Now that the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl are over, the Rams will get down to off-season business. From a football standpoint, that includes free agency and the draft, and for ownership, it presumably includes planning for a 2016 move to Los Angeles and trying to fend off a valiant bid by St. Louis to convince the NFL that the franchise belongs in The Gateway City.
For the Rams in particular, this is an exceptionally weak crop of free agents. While free agency is loaded with receivers like Jeremy Maclin, Demaryius Thomas, Randall Cobb and Dez Bryant and defensive linemen like Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh, the Rams need a quarterback and solid interior linemen.
At QB, the top guys include Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker, Matt Moore and Colt McCoy. If the Rams would sign one of them, it wouldn’t be a very inspiring aquisition. In fact, I think if you bring in one of those players to compete with Sam Bradford, Bradford would be a prohibitive favorite to win the job.
Among guards, San Francisco’s Mike Iupati stands above the rest. The 6’5”, 331 pounder has been a Pro Bowler for the last three seasons, although he did struggle in 2014. The 49ers will be up against the cap as they try to re-sign some of their other talent like Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree and Dan Skuta. And on the horizon they have Aldon Smith and Vernon Davis set to become free agents in 2016.
There will be heavy competition for Iupati, but the Rams have the advantage of Iupati knowing the Rams and knowing the division. And, even though we might not like it in St. Louis, the Rams can sell Iupati on the fact that he might return home, because he played high school ball at Western High in Anaheim.
There are other solid left guards in free agency. Denver’s massive Orlando Franklin played well after being moved to guard, but is probably better suited to tackle. Cincinnati’s Clint Boling returned from a 2013 torn ACL to start all sixteen games in 2014, and is a strong run blocker, which the Rams prefer. Late in the season, Boling showed his versatility by moving to right tackle, but opposite Franklin, he’s likely a better guard than tackle.
The Rams can also look internally. While Barrett Jones should compete at center with Tim Barnes for that position, Jones was a terrific guard at Alabama. He started all fourteen games at right guard for the National Champs in 2009 as a redshirt freshman, then played eleven games there in 2010 before being moved to left tackle and winning the Outland Trophy as a junior in 2011. So Jones is a viable candidate. With the anticipated departure of Scott Wells, Barnes should also be joined at the center competition by last year’s seventh round pick, Demetrious Rhaney. As Jake Long returns from his torn ACL, if they choose to keep him they could try him inside. Even at his healthiest, Long was never exceptionally athletic, so trying him at guard would be a gamble, but it would be interesting.
Finally, if players like Mike Person, Brandon Washington and Travis Bond are ever going to ascend to the starting lineup, this should be the year that we see something. If it doesn’t happen for those guys, it’s probably time to get some younger developmental players on the offensive line.
Of course, the Rams can also look to the draft for an offensive lineman. Don’t forget, Joe Barksdale is a UFA that could get some attention in free agency, so the Rams may be looking for a right tackle, too. The draft only has two real first round picks at quarterback, with Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, who will likely be gone by the time the Rams pick tenth. Michigan State’s Connor Cook would have been intriguing, but opted to stay in school. So if the Rams are to take a QB in the first round, they will likely be trading down, or will take one in the second or third round.
As the football people work on personnel and the 2015 season, Rams leadership will continue working on their new stadium in Inglewood, California. They delivered more than 22,000 signatures to local officials so that rezoning of the Hollywood Park area can go to a vote in June. There is no ambiguity now about Stan Kroenke’s desires. He wants to own a team in Los Angeles, and the train is steamrolling toward that happening.
If St. Louis is going to have an NFL team, three things need to occur. Number one, Jay Nixon’s stadium task force of former Anheuser-Busch President David Peacock and local attorney Bob Blitz needs to complete a Hail Mary pass. They need to complete a viable financing plan, acquire the riverfront land and show the league that it can be built, but do that in the next nine or so months. That’s a Herculean task.
Secondly, as the NFL assesses St. Louis as a viable, profitable NFL market, they need to be convinced that the region’s corporate citizens will support a franchise. Forbes reports that only the Oakland Raiders generate less revenue among NFL teams than the Rams $250 million. That’s less than half of the outrageous $560 million that the Cowboys make. To get to the middle of the league, the Rams would need to be able to generate about $280 million. Of course, if they were in Los Angeles, the Rams would be in Cowboys or Patriots revenue territory. Will a new stadium and a more competitive team make the Rams that much more profitable in St. Louis? That’s what the NFL needs to find out.
Finally, the league wants to see across the board governmental support for having a franchise here. It would be very easy for one person, be it Nixon, St. Louis mayor Francis Slay or County Executive Steve Stenger to sabotage the future of football in St. Louis. It’s happened before, with the infighting of Vincent Schoemehl in the city and Gene McNary in the county in the 1980’s. Their inability to work together cost the region the Cardinals, who moved to Arizona. If the politicians aren’t working in lockstep, as Freeman Bosley, Buzz Westfall and Governor Mel Carnahan did in bringing the Rams here in 1995, St. Louis will lose our team.
The Rams leadership is trying to move. That’s pretty clear. And they are in a race with Peacock/Blitz to finalize stadium plans first. St. Louis’ only chance to keep the team is to work together to develop a concrete stadium plan and show our corporate community will support a team, to convince the NFL to prevent them from leaving.