Locking Up Long Bodes Well for Rams’ Future

The Rams made a brilliant move in extending Chris Long for four more years Sunday, investing in part of what helps NFL teams win Super Bowls. Long had a breakthrough season in 2011, piling up 13 sacks after averaging just under six a year in his first three years. Long had 15 pressures and 16 quarterback hits, too.

For the next five seasons, he hopefully will fulfill many of the pass-rush needs of an ascending club. One thing that’s become clear in the last decade in the quarterback-driven NFL is that it’s all about the quarterback. Teams that win Super Bowls are built around a quarterback, a left tackle to protect that quarterback, a receiver to catch passes from that quarterback, a pass rusher to get to the other team’s quarterback and cornerbacks to take the ball away from the other team’s quarterback.

Last year’s champs, the New York Giants, traded up to get the top pick in the 2004 draft, Eli Manning, who is now their highest-paid player. Free-agent defensive tackle Chris Canty was their second highest paid player, followed by investments in cornerback Corey Webster, left tackle David Diehl, free agent linebacker Michael Boley and defensive end and pass rusher Justin Tuck.

The Giants also used a first-round pick on wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, and a number three on Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham. In fact, the last eight number one picks the Giants have used have gone for three cornerbacks (Prince Amukamara, Aaron Ross and Corey Webster) two defensive ends (Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka), Nicks, safety Kenny Phillips and quarterback Philip Rivers, who was traded for Manning. Clearly, the Giants understand how to win.

The Packers, like the Giants, spent their money and picks on the key spots. Wide receiver Greg Jennings was their top paid player in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl. Cornerback Charles Woodson, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and cornerback Tramon Williams followed, and then defensive linemen Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji came in.

Like the Giants, the Packers used premium picks on taking care of core positions. Tackle Bryan Bulaga was their number one in 2010, Raji and pass rusher Clay Matthews were number ones in ’09, and wide receiver Jordy Nelson was their top pick in 2008.

The Super Bowl champion Saints were built the same way in 2009. Drew Brees was their highest paid player that year. They spent big money on a new contract for Jonathon Vilma that year, but then pass rushing defensive end Will Smith, tackle Jon Stinchcomb, cornerback Jabari Greer, wide receiver Devery Henderson and tackle Jammal Brown were their highest paid players.

The Rams appear to be on their way to building a foundation. They think they have their quarterback in Sam Bradford. They’ve tried to protect him with tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold, who were the second pick in the draft and the first pick in the second round, respectively. They’re taking their shots with wide receivers, using a second-rounder on receiver Brian Quick, a third-rounder on Austin Pettis, and two fourth-rounders on Greg Salas and Chris Givens.

On defense, the Rams have used first-round picks on defensive ends Long and Robert Quinn, spent big money on Cortland Finnegan and a second-rounder on Janoris Jenkins, and have past picks Bradley Fletcher and Jerome Murphy.

Bradford, Saffold, Long and Finnegan are good players. Hopefully, Jeff Fisher’s coaching staff will be able to improve the play of the others. If that happens, the foundation will be laid. And then the Rams can focus on getting good play out of the lesser paid, because they’re less important positions.

The other thing the really good teams have done is keep their productive core players around. The Giants have made it a point to keep Manning, Diehl, Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Webster around. The Packers kept tackle Chad Clifton around until the end of his career. They’ve re-signed Matthews and Woodson, and will keep Rodgers for the long term.

The signing of Long to his second contract portends good things for the Rams. He enjoys his teammates, likes St. Louis and can help set the tone in regard to players sticking around. It was a big signing, and a big day for the Rams. After losing guys like Kurt Warner, Fred Miller, Kevin Carter, Grant Wistrom and Dre Bly as the Greatest Show on Turf deteriorated, and after using first-round picks on non-foundation positions for seven out of 10 choices, they seem to be on their way. Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel for this franchise. One signing can go a long way to making me believe that.