NFC West: 2014 NFL Combine

When the St. Louis Rams left the NFL scouting combine two years ago, they had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen.

They held the second pick in a draft that had two of the most prized possessions in football: elite quarterback prospects. Even before the NFL converged on Indianapolis it was no secret that the hometown Colts would be taking Stanford signal caller Andrew Luck with the first pick. That left Robert Griffin III looming as the player that any quarterback-needy team coveted.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney's strong showing at the NFL combine adds to the intrigue for the Rams, who hold the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
Griffin promptly ran a 4.41 second 40-yard dash and lingering questions dissipated. The Rams' phone lines began blowing up.

More than a month from the start of the draft, the Rams struck a deal with Washington for the No. 2 pick.

This year, the Rams again hold the second pick and again have interest in sending it on to the highest bidder. What they don't have is the same clearly defined market.

"I think sitting at 2, this is gonna be a little bit different than the last one," Rams general manager Les Snead said. "When we went out to Indy the last time (2012), it seemed like everyone knew who Pick 1 was gonna be. And probably what Pick 2 was gonna be. I'm not sure we're gonna leave Indy and know who Pick 1's gonna be. If you'all do know, let me know. That would help the spring out."

At this point, it doesn't seem like even the Houston Texans, the team picking first, knows what their going to do with the first pick. Many assume it's going to be a quarterback. Some suspect they will go for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Some even think Houston might trade the pick before the Rams can.

It's part of the mystery that comes when there is not one quarterback who stands above the rest, let alone two.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher even joked about trying to coax the answer out of Houston general manager Rick Smith during a weak moment when the two spend time together at Competition Committee meetings.

"I spent the last three days in the same meeting room with Rick Smith," Fisher said, laughing. "I am going to spend another week with him in a couple weeks. Then I’m going to give myself another good solid week to find out what they are going to do."

Early impressions of this year's draft class indicate it could be one of the deepest groups to come along in awhile. That could mean that more teams look to move down than usual.

Snead said teams also have to look at the next draft class to get a handle on what might be coming next year.

"You start looking at, hey, if you go back (in trade) here, last year we might have been shut out," Snead said. "This year, wow, look at our options. At worst we've got a pick of these (guys). In going through all this in planning for a trade maybe, or just being prepared for whatever happens, you even go further looking into next year's draft. If this one is this deep, what are we thinking next year is gonna be like? Is it gonna be like, really thin? This year being deep, it's gonna affect trades for sure."

Snead, Fisher and the Rams have been more than willing to work out a deal in their first two years in St. Louis. That isn't likely to change this year. The only thing different might be the patience required for a swap to come to fruition.

What Clowney's big day means for Rams

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25

Nobody who has followed his football career closely should have been surprised by the Superman impression South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney put on Monday when he went through the on-field workout portion of the NFL scouting combine.

Officially, Clowney finished the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds, a time that is considered good for 210-pound receivers and 220-pound running backs. It's thought to be superhuman when a 266-pound defensive end does it.

Beyond that, Clowney didn't do everything in the workout but what he did, he did better than just about anyone else at his position.

Over the weekend, we discussed the difficult decision the Rams could face if Clowney doesn't go No. 1 overall to Houston or another team moving up to get him. Clowney's performance in his workout proved again why he's considered the best talent in the class. Were it not for questions about his work ethic and desire to be great, he'd also be considered the best player in the class rather than just the guy with the most physical gifts.

If Clowney is there at No. 2, the Rams have to weigh whether it's worth it to use such a lofty pick on a player who is potentially a franchise piece. With Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims under contract for at least the next two years, the Rams are loaded at end but it would be unwise to draft for next year or the next two years.

I suspect the Rams weren't at all taken aback by Clowney's performance in Indianapolis. They already know what his physical gifts are. Clowney told me after his media interview Saturday that the Rams had recently sent a contingent to South Carolina to do some homework on him. Clearly, there's at least some level of interest on the Rams' part.

What remains to be seen is whether the Rams' interest is genuine or they simply want to make sure everyone knows they aren't afraid to draft Clowney, and if you want him, you should probably make them an offer. It's long been assumed that Rams coach Jeff Fisher subscribes to the theory that you can never have too many pass-rushers. He confirmed those beliefs last week.

“We've proven in the last (two) years we can get pressure on the quarterback specifically with a four-man rush,” Fisher said. “And we've gotten pressure and effective rush from our backups. You can't get enough guys that can (rush).”

Rams general manager Les Snead has said on multiple occasions that the team's biggest need is experience. That would lend credence to the idea that if the Rams have to make a pick at No. 2, they wouldn't shy away from simply drafting the best player available.

But at the end of the day, it's hard to shake the thought that the Rams' ultimate goal is to auction off the second pick for a bounty of other picks and address a more pressing position on the offensive line, in the secondary or at receiver.

Clowney's big day might not have changed anything in terms of how he's viewed by talent evaluators, but it at least confirmed that if you're a team that wants him, you better be prepared to pay the price to move up.
Picking 20th in May's NFL draft doesn't bode well for the Arizona Cardinals landing a top-tier offensive tackle, especially after the way some of them performed during the NFL combine.

But that's not to say the Cards won't have their pick of the litter when it comes to improving at left tackle. Although it's by no means scientific, a handful of tackles have been linked to the Cardinals by various experts, draftniks and mock drafts.

