NFC West: Jeff Fisher

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams are the only team in the NFL not to sign any members of their draft class. That will change soon enough.

For those that have followed the team's approach to signing the rookies under coach Jeff Fisher, it should be no surprise the Rams will be the last team to strike deals with their 11 drafted rookies.

It's all part of the team's plan to educate the rookies before handing over what for many will be life-changing money.

"With the new rookie cap and everything it’s really not difficult to get the deals done," Fisher said Tuesday. "So we just felt like this time would be better served putting them in situations from an educational standpoint, financial planning, those kind of things. We’ve done a lot of that."

Indeed, since the emergence of the rookie salary cap, the contracts for draft picks are essentially slotted into certain price tags. No amount of hold outs or negotiations is ultimately going to change rules that were collectively bargained in 2011.

Where rookie holdouts used to be a summer staple, they are now a thing of the past. In looking around the NFL, most teams already have the majority of their draft classes under contract. Even first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney has already signed with the Houston Texans. Under the old CBA, it wouldn't be unusual to see top overall picks unsigned deep into July, even missing their share of training camp practices.

But with the new setup, the more pertinent question might be what's the rush?

Frankly, the Rams' approach to handling the rookie deals is both logical and intelligent. For all rookies entering the NFL, this is their first real occupation. Sure, they might have had jobs along the way but none that come with the payday of an NFL contract. (Insert joke about the payroll of your least favorite college football power here).

Taking it a step further, the vast majority of rookies don't have much experience with how to handle wealth. So the Rams set out to offer a variety of classes intended to further educate players before handing over lucrative signing bonuses.

Included in the education are sessions on financial planning, home ownership, investing and other tasks associated with every-day life. On Tuesday afternoon, former Rams tight end Ernie Conwell spoke to the rookies. Conwell is now a regional director for the NFLPA.

The Rams have even traditionally done a rookie week in which they offer the class an opportunity to see their new hometown by taking them out to eat at local restaurants and offering chances to mingle with other young professionals in town.

In the meantime, the rookies aren't left wanting for everything. They stay in a local hotel and are fed meals at the team facility.

It's all done with the idea of providing the smoothest transition possible for young players who are about to take on the difficult task of playing in the NFL. If the Rams can provide a better chance for them to do that, all the better.

Last year, the team announced the signing of its entire rookie class in one day, the final day of organized team activities. With OTAs halfway finished and scheduled to end next week, all indications from the Rams point to this year's draft picks signing their deals around the same time.

"We have got another meeting or two left to go and I would think we’ll get these things done here pretty quickly," Fisher said.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- By the time his five-year tenure with the Tennessee Titans came to an end after the 2013 season, wide receiver Kenny Britt had long-since decided he was in dire need of a change of scenery.

Britt's welcome had been worn out in Nashville as injuries and off-the-field incidents accumulated to the point that in a matter of a few seasons he went from potential No. 1 receiver to game day inactive. As he entered free agency, Britt's next career step was unclear other than the fact it would involve a departure from Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeKenny Britt
Jeff Roberson/AP PhotoIn five seasons with the Titans, Kenny Britt caught 157 passes for 2,450 yards and 19 touchdowns.
When the St. Louis Rams and coach Jeff Fisher came calling, the choice picked up a healthy dose of clarity. Although Britt received interest from other teams, his ties to Fisher, the coach who spent a first-round pick on him in 2009, made it an easy decision.

Britt signed a one-year deal with the Rams in April and has quickly found the fresh start he sought at the outset of free agency.

"It’s everything to me, to tell you the truth," Britt said. "My mind is free and relaxed right now. I’m taking this year as a rookie year, like when I first came into the league. That’s my mind state right now."

Britt has wasted little time making his presence felt in St. Louis. The Rams held their second organized team activity Thursday and Britt stole the show for reasons both positive and negative.

During one-on-one passing drills, Britt showed his speed, racing past cornerback Janoris Jenkins for a touchdown from quarterback Shaun Hill from about 40 yards out. On his next rep, Britt did the same to the other starting cornerback, Trumaine Johnson.

Without pads or any sort of designed coverage schemes, there's not much to be taken from the plays but if nothing else, Britt showed some explosion and deep speed on a surgically repaired knee.

