- Ashley Fox
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He could be the best ever.
That's hyperbole, mere noise surrounding the upcoming draft and Jadeveon Clowney. Is he lazy? Is he misunderstood? He is the best natural talent in the 2014 draft, but when he gets the money that accompanies being a high draft pick in the National Football League, will he work hard? Will he try to turn potential into production? Or will he be complacent and rely only on natural ability and not preparation to be effective?
One thing is clear, though: The St. Louis Rams have found their next great pass-rusher. They don't necessarily need Clowney. If the Houston Texans pass on Clowney, the Rams have myriad options with the No. 2 pick in the draft, the most reasonable option being to trade down and then target a position of need rather than the best player in the draft.
Why? They have Robert Quinn.
In the fourth-year defensive end out of North Carolina, the Rams have one of the best young pass-rushers in the game. Still only 23 years old, Quinn is coming off the best season for a pass-rusher in franchise history. With 19 sacks, Quinn ranked second by half a sack to Indianapolis outside linebacker Robert Mathis for the inaugural Deacon Jones Award, given to the league's sacks leader.
A team captain last season, Quinn finished with seven forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries and had five multisack games, including three three-sack games.
With fellow defensive end Chris Long, who had 8½ sacks, Quinn was part of a Rams defense that finished the year third in sacks with 53, trailing only Carolina (60) and Buffalo (57). In 2012, they tied with Denver for the league lead with 52 team sacks, 11½ by Long and 10½ from Quinn. It was the first time since 2000 that St. Louis had two players with double-digit sacks on the season.
The Rams expect more from their pass rush in 2014 and more from their star pass-rusher.
"The long story short is Robert came into the league young and inexperienced [but] with massive potential," St. Louis general manager Les Snead said. "He's reached it. The next phase is [for him] to do it consistently for the rest of his career. That's when you start talking about putting him with the legends."
That is heady praise, but that's how good the St. Louis brass believes Quinn can become.
Snead credited a few factors for Quinn's success.
First, Snead said he gave former Rams general manager Billy Devaney "credit for possessing the guts" to pick Quinn 14th overall in 2011. After Quinn made 11 sacks as a sophomore for North Carolina in 2009, the NCAA ruled him permanently ineligible for taking impermissible benefits -- mainly jewelry and travel accommodations -- from an agent. Quinn missed the entire 2010 season and was understandably rusty at the 2011 NFL scouting combine.
Second, Snead said Rams defensive line coach Mike Waufle is "a difference-maker." Waufle has made a career out of identifying and developing effective pass-rushers. With the New York Giants from 2004 to 2009, Waufle coached Pro Bowlers Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck and presided over a unit that sacked New England quarterback Tom Brady five times in a 17-14 Super Bowl XLII victory. And not least of all third, Snead credited Quinn -- who he said has "evolved" since he entered the league "really young" three years ago -- for moving to St. Louis full time and working "extremely hard last offseason."
That, Snead said, "really attributed to him turning massive potential into massive production."
Now the question is, can Quinn do it again?
While Waufle is beginning his third season in St. Louis, the Rams have a new defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams. Williams accepted the role in 2012 but never got the chance to fulfill it because he had to serve an indefinite suspension for his part in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.
After working as a defensive consultant for the Tennessee Titans last season, Williams has reunited with Rams head coach Jeff Fisher.
Williams is known as a creative coordinator who tailors his blitz packages to the talent at his disposal. Given St. Louis' defensive front seven and need to improve the secondary, Williams will rely heavily on Quinn and Long.
"In today's NFL, the skill players on offense have an advantage because the defenders can't make contact past 5 yards, so routes and timing become cleaner and more precise," Snead said. "But a good pass-rusher, and more importantly a good pass-rushing unit, can disturb timing on the front end instead of the back end."
The Rams have a good pass-rushing unit, so they don't need Clowney.
One scenario that could happen if Houston doesn't select Clowney is St. Louis trading down with the Atlanta Falcons, who have the sixth overall pick and desperately need a pass-rusher. Snead worked for Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff prior to becoming the Rams' GM, and the two trust each other.
Either way, given Quinn's production last season, the Rams are in the luxurious position of not needing another pass-rusher. Clowney might project as the next great thing, but last season Quinn proved that he might well be the current great thing.
5hOhm Youngmisuk and Rich Cimini