By Russ Lande
Sports on Earth's NFL writers will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most important problems facing every franchise and proposing solutions for each. So far, the series has covered the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans, New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers. Today, it's the St. Louis Rams.
The Rams have a lot of problems, and Sam Bradford is not one of them.
Bradford is expensive, has suffered numerous injuries and has never developed into a consistent producer at quarterback. At the same time, he is still 26 years old, has shown numerous flashes of his enormous potential and has never had ideal protection or weapons. The Rams appear more committed to building around Bradford than replacing him, so this segment of GM for a Day strives to fix Bradford's problems by fixing everything else. Give Bradford a better offensive line and more weapons, then give the Rams defense a secondary to match their excellent defensive line, and the Rams will start to look like a playoff team, even if their NFC West schedule will make the playoffs hard to come by.
Problem: An offensive line in flux.
Solution: While not all of Sam Bradford's issues can be laid at the feet of the offensive line, the Rams must improve their pass protection for Bradford to become a quality NFL passer. Not only are starting offensive linemen Rodger Saffold and Chris Williams free agents, but so is swingman Shelley Smith, who has started eight games in the past two years. Left tackle Jake Long is recovering from January ACL surgery. There are rumors that either veteran Scott Wells or Harvey Dahl will be released due to salary cap restraints. Add it up, and the Rams line is in a state of flux, if not chaos.
Sources tell me that the Rams would like to have Saffold back, but they are not confident he will return: He wants to test the market, and the Rams will not break the bank to re-sign him. Taking all of this into account, expect the Rams to use the second overall pick in the draft to select Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews or Auburn's Greg Robinson. While they have two firstround picks, waiting until their second pick at No. 13 would most likely cause them to miss out on both Matthews and Robinson, and it makes no sense to pass on two potentially elite players at a need position.
Matthews can start at right tackle from day one, and if Long is not healthy to start the season, he could slide over and start at left tackle to begin 2014. Matthews may not be the huge offensive tackle that NFL teams prefer, but he has good size, natural athleticism/feet, outstanding technique and rare competitiveness. He will be a quality starting tackle for a decade. I view Matthews as the more polished and NFL ready player, but sources tell me that the Rams have Robinson higher on their draft board (though it is still early in the process), so don't be shocked to see them take him. He is a bigger, stronger tackle than Matthews, but he is not technically sound and will need work before he becomes a consistent blocker.
Look for the Rams to further address their offensive line by adding a veteran guard like Jon Asamoah or Kevin Boothe. Both have been solid starters and likely will not be high priced free agents. If the Rams can add Matthews or Robinson and a veteran guard then their line will improve in 2014. That, in turn, will greatly help Bradford.
Problem: The Rams need a quality free safety to upgrade their backend coverage.
Solution: After just one season, the Rams feel confident that T.J. McDonald can be a quality strong safety for them, but they desperately need to find a free safety who excels in pass coverage in order to give the back end of their defense some bite. As the Rams' current regime showed when they traded down a few seasons ago, they are not scared to drop and wait for a quality player to fall to them. Look for them to try to trade down with the Chargers or Saints, who both may consider moving up to acquire an edge rusher like Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr.
The Rams could select Louisville safety Calvin Pryor late in the first round. Scouts tell me he is a better all-around player than Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Pryor is athletic enough to cover tight ends in man coverage, can close explosively to make plays on the ball and is a good run-support player.
If the Rams pass on a safety in the first round, they should sign a veteran free agent like Kendrick Lewis, then aim to draft Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward, a mid-major playmaker who lacks ideal size but leaps off the tape, in the second round.
Problem: Find more offensive weapons for their passing attack.
Solution: Even after taking Tavon Austin in the first round a year ago, the Rams' passing attack needs weapons. Brian Quick improved slightly in 2013, but is still not a quality starting receiver, Chris Givens regressed and Stedman Bailey is still developing, so acquiring a big-play receiver would greatly help both Bradford and the whole offense.
My sources in St. Louis tell me that the front office does not believe receiver to be a huge need, but that does not mean they will ignore weapons in a receiver-deep draft. One option would be for the Rams to take Sammy Watkins with the second overall pick and aim to select offensive tackle Taylor Lewan or Zack Martin with the 13th pick. But it would be wiser to wait until the second or third round to add a receiver. A receiver like Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Odell Beckham or Jarvis Landry is likely to slip into the early second round. If none of them are available, the Rams can take a shot at Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis at the top of the third round. He has what it takes to be an excellent slot receiver and a good returner.
The Rams can also sign a veteran receiver or two with tools that have never blossomed, like Andre Caldwell, Kevin Ogletree, Dezmon Briscoe or Damien Williams. Throw them into the competition mix with players like Quick, Givens, and Bailey, and a solid core can emerge.
Problem: Maintaining and upgrading the cornerback position.
Solution: Janoris Jenkins suffered some ups and downs in 2013, but there is little doubt that he is a quality starter with the potential to be a star. Veterans Cortland Finnegan and Trumaine Johnson are the other cornerbacks, but the Rams will not likely keep Finnegan if he does not agree to a pay cut.
If Finnegan is cut to save cap dollars, the Rams will be a strong player in the market for cornerback Alterraun Verner; they will not want to enter the season with Jenkins and Johnson as their two starting cornerbacks and no established nickel back.
Two cornerbacks to keep an eye on in the draft are TCU's Jason Verrett, whom the Rams could consider with either the 13th pick in the first round or with their second-round choice, should he drop that far, or Ohio State's Bradley Roby, who is as athletic as any cornerback in the draft but had a real up and down final season. He almost certainly will be available with the Rams' second-round pick and likely with their third-rounder. Both fit the Rams cornerback profile: elite athletes with toughness and ball skills. Jeff Fisher and his staff will work to polish out the flaws.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.