Here's how six offensive tackles who may still be around at No. 20 or later for Arizona fared at the combine:

All six of these tackles showed their athleticism, but how often does a tackle take off to block 40 yards? Speed isn't a major factor, but the three-cone drill times are something to look at because that shows a player's agility.

Based on their numbers, Notre Dame's Zack Martin may have had the best all-around combine out of this group, which the Cardinals will most likely be choosing from -- if, and it needs to be said, Arizona doesn't sign a tackle in free agency. Martin's biggest knock is his size. At 6-foot-4, he's giving up a few inches to Henderson and Kouandjio and with 32 7/8-inch arms, Martin's reach is the shortest of this group. But he's reliable, as he showed at Notre Dame, and clearly athletic, which could make up for his lack of size when it comes to deflecting the new breed of defensive ends from getting to Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer.

Ohio State's Jack Mewhort also had strong numbers, with the second-fastest shuttle drill and the second-longest broad jump, which put his lower-body strength on display. Mewhort may have improved his stock at the combine because at 6-foot-6 and 309 pounds -- which can easily be changed with an NFL weight plan -- his arms are 34 inches long, meaning he has the quickness and length to block.

Henderson impressed with his 40 time but didn't show great agility while Kouandjio has a lot of upside and could be a project for a team. He has a lot of lower-body strength, according to his numbers from the combine, but his quickness doesn't seem to be appealing.

Ten Rams-related combine takeaways

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
ST. LOUIS -- The NFL scouting combine doesn't officially wrap up until Tuesday afternoon but my time in Indianapolis is over. As usual, the better part of the past week was an educational experience on a number of levels.

There are few times during the year when you get to be in the same place as every team's coaching staff, general manager, scouts and others who help in the decision-making process. Agents are also easy to find during combine week which helps serve as a sort of unofficial begin to free agency. With that in mind, here are 10 things I took away from the combine as they relate to the St. Louis Rams.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
AP Photo/Johnny VyIf the Texans pass on Jadeveon Clowney with the No. 1 pick, the Rams could be in a prime position to trade down.
-- Houston is holding its cards extremely close to the vest in terms of what it plans to do with the No. 1 overall pick. The Rams have their guesses but even coach Jeff Fisher admitted he was hoping to catch fellow Competition Committee member Rick Smith, who is also the general manager of the Texans, at a weak moment to find out what Houston plans. Without that knowledge, the Rams can plan for multiple contingencies but anything involving a trade down is going to be close to impossible unless the Texans tip their hand early.

-- Speaking of trade downs, it sounds like the best-case scenario for the Rams to get a decent package of picks to move down is for Houston to take Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles. It's entirely possible the Rams would get the most in return from a team moving up to land South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Atlanta remains the most logical potential trade partner.

-- There's still plenty of time for a team to fall in love with a quarterback and want to move ahead of Jacksonville to secure one but as it stands, it doesn't sound like there's much consensus that any signal-caller is worth giving up much to get. As always, though, it only takes one team with one fascination for a move to happen.

-- I still believe the Rams would prefer to move down if the right opportunity presents itself. It's not realistic to think they could get the same return they did for the No. 2 pick in 2012 but a move down which could land them a player such as Clowney, Auburn tackle Greg Robinson, Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews or even Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins and extra picks seems like it's still the team's preferred method.

-- In talking to a handful of scouts and personnel types, there seems to be a consensus forming in terms of who the top 10 or 11 players are but not in how they would go. Clowney, Robinson, Matthews, Watkins, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan, Bortles, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans were the names I heard the most in those conversations. One player who might not be getting enough love is Mack. Didn't hear a single negative word about him all week though most seem to think he's a better scheme fit in a 3-4.

-- There were plenty of people who were down on the overall quality of the 2013 NFL draft. This year appears to be the opposite. Fisher and general manager Les Snead offered that it appears to be an extremely deep group at many positions. Good news for the Rams: It appears deepest on the offensive line (especially tackle), at wide receiver and at cornerback. The safety group leaves something to be desired beyond the top two or three, however.

-- It's no surprise but the Rams are serious about their efforts to retain offensive lineman Rodger Saffold. It's also no surprise that they want him to return as a guard, where Fisher thinks he could be "outstanding." Discussions to that end are ongoing but it's hard to see a scenario in which the Rams can prevent Saffold from testing the market without having to overpay. Even before Indy, multiple teams had made it clear they were interested in Saffold. Expect that interest to grow further. What the Rams do in the draft and the rest of free agency will hinge heavily on what becomes of Saffold.

-- Rumors of a much increased salary cap, possibly one as high as $132 million, should certainly help the Rams. If nothing else, it would allow them to make some moves in free agency without having to redo some contracts or outright release players they may want to keep. But in terms of spending, it's important to remember that every team realizes that windfall. There are going to be a lot of teams flush with salary-cap space this offseason.

-- One thing we've consistently discussed in this space is the difficulty of attempting to win big while playing in the current state of the NFC West division. From listening to Snead and Fisher speak, it's clear that is something they are factoring in when they approach the draft and offseason.

"We have a long way to go," Fisher said. "I think we're closing the gap a little bit. But every time you play a division game, you know what to expect."

-- The Rams are pleased with how some of their key injured players are recovering, especially quarterback Sam Bradford. The team expects Bradford to resume throwing relatively soon and doesn't have any concern about his being ready for next season. Snead also added that he is not losing sleep over the pending return of offensive tackle Jake Long, who is also coming back from a knee injury.