"He’s a big, explosive wide receiver who can make plays down the field," quarterback Sam Bradford said. "He’s looked really good in his time here. Watching him and the energy that he comes on to the field with every day has been great, not only for the offense but for that wide receiver corps. I feel like he brings kind of a presence and energy that maybe hasn’t been there in the past."

That presence and energy could be a good thing for a young wide receiving corps in which Britt is the "grizzled" veteran at the ripe old age of 25. With so many young and unproven wideouts surrounding him, Britt's competitive and feisty approach could be a welcome addition to the practice field.

But it's also important for that approach to have its limits. After both of Britt's catches, he was quick to let the young corners know about it. The ensuing trash talk eventually gave way to a fairly serious fight with Johnson. The scrap was enough for Fisher to stop the practice and let his team know such antics would not be tolerated, even going so far as to threaten to kick Britt and Johnson off the practice field.

Competitiveness and attitude are needed and can be a net gain for both the young wideouts and young corners but must also be kept in check.

"We take that on the field, off the field, in the weight room, in the locker room," Britt said. "Guys love it. We're males out there, this is a man's game. That's one thing, when you come between those lines, you compete. When we go in the locker room, we're brothers."

Despite never registering more than 775 yards in a season and with a career tally of 2,450 yards, Britt is still the most accomplished receiver on the team, which speaks to the youth and lack of production from that group.

At 6-foot-3, 223 pounds, Britt cuts an imposing figure as a solution to be the big, physical receiver the team has lacked. His chiseled frame has some teammates already referring to him as "The Incredible Hulk."

Based on early returns, like the Marvel superhero, Britt also must find a way to pick and choose when he lets the beast out of the cage.

“He’s a very emotional kid," Fisher said. "He’s an emotional receiver. He looks the part and he can make the plays. I was really happy to see him come on. He kept himself in really good shape during the free agency period. He came in, has done a great job inside. He’s had no setbacks, feels great physically. He could potentially return to where he was a very productive receiver.”
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams were the last team to jump into the fray of organized team activities. They officially began the work on Tuesday, but Thursday offered the first session open to the media.

As OTA practices go, Thursday's workout came with plenty of fireworks and much more to chew on. Here's what I took away from the day's work:

Scuffles abound: On an overcast day with cool temperatures, tempers ran hotter than one would expect, especially for a second OTA. There were three noticeable scuffles, one involving linebacker Alec Ogletree (his opponent was unrecognizable because the scrum happened too far away and was quickly broken up) that led coach Jeff Fisher to quickly stop practice and tell his team to cool down.

[+] EnlargeKenny Britt
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonRams receiver Kenny Britt caught a long TD pass against Janoris Jenkins during practice on Thursday.
Upon getting back to work, receiver Kenny Britt promptly beat cornerback Janoris Jenkins for a touchdown of about 40 yards then did the same to Trumaine Johnson soon after. Britt let the young corners know about it and eventually it led to a full on fight between he and Johnson. Fisher again stopped practice but this time read his team the riot act with language not fit for print here but audible from about 100 yards away.

Fisher doesn't mind spirited, competitive practices but his message was clear.

"We have some rules we have to abide by and we have to learn to protect each other a little better," Fisher said. "It was very competitive. It started out early. Kenny caught those two deep balls in the 1-on-1s. That kind of got things going, but it was good."

Later, defensive end Michael Sam and running back Isaiah Pead quickly exchanged not-so pleasantries but heeded Fisher's words and quickly separated.

Speaking of Britt: As mentioned above, Britt's two long touchdown catches (both from Shaun Hill) and subsequent reactions spurred the scuffles, but let's not lose sight of the fact that he made those plays in the first place. Britt has an opportunity to start fresh and told reporters after practice that he's viewing this season like he's a rookie starting anew.

Britt is a big, physical player and has already been nicknamed "The Incredible Hulk" by some of his teammates. Clearly, he has some impressive physical skills but he's also a bit emotional. You can look at Britt beating Jenkins and Johnson for long catches and his past off-field issues however you choose, but if nothing else Britt brings an attitude and competitiveness on the practice field that should be a net positive for a young receiver group.

For what it's worth, Britt chose not to address the Instagram post which drew some attention during the draft, saying it is between he and his wife.

Sitting it out: Heading into the practice, we already knew that left tackle Jake Long and end William Hayes would not be practicing. Those two did indeed sit out the workout though they did a little in the individual drills at walkthrough pace.

