NFC West: Les Snead

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- With training camp rapidly approaching, St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead started to get the football itch. He could feel the time for football was close and he was growing so eager for it to start he actually considered cutting a family vacation short.

Upon returning to St. Louis, Snead walked back into Rams Park with full knowledge that this season must be different from the first two years of his and coach Jeff Fisher's regime. Under Fisher and Snead, the Rams have won 14 games in two seasons, far better than what they'd done in the five years before their arrival, but still well removed from something more than vague progress.

[+] EnlargeAaron Donald
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonDT Aaron Donald is just one of the many young players the Rams will lean on in 2014.
The third year of any regime comes with a certain amount of inherent expectation but here in St. Louis, Snead openly acknowledges now is the time for a team that has been the league's youngest each of the past two seasons to move past mediocrity.

"The goal is to win the division," Snead said Thursday. "We have played San Fran, we’ve played Seattle and we’ve played Arizona and we’ve beat them all in the last two years with these guys. All they’re doing is getting better and more experienced."

Clearly, the Rams enter the 2014 season hoping that their willingness to allow their many young players to start and play the majority of the snaps will pay off. The potential of the league's youngest roster must at some point turn into production if the Rams are to elevate to contender status.

Fisher and Snead set about a major roster renovation in 2012 knowing that they would hit their share of speed bumps along the way. They improved to 7-8-1 in that first season after combining a boat load of draft picks acquired in trade with Washington with some big free-agent spending. They followed a similar path in the 2013 offseason, trying to find a few emerging young veterans to complement the youth movement coming via the draft. The result was last season's 7-9.

In steadfastly sticking to their plan, Fisher and Snead entered this past offseason ready to mostly roll with what they've got.

"To get experience you have got to play and to learn how not to spill milk you have got to spill some milk," Snead said. "So I have always used that analogy. You have got to hope that experience keeps you from spilling milk and now you can pull it up and drink it a lot faster."

Of course, there's also plenty of risk that goes with betting big on young, mostly unproven players even players who have played a lot of snaps in their first couple of seasons.

The secondary, for example, has no projected starters with more than two years of experience. At wide receiver, only Kenny Britt has spent more than three seasons in the league. Zac Stacy, entering his second season, is the most seasoned running back on the roster in terms of carries.

While many of the team's young players have flashed the potential to become solid or better NFL starters, they simply still have yet to prove themselves on a consistent basis. And it seems overly-optimistic to think that all of the players the Rams are banking on will take the necessary step forward to help the team reach the next level.

But Snead believes there has been enough evidence, even if the sample size is relatively small, for many of those players to do what is expected. There's even an air of quiet confidence that the belief is more than just the usual summertime hopes and dreams of a franchise in need of wins.

"I think that’s the best way for us and the way we were setup to do it," Snead said. "I always use the example, you saw what Robert Quinn did. So what happens is those guys are maturing too and not only physically but also mentally and psychologically and in their life and in their game and they really want to be good and they had two years or one and they say ‘I did that last year and I was actually kind of nervous. It was my rookie year and now I got this.’ So all those things come into play. You have got to just let them evolve."

Snead and the Rams are well aware the evolution of a young team into playoff contender is not going to be an easy task. They find themselves in the NFL's toughest division and will, for the third season in a row, play one of its toughest schedules. If the Rams are to survive the crucible of those two things and come out on the other end still playing in January, they will have plenty of bumps and bruises along the way.

In some ways, they enter this training camp ahead of where they were last year. They have a clearly defined identity on both sides of the ball, even if it's one that doesn't promote the promise of Greatest Show on Turf recollections. They have the defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams they wanted all along leading a talented group.

"I think just having an identity, that helps you rally instead of 'What are we today?'" Snead said.

As they begin camp today, the Rams are still the team hoping the promise that comes with youth turns into the production of a team much older. Where they stand at the end of the season will tell us if they were right.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In the first two years with general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher in charge of their drafts, the St. Louis Rams earned a reputation as a team always looking to make a deal.

It was a logical necessity for a new regime looking to rebuild a roster that was mostly dreadful when it arrived after the 2011 season. In each of those first two drafts, the Rams made six trades, four of which were moves down in order to stockpile picks. Add picks, add bodies, improve the roster. That was the clear plan.

Now that the roster has grown and improved -- though it's still not where it needs to be in the difficult NFC West -- the Rams took a different tact in this year's NFL draft.

Trades were few and far between as the Rams consummated just one deal, a move up in which they sacrificed just a fifth-round pick to Buffalo to move up a few spots to secure Florida State defensive back Lamarcus Joyner in the second round.

That isn't to say that Snead and Fisher cut off connection to other teams but it's clear they weren't as interested in making deals as they have been in the past.

