By Rams Nation's Will Milano
April’s NFL Draft provides both good news and bad news for the Rams. The good news is that main positions of need for the Rams- tight end, guard, fullback, and free safety- are deep this year and can be filled without having high draft picks. The Rams should also receive several high compensatory picks (possibly including a 3rd or 4th round pick) because of last year’s free agency losses (including Dre Bly, Ernie Conwell, Jeff Zgonina.. While not primary areas of need, the Rams could also add a young quarterback, linebacker, or cornerback in this Draft to improve their depth. With Sean Landeta now 42 years old and a free agent, it’s even possible the Rams select a punter late in the Draft’s final rounds (no punter has been drafted in the top three rounds in any of the past six years).
The bad news currently is that the Rams have just two picks in the top three rounds (26th and 91st overall), so the pressure on Charlie Armey and his staff will be greater to find immediate contributors with those selections.
The Rams do not have a history of taking tight ends or guards high in the Draft. The only guards taken by the Rams in the top two rounds since 1980 are Tom Newberry (2nd round, 1986) and Jesse James (2nd round, 1995). In the same time period, only two tight ends have been taken in either of the top two rounds- Troy Drayton (2nd round, 1993) and Ernie Conwell (2nd round, 1996).
But this year could be an exception. Both positions have several blue chip players that could provide immediate upgrades. The Rams have spent all eight of their 1st and 2nd round selections over the past three years on defense, and it could be time to invest high draft choices on offense this year.
At tight end, Miami’s Kellen Winslow Jr. is sure to be a top 10 overall selection. After him, there are no clear-cut first rounder's, but several standout tight ends that the Rams could get somewhere in the top three or four rounds (including Ben Troupe of Florida, Ben Watson of Georgia, Ben Utecht of Minnesota, Kris Wilson of Pittsburgh, Ben Hartsock of Ohio State, Tim Euhus of Oregon State, or Sean Ryan of Boston College). This year’s All-Rookie tight end, Jason Witten of Dallas, was a 3rd round pick and the 4th tight end selected in last year’s Draft.
The Rams could also consider a guard with their first selection, given the talent that could be there at number 26. The Rams have decisions to make regarding Timmerman (a free agent and soon to turn 33 years old) and Andy McCollum (soon to be 34 yet under contract through 2005), and tackle John St. Clair (rumored to be an option at guard should he be re-signed). The team is high on Scott Tercero - a four-year starter at Cal drafted in the 6th round last year that spent all of 2003 developing on the Rams’ practice squad. The Rams made effort to make sure Tercero was not signed away to another team’s active roster late this season, so it is obvious they have high hopes for him.
Miami’s Vernon Carey (who can also play tackle), Boston College guard Chris Snee, Alabama’s Justin Smiley and LSU’s Stephen Peterman are currently considered to be very solid first day prospects. The Rams could be well served somehow acquiring a 2nd round pick in this Draft. In 2003, the highest rated guard was Iowa’s Eric Steinbach, rated as high as 14th overall by many Draft experts, yet Steinbach ended up being drafted at the top of the second round by Cincinnati (and being named to the NFL All-Rookie team). So another option for the Rams could be to trade down several spots, pick up an additional first day pick, and still end up with a blue chip tight end and guard.
Typically, the top fullbacks in the Draft don’t come off the board until the 4th round. Falcons’ All-Rookie fullback Justin Griffith was a 4th round selection (121st overall) a year ago. And excellent free safety prospects are usually available between the 3rd and 5th rounds. The Rams want to add competition for Joey Goodspeed at fullback as well as adding a free safety to replace Jason Sehorn that could also be groomed as Aeneas Williams’ successor in a year or two.
The top available fullbacks include Thomas Tapeh of Minnesota, Mark Pierce of Arkansas, Travis Wilson of Kansas State, and Terrance Jackson of Central Michigan. After Sean Taylor of Miami and Sean Jones of Georgia- sure 1st round picks, the other top free safeties will remain until the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th rounds. UCLA’s Matt Ware, Purdue’s Stuart Schweigert, and Maryland’s Madieu Williams are all intriguing possibilities, and one could be there when the Rams pick late in the 3rd round.
Options at both positions are available at Arizona State (and keep in mind the Rams have drafted an ASU player in each of the past three Drafts). Fullback Mike Karney of ASU, a very good lead blocker with good hands, could be a solid 4th or 5th round choice, while free safety Jason Shivers is an excellent tackler and intelligent defensive player who could be an option late in the 3rd round. Sun Devils’ guard Regis Crawford could also be a possibility somewhere late in the Draft (round six or seven).
Grant Wistrom is rumored to be close to re-signing with the Rams, while Adam Timmerman may not receive a contract prior to the start of free agency. The Cleveland Browns supposedly have strong interest in acquiring Orlando Pace- which would likely net the Rams additional 1st round picks in both 2004 and 2005. Kurt Warner has not demanded a trade, but his comments and those of his teammates can be interpreted as dealing Warner for draft choices being a good and viable option. Whether Warner leaves this year or not, the Rams also appear to be focusing on acquiring a young quarterback (perhaps even Drew Henson of the Texans) to develop. All of these situations are worth closely monitoring, and all will have an effect on what the Rams can and will do in April.
It is far too early to provide a truly accurate picture of the Rams’ (or any other team’s) draft strategy. Free agency, which begins March 3rd, will dictate which team needs now are no longer needs on April 24th. Contract situations with Pace, Warner, Bulger, Wistrom, and Timmerman will strongly direct the Rams’ strategy (as well as number of Draft choices should any trades occur and compensatory selections be given).
The scouting combines are in Indianapolis this week, so it won’t be long before draft boards start becoming clearer, prospects make their move toward the top or slide to the middle of the pack, moves start being made and the Rams interests become clearer. It’s sure to be an interesting and exciting off-season again in St. Louis.