Why Sammy Watkins needs to be a Ram

February, 23, 2014
Feb 23
Sammy WatkinsAP Photo/ Richard ShiroClemson's Sammy Watkins could give the Rams the receiving threat they've been lacking since Torry Holt.

INDIANAPOLIS -- In 2012, the St. Louis Rams finally found themselves in position to draft the best wide receiver in his draft class.

They had the No. 2 pick in that draft and a clear shot at Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon before making a blockbuster trade with Washington. The move loaded them with picks but also cost them a shot at Blackmon.

It was a move the Rams could make because Blackmon wasn’t believed to be in the class of Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green or Julio Jones. He was best in class but not necessarily considered a surefire No. 1 receiver type.

Two years later, it appears that trade has put the Rams in position to land a receiver who is far closer to the Green/Jones class than any receiver who has come out in the past three years.

His name is Sammy Watkins, and he spent the past three years dominating the ACC as a member of the Clemson Tigers. In that time, he posted 240 catches for 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns.

And Watkins is a player who, assuming everything checks out in terms of interviews, health and off-the-field issues, should be at the top of the Rams’ wish list in May.

In talking to a handful of scouts this week at the scouting combine, I heard almost nothing negative about Watkins. Here’s a small sample:

“He’s the real deal -- explosive, physical, strong, gets off the line of scrimmage, makes you miss. … He’s not a big 6-5 type of guy but he plays plenty big and he gets separation easily. … He should be a dominant player in the league and has the makeup to be a No. 1 guy. … The thing I love most about him is how competitive he is; he has a lot of dog in him and it shows up on almost every snap.”

Watkins showed no hesitation in declaring his desire to match those rave reviews and furthered his cause with an impressive 4.43-second 40-yard dash Sunday afternoon.

“What I love doing is dominating defenses,” Watkins said. “I think that’s what I bring to the game and I think that’s going to turn over to the NFL. When I come into the NFL, I think I can be that dominant receiver.”

Bingo. This isn’t about the Rams needing to draft a receiver. This is about the Rams needing to draft THE receiver.

They’ve taken a receiver in each of the past nine years. They’ve selected wideouts in every round, alternately hoping for a diamond in the rough to pay off and betting on a highly touted prospect to pan out.

For those who have followed the team in the five years since Torry Holt’s time in St. Louis came to an end, the lack of a top threat has been glaring. Since Holt and Isaac Bruce departed, the Rams haven’t had one. They haven’t even had one who's come close. No Rams wideout has reached even 700 receiving yards since Holt in 2008, nevermind 1,000 yards, which Holt hit in 2007.

Along the way, the Rams have been unable to find a top receiver for many reasons, not least of which includes some poor player evaluations, a lack of emphasis on the position and a little bit of bad luck.

For most of the past decade, the Rams have been one of the worst teams in the league. They’ve logged a 15-loss season, two 14-loss seasons and a 13-loss season, not to mention a 10-loss year in 2005.

Despite the lofty draft picks that go with those seasons, the Rams have never had the good fortune of having a high pick that corresponds to a season in which something as close to a can’t-miss receiver prospect has been in the draft.

In the 2007 draft, Georgia Tech’s Johnson was clearly one of the two best players. Had the Rams had one of those awful seasons before then, perhaps they could have taken the man now regarded as the best wideout in the league. Instead, they managed to finish 8-8, the only .500 record they’ve had since 2004.

Entering the 2010 season, the Rams were in the midst of one of the worst losing runs in league history. They’d posted a total of three wins in the 2008 and 2009 seasons but managed to take advantage of one of the league’s worst schedules in 2010 and nearly won the NFC West division before losing to Seattle on the season’s final day.

Instead of having a top-six pick in the 2011 draft with a shot at highly touted wideouts Green and Jones, the Rams picked 14th. They did just fine landing end Robert Quinn but settled for Austin Pettis and Greg Salas in Rounds 3 and 4 at receiver.

Sitting with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, it appears the Rams are almost certain to have a shot at Watkins. The question is whether they’re willing to again spend a top-10 pick on the position, especially when they’ve consistently preached the need for patience with their young receiving corps.

While patience is a reasonable request given how young that group is, there’s nothing that says adding more competition and a potential true No. 1 wideout to the mix would do anything but help the cause.

General manager Les Snead, who in January said the Rams don’t “need” a No. 1 type of receiver, offered a little more flexibility when asked about it again on Friday.

“I'll say this: Any time in the draft, if you could add a really special player, that helps your team,” Snead said. “I think the biggest thing we need from the wide receiver group is experience, letting those guys get older. But, hey, it’s a deep wide receiver class. It seems like every time you get a pick, there may be a good wide receiver on the board.”

Players like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks and USC’s Marqise Lee are also considered potential first-round picks. Some might even turn out to be as good or better than Watkins.

But if Watkins is indeed the clear-cut best receiver in a strong class, why risk it? Considering how hard the organization has made it look to replace Holt and Bruce, wouldn’t simply drafting Watkins narrow the margin for error in evaluation or player development?

Maybe the Rams would love to trade down and still snag Watkins with a couple of more picks in their pocket. But again, if he really is that type of player, why not just make sure he’s a Ram?

“I don’t think you can ever say no because if that player can help you then pick him,” Snead said. “And competition is not a bad thing either, and having as many weapons as possible is not a bad thing either.”