“I think we’ve said all along we like the roster," Snead said. "Obviously, it’s young and obviously we’ve still got to develop. We’ve still got to continue to evolve. So that’s not necessarily the reason why you just held pat. There was a few times we tried to make a move and couldn’t."

Instead, the Rams spent most of the draft patiently waiting for players they hoped would fall to them. More often than not, the player did.

As the picks dwindled on Saturday, the Rams targeted Mizzou cornerback E.J. Gaines. They briefly considered packaging some of their seventh-round picks to move up, potentially back into the fifth round to secure his services.

Ultimately, they decided against it and Gaines fell into their lap in Round 6.

"Instead of using picks to go get him, we said, ‘Let’s hold pat,’" Snead said. "We did a little research and felt he might fall, and then you’re able to utilize more picks in the seventh.”

In the early rounds, the Rams never legitimately considered any potential trade-down options. Buffalo touched base with the Rams at No. 2 before making a deal to move up to No. 4 with Cleveland but the Rams weren't interested in moving seven spots to No. 9 and losing out on one of their elite six players.

The Rams also considered a bold move back into the first round. They attempted to deal with Baltimore at No. 17 after adding tackle Greg Robinson and defensive tackle Aaron Donald already. The target was Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin and it would have been costly but the deal died when Dallas took Martin at No. 16.

There were also rumblings of interest in the Rams moving back into the first round later for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel but again the price was going to be prohibitive and Cleveland was in better position to finalize a deal while only moving up four spots to take him at No. 22.

All told, the Rams added 11 players through the draft. The chances of all of the drafted rookies making the roster aren't good, which is just another indication the Rams have a lot of faith in their current roster.

Rams sit still to add quality

May, 10, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For the past two years under coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead, the St. Louis Rams have undergone a complete reconstruction of a roster that was one of the worst in the league.

On Friday night, the Rams offered two more indications that they are saying goodbye to frantically moving down in the draft to accumulate picks and hello to a brave new world in which the chronically trade-happy decision makers can sit still and simply select the best player available.

"It's been, I don't want to say easy, but it's been good," Fisher said. "The board is good, the value is there and we feel good about where we are and we also feel good about finishing strong tomorrow."

The Rams threw their first curveball of this year's draft Friday night when they opted to pass on more obvious needs and choose a running back in the third round.

Not that the Rams couldn't use another back, but the selection of Auburn running back Tre Mason with the 75th overall pick was a prime example of the prism through which the team now views itself. Almost since arrival, Fisher, Snead and most others associated with the Rams quietly held to the idea that 2014 would be the team's breakthrough season.

That vow moved closer to a promise this offseason as the previously silent notion became an open discussion. A mostly inactive free-agent period offered one clue that the Rams believe the current roster is close to taking the next step.

The first three rounds of this draft has offered more evidence.

With other positions of more clear need available to them with the 75th pick, the Rams selected Mason to add to a backfield in which Zac Stacy, the team's leading rusher a year ago, already resides.

When asked why the Rams opted for Mason with the third-round choice, Fisher offered a telling response in making it clear that Mason was too much value to turn down.

"That was the nature of the pick," Fisher said. "That's where we are right now is we just couldn't pass him up."

In the Rams' first two drafts under Snead and Fisher, the team made six draft-day trades, moving down four times and up twice. Aside from a late-round deal in 2013 to land Stacy, all of those deals have been in the early rounds of the draft.

The idea was simple: accumulate as many picks as possible even if it meant sacrificing possible quality in favor of quantity. If the success of a draft pick is a veritable coin flip, the Rams wanted to flip as many coins as possible.

The progress on the field has been evident as a team that won 15 games over the previous five seasons won 14 the past two years but it still has been far from enough. A lack of true difference makers the caliber of star defensive end Robert Quinn has kept the Rams from reaching the next level.

Nobody knows for sure whether players like Mason, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald or defensive back Lamarcus Joyner will turn into that type of player, but the stay-at-home attitude the Rams have adopted for most of this draft would indicate they believe roster spots are hard to come by and game changers were there to be had in their original spots.

Perhaps in fear of developing a nervous tick by having to wait so long to make some sort of deal, Fisher and Snead did make one deal on Friday night, trading up three spots to nab Joyner at No. 44 overall before Tennessee could pick him. Even that move indicates the Rams are placing a premium on the player rather than a pile of picks.

It's a trend that will continue Saturday when the Rams make their remaining seven choices.

"We're going to look at our roster, who fills a role and whatever role that is, if it helps us become a more successful team, that's kind of what you try to do," Snead said. "You'll have fun with the last picks."

For the first time in awhile, the Rams' insistence that they're close is backed by their actions. Only time will tell if they're right.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As so often happens during draft week, rumors and speculation have moved to a different stratosphere, and the St. Louis Rams' potential interest in Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is at the eye of the storm.