Joining Long and Hayes on the sideline were quarterback Sam Bradford, running back Chase Reynolds and safeties Maurice Alexander and Christian Bryant. Bradford is expected to participate in Friday's OTA, at least during seven-on-seven. With no injury reports at this time of year, getting an answer on injured players is a difficult proposition but Alexander and Bryant did some work on the side and Reynolds appeared to be moving with a slight limp.

Center Scott Wells also wasn't present as he had an excused absence.

Line dance: With Long and Wells absent, the Rams had to adjust their line on the first day a bit. Sean Hooey filled in for Long at left tackle and Tim Barnes for Wells at center.

The rest of the line was as expected with Greg Robinson at left guard, Rodger Saffold at right guard and Joe Barksdale at right tackle. Wells is expected to return Friday but Long will be out beyond the OTAs.

But the Rams are clearly optimistic that Long will be ready sooner than later. Fisher said Long's target return is the middle of training camp. In the meantime, they don't appear to be in a rush to disturb Saffold or Robinson from their spots at guard.

“We want to go through OTAs and most of camp with players playing the position they’ll play in the opener," Fisher said. "You assume Jake comes back, so we’ll just plug someone else in out there.”
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For most of this week, there will be news and tidbits coming out of every NFL city as teams either open or continue organized team activities (OTAs).

Except in St. Louis.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher has his own plan and it deviates from how the bulk of the league approaches this phase of the offseason program. Fisher's squad will begin OTAs a week from Tuesday with the first session scheduled for June 3.

There are 21 teams that will begin OTAs Tuesday, joining the four clubs -- Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Arizona and Detroit -- that began last week. On Wednesday, six more teams will join the fray, leaving only the Rams waiting to start the actual on-field portion of their offseason program.

The Rams have been in the offseason strength and conditioning phase of their offseason program since they were allowed to begin on April 21. Since then, the veterans have been working with strength coach Rock Gullickson multiple days a week. The rookies were brought along a little slower.

After the draft, the rookie class spent a few days getting used to their surroundings before stepping on the field for what amounted to glorified conditioning sessions rather than a prototypical rookie minicamp. They joined the veterans in the conditioning program last week.

When OTAs begin, the Rams will have 10 sessions between June 3 and June 20.

Here are the dates of the team's OTAs: June 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 16, 17, 19, 20.

Much like his approach to the rest of the offseason program, Fisher also closes out the spring/early summer work different than the rest of the league. The Rams are again scheduled to finish their offseason without a full-squad minicamp as most teams around the league will. The last piece of the offseason puzzle scheduled is the June 20 OTA session.

All practices are closed to the public.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- It's not exactly breaking news that St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher would prefer his team isn't the NFL's choice to star on the HBO series "Hard Knocks" this season.

Fisher long has made it clear that he'd prefer to keep a sense of normalcy around his team during training camp and the season and "Hard Knocks" easily could be viewed as a distraction the team doesn't need.

That's probably true, this year more than ever.

Fisher reiterated his stance to the Associated Press on Monday, saying it's "probably unlikely" the NFL will choose his team to appear on the show, though that decision still rests in the hands of the league.

After the Rams made it clear that the potential Michael Sam docuseries on OWN was not something they wanted going on during camp, it only stands to reason that they wouldn't want "Hard Knocks," either.

"Not good for the locker room," Fisher told the AP. "Nor Mike to get involved at this point."

While the Rams don't really have a choice in the matter, it's also logical the league would consider choosing the Rams for its own docuseries. The league could force the Rams to participate and be the ones who garner the ratings and revenue that go with documenting Sam's pursuit of a roster spot (and any other Rams storylines they'd choose to create).

Of course, choosing the Rams would also come off as a bit hypocritical by the NFL. Late last week, the league denied any previous knowledge of the plans for the Sam documentary and made it known it wasn't on board with that series.

Beyond that, the Rams drafting Sam had to be looked at as a positive for the league as a whole. Going against the wishes of the team to film a TV series wouldn't exactly be rewarding the Rams for making that historic choice.

Taking it further, Fisher long has been loyal to the league, serving on the competition committee for many years. With other options available, that certainly wouldn't hurt the Rams' chances of getting what they want in this situation though some in the organization wouldn't have minded the additional exposure the show would provide.