Especially if that weapon is the one that’s been missing from your arsenal the longest.
Sunday has been a promising day for the San Francisco 49ers on the wide receiver front.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting the 49ers and veteran receiver Anquan Boldin are closing in on a deal that will keep the 33-year-old free agent in San Francisco. Earlier this week, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said re-signing Boldin was the team’s top priority in free agency.

I’d expect Boldin to sign a short-term deal, perhaps for two years. Boldin became a critical piece of the 49ers’ offense after being acquired in a trade with Baltimore last year.

Playing opposite a healthy Michael Crabtree in 2014 makes Boldin even more dangerous. He shined when Crabtree came back from an injury in Week 12.

With a deal with Boldin close to wrapping up, receiver likely will be a position the 49ers use a top pick on. Going into this weekend’s NFL combine, the position was considered one of the strongest in years. The receivers began drills on Sunday, and they were not disappointing.

Scouts and reporters are raving about their showing. One receiver who the 49ers may have their eyes on -- Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks -- was the star of the show. Cooks ran an unofficial 4.30 40-yard dash. In addition to being a speedster, Cooks, from northern California, has strong hands and is a good route runner.

He was considered a possible late-round pick. Now, the 49ers may have to move up from No. 30 to get him. They have the means in the form of extra draft picks.

Sunday may have been part of the beginning stages of the 49ers’ shoring up their 2014 receiver position.

INDIANAPOLIS -- South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is widely regarded as the best player in the 2014 NFL draft.

But that might not be enough to make him the first player drafted come May solely because he doesn't play quarterback.

On Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, Clowney began pleading his case for Houston or some team moving up in a trade to select him with the No. 1 overall choice. He didn't have to reach too far into the past to present his reason.

"The Super Bowl, defense won that game, shut them down, shut them out,” Clowney said. “It takes defense to win championships hands down. You had a great quarterback in Peyton Manning, hats off to him also, but defense wins the Super Bowl."

Defense wins championships is just one of the many clichés Clowney can use to make his case for going No. 1. There’d be a different one in play at No. 2 should Clowney not go first.

It’s long been said that a team can never have too many pass-rushers. The aforementioned Seahawks feasted on Denver’s offense on the strength of a deep rotation of defensive linemen. The New York Giants won two Super Bowls in recent years following a similar blueprint.

But is it possible to reach a point of diminishing returns when deciding whether to use an extremely high pick at a position where you already appear to be fully stocked?

That’s the question the Rams will have to answer if Clowney is staring them in the face with the second pick.

“We've proven in the last (two) years we can get pressure on the quarterback specifically with a four-man rush,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “And we've gotten pressure and effective rush from our backups. You can't get enough guys that can (rush).”

The Rams' current situation should provide a strong litmus test for that belief. End Robert Quinn is the team’s best player, posting 19 sacks on his way to first team All Pro honors in 2013.

Opposite Quinn, the Rams have Chris Long, whose sack numbers dipped a bit last year but still creates plenty of pressure on the quarterback. Perhaps no team in the league has a better pair of backups than William Hayes and Eugene Sims.

All four are under the team's control through at least the 2015 season so long as the Rams exercise the fifth-year option on Quinn.

The Rams carried a fifth end in 2013 with undrafted rookies Gerald Rivers and Sammy Brown alternately holding that spot.

So it’s not out of the question that the Rams would bring on another defensive end. That’s not what this is about. It’s about whether it’s worth it to spend such a lofty pick on a player that would be part of a rotation rather than an every down player.

Given the difference a defensive end can make, it just might be.

“For example, we lost Will for a couple weeks with an MCL and our numbers went down because Chris was playing more plays,” Fisher said. “So the more guys you've got up front, the better you are.”

By all accounts, the Rams don’t need to draft a defensive end at No. 2 or anywhere else in the draft. They could enter next season with the quartet of Quinn, Long, Hayes and Sims and still have perhaps the best group in the league. They've also invested heavily in the line as a whole, spending first-round picks on Long, Quinn and defensive tackle Michael Brockers and giving tackle Kendall Langford a sizable free agent contract.

Early information concludes Clowney has at least drawn the attention of the Rams. Clowney said Saturday he was unsure if he had a formal interview lined up with the team but confirmed that the Rams sent representatives to his hometown of Rock Hill, S.C. recently to do some homework.

Doing diligence is all part of the process, but it’s worth monitoring the team’s interest even if it would prefer a trade down to a team such as Atlanta wanting to move up for Clowney.

As with most players, determining how Clowney can fit into the scheme is one of the biggest pieces of the evaluation. For what it’s worth, Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known as one of the most innovative defensive minds in the league.

“The No. 1 thing is if you are already loaded and that’s one of our strongest positions, you need to have a plan if we do go this route because you don’t want one of them inactive on game day,” Snead said. “How are we going to use that to help us further the cause here? I think that’s step one. I always say in the draft don’t reach, you know who is talented, who is not but if you have got some guys on the board of similar talent, you think what is the best use for them going forward for us.”

NFL teams, the Rams included, don't draft solely based on immediate return. The bigger picture will be accounted for. It's entirely possible for a first-round pick to be a situation player in Year 1 and make a difference. San Francisco pass-rusher Aldon Smith is a good recent example.

For St. Louis, the possible Clowney conundrum looms as one of the biggest factors in shaping its 2014 draft.

Greg Robinson fits Rams in many ways

February, 22, 2014
Feb 22
INDIANAPOLIS -- In what has become an NFL scouting combine tradition, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher was asked again whether he would be willing to draft an offensive lineman in the first round of May’s draft.