In the past 48 hours, much has been made of the potential for the Rams to execute a franchise-altering move that would see them draft Manziel and potentially part ways with incumbent Sam Bradford.

Manziel
Bradford
Bradford
Late Tuesday afternoon, Rams general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher took questions from the media and joined their front-office counterparts around the league in tap dancing around questions. It's all part of the game at this time of year, but there's no doubt that Manziel and the quarterback spot were at the top of the agenda.

As they have since January, Fisher and Snead again provided a vote of confidence for Bradford. But for those who choose to read between the lines, there is some room for wiggling should the team truly intend to make the boldest move of all.

"Johnny was probably one of a dozen quarterbacks that we worked out over this process. And with respect to Sam, he is our starter," Fisher said. "As you guys know, that’s the reason I took this job ... because of Sam [as] our quarterback, and we have all the confidence in the world that he’ll be back.

"But we also have the responsibility to continue to upgrade this roster. As it would suggest, we are interested in the right guys there to help in a backup role to Sam, and we’ll make sure we’ve done our due diligence."

As we sit down to play this little poker game, we can look at the use of present tense in that phrase and suggest that indeed Bradford is the quarterback of the team right now. There's no disputing that.

The next question was more direct, asking if the Rams are shopping Bradford. Fisher said no, which aligns with everything the Rams have said in the past 48 hours on the subject.

Fisher was then asked if something could change between now and the first round on Thursday that would possibly change Bradford's status?

"Anything can happen," Fisher said. "Good question, but I think it’s highly unlikely. We’ve identified six to eight players that we think could potentially fit us at 2. And then we’ve gone on with the additional process at 13."

Highly unlikely is about where I've placed the odds on the Rams taking Manziel or any quarterback at No. 2 or 13 for most of this process. It's also not the same as saying no way, no how. And for those paying attention, it's never wise to make definitive claims such as that on anything in the NFL, something the Rams' reunion with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams should've reminded us of a few months ago. And when it comes to the NFL draft, all bets are off, as smokescreens and misinformation rule the day.

But for the Rams to make the move on Manziel, they'd have to be fully convinced he's their franchise quarterback of the future. Could he slide to No. 13 and be the pick there? Sure, but that would also fall into the category of highly unlikely. Which means the decision has to be made as to whether the Rams think enough of Manziel to pull the trigger on him at No. 2.

The argument can be made that, because it's a quarterback, if you like him at 13, then you like him at 2. For most positions that's not true, but for the most important one on the field, it is.

Back in January, Snead said the Rams taking a quarterback at No. 2 would be a bit "too far out of the box." Asked Tuesday whether that's still the case, he didn't exactly echo the sentiment.

"When you’re picking 2, you have got to figure out who all has got to be in play for all kinds of scenarios, whether it’s trading and all of that, so I think at any point with your football team you try to do what’s best," Snead said. "It’s Friday [of a theoretical game week], I’m not going to tell you our first 10 plays."

Or any of them, for that matter. When all is said and done, I believe the Rams do have some genuine interest in Manziel. They might not even know yet whether that interest is strong enough to make the type of move that would send shock waves through the league.

Of the many words Fisher and Snead spoke on Tuesday, much of them carried little meaning, but the one that I keep coming back to is "unlikely." As we trudge toward the first round and the drama it holds, it's worth remembering that "unlikely" isn't synonymous with "impossible."

What Clowney's big day means for Rams

February, 25, 2014
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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.
ST. LOUIS -- Since taking over as the St. Louis Rams general manager in 2012, Les Snead has proved quite adept at pulling off the draft day trade.

Regardless of who sits across from him at the negotiating table, Snead and the Rams have been one of the most active teams in the league in the past two drafts. The team has made six trades involving draft picks in those two years, three in each. Buffalo, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston comprise the list of teams trading with the Rams in that time.

There's no common thread there, aside from the fact that all of them were interested in making a deal. Which is to say, though Snead obviously has his share of close ties around the league after having worked closely with guys like Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff, Cleveland GM Ray Farmer and Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell, it doesn't mean they're any easier to work with than anyone else.

"That helps, (but) that may be overblown though," Snead said. "You know just about everybody, so you don't pick up a phone and say, I'm calling a stranger. This is gonna be a cold call. But yeah, some relationships you have maybe make the initial calls easier. But I think it's a little overblown that the relationship is gonna get the deal done."

This year, those relationships might draw even more attention than in recent years simply because there are so many general managers with ties to Snead picking close to the Rams' No. 2 selection. Caldwell's Jaguars have the third pick, Farmer and the Browns hold the fourth choice and Dimitroff's Falcons sit at No. 6. Any of those teams would make sense as a possible trade down partner.