Ultimately, the Rams' efforts to avoid "Hard Knocks" are probably best for a franchise that needs to take the same approach as Sam and make it all about football. This is an important season for Fisher and the team as they enter their third season together. Although the first two years of the Fisher regime have resulted in improvement in the form of a pair of seven-win seasons, the team has targeted 2014 as a breakout season.

That's not going to be easy in the difficult NFC West division, which makes any possible distraction something this year's Rams clearly don't need.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- As the news came Friday that OWN was postponing its plans for a docuseries on St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam, it seemed to kill any chance of a distraction in the form of reality television for the team in 2014.

But there still remains another possibility that could result in the Rams being featured on the small screen. Namely, the HBO series 'Hard Knocks' has yet to announce the team it will follow during 2014's training camp. And the Rams are one of eight teams the NFL can force to participate.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher has generally been opposed to the idea and clearly wasn't enthused with the potential distraction of the Sam docuseries. The organization and the NFL had some brief discussions about putting the Rams on the show last year but those talks didn't progress.

Last week, Fisher was asked if he'd be open to the idea while appearing on Dan Patrick's radio show.

"You know I probably would have to give that some thought," Fisher told Patrick. "I think I would prefer, actually, to maintain a sense of privacy in our building, as most coaches would. But I think we'll cross that path if we need to."

To this point, the Rams have not been formally asked to do it and there are no indications that they plan to volunteer for the job, either. But that doesn't mean the Rams are out of the mix. In fact, one could build a case that the Rams might be the most appealing of the pool of eight candidates the league can force to participate in the series.

New measures were approved in October which allows the NFL to choose a team to participate so long as it meets the following qualifications:

1. The franchise has not appeared on the show within the past 10 years.

2. The franchise has not hired a new head coach in the offseason.

3. The franchise has not reached the playoffs in either of the previous two seasons.

After that announcement was made, Fisher was asked what his opinion on the possibility was. He opted not to voice his opinion but has previously made it known it's not an idea he's too keen on. I asked multiple players what they would think of it then and that was met with multiple eye-rolls.

This time, though, the Rams might not have a choice and it would make sense if the league chose them. After Sam's agent told ESPN's NFL Live that the league was aware of plans for Sam's docuseries, the league quickly responded and made it known it was not aware of the idea nor had it approved the use of logos, brands, etc.

The Sam docuseries was postponed in no small part because the Rams were a bit taken back by it and had no plans to offer additional access. But the league can do whatever it wants and it stands to reason that if someone was going to document Sam's journey through training camp (and the rest of the team's), the NFL would want to do it via its own vehicle.

Barring a team outside of the list of eight teams who can be forced to do the show, the NFL will choose from a group that includes the Chicago Bears, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders, in addition to St. Louis.

There are plenty of story lines there including popular teams in large markets such as the Giants and Bears. Last month, reports surfaced the league had narrowed the choices to the Steelers, Giants and Bears though those reports later proved inaccurate.

And while those choices would all make sense, none offer the historic aspect of Sam's pursuit of a roster spot combined with the overall intrigue of a young team looking to make a move in the league's toughest division.

Fisher has a longstanding relationship with the league as a prominent member of the competition committee. If indeed he doesn't want the camera crews rolling into Earth City, perhaps that could help his cause. And there are some in the Rams organization who wouldn't mind the exposure from a marketing standpoint.

Ultimately, the decision belongs to the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell.

The Rams avoided one potential television distraction already but another still lurks.

Sam, Rams rookies get to work

May, 16, 2014
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams aren't having a proper rookie minicamp as many of their NFL brethren around the league are this weekend. But they did offer a quick glimpse at what they are doing Friday afternoon.

The Rams' 25-player rookie class stepped on the practice field at Rams Park on Friday morning for what really amounted to a glorified conditioning session. Defensive end Michael Sam, offensive tackle Greg Robinson and their 23 rookie teammates went through a variety of position drills, special-teams work and conditioning drills during the 90-minute session.

It was the second such session for the group since the rookies began arriving on Monday but the first open to the media. A relatively large media contingent turned out for a workout that included no real football or any sort of media availability upon its completion.

And yes, the docuseries camera crew from the Oprah Winfrey Network was in attendance.