Once again, Fisher said the fact that none of his teams have taken a lineman in the first round in his nearly two decades as a head coach is more a matter of happenstance than design.

“I have no reservation whatsoever,” Fisher said. “The only position I would not draft would be a punter or a kicker in the first round.”

[+] EnlargeGreg Robinson
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAuburn offensive lineman Greg Robinson was impressive during drills at the NFL combine.
As Fisher and general manager Les Snead readily point out, sometimes the stars have to align just right for something to come together in the draft.

"Jeff and I have laughed about that,” Snead said. “He doesn’t have a core philosophy that no (I won’t take one). It’s just over the years, how it evolved.”

If ever there was a year for the streak to end and the questions to stop, this could be the one. And if ever there was a player built to end the run, it’s Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson.

It’s no secret that revamping the offensive line is going to be an offseason priority for the Rams. Fisher and Snead have acknowledged as much given the pending contract situations of starters Rodger Saffold and Chris Williams, the injury to left tackle Jake Long, and the possible salary-cap scenarios involving Scott Wells and Harvey Dahl.

Depending on what happens with Saffold and elsewhere in free agency, the need is clearly there.

The next part of the equation is matching the value with the draft pick.

The Rams have pick Nos. 2 and 13 in the first round, and seven more selections, one each in rounds two through six, and two in the seventh. That number could grow with compensatory picks when they’re divvied up at the owner’s meetings next month.

But as it stands right now, adding Robinson to the stable of Rams offensive linemen is a move that would make a whole lot of sense. Though many discussions about trading the pick will evolve between now and the draft, if the Rams have to do pick at No. 2, so be it.

Multiple NFL scouts said over the weekend that Robinson isn’t too far behind South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in the discussion of the draft’s best player. If that’s the case, a trade down with hopes of landing Robinson might be a risky proposition.

In his Saturday workouts, Robinson did nothing to dispel the notion that he could be one of the draft’s best players and a potential top three pick.

Robinson already drew plenty of oohs and aahs from teams for measuring in at 6-foot-5, 332 pounds this week. He added more buzz Friday when he benched 225 pounds 32 times despite his 35-inch arms.

Robinson put icing on the cake with an overwhelming performance on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, highlighted by an official 40-yard dash time of 4.92 seconds.

Perhaps more important than running 40 yards in a straight line, Robinson showed well in mirror and footwork drills. Playing in coach Gus Malzahn's offense, Robinson didn’t get many opportunities to show his pass-blocking skills.

That has made it hard for teams to project how Robinson will fare in that regard.

“Gus’ offense is unique and it’s very, very difficult to defend,” Fisher said. “It creates matchups in one-on-one ... [Robinson] was a big part of it. He was a dominating player in that locker room. I think what teams are going to do now is sort through the offense and see how Greg will adjust in the pro-style offense.”

While other tackles like Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan are considered more polished, Robinson has been hit with the “potential” label, an insinuation that he might not be prepared to make an impact right away like his fellow top tackles.

It’s a reservation Robinson understands.

“That’s in the back of my head, because they say I’m not at full potential right now,” Robinson said. “I still have a lot to go. I started last year was my first season starting. Like the guys they have ahead of me like Jake Matthews, he started since he was a freshman. That’s just something I feel I need to prove. It’s probably in people’s head that I’m not there."

Beyond the impressive college production and workout, Robinson also has his share of close ties to the Rams and their top two decision-makers.

Snead played his college ball at Auburn and keeps a close eye on the Tigers. Former Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter is an operations assistant and scouting assistant.

And, of course, Fisher’s son, Trent, was a teammate of Robinson's at Auburn. Robinson had a formal 15-minute interview with the Rams on Thursday night, and said he got a chance to catch up with the younger Fisher and Trotter as well.

“I haven’t spoken with his dad, but Trent is a good dude, he was a leader on our team,” Robinsons aid. “I looked up to him and I respected him. I actually talked to him yesterday, him and Barrett Trotter. They have been telling me a lot of good things.”

For his part, Jeff Fisher said it’s nice to have close ties to any prospect, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an edge over other teams.

“I think it’s important,” Fisher said. “We’re going to try to get as much information as we can. The skill set is there on the game tape. The more information you can get from a character standpoint is beneficial. But in this day and age, with the information that’s available, I don’t think we’ll have an advantage over anybody else.”

Robinson’s run-blocking skills would seem to be a good fit for the Rams' offense, even if he had to go on the Jonathan Ogden plan and play guard for a bit before moving to tackle.

With Robinson's approach to the game, there is little doubt he’ll have trouble winning over Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau and the rest of the league's line coaches.

“I wouldn’t say (I play) angry, but I’m not trying to be nice,” Robinson said.

Setting up combine Day 3

February, 22, 2014
Feb 22
INDIANAPOLIS -- Those who have been patient enough to wade through two days of interviews, measurements, and medical testing will be rewarded today as the offensive linemen and tight ends finally step on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium and begin the workout portion of the weekend.

That means 40-yard dashes, agility drills and more.

From a St. Louis Rams' perspective, there is not much to do today since coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead spoke to the media yesterday. We'll have more from those sessions, also.

As for what is worth watching in the workouts, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson has had some questions about his ability to pass protect consistently. Not that he can't do it, but he simply didn't get the chance to do much of it for the Tigers. Keep an eye on the "mirror" drills, where the lineman lines up across from another player and is asked to mimic everything he does. It's not definitive, but gives an idea of what he can do in terms of keeping up with an opposing defensive lineman.