What could be more interesting is to see the outcome if more than one of the teams with a GM close to Snead wants to make a move up. Of course, the top priority is always to get the best deal for your team but in this case it's possible that those many close ties could actually make Snead's job more difficult on a personal level.
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.

Saffold
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."

Rams still in need of top receiver

January, 16, 2014
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ST. LOUIS -- Less than 24 hours after the St. Louis Rams' 2013 season had come to an end with a blowout loss to Seattle, coach Jeff Fisher was asked how his team can catch up to the Seahawks and the rest of the NFC West.

The Seahawks’ dominant defense, much like Arizona’s and San Francisco’s before it, had stifled the Rams' offense. After spending another afternoon stuck in the mud with just 158 yards of total offense, Fisher pointed to the obvious solution.

“All three teams play really good defense, and we’ve got to play better offense and score more points to compete with them,” Fisher said.

[+] EnlargeVontae Davis and Tavon Austin
AP Photo/AJ MastThe Rams used a first-round pick on receiver Tavon Austin last year, but that doesn't mean they will shy away from receivers early in the upcoming draft.
As the Rams prepare for free agency and the NFL draft, those words should loom large in determining the direction they take. It should also yield an added emphasis on finding more playmakers at wide receiver.

St. Louis finished 30th in the league in total yards and 22nd in offensive points scored in 2013. In some sense those numbers were skewed by the absence of starting quarterback Sam Bradford, and some strange scenarios, such as the Houston game where the Rams jumped to such a big lead and got so many big plays from the defense and special teams that the offense wasn’t needed.

The Rams played nine games against the top seven defenses in the league in terms of total yards allowed. Clearly, that’s a big reason for the Rams’ lack of production. It’s also a big reason the Rams need to get better offensively, considering three of those defenses are in the NFC West and not going anywhere anytime soon.

After the offense’s aborted attempt to go to a more wide-open attack in the first four games, Fisher and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer returned to their run-heavy roots in Game 5 with rookie back Zac Stacy in the lead role.

That attack gave the Rams a chance week to week, but it was exposed by defenses capable of stopping the run. Never was that more evident than in the season finale against Seattle when the Seahawks shut down Stacy and forced Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens to try to beat them through the air.

Clemens, who had most of his success when the run game was working, simply wasn’t able to take advantage. Not all the blame for that should go on Clemens. Those struggles exposed a bigger issue that has remained a problem for the Rams since the heyday of Torry Holt: the lack of a top receiver capable of regularly creating separation against top cornerbacks on the outside.

Chris Givens led Rams receivers in yards with 569. For greater context, the Rams haven’t had a wideout reach even 700 receiving yards since Holt in 2008, nevermind 1,000 yards, which Holt hit in 2007. A total of 57 receivers -- not including tight ends and running backs -- finished with more yards than Givens in 2013.

Asked last week how he views a receiving corps with so little production, Rams general manager Les Snead said he still has faith in the team’s young group.

“Statistically, you’ve heard me say teams win, individuals don’t,” Snead said. “We’re in this fantasy football type age, and I think if you look at seven of the top 10 pass-catchers, seven of the top 10 didn’t make the playoffs. So there’s three of them who are in. So yes, those guys are really good individual players, had great seasons, it didn’t mean their teams made the playoffs.”

Actually, four of the top 10 receivers in terms of yards made the postseason, but it’s also worth noting that nine of the 12 teams making the playoffs had a 1,000-yard receiver. The three that didn’t -- Seattle, Carolina and Kansas City -- each had at least two pass-catchers more productive than the Rams’ leader regardless of position, tight end Jared Cook.

Of course, it’s also important to note that the Rams played the 2013 season with the youngest group of skill position players in the league, especially at receiver. Austin Pettis, in his third season, was the team’s most experienced wideout.

With that youth came plenty of growing pains, including a variety of dropped balls, route-running troubles and miscommunications. Bradford’s absence also has to be accounted for in looking at the numbers.

Still, the lack of production at wideout doesn’t seem to faze Snead, as evidenced by his response to the question on whether he believes the team still needs a No. 1 receiver.

“I go back to this and the answer is really 'no' on that,” Snead said. “I think our receivers right now, I truly believe as they progress and the oldest guy just finished his third year, we cannot have another receiver around here and we’re going to be a good football team.”

Rookies Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey showed flashes of promise in their first season, and should figure prominently into the plans for 2014. The Rams seem prepared to remain patient with Brian Quick, and Givens certainly fills a role as a deep threat.

While Snead likes the progress of the receivers, it also doesn’t mean the team is necessarily averse to adding at the position. As is common at this time of year, Snead, Fisher and Co. are playing their cards close to the vest.

In the past two drafts, the Rams have used four picks on wideouts, including the No. 8 overall choice on Austin a year ago. But that doesn’t mean they should stand pat at the position.