Instead of a normal minicamp, Rams coach Jeff Fisher is using this time as a sort of orientation for his rookies. All 11 of the team's drafted rookies and 14 of their undrafted rookies (the team released tackle Emmanuel McCray on Thursday) were on hand for the workout.

Without enough bodies for 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills, the players did plenty of position-specific drills and special-teams coach John Fassel got in his share of time as well. Sam worked at left defensive end in line drills but also did quite a bit of special-teams work. Sam even stayed a few minutes after the workout to get some additional special-teams instruction from Fassel.

The same rookie group will work out again Saturday before mixing in with the veterans on Monday. From there, the Rams have two more weeks of the offseason conditioning program before organized team activities begin on June 3.

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The spotlights are off, the media have dispersed and the wait is over.

For Michael Sam, the St. Louis Rams' newest addition at defensive end and the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL, it's time to get down to business.

Less than an hour after Sam's introductory news conference, the majority of the circus tents have been packed up. All that remains for Sam to do is play football.

"Will I make the cut?" Sam said. "You'll want to find out in a couple months, huh? I use little things to motivate me and make me a better player. Thank God for you guys for making this all a big deal because it's just going to make me even a better player than I am now."

Make no mistake, the attention will continue. It will ebb and flow with every landmark event along the way, be it an organized team activity, a minicamp, a training camp practice or a preseason game.

But for now, Sam is over the first hurdle and can now fully focus on the many more in front of him as he attempts to make the roster.

Asked if he took even a moment to appreciate the gravity of being the first openly gay player drafted, Sam didn't hesitate. In his mind, the sooner the focus turns to football, the sooner the attention will taper.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/Tim Sharp"They came to me and it was like 'Welcome to the family, let's get to work,'" Michael Sam said of meeting his new Rams teammates. "That's what we're going to do."
"I'm already focused on playing and trying to make the team," Sam said. "Eventually it will. But I understand that right now you guys want to make a big deal out of it. When this is over, I can start doing that as fast as possible."

Before meeting with the media Tuesday afternoon, Sam got his first introduction to his new teammates. Upon arrival at Rams Park on Monday night and Tuesday morning, Sam watched his veteran defensive line mates go through a workout.

Whether it was Chris Long or Robert Quinn or any of the other teammates, the message from each was a familiar refrain.

"They came to me and it was like, ‘Welcome to the family, let's get to work,'" Sam said. "That's what we're going to do."

Part of that work will fall on others within the organization. They must carefully tend to media requests, monitoring how much Sam is out in the community and walk the fine line between marketing him -- there will be new Rams fans he inherently brings -- and exploiting him.

Over the weekend and into Tuesday, those conversations had already begun. From a media standpoint, Sam won't be doing interviews every day. The team will make him available on a limited basis.

"I think we've heard a lot of things, a lot of people excited about the leadership and step that we took," Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said. "Certainly we have heard some negative as well. You are going to get both throughout the process.

"That's something that we knew and we discussed on Saturday if this was going to come to be. If you're going to take a leadership position by drafting Michael then I think you have to expect both the good and the bad, and we're prepared for it and I think we'll shine through it."

The question then becomes whether Sam will have the ability to shine on the practice field and land a roster spot. After going through the grueling pre-draft process in which his football activities were limited to running around in shorts and a T-shirt at the scouting combine and his pro day, Sam is eager to regain some sense of normalcy.

No place provides that type of sanctuary more than the football field, the one place he goes to cancel any outside noise. By the time he returns to that place, Sam figures to be carrying an extra large chip on his shoulder.

"I'm determined to be great," Sam said. "I'm determined to make this team. I have every confidence in myself that I will make this team."

The Rams' schedule for the next week will serve as a sort of orientation for the rookies. They'll be kept separate from the veterans as they work on their conditioning.

There will be no media availability during that time, and Sam and the rest of the rookies will get their playbooks and do film work with their teammates. On Monday, the whole team will come together for more workouts as they build toward OTAs.

The coaching staff's plan for Sam offers no surprises. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has already retired to his lab to come up with packages in which Sam could fit and defensive line coach Mike Waufle has plans on adding more moves to Sam's pass-rush repertoire.

"Anyone who watched him play sees special traits," Fisher said. "We'll have the capability provided that he's able to get from Point A, which is right now, to Point B through camp. We'll have the capability and potential to package him up and get him in defensive packages. We'll stress the importance of his contributions to special teams and all those types of things, so the work is just getting started. We're looking forward to being part of this journey."