In the media room, expect today to create its share of buzz.

We're still waiting to talk to Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, and Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans. If all three show up, they will join what figures to be a large media contingent surrounding Missouri defensive end Michael Sam and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

The skill position players will take part in their workouts Sunday morning.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Be it now or after the start of the NFL free-agency period on March 11, the St. Louis Rams intend to keep offensive lineman Rodger Saffold.

At least, that was the company line coming from general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher on Friday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Rams have a handful of unrestricted free agents poised to hit the open market in a couple of weeks, but none are more important to shaping the offseason than Saffold. That's why the team is expected to meet with Saffold's representatives here this weekend and get further understanding of what it will take to retain him.

In the meantime, Fisher and Snead emphasized the importance of bringing him back when asked about it Friday.

Fisher even went so far as to reveal the team's plan for Saffold in the event the Rams can get his signature on a contract.

"Obviously it’s important for us to get that done," Fisher said. "He’s expressed serious interest in coming back as well. So it does give us flexibility. But I think ultimately he’s going to be an outstanding guard in this league. Now that doesn’t mean you say he could not play either tackle, because this year he stepped in when Jake [Long] went down and stepped in and played some really good football at tackle."

That's a sentiment Snead willingly echoed.

"He's definitely a priority this offseason for us," Snead said. "Those situations, they're gonna run their course, and in time we'll know."

Considering the many moving parts on the Rams' offensive line heading into the offseason, keeping Saffold would be an obvious move to lessen the burden. Saffold's ability to be, as Fisher puts it, an outstanding guard, makes him appealing. His ability to play both tackle spots and hold his own there makes him a necessity.

Starting left guard Chris Williams is also scheduled for free agency, center Scott Wells and guard Harvey Dahl are potential cap casualties, and left tackle Long is recovering from a torn ACL and MCL. That leaves plenty of question marks along the offensive line. Having Saffold in the mix could potentially alleviate some of those concerns.

"I’ve learned from people wiser than me that being versatile is something," Snead said. "The ability to be versatile at guard and left tackle and right tackle, usually it’s maybe both guards and center, but that’s a nice piece or asset to have."

It's also an asset that other teams wouldn't mind having. Other teams have already expressed interest in Saffold's services. The fact that teams and agents spend the week together in Indianapolis will do nothing but further fuel that fire.

Beyond that, as teams begin using the franchise tag to retain their own key players, Saffold's status as one of the top available linemen should only grow.

The hardest part for the Rams will be determining what a fair price is, but also what price will get a deal done to keep Saffold off the market. With free agency so close, that figures to be a difficult proposition.

Saffold's injury history -- he's missed 17 games and parts of others in four seasons -- is a red flag that could give the Rams and others some pause before handing over a big contract.

Despite the expected interest from other teams and the cost it would take to keep Saffold from testing the market, Fisher seems optimistic about the Rams' chances.

"It’s not an easy thing to do what he did, and then go back and play tackle at a high level and then go back to guard," Fisher said. "He is very athletic, he’s very talented. He’s good with that. He understands that. He’d welcome the opportunity to come back and play inside."
INDIANAPOLIS -- By his own admission, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher is no longer surprised when any sort of speculation takes on a life of its own.

That applies to the constant rumor and innuendo that has seemingly surrounded Rams quarterback Sam Bradford nearly from the moment he suffered a torn ACL against Carolina on Oct. 20. The day after the injury, Fisher let it be known that Bradford would remain the team's starting quarterback in 2014. He said it again last week when he made an appearance on ESPN Radio with "Mike and Mike."

And Fisher, this time backed by general manager Les Snead, made it clear once again Friday afternoon at the NFL scouting combine. They even threw a little humor into the mix.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsSam Bradford is 5-2-1 against NFC West opponents over the past two seasons.
"First of all, things have changed since the last comment," Snead said, laughing. "Cause this Favre character won a state championship as a coach. He might want to come back."

Snead was, of course, providing a comedic rejoinder referring to the Rams' interest in Brett Favre after Bradford's injury and Favre's recent accomplishment of helping a Mississippi high school to a state championship as part of the coaching staff.

But when it gets down to the real answers, both Snead and Fisher remain convinced Bradford is the right guy to handle the quarterback spot, now and in the future.

"As I said a couple years ago, one of the two reasons I took this job was because of Sam," Fisher said. "We as an organization, coaches, Les and everybody has a great deal of respect for him and trust in him, and he's our guy. So I don't know where that is coming from.

"This year, for the record, he was playing pretty good football despite the fact that we didn't win a lot of games early. But project it out over the course of the season had he stayed healthy, I think you would have seen a different player. We have zero concern whether or not he comes back. He's working hard, he's there every day, he's excited about it."

Snead also said he will not lose any sleep over Bradford's rehab, pointing out that Bradford is recovering well and could begin throwing this summer. Although Bradford now has the knee injury to add to a high ankle sprain suffered in 2011, Fisher added that he doesn't believe durability is an issue for Bradford moving forward.

Fisher and Snead pointed to Bradford's production starting in Week 5 when the offense found a solid running game, Bradford's 5-2-1 record against the NFC West over the past two seasons, and Bradford's experience as reasons they want to retain him.