Even if it means using a premium draft pick to add one, for the Rams to have a chance to overcome the elite defenses in the division they must find a way to add a consistent difference-maker at wide receiver.
ST. LOUIS -- As the offseason approaches, there's no spot on the St. Louis Rams' roster with more questions than the offensive line.

Of the five linemen who opened the season as starters in 2013, it's possible that none will be available for opening day in 2014.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/G. Newman LowranceRodger Saffold's versatility on the offensive line is a major reason why the St. Louis Rams will work to retain the fourth-year pro in 2014.
Rodger Saffold and Chris Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents. Center Scott Wells and right guard Harvey Dahl are under contract, but with salary cap numbers projected at $6.5 million and $4 million, respectively, either or both could become salary cap casualties.

To top it off, left tackle Jake Long suffered a torn ACL and MCL in Week 15 against Tampa Bay and at the very least would be cutting a return for the opener awfully close.

Put simply, the Rams have much to figure out in free agency and the draft.

"That's what the offseason is for," general manager Les Snead said. "We have got a plan so it's not a stressful situation. It's something that has got a lot of moving parts that we've got to address and keep them from moving."

As is often the case with offseason plans, Snead declined to elaborate on what the Rams' strategy for the line is moving forward. Regardless, it's probably a safe bet the Rams will be making some changes and adding some new pieces one way or another.

While decisions on Wells and Dahl may be the first order of business, figuring out a way to retain Saffold is the one piece of the puzzle Snead made clear the Rams are looking to figure out.

Saffold moved to right tackle in the offseason and started the year there before a knee injury cost him four games. He returned and began rotating with his replacement, Joe Barksdale, for a few weeks before settling in at right guard when Dahl suffered a knee injury.

There, Saffold showed the ability to be a potentially elite guard. Coach Jeff Fisher even acknowledged that Saffold's unique skills when pulling made him a good fit for the spot long term.

Asked directly if Saffold's versatility makes retaining him an important cog in the offseason plans, Snead acknowledged that it did.

"I would say yes," Snead said. "You love versatility on your offensive line. Take it broader than that, a lot of times you're keeping seven and eight up on game day, so when you've got a lot of versatility you can keep seven up and now your special teams are stronger."

The question then becomes how Saffold is valued around the league and whether teams see him as a guard or tackle and pay him as such. Snead believes the delineation of value among the line spots has blurred in recent years, making that an issue that may not matter much when it comes to Saffold.

"I think today in the NFL, it's not like it (used to be)," Snead said. "Now you see right tackles getting paid if they're really good, you see guards getting paid if they're really good. A lot of teams probably, it's not utopia so your best two players might be your right tackle and right guard so those teams usually pay them. I think it's a little broader now."

One more way for the Rams to fill possible line vacancies is from within. Snead expressed confidence in the development of rookie lineman Barrett Jones and the Rams have other young linemen such as guard Brandon Washington and tackle Mike Person in whom they've invested plenty of time and effort.

Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has proved more than capable of bringing along young linemen and putting them in position to succeed. Barksdale's success in 2013 is a prime example.

The Rams will add to the line in the offseason, likely through the draft. Whether they use a high pick on a lineman remains to be seen, especially given Fisher and Snead's short two-year track record of not drafting linemen early.

Still, with the Rams having an extra first-round pick and likely obvious needs on the line, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them make it a priority in this draft.

By the time the draft rolls around in May, the Rams will have a good handle on what form the line is set to take. The contract situations will be decided and free agency will be complete.

For now, it's obvious Snead and the Rams aren't worried about the possible line alterations.

"One will be a rehab situation; one is an unrestricted free agent," Snead said. "Of any group I was most proud of, it was that group this year. I have a heart for offensive linemen because that's your basketball team. It's not just one great player. It's five guys working together."

The question for the Rams in 2014 is who those five will be.

Rams seal second pick from Redskins

December, 29, 2013
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When St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher arrived as head coach after the 2011 season, he made a promise to Rams fans everywhere that his team would not hold the second pick in the NFL draft again under his watch.

That’s a promise Fisher will be happy to break after his team added the No. 2 selection in the 2014 NFL draft to the ever-growing haul it received from the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

The Redskins’ 20-6 loss to the New York Giants dropped them to 3-13 on the year, the second worst record in the NFL and wrapped up the second spot in the pecking order.

Of course, it’s a pick Washington now must hand over to the Rams as the final piece of the 2012 pre-draft trade that sent the No. 2 overall pick to Washington in exchange for a package of picks, including the Redskins’ first-round choice in 2014.

While the Rams have a chance to finish the season 8-8 with a win against Seattle on Sunday, they already have a big victory in the form of that pick from Washington.

Since the Rams were officially eliminated from playoff contention early this month, the speculation about what they’ll do in the draft began in earnest. Now, the four-plus month silly season can really begin.

