bigger, stronger, faster athletes. For example, Alec Ogletree and Tavon Austin, the Rams' 2013 first round draft picks, both had stellar showings in these drills.
Today, we will focus on Day 1 of the workouts: tight ends, offensive linemen, special teams.
NEED LEVEL: LOW
Newly-acquired free agent signing Jared Cook looked like he was worth every penny in the home opener vs. the Arizona Cardinals. Cook was well on his way to the best game of his career when he was stripped of the ball on his way to a touchdown by Cardinals rookie, Tyrann Mathieu. The 141 yards, 2 touchdown performance is exactly what the Rams hoped for when they signed Cook to a five-year deal worth $35 million last March. Unfortunately, Cook would only go over 50 receiving yards in a game once after that week and would only haul in 3 more touchdown passes over the next 15 weeks.
Lance Kendricks has really never turned the corner after being drafted in the middle of the 2nd round in 2011. He enters the final year of his contract with the team and is coming-off a career low 258 receiving yards. Kirkwood High grad, Mike McNeill along with Cory Harkey and Justice Cunningham round out a group of serviceable backups.
WHO TO WATCH FOR AT THE COMBINE
This year’s crop of tight ends is very top heavy. North Carolina’s Eric Ebron looks to be the best of the group. Battling closely for that number 2 spot is Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro and Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Rounding out the top 5 is Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz
With two picks in the top 13 picks of the draft, the Rams do have a little flexibility and potentially could afford to take North Carolina’s Eric Ebron. Ebron’s athleticism, size and speed is rare and resembles another former ACC tight end turned NFL star, San Francisco’s Vernon Davis. Is Ebron a likely pick? No, but I would rule anything out.
NEED LEVEL: HIGH
The 2013 offensive line had the makings of one of the better offensive lines ever assembled in St. Louis. It was more talented and was deeper than anything we’ve seen here in recent years. Big free agent signing Jake Long led a group of veteran offense linemen into a 2013 season that was filled with some success despite being troubled by injuries.
However, it is very much possible that the Rams will start the 2014 season with 5 different starters than it started the 2013 season. As Long recovers from an ACL, the team will be forced to make tough choices on free agents Rodger Saffold, Chris Williams (most likely gone), unrestricted free agent Shelley Smith, and potential cap casualties Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl.
The starting guards at the beginning of the 2013 season, Williams and Dahl, seem most likely to be the first to go. Williams flashed, briefly, at the end of 2012 and was rewarded with a return trip to St. Louis on a 1-year prove it deal. Dahl, when healthy, have been one of the better free agent signings the Rams have had in recent years. However, “when healthy” has become less and less frequent after having back-to-back seasons end due to injury. If cut, the soon-to-be 33-year old, 9-year NFL veteran would save the Rams from a $4 million cap hit. Behind Williams and Dahl could be the man in between them, Scott Wells. Wells was a much needed addition in free agency entering the 2012 season, but since that signing the once very durable Wells has only played in 19 of 32 games.
Finally, the Rams will have to make a determination on the free agent Rodger Saffold. The Saffold situation is a bit of an enigma. Here’s a guy, who hasn’t played a full season in the last 3 years, looking for a second contract and is going on his third position for the Rams. It seems apparent that the Saffold team will shop the open market, selling an NFL left tackle in hopes of a big pay deal. However, Saffold may be best at offensive guard where he showed arguably Pro Bowl talent in a brief stint there in 2013.
Jim Thomas on the Rams and Rodger Saffold: "He's easily their top priority in terms of re-signing." Also (rightly) calls him a guard.
— RamsHerd (@RamsHerd) February 18, 2014
WHO TO WATCH FOR AT THE COMBINE
Texas A&M’s Jake Mathews is surely to be a top 10 pick. He is polished and comes from the blood line of an NFL Hall of Fame offensive linemen. Auburn’s Greg Robinson, Notre Dame’s Zack Martin, and troubled Michigan’s Taylor Lewan round out a group of solid top 15 targets. Whether it’s their feet (Robinson) their size and length (Martin) or their brushes with the law (Lewan) each have questions that will have to be answered at the combine.
The interior offensive linemen of the class looks to fall to Day 2 of the draft. There could be someone like Stanford’s David Yankey sneaking in at the tail end of the 1st round but that seems unlikely. There seems to be a bit of a log jam at offensive guard with Yankey, UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo, Miss State’s Gabe Jackson, and Baylor’s Cyril Richardson all being close in talent.
It is well-documented amongst St. Louis media circles and fan message boards that Jeff Fisher has never taken an offensive lineman in the 1st round of the NFL draft. It is a streak that is now on the verge of extending to its 19th draft. However, it is important to point a few things about that streak. When Fisher took over the Titans in 1994, it was already had a 1st round pick at left tackle from the 1993 draft, Brad Hopkins. Hopkins was a 2-time Pro Bowler and played 12 seasons under Fisher. Additionally, next to Hopkins was another former 1st round pick at left guard, Bruce Mathews. Bruce was a Hall-of-Famer. So, Fisher inherited talent the allowed him to develop picks. I’d also point out, there is a new CBA and that the Rams do not have a mobile QB behind that line in Steve McNair or Vince Young. Fisher’s draft history is not irrelevant but in the same context it shouldn’t carry as much weight as it does with others.
The real question at the end of the day is how healthy do the Rams think Jake Long is and will continue to be. If they think Long can come back to form, then investing a top pick in any of these guys doesn’t make sense. Joe Barksdale proved to be a good RT last year for the Rams. With Barksdale set to return for 2014 under a team friendly contract, maybe the Rams wait until later in the draft to search for a tackle and the Fisher’s streak continues. While I’d expect at least one starter (maybe two) to come from free agency, the draft is a place where the Rams could build some solid depth on the offensive line.
NEED LEVEL: LOW
The Rams really struck gold in 2012 when they got two young guys to handle their kicker. Kicker, Greg Zuerlein’s field goal percentage improved to 92.9% (26 of 28) and his touchback rate on kickoffs dramatically improved. His 52 touchbacks on kickoffs had him tied for 4th best in the NFL. And of course, punter, Johnny Hekker’s year earned him a trip to Hawaii.
Additionally, Tavon Austin's emergence as a punt return weapon gives the Rams a potentially elite player at the position. Special teams coach John Fassel ran through a rotation of kickoff returners in 2013, but with the new rules encouraging touchbacks, this position doesn't deserve the draft capital that it might once have.
WHO TO WATCH FOR AT THE COMBINE
No one. I’m not sure they air this part of the work outs. But if you are watching kickers work out at the combine, you have a serious problem and should consult a physician.
Imagine it is low. The Rams are set. The Rams Special Teams units were actually pretty good last year once Coach Fassel begin to eliminate the penalties. Snead may find a camp leg or two, but it won’t be in the draft.