The initial pomp and circumstance is over. The real journey begins now.
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."

Rams set offseason program

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
5:15
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EARTH CITY, Mo. -- While the NFL moved the draft back a couple of weeks to May this year, it didn't do much to change the dates for offseason programs around the league.

The league announced the starting dates and all of the organized team activities (OTAs) dates for all 32 teams on Thursday afternoon. Included in that group, of course, is the St. Louis Rams.

Because the NFL allows teams hiring new head coaches to get underway earlier than others, some teams will start their offseason conditioning programs as early as next week. As Jeff Fisher enters his third year as Rams coach, the Rams will have to wait until April 21 to begin the offseason program.

Until OTAs begin, the Rams can do strength and conditioning work. But all teams will have to wait until after the draft to start OTAs, the time when they can actually begin doing the on-field activities most closely resembling a practice.

Here are some key dates of the Rams' offseason program:

First day: April 21

OTA dates: June 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 16, 17, 19, 20

The Rams are getting started on OTAs s little later than other teams, but that's been common practice under Fisher. Fisher prefers to give his rookies a chance to come in, learn how the team wants things done and then mix in with the veterans. So it's safe to assume the rookies will come in soon after the draft and begin getting acclimated, likely with a rookie minicamp mixed in.

Another quirk to Fisher's offseason plan that differs from other teams is the absence of a mandatory full-squad minicamp. In fact, the Rams are the only team in the league without one scheduled.

All offseason work is closed to the public.
Speaking to reporters at this week's owners meeting in Orlando, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear that any potential trade involving his team's No. 2 overall pick this year isn't likely to come to fruition in advance of May's draft.

“(We have) not really had any discussion with anybody, but that doesn’t mean to say we won’t," Fisher said.

Griffin
Fisher also pointed out that if something were to materialize, it would be naive to expect to get a similar return to what the Rams got in 2012 when they traded the No. 2 overall pick to Washington, which then used the choice on quarterback Robert Griffin III. This year's No. 2 pick is the final piece of currency the Rams received in that deal.

"But I think it’s highly unlikely that even if we did trade out that would we get the value that we did the first time around," Fisher said.

Each draft has its own personality and that one was highlighted by the presence of two elite quarterbacks in Griffin and Stanford's Andrew Luck. Those players were highly coveted because of their position.

This year's draft offers no similar alternatives, though it is considered a deep draft from top to bottom. The lack of clear-cut franchise quarterbacks combined with the depth of the draft means teams are less likely to give up a bounty as the Redskins did to acquire Griffin.

“This draft is unique in that I think you’re going to get players in the middle part of the third round that potentially could start, and start very early for you," Fisher said. "It really depends on the positions, but there will be a lot of teams excited about who they have acquired in the first couple rounds because it’s such a deep draft."

It also means teams will be hesitant to give up those picks knowing they can get a potential starter they could have under control at relatively cheap prices for the next four years.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- For all of the bizarre things that took place in the past week to get offensive lineman Rodger Saffold back as a member of the St. Louis Rams and addressing the local media in a news conference Friday afternoon, the one move that really started it all happened Nov. 10.

[+] EnlargeRodger Saffold
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonSpending time at right guard opened up Rodger Saffold's options.
That was the day Saffold made his debut as a right guard against the Indianapolis Colts. It's hard to know for certain given the vagaries of the NFL but if that day had never happened, there's a strong possibility that Saffold wouldn't be a Ram nor would they have made much effort to keep him.

To that point, the 2013 season had been relatively tumultuous for Saffold. Given Saffold's injury issues in 2012, the team signed Jake Long to play left tackle and asked Saffold to move to the right side. It was a move he didn't love but never publicly complained about. Then, after early-season injury issues again popped up, Saffold found himself sharing the right tackle spot with Joe Barksdale upon his return from a Week 2 knee injury.

The previous three weeks before the game against Indianapolis, Saffold split reps with Barksdale. But the Rams wanted to get their five best offensive linemen on the field and with Barksdale and Saffold alternating at right tackle, they took one of those five off the field for chunks of the game. Long before that, there had been whispers that Saffold might be a better fit inside but it had never been tried because the Rams didn't have many options at tackle.