There are a lot of things that have to play out between now and the draft in May but it’s probably safe to assume that Rams general manager Les Snead and Fisher will look to turn the last pick of a big trade into another big haul that can continue to perpetuate itself for the next few years.

What isn’t known at this point is whether there will be enough interest in the No. 2 pick to make another big deal. It’s unlikely there will be a player of as much interest as Robert Griffin III was before the 2012 draft and thus the Rams probably won’t be able to get three first-round picks and a second-rounder out of prospective trade partners.

That doesn’t mean the Rams won’t find interest. A top quarterback or possibly South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney could draw a nice return for the Rams which could allow them to slide down a few spots, pick up some more picks and still land a player at a position of need such as Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews or Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.

Don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of time to go through the many options and permutations that await between now and the draft.

For now, the Rams and their fans can be happy that they’ll be drafting second overall for the fourth time in eight years but this time they won’t have suffered through the monumental losing to acquire the pick.

Mock draft: Matthews makes sense, but ...

December, 18, 2013
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ST. LOUIS -- Everything about Todd McShay's selection of Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews for the St. Louis Rams in his initial 2014 mock draft Insider makes sense. But that doesn't make it a slam dunk.

Premier tackles can be hard to find, and although the Rams have their left tackle in Jake Long under contract for the next three years, the addition of a player such as Matthews would give Long a solid partner for the time being while also providing the Rams a long-term solution on the left side.

[+] EnlargeJake Matthews
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsTexas A&M tackle Jake Matthews meets one of the Rams' needs and would be a smart first-round pick.
Joe Barksdale has played well at right tackle since stepping in for Rodger Saffold in Week 3, but it remains to be seen whether he's done enough to earn the job on a full-time basis. There are worse things than having a proven and reliable player like Barksdale as the third tackle moving forward.

In early projections, Matthews is regarded as the best tackle in the draft and a plug-and-play starter from day one. Given the Rams' primary needs -- offensive line, secondary and wide receiver -- Matthews likely represents the best match of need and value for a potential No. 2 overall draft choice.

Digging deeper, Matthews makes sense on a level beyond his talent and the Rams' needs. Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of passing on offensive linemen with his first-round picks, but if ever a player were to alter that, Matthews could be the one. Matthews is the son of Bruce Matthews, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman who played for Fisher with the Oilers/Titans from 1994 to 2001.

That doesn't guarantee anything, but it stands to reason that those ties could act as a tiebreaker if it comes down to it.

Of course, for all the reasons Matthews to the Rams is logical, there's one big X factor that would stand in the way: a freakish, 6-foot-6, 274-pounder who goes by the name of Jadeveon Clowney. South Carolina's superstar defensive end would be available at No. 2 in McShay's scenario, with Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater going to Houston at No. 1. Having Clowney on the board would present the Rams with a pair of options even more intriguing than Matthews.

The first would be to actually draft Clowney. While the Rams are loaded at defensive end, Fisher abides by the idea that you can never have too many pass-rushers. A line featuring the likes of Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Clowney would be an absolute nightmare for opponents. Would it be a long shot? Maybe, but never say never when it comes to Fisher and premium pass-rushers, especially a difference-maker the caliber of Clowney.

The other, more likely, option would be the Rams using Clowney as trade bait to bring back another haul of draft picks and move down in the draft. Fisher and general manager Les Snead have not been shy about pulling the trigger on trades in their two drafts together. Heck, they own this pick because of the deal that sent the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft to Washington.

It's unlikely the Rams would get a return on par with what they got for that selection, but the market for Clowney or even the next-best quarterback likely would land them some more quality draft spots while not forcing them to move down too far.

In what amounts to the Rams' ideal world, they could make such a trade and still land a player such as Matthews or Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins. Either way, last year's trade with the Redskins figures to be the gift that keeps on giving in St. Louis.

Making Rams roster an open proposition

September, 8, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In retrospect, it’s easy for St. Louis Rams linebacker Daren Bates to call the chance he got from the team the perfect situation.

Little did Bates know that when the Rams were the only team to call and express interest in him after he went undrafted in April’s NFL draft that he was walking into a place that actually was the exact fit he’d need to make the team.

“My agent told me this is where I would be at,” Bates said. “So I that’s all I had and that’s what I took. It worked out perfectly.”

In St. Louis, your pedigree doesn’t matter as much as what happens when you step on the field. To borrow a phrase from Twitter follower @3k_, if you can play, you can stay.

So it is that the current 53-man roster has 18 players that were originally undrafted, 15 of whom were signed by the Rams coming out of college, given an opportunity and earned their way on to the roster.

