- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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ST. LOUIS -- Today is a big day for thousands of high school kids around the country as they put pen to paper on National Letters of Intent and bind themselves to a university for their future athletic endeavors.
It's a day that's taken on a life of its own in the football world as college football fans hang on every tweet to see if their favorite school has signed the "next big thing." It's also a day to remember that while rankings are an inexact science and many of the recruiting services, including the group here at ESPN, do a great job in evaluating and ranking players, that guarantees little when it comes to college production. And it means even less when it comes to predicting possible NFL futures.
I spent a few hours today going back through the archives of our recruiting database to see where many of the Rams were ranked coming out of high school. There are plenty of Rams who were well recognized entering college who followed through and are now on the roster. They are also surrounded by many players who never even saw the overbearing heat of a training camp practice.
Here are a few observations I took away from studying the rankings of current Rams as they prepared to embark on their college adventures.
The highest rated Ram on the current roster came in 2009 and joined the team in 2013. No, it wasn't first-round pick Tavon Austin or even fellow West Virginia receiver Stedman Bailey. It was linebacker/special teams dynamo Ray Ray Armstrong. Armstrong was ESPN's 21st ranked player in the class of 2009 as he headed to the University of Miami (Fla.). Then a safety, Armstrong took a bit of a circuitous route to the NFL after being dismissed from the team. He signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent and made the roster with a strong training camp. He is a special teams mainstay and could factor into the mix as a possible starter at outside linebacker in 2014.
Amongst other Rams to land on ESPN's list of the top 150 players in the country that year? Cornerback Brandon McGee checked in at No. 62 and also chose Miami while safety T.J. McDonald headed to Southern California as the No. 91 overall recruit. The Rams drafted McGee in the fifth round and McDonald in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft.
Of the team's current starters, linebacker Alec Ogletree headed to Georgia in 2010 as one of the nation's top safeties. He was the No. 29 overall player in the country that year and had a solid career for the Bulldogs before the Rams made him a first-round pick last season. Like Armstrong, Ogletree also converted to linebacker and is one highly-rated player who has followed that path from high school through the NFL.
Other Rams to land on the prestigious ESPN 150 list since 2006 include tight end Lance Kendricks (No. 107 in 2006), offensive tackle Joe Barksdale (No. 130 in 2007) and cornerback Janoris Jenkins (No. 31 in 2008).
The rankings for many of the Rams' other key pieces were also quite interesting as many of them didn't crack the top 150 players list. Sam Bradford was the 16th-rated quarterback in the class of 2006 and went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. Running back Zac Stacy was the 98th-rated running back in 2009 as he headed to Vanderbilt. Austin was also ranked as a running back in the 2009 class, checking in at No. 41.
Out of all the players I looked at, I wanted to see what the consensus was on the Rams' best player, defensive end Robert Quinn. Our scouts clearly thought highly of Quinn coming out, giving him a strong grade of 80 but it's funny to look closer at some of the names surrounding him within his home state of South Carolina. In what was a good year for recruiting in that state in 2008, Quinn was ranked the seventh best player there. That's nothing to be ashamed of considering the talent the state usually produces. In fact, that year produced two of the most elite talents to enter college football the following year in No. 1 overall defensive end Da'Quan Bowers and wide receiver A.J. Green, who went to Clemson and Georgia, respectively. Clemson also landed running back Andre Ellington, who was the third-ranked player in the state behind Bowers and Green. All three are now in the NFL though Bowers has been slowed by injury since he entered the league. But Quinn found himself behind a South Carolina cornerback named Charles Whitlock and tied with Clemson guard Kenneth Page and linebacker Jonathan Willard. Quinn is now one of the best defensive players in the league and players like Whitlock, Page and Willard are relative unknowns in the NFL world.
The lesson to take away from all of this is nothing new. For any player looking to advance to the next level, finding the right fit is critically important. At any level of football, player development trumps all. Some players take longer than others, some reach their peak too soon and some simply can't get out of their own way. As every coach across America sits down today and tells everyone how much he loves his incoming class of freshmen, it's important to remember that the vast majority will never make an NFL roster. No matter where they were ranked.