So it was that Saffold, in looking for a chance to be on the field consistently, and the Rams, looking to put their best line together, hatched the plan to put Saffold at right guard. Rams coach Jeff Fisher recalled the pivotal decision spurred by offensive line coach Paul Boudreau on Friday afternoon.

"Well, the conversation was initiated by Coach 'Bou'," Fisher said. " It’s hard to find a better one in the league than ‘Bou.' He just felt like with his understanding and his knowledge, the fact that he would line up next to Scott [Wells], and Scott could be of assistance to him and athletic ability -- it was an easy decision."

Saffold worked at guard all week leading up to the Colts game, an experience that was foreign to him. But nearly from the moment he jumped into the lineup at guard, it looked like a natural fit.

The pass protection part became easier as Saffold was no longer forced to cover so much ground against speedier rushers on the edge. He held up fine in that regard, but it was his ability as a run blocker that opened more than a few eyes to his potential inside.

Saffold's athleticism and size allowed him to become the prototype pulling guard as the Rams often got him on the move and allowed him to open holes for running back Zac Stacy. His second start, against Chicago, was the better highlight reel as he regularly was noticeable down the field creating space for the Rams to rush for 258 yards in a win.

Unfortunately for the Rams, Saffold's sample size at guard wasn't as large as they would have liked as injuries to others, especially Long, forced him to move outside. Make no mistake, that versatility also helped Saffold's value but it was the glimpse of potential that elevated Saffold from a "might keep" to a "must keep."

Saffold's production inside didn't just change the Rams' view of his future but also made a difference for Saffold himself. When he first made the move, Saffold discussed it with me and another reporter. He didn't have any trepidation about the move but it was clear he was a bit unsure of himself.

After tasting success at guard, Saffold said he regularly spent extra time critiquing his technique and working to refine the details of his new position.

"Once things started going good, I was happy but I was also very, very hungry and very, very strict on myself," Saffold said.

Saffold's work was enough to draw the attention of other teams as he headed to free agency and make him the Rams' top priority. Oakland and Tampa Bay put on the full-court press and both were at least open to the idea of Saffold playing guard though Saffold indicated Friday he would have played left tackle for the Raiders.

Looking back on his first opportunity to play guard, even Saffold himself is taken aback by the domino effect the move created.

"Now that everything else has happened, it was pretty much a surprise for me as well," Saffold said. "I know that Coach Boudreau definitely had a lot of confidence in me, as well as Coach Fisher about playing the guard position, and I didn’t realize it until I actually started doing it."

Now that he has, there's no turning back.

"He made the switch last year, a difficult switch," Fisher said. "He was very, very productive inside. Our plan is to play him at guard as we continue to fill the pieces around him."

It's a notion that a year ago seemed far-fetched. As of Friday afternoon, it's Saffold's new reality.
Jim HarbaughChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh has reached the NFC title game in each of his three seasons, so why would the 49ers look elsewhere?

Coach Jim Harbaugh's situation in San Francisco has been one of the most talked-about stories in the league in recent weeks.

If a resolution on his contract isn't reached, it will likely hover over the franchise all season and would be a major story next January, when Harbaugh could leave the team, although Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated this week he is happy with all aspects of his job and doesn’t see any way he will leave the team before the end of his contract. Still, getting the contract done would ease a lot of issues.

We all know the backdrop: Harbaugh has led the 49ers to the NFC title game in all three of his seasons as coach. He got them to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. He is entering the fourth year of a five-year contract that pays him $5 million per year. Harbaugh and the 49ers have been in discussion about a new deal for about a year, but are not close to an extension. Team owner Jed York recently told the Sacramento Bee he thinks contract talks will resume after the NFL draft in early May.

Things got interesting when the Cleveland Browns pursued a trade for Harbaugh. The 49ers were not interested, but that could change next year.

There have been rampant reports that Harbaugh has had trouble with some in the 49ers' front office, including general manager Trent Baalke. York, Harbaugh and Baalke have long downplayed the friction, indicating that they can coexist.