In this year’s undrafted rookie class alone, the Rams kept five players -- linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong, Jonathan Stewart and Bates, defensive end Gerald Rivers and running back Benny Cunningham -- who did not hear their names called in April’s draft.

If the draft is the lifeblood of a franchise, undrafted free agency serves as the blood bank. That’s why, in the Rams’ philosophy, it’s not just general manager Les Snead and his group working hard to unearth hidden gems.

“It’s something that everybody works at, the coaches. It’s a collective effort and it starts well before the draft,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “It’s basically one of those deals where you get a sense for guys on the board and if they’re still left on the board when the draft’s over, you basically express interest and show a need and fortunately we got some quality players.”

It hasn’t always been that way around Rams Park, though. In fact, before the arrival of Fisher, Snead and vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff, the undrafted rookies were generally an afterthought.

Not that the Rams didn’t pursue them but they usually didn’t even make competitive bonus offers to go after the best options available. That has changed plenty in the past two years, and it’s a good reason why the Rams now figure to have undrafted players making major contributions for the first time since London Fletcher in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Safety Rodney McLeod went unselected in 2012, made the team and led it in special teams tackles as a rookie. Most undrafted players get their start on special teams but work their way up after. McLeod is a good example and likely to start on defense against Arizona on Sunday.

“There are Pro Bowlers that were undrafted college free agents,” Fisher said. “So, yeah, basically everybody’s doing it. You spend a lot of time on the bottom of those lists. You spend a lot of time in it, so it’s worked out good for us so far.”

The roster scouring isn’t limited to undrafted free agents, either. Offensive lineman Brandon Washington was a sixth-round pick by Philadelphia last year, didn’t make the roster and spent the 2012 season on the Rams' practice squad.

Washington proved a valuable scout team member. He clearly understood his role and the old idea that the more you can do, the more valuable you become.

“It was definitely one of those things,” Washington said. “I learned that last year on the practice squad. I kind of bumped around on practice squad and then coach Bones (special teams coach John Fassel) would come pick me up and say ‘Be my gunner or cover this guy on punt return.’ I was like, ‘What in the world?’ Me a gunner?’ But I heard that a lot, the more you could do, the better. I just looked at everything as an opportunity.”

Washington arrived in this year's training camp hoping to earn a spot at guard but plans changed when injuries hit the Rams at tackle. Without hesitation, Washington returned to his Miami (Ohio) roots and played tackle, again showing the versatility and attitude the Rams seek in young players.

After watching the Rams keep young players around him last year, Washington knew when he was told he’d have a shot to make the roster, it wasn’t just lip service.

“All the hard work you put into this thing, you try to come out here and earn a roster spot,” Washington said. “That was my No. 1 goal coming in. You can be on practice squad and then get a chance for this.”

The amount of players making the roster after going undrafted also can’t hurt the Rams in their pursuits of future player in similar predicaments.

Yes, the Rams have been a team reshaping a roster and naturally have more job openings than teams with deeper rosters, but it’s been made clear that the philosophy of keeping the best players regardless of resume isn’t going to change anytime soon.

“Beforehand, I had no idea,” Rivers said. “I just came in hoping for the best and going out there and playing hard. Coach was saying he doesn’t care who you are, (if you are) making plays, production, that is all on the field. Production equals power.”

Rams embracing homegrown players

September, 5, 2013
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- NFL Nation columnist Kevin Seifert posted an interesting piece this morning on the value of homegrown players around the league. Green Bay is featured in the piece because it has an astonishing 50 players on the roster who have never appeared in a regular-season game for any other team.

It's no coincidence that the Packers have enjoyed great success in recent years. Building through the draft is an idealistic buzz phrase that's easier to say and harder to execute. Most teams around the league do it but very few have the ability to consistently evaluate talent and find the right scheme fits on a yearly basis.

[+] EnlargeJeff Fisher
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsRams coach Jeff Fisher has proven that he wants to build his team through the NFL draft.
From the moment he arrived in St. Louis, Rams general manager Les Snead has made it clear that he and coach Jeff Fisher want to build their roster through the draft and even with undrafted free agents. According to Seifert's research and what he calls the "indigenous player" chart, the Rams have 40 players who have not appeared in a game for another team. Twelve of those players are rookies this year, including five undrafted free agents.

The 13 players on the Rams roster who have appeared in games for other teams: OT Jake Long, OG Harvey Dahl, C Scott Wells, OG Chris Williams, OT Joe Barksdale, TE Mike McNeill, TE Jared Cook, CB Cortland Finnegan, LB Will Witherspoon, S Matt Giordano, QB Kellen Clemens, DE William Hayes and DT Kendall Langford.

Most of the 40 players on the roster have come via the draft or as undrafted free agents but the Rams have also found players who never appeared in games elsewhere but came to the team from practice squads and worked their way to the active roster. Offensive linemen Brandon Washington and Shelley Smith are a couple examples of that.

