Even during the Greatest Show on Turf era, when the Rams were thrilling us with offensive fireworks and winning all the time, there was a group of fans that wanted the franchise to revert to defense-first, smash-mouth football. Today’s Rams are running a game-based offense with a strong defense, and they certainly drafted like they want to enhance that image. In starting with Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald, and following up with players like LaMarcus Joyner, Tre Mason, E.J. Gaines and Michael Sam, the Rams made a move to be a powerful defensive force that can impose its will on the opposition.
Robinson is mammoth, 6-5 and 332 pounds. He’s been penciled in at left guard to provide the Rams four athletic tackles on their line. “You talk about an athlete,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “Powerful, quick, great quickness and strength. He’s got a chance to be a dominant player inside initially.” Jake Long was already one of the better run-blocking tackles in the NFL. With Robinson next to him, Zac Stacy and Mason will have some huge holes to run through. As Mizzou fans saw in the SEC championship game, he crushes opponents. “The most important thing when I’m on the field is just to have fun, so if you think crushing people … that’s a good way to explain it or how to describe it,” he said. If Robinson can approximate that bruising style in the NFL, the Rams will have gone a long way toward matching the physical nature of the other three defenses in the NFC West.
Second-round pick Aaron Donald was another major force in his college career, at Pitt. The 6-1, 285-pounder was unstoppable in most games, and was so effective that many mock drafts had him going in the top 10. The Rams had him in their top eight players on their board, and naturally were surprised they could get him at No. 13. “We were,” Fisher said. “(General manager) Les’ (Snead) guys did a great job with the research and we felt like there was a pretty good chance that he would disappear, and then a couple things happened. We were rubbing our lucky coin and he was there.” Donald provides an element the Rams didn’t have, with a pass-rushing defensive tackle. Quarterbacks won’t be able to step up in the pocket because of Donald’s pressure up the middle.
It could be argued now that the Rams have top-five-in-the-league offensive and defensive lines. Yes, I wanted the explosiveness of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, but the Rams have a different agenda and desire playing lower-scoring games where they keep the ball away from opponents. When you play the Rams, win or lose, you’ll know you’ve been in a battle.
Of course, with their second-to-last pick, the Rams usurped Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel as the story of the draft with the selection of Mizzou’s Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted. We know Sam can play – he was the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC – but he dropped like a rock, gave the Rams a bargain and become a big story. How big? Ask CBS Chicago’s Dan Bernstein:
— Dan Bernstein (@dan_bernstein) May 11, 2014
Outsports.com reports that sales of Sam jerseys will pay his rookie salary by Friday. And when Rams rookies are introduced to the media on Tuesday, the team’s public relations department has had to set aside extra time for those who want to talk specifically to him. Once OTAs start and we get to training camp, the Rams will be the biggest story in the NFL, in large part because of Sam. If ever the NFL wanted to make “Hard Knocks” appointment viewing, they it would force the Rams to be the subject this summer.
Joyner has great leadership ability, but not much size. At 5-8 and 184, it’s going to be hard for him to be an every-down NFL player. But he can play effectively in the slot, and does a good job of taking the ball away. Last season for the national champion Seminoles, Joyner had two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He’s not buying the idea of being limited by size. “I play football. I’m physical. I feel like nobody wants to be physical for 60 minutes,” he said. “It’s like fighting someone in the boxing ring. You punch that guy with all you have and he looks at you in the eye and says, ‘That’s all you have?’ That takes the spirit out of someone. So I play physical football because I know no man is going to want to play 60 minutes like I am. My whole mentality is I’m going to make the guy across the line from me quit before I do.” Think the Rams staff likes hearing that? I do.
Mason is a small but bruising back who ran behind Robinson at Auburn. With he and Stacy, the Rams have a pair that can remain fresh as the team rushes the ball 35 times a game. Mason was fifth in the nation in rushing last season and led all BCS Conference backs in touchdowns. “I try to be one of the best players to ever touch a football,” he said. “So that means I have to be able to block, catch, and run. I want to be able to be everything that has to do with football, even if that has to do with throwing, you can do a half back pass.” Mason is a winner who wants to be able to do everything. Another hard worker who can’t wait to be coached.
Saturday brought the potential for more of the same. Eureka’s Mo Alexander has the size and ability to be a terrific strong safety. We’ve seen how tough cornerback E.J. Gaines plays at Mizzou, and he shut down Texas A&M’s Mike Evans in the Tigers’ last regular-season game.
Garrett Gilbert has some physical abilities and will be an interesting challenger for Austin Davis for the third quarterback job. Portland State offensive tackle Mitchell Van Dyk is an interesting project for offensive line coach Paul Boudreau. C.B. Bryant was known as a tough competitor at Ohio State, and Tennessee State center Demetrious Rhaney fits the Van Dyk mold, too.
Overall, it was a promising weekend for the Rams. They have a chance to storm to relevance with their two first-round picks, and become a major story with their seventh. Either way, they’ve put themselves into position to get national attention.