According to Snead, the parties began having discussions with Bradford's representatives in spring of 2013 about a possible contract extension, but the timing wasn't right for both sides. Asked whether those conversations will continue this spring, Snead said the sides remain in touch and the talks are "ongoing and active."

It wouldn't be a surprise to see negotiations on a new contract for Bradford go about as far as they did last year, which is to say nowhere. It's believed Bradford is willing to wait on an extension and play out his deal before engaging in those talks. It would also be logical for the Rams to wait and see how he returns from the knee injury before moving forward.

At least for 2014, the fact remains that Bradford will again be the starting quarterback.
Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians addressed the media Friday morning at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, and the assembled reporters didn’t waste any time asking him about his veteran quarterback.

He was asked if Carson Palmer, 34, was a “stop-gap?”

“There’s no doubt he’s got plenty of juice left in the tank,” Arians said. “He’s in great condition and he’s always in great condition. So I would think he can play up to 36, 37 easily."
  • Arians said an 11-5 record might not have helped get Arizona into the playoffs but if they snuck in, the rest of the NFC would’ve had to watch out.“If we were in the playoffs we would’ve did some damage,” Arians said. “We just didn’t win enough games.”
  • Arians felt the Cardinals were “real close” during the final eight games because everything was clicking.“We were running the football much better, and it helped our offensive line so much,” Arians said. “Our receivers and quarterback got on the same page. Third-down efficiency improved, red zone started to improve. So we were playing the way we wanted to play. The second half of the season, I was extremely pleased the way we were playing offensively.”
  • Arians made it clear what kind of tight end he’ll be looking for the free agency or the draft: One who can block first then catch.“I’m old school,” Arians said. “He’s got to block first and catch passes. That’s why I loved Heath Miller. I still think he’s the best tight end in the National Football League. Not because he catches 90 passes, but because he blocks big defensive ends and he catches about 60, 70 passes. The guys that line up as wide receivers might get tagged as wide receivers. But tight ends, for me, block for me first and catch second. That’s what receivers get paid for.”
  • Among Arizona receiver Michael Floyd's biggest strides in his second year, Arians said, was his ability to play through injury.“I think Michael’s starting to reach his potential,” Arians said. “He had what I considered a break-out year, over a 1,000 yards. He still needs to be a little more consistent each week. He played through injuries for the first time, which is a huge step for a young player. A lot of times they’ll just sit themselves down. He wanted to win. He wanted to help us win, and I thought he made great strides. But this year can he do it again? That’ll be the question for him.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- Versatility is a valuable trait for any player trying to find his way in the NFL. The ability to play and perform well at multiple positions is a highly sought commodity. Nowhere is that more true than on the offensive line.

St. Louis Rams offensive lineman Rodger Saffold was a shining example of that in 2013. Before the season, he moved from left tackle to right tackle. After an early season injury, he returned and was moved again, this time to right guard. Although he clearly showed the most potential at guard, Saffold stepped in at right tackle and fared well. He came full circle by finishing the season at left tackle after Jake Long suffered a knee injury against Tampa Bay on Dec. 22.

Saffold's upside at guard and versatility make him by far the team's most prized unrestricted free agent. The Rams would like to keep him. But there's little doubt his talent and versatility will be valued in other NFL cities as well. The Rams aren't exactly flush with salary cap space at the moment, though they should have no problem creating room to make a legitimate run at keeping Saffold.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceRodger Saffold has played well at several positions for the Rams, making the pending free agent a valuable commodity.
So what happens if Saffold departs? The Rams are used to playing without Saffold's services. Were it not for his lengthy injury history, the team probably already would have signed him to a contract extension. Players capable of filling in at so many spots with Saffold's ability are hard to find.

It can be difficult projecting how players will fit at the NFL level. Some guards are viewed as centers, and tackles viewed as guards, and nobody really knows until they get there.

At first glance, though, this draft has one player who appears to project well at pretty much any position on the offensive line: Notre Dame's Zack Martin.

“I think he can play tackle, but the beauty of this kid is he can play all five positions in the NFL,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “Some teams look at him as a Pro Bowl guard and that therefore playing the tackle doesn’t make as much sense.”

That's a sentiment shared by plenty of others around the league. One league scout said Martin could step in and start at any of the tackle or guard positions right away, and though Martin's future would probably be brighter at guard he could start at tackle and be just fine.

For his part, Martin would prefer to remain at tackle, the position he played throughout a decorated four-year career for the Fighting Irish. Martin started a school record 52 consecutive games.

"I obviously want to prove to people that I can play there," Martin said. "I've played there my entire career. I had a pretty successful career, so, yeah, I want to prove to everyone I can be out there. But at the same time, if a team takes me and their plan is to put me at guard, I'm willing and happy to do that for him."

Martin's experience and pedigree would seem to be enough to keep him on the outside, but at just over 6-foot-4, and 308 pounds with 32 7/8 inch arms, Martin's frame might be better suited on the inside.

After a strong showing at the Senior Bowl and with a long resume of production in South Bend, Martin is projected as a top 20 pick. The Rams' needs on the offensive line are well-documented, but a player like Martin would seem to offer plenty of flexibility for a potentially revamped offensive line.

Much of the discussion of the top offensive linemen in relation to the Rams has centered on Auburn's Greg Robinson, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews or Michigan's Taylor Lewan. But if the Rams choose to wait to add a lineman at No. 13, Martin might be a name to remember. Especially if Saffold heads for greener pastures.

