So, where were we?
When the NFL owners locked out the players a month and a half ago, the Rams had just released safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, and were preparing for free agency as if it were going to happen. Now that the lockout appears on its way to being lifted, let’s take a look at what the Rams need in free agency and this weekend’s NFL draft.
Quarterback: The Rams are set with Sam Bradford, but backup A.J. Feeley is heading into the second and final year of his contract. Thaddeus Lewis was on the practice squad last year and may be a NFL backup. It would be a good idea to either draft a quarterback late or sign an undrafted one to give him a look. There may be some movement on this front as the league year begins. Josh McDaniels had Brady Quinn in Denver, and he may become a free agent. Does McDaniels like him enough to have the Rams get him to groom him as a backup here?
Offensive line: The starting five did an adequate job last year, especially since they had a rookie at left tackle and essentially a rookie at right tackle. The Rams could use a more brawny guard; probably on the right side. It would make sense to draft one late and develop him for future years, but it would also be smart to sign a veteran free agent to plug in. New England likely won’t let Logan Mankins get away, but a guy like Tampa Bay’s Davin Joseph would be terrific.
Tight end: One would hope that with the drafting of two tight ends last year, that the Rams don’t need one this year. Daniel Fells is a free agent who likes it here. Billy Bajema showed surprising catching ability last year. If they bring Fells back, and can polish Fendi Onobun, they’ll have a chance. The key is going to be keeping Michael Hoomanawanui healthy. I don’t think the Rams need to add a premium player here, but should sign some undrafted guys for camp.
Running back: The last time the Rams had a good backup running back was in 2004, when Steven Jackson backed up Marshall Faulk. That’s a long time to go without a quality “2.” The game has changed in the last seven years, with pretty much every good team featuring a rotation and quality depth. Running back is a huge need for the Rams, either in free agency or the draft. Perhaps this is a spot where the known quantity is best. Darren Sproles could fill that Kevin Faulk role to a T. Mewelde Moore wouldn’t be had either. That way you’d know what you’re getting. McDaniels’ offense requires a more skilled fullback than Mike Karney was. That position is a throwaway with the Rams.
Wide receiver: Danny Amendola is a given. If Mark Clayton, Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander are healthy, that’s a start. But there are no guarantees there. If the Rams can’t get A.J. Green or Julio Jones in the draft, Sidney Rice or Santonio Holmes would look awfully good. Depth comes from Brandon Gibson, Mardy Gilyard, and Dominique Curry, whom coach Steve Spagnuolo really likes, plus a later pick if Green or Jones isn’t available.
Defensive end: The Rams had a good year there last year, but James Hall is into his 30’s, C.J. Ah You is a nice role player, and we don’t have enough information on George Selvie and Eugene Sims. Chris Long is an emerging star. Spagnuolo told us in The Fast Lane on Monday that the most important elements to his defense are on the edges; defensive ends and cornerbacks. I think, everything else being equal, that this is where the Rams go on draft night, unless they have a chance to get a receiver. You can never have enough good pass rushers.
Defensive tackle: Another area of need, but I’m not sure it’s a first-round need. Like Hall, Fred Robbins is well into his 30s now, and will need to be replaced. Gary Gibson, Jermelle Cudjo and Darell Scott are adequate. But the way this defense works, if you can get a run stuffer in the middle rounds, he can do the job. Remember, Spagnuolo had Robbins, Barry Cofield and Jay Alford at tackle when the Giants won the Super Bowl with Justin Tuck moving inside on passing downs. Sure, you’d love to be good enough everywhere else that you can take a first-round tackle for this defense. I don’t think the Rams are good enough everywhere else. Cofield, by the way, might be a free agent. Keep an eye on him.
Middle linebacker: This position is in good shape with James Laurinaitis.
Outside linebacker: The Rams have David Vobora, Chris Chamberlain, Larry Grant and Bryan Kehl, plus the recovering Na’il Diggs. The need is for a playmaker for the weak side, and this should be a guy they can get in the second or third round of the draft.
Cornerback: This is a position to hit late for the Rams. They have Ron Bartell under a big contract, plus their last two third-round picks, Jerome Murphy and Bradley Fletcher. They still hope to get something out of Justin King. Murphy needs to step up this season. It would make sense to sign a free-agent nickel back as an upgrade over Kevin Dockery.
Safety: With the release of Atogwe, the Rams need competition here. Drafting a guy late from a less than impressive safety class makes sense, signing a free agent like former Giants starter Michael Johnson does too, and adding a few undrafted guys (a la Darian Stewart last year), will hopefully give the Rams enough depth to get through. It’s going to be tough to replace Atogwe’s playmaking ability, but if the Rams can get a solid performer, they’ll be fine. With Stewart, Craig Dahl and James Butler, they may have their starters.
Punter/kicker: Donnie Jones and Josh Brown aren’t going anywhere. The Rams are set there.
To summarize, I think the Rams should use their picks on a defensive end, maybe a defensive tackle, a linebacker, a wide receiver, a running back, a safety, a guard, and maybe a quarterback; obviously not necessarily in that order. Trading down for an extra pick would help fill all those needs, and trading up to get a receiver puts the onus on the Rams in free agency.
This is a team that needed 35 new players two years ago. They may be 5-8 players away from being really good. Once we hit Thursday and then the owners’ appeal is heard, they can get to work on filling in the blanks.