However, there is enough smoke here to think this situation go could south if a contract isn't agreed upon this year. Let's look at some issues that may be part of this story as it further develops:

The history: While it would be stunning to see the 49ers-Harbaugh marriage disintegrate after such a stellar start, similar breakups have happened before.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones
AP Photo/Ron HeflinJim Harbaugh would not be the first successful coach to leave during a team's prime. Jimmy Johnson left the Cowboys after winning two Super Bowls because of fighting with owner Jerry Jones.
After winning two straight Super Bowls, Jimmy Johnson famously left the Cowboys in 1994 after fighting with owner Jerry Jones. Following the 1998 season, Mike Holmgren shocked the NFL when he left quarterback Brett Favre and a Green Bay Packers team in its prime after a seven-year run that included a Super Bowl win. Holmgren left for more power and much more money in Seattle. In 2002, the Raiders traded coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay for a massive amount of draft picks. The Raiders were burned as Gruden led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win against Oakland in his first season. In 2007, the Chargers sided with general manager A.J. Smith in his feud with coach Marty Schottenheimer even though the Chargers went 14-2 the season before.

If Harbaugh leaves the 49ers, it wouldn't be the first time a coach and team split despite success.

The highest-paid coaches: Harbaugh told Sports Illustrated he is not unhappy with his pay, but the man is underpaid considering his massive NFL success. Nine of the 32 NFL coaches in 2013 made at least $7 million. Only five of them had won a Super Bowl.

I'd think it has to bother Harbaugh that Chip Kelly earned $6.5 million in his first NFL season and NFC West rival Jeff Fisher made $7 million in St. Louis. Coaches' salaries are at a premium and, by NFL standards, Harbaugh is underpaid.

The best coaches without power: He is hypercompetitive and likes to be in control. So, Harbaugh probably isn't always thrilled to defer personnel decisions to Baalke. But I don't sense Harbaugh wanting to be the general manager and making every decision as he said. He is a coach.

I don't see this as a deal-breaker.

There are plenty of great NFL coaches who don't have total power, including Harbaugh's brother, John, in Baltimore. There's also Mike McCarthy in Green Bay, Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh and Pete Carroll in Seattle. So, a lack of total power in the NFL really isn't a big deal anymore for coaches.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
AP Photo/Matt YorkWould Stanford coach David Shaw be a candidate to follow Jim Harbaugh again?
Where could Harbaugh land? Harbaugh's situation could cause teams to adjust their plans late in the season. I could see many owners prematurely firing a coach to get a shot at Harbaugh if he goes into January unsigned.

But right now, the list of teams that may be making a change next year and may make sense for Harbaugh isn't very long.

Miami and Dallas would be among the biggest suitors. Miami tried to hire Harbaugh before he went to San Francisco. The team has deep pockets, a need for good public relations, and the Dolphins have a good young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. Dallas has big bucks and Tony Romo. Harbaugh could like both places.

Other possibilities could include both New York teams and Atlanta (coaching Matt Ryan would surely be intriguing). A potential long shot could be Oakland. Harbaugh was an assistant in Oakland and he could stay in the Bay Area. But the Raiders have to find a quarterback and ownership would have to be willing to shell out financially to make it work. Plus, the 49ers would need to get a haul from the Raiders to trade him to their Bay Area rival.

If I had to give odds on the early favorite, I'd look toward Miami.

Who could replace Harbaugh? It's only logical to think that San Francisco ownership, in the back of its mind, is thinking post-Harbaugh just in case.

The chance of getting draft picks for a coach the 49ers can't come to an agreement with could interest the team next offseason. Also, the idea of front-office peace could be at the forefront as well, especially if things go haywire the rest of this year.

The first place the 49ers would likely look to replace Harbaugh is on the current staff. Because the team has been so successful, I could see the 49ers having interest in staying close to home. Offensive and defensive coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, respectively, would likely be on the 49ers' list. Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula is a favorite of the front office. He was a candidate when Harbaugh was hired and his players love him.

Here's another name the 49ers could look at -- David Shaw. He replaced Harbaugh at Stanford. I'm sure he wouldn't be afraid to do it again.

Shaw has been steadfast in his desire to stay at Stanford. But if he were ever to leave for the NFL, this would likely be an appealing situation. He and his family could stay in their house and he'd go to a near perfect NFL situation with a franchise quarterback in Colin Kaepernick.

There is plenty to unfold in this situation in the next several months. Harbaugh and the 49ers could end it all by coming to a contract extension. But as we have realized early this offseason, it's not that simple.

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