Jim Harbaugh combine nuggets

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
I am not at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, but I was able to listen to Jim Harbaugh’s press briefing on the podium, and then in a more informal setting afterward. Here are some tidbits:

Harbaugh said defensive lineman Tank Carradine recently had a knee surgery to clean up a mass on his knee. He missed all of last season as he recovered from a 2012 torn ACL. The second-round pick is expected to contribute this season.

“He wasn’t able to straighten out his leg before that, and then they took that [mass] out and his leg went straight,” Harbaugh said. “He looks like a different guy now since that procedure ... I think he’s going to have a great offseason and look forward to his progress very, very much.”

Harbaugh said his brother in-law, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, recently showed the video of NaVorro Bowman stripping the ball despite tearing the ACL in his knee in the NFC title game to his team as inspiration.

Harbaugh told reporters what he has said before: re-signing receiver Anquan Boldin is a top priority.

Harbaugh didn’t appear to want to discuss the Jonathan Martin bullying case in Miami. He was interviewed as part of the Wells report. Like he stated in the report, Harbaugh said Thursday that he thinks Martin can have a successful NFL career. Martin played for Harbaugh at Stanford.

Harbaugh said he respected the honesty of Missouri pass-rusher Michael Sam, who announced this month that he is gay. Sam could become the first openly gay NFL player.

When asked whether he thinks Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel can be a star, Harbaugh said yes. He recruited Manziel while at Stanford.

Harbaugh reminisced about his combine interview with quarterback Colin Kaepernick three years ago. Harbaugh said Kaepernick “lit up the room.” The 49ers traded up to get him in the second round.
Jake MatthewsMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsA player the caliber of Jake Matthews could help solidify the Rams' offensive line.
INDIANAPOLIS -- In Jeff Fisher's nearly two decades as an NFL head coach, his teams have never drafted an offensive lineman in the first round.

It’s a streak that should come to an end in 2014.

The St. Louis Rams might have individual spots more in need of help, but there’s no position group requiring more attention across the board than the offensive line.

The Rams started the 2013 season with an offensive line of (from left to right) Jake Long, Chris Williams, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Rodger Saffold.

By the end of the year, the Rams had started seven different line combinations, and that doesn’t include in-game adjustments made to account for injuries.

It would be easy for the Rams to lean on the tried and true methods of draft and develop that have been tenets of Fisher’s coaching years. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has a reputation for taking late-round picks or undrafted free agents and molding them into productive or better NFL starters.

Boudreau did just that in 2013, despite all the aforementioned moving parts. The Rams finished tied for 14th in the league in sacks allowed per dropback, giving up a sack on 6.5 percent of those attempts -- despite facing three of the top seven defenses in the league a total of six times.

“He did an outstanding job,” Fisher said. “We didn't track how many combinations of guys and who was playing where, but there were a lot of people playing. It was a good group. He puts together a really unique group in the classroom and they enjoy working together. They get close. They’re very disciplined and, for all intents and purposes, each one of them really wants to come back, which is good.”

The reality is, however, that it’s unlikely they all return.

When the 2014 season begins, it’s a possibility the Rams could have as many as five new names in place on the offensive line. That’s because Williams and Saffold are scheduled for unrestricted free agency, Wells and Dahl are potential salary-cap casualties and Long is recovering from a torn ACL and MCL.

Fortunately for the Rams, if ever there was a time to revamp the offensive line through the draft, this is it. The team holds two picks in the first round: Nos. 2 and 13.

According to one AFC scout, Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews are top-five-caliber talents. But that doesn’t mean the Rams would have to pursue one of them with their second overall selection. The same scout believes as many as four offensive tackles, adding Michigan’s Taylor Lewan and Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio, could go in the top 15, which means the Rams could wait and address the position at No. 13.

As always, the draft is about finding a way to marry need and value. While many believe South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is clearly the best player in the draft, two scouts believe Robinson and Matthews aren’t far behind.

While Fisher’s streak of not drafting linemen in the first round is worth noting, it also doesn’t tell the whole story and assumes he was making all the decisions with the Titans.

In 18 NFL drafts, Fisher's teams have selected 23 offensive linemen. Two of those came in the second round and two came in the third. Then-line coach Mike Munchak also made a habit of developing picks lower on the totem pole.

Of course, Fisher’s Titans/Oilers teams also never found themselves with the pressing needs the Rams figure to have on the offensive line, either.

Brad Hopkins held down one tackle spot from 1993 to 2005 and Bruce Matthews was an All-Pro guard and center for the franchise from 1983 to 2001.

When Fisher’s team did need to fortify the line, it often did so through free agency, adding the likes of Fred Miller, Wells and, most recently, Long.

Boudreau has done fine with linemen of all shapes, sizes and ability, but considering what the Rams are going to see from the front sevens in the NFC West for the foreseeable future, it’s time to start investing some draft capital that doesn’t require the Rams to go shopping for new linemen seemingly every offseason.

That could mean drafting a tackle in the first round, adding to the interior in the second round or any number of possible combinations. Much will depend on what becomes of Saffold, who is the Rams’ top priority to retain in free agency.

In his day-after-the-season news conference, Fisher said the Rams needed to score more points to be more competitive in 2014, particularly against the likes of San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona. Three of the four tackles to land on the All-Pro team in 2013 were first-round picks.

The Rams can probably get by with drafting and developing lower-ranked offensive linemen, but against the dominant defenses in the NFC West, getting by simply isn't good enough.