That total places the Rams in a tie for third with Houston, Cleveland, Dallas and New England for most homegrown players in the league. Atlanta ranks second to Green Bay with 45.

What's interesting about that list of seven teams is there's a mix of successful teams with young teams considered to be on the rise. Green Bay, Atlanta, Houston and New England have put in a system where they place higher value on accumulating draft picks and developing that talent. They churn their rosters when needed and do their best to retain their young talent.

The Rams are in a bit of a different spot. Their youth and homegrown roster is a product of the roster revamp that has been underway the past two seasons. Of course, if all goes as planned, those young players will develop and stick around for a long time with more drafted players on the way.

Rams consensus: Third in NFC West

September, 2, 2013
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The St. Louis Rams finished third in the NFC West in 2012, and if things go according to the predictions of myself and four of our esteemed columnists, they're going to do so again this season.

In the ESPN.com team-by-team preview of the Rams, the consensus of the group was that the Rams would once again finish behind some combination of Seattle and San Francisco in the division. I was joined by ESPN columnists Adam Schefter, Ashley Fox and Jeffri Chadiha in tabbing the Rams for a third-place finish, while John Clayton has the team ending up last in the division.

Based on the comments accompanying the picks, we all seemed to agree that the Rams are a team headed in the right direction but one that might be a year away from truly contending in what may be the league's toughest division. Chadiha even goes so far as to say the Rams "could be the biggest sleeper in the NFL."

That's a sentiment shared by plenty of others. The Rams have put the pieces in place to contend, and even though most believe the Seahawks and 49ers are more likely to win the West, the Rams did post the best record within the division last season at 4-1-1. It's going to be tough for the Rams to duplicate that record again in 2013 (and not just because ties rarely occur).

Asked about the difficulty of the division on Sunday, Rams coach Jeff Fisher acknowledged that his team and Arizona are still trying to catch up to Seattle and San Francisco. The Rams will get a chance to gauge where they are in relation to the Cardinals this week in the season opener.

“Well, we’ve got our first opportunity this week and we’ll find out," Fisher said. "I think Arizona is a much-improved team over the last year and we know what the other two are capable of doing. I think us and Arizona are chasing them, feel like we’ll be chasing them for a while. But Arizona started off, I think, 5-0 last year, so they’re a good football team as well.”

For the Rams to keep up, they'll need to perform better outside of the division than they did a year ago, and they'll also need to ensure they take care of the games they should win in the division. Arizona looks to be improved with the addition of quarterback Carson Palmer, but a home game against the team our panel picked to finish fourth needs to go down as a win for the Rams to get off on the right foot in 2013.

Morning Ram-blings: Early Christmas?

September, 2, 2013
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The St. Louis Rams spent the exhibition season almost going out of their way to be boring in terms of planning for their four opponents. Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas said the Rams just "stood around" in the teams' preseason opener.

That perfectly understandable and common approach served only to delay unveiling how this year's revamped offense is going to look to an antsy fan base. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote about what he's expecting from the many new toys for quarterback Sam Bradford and discussed with general manager Les Snead how long it might take for those pieces to come together.

As we discussed in this space yesterday, the Rams again have the youngest team in the league. They are especially green at receiver and running back, two areas that must produce in relatively short order. Coach Jeff Fisher also made mention of the fact the Rams have young players with a lot to learn before everything can click.

The first real look at how it all comes together will be Sunday when Arizona comes calling at the Edward Jones Dome. Then and only then will we have a true idea of what toys the Rams have to play with this season.

Elsewhere:

The daily rundown of our content from yesterday: First, I pondered some potential practice-squad additions, and later the Rams confirmed the eight players signed to it. ... I also took a look at how the roster stands after the cut to 53 on offense and defense/special teams.

The Lions released former Rams linebacker Rocky McIntosh to make room for safety DeJon Gomes, whom they claimed off waivers. McIntosh signed with Detroit about two weeks ago after spending 2012 in St. Louis. The Rams did not bring him back in free agency, and further separated themselves from him when they drafted Alec Ogletree at No. 30 in April's draft. As of Sunday night, the Rams had six linebackers on the roster, four of whom are rookies. Fisher has made it clear in the past he prefers to develop young players rather than stick with older veterans when those players are backups. That would seem to make it unlikely that a reunion with McIntosh could be in the offing, but bringing in a veteran linebacker until Jo-Lonn Dunbar returns is still something to consider.

Al.com took a look at undrafted rookie Daren Bates, who made the Rams' 53-man roster despite getting just one offer (from the Rams) after the draft and after he lost weight to try out at safety and had to gain it back to play linebacker in St. Louis. I'll have more on Bates and some of his undrafted brethren this week, but he figures to be one of the team's core special-teams players this season.

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