St. Louis Rams draft preview: What will the team do?

9:29 AM, Apr 26, 2012   |    comments
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Photo Gallery: St. Louis Rams Cheerleaders Final Auditions 2012 - PHOTOS
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Getting a handle on how the Rams will approach the draft, at least in the first round, is as unpredictable as the usual smokescreens that are sent up every year by NFL teams.
After moving down to the sixth slot in the opening round following their March deal with the Redskins, the Rams also own the first and seventh picks in the second round.

But the first-round choice is what has everyone's attention. Will the Rams move up with Cleveland to get the fourth choice in the round? Unlikely, considering that they would likely have to give up some of the extra ammunition they acquired from the Redskins.

Will they move down again, especially if running back Trent Richardson is still on the board? Possible, because stockpiling more picks would be a good result. That could result in the Rams going for the best receiver, defensive tackle or cornerback still available.

The biggest looming question is whether the Rams would select Richardson if he is available, given the presence of Steven Jackson on a roster that has numerous needs.

Picks three through six could fall in many different orders, leaving the Rams with what might be a difficult decision.

Nice Fits: Wide receiver Justin Blackmon, defensive tackle Devon Still, cornerback Chase Minnifield

TEAM NEEDS

Wide receiver: The Rams are looking for talent outside the numbers that can support quarterback Sam Bradford. Brandon Lloyd was an unrestricted free agent the Rams say they were interested in bringing back, but Lloyd followed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to New England. Danario Alexander has shown the ability to make plays down the field, but injuries have kept him off the field. Steve Smith was signed as a free agent, but there remain questions about his surgical knee, although Smith said he felt good at the team's minicamp.

Defensive tackle: This is a strong year for the position in the draft, and the Rams could be tempted, especially if they trade out of the sixth overall pick in the first round. Fred Robbins and Justin Bannan were released. The other main players in the rotation last season were Gary Gibson and Darell Scott and Gibson is an unsigned free agent. The Rams did sign Kendall Langford and Trevor Laws as free agents, but they are still shopping.

Cornerback: Injury questions muddle the evaluation of this position going forward. Ron Bartell was cleared to play late in the season after suffering a broken bone in his neck in the first game but was released. Bradley Fletcher suffered a torn ACL in October during the team's bye, and it's unknown when he will be cleared to play although he said he expects to be ready for training camp. Jerome Murphy missed the entire season with a broken ankle suffered early in training camp. Cortland Finnegan was signed, but more help is needed.

Running back: Steven Jackson will be 29 in July, and even though it is believed there's a lot of life left in his legs, a quality backup to him remains a priority.

Safety: There are currently only three under contact on the roster - Quintin Mikell, Darian Stewart and Craig Dahl - so depth is obviously needed. Cornerback Brian Jackson can play some safety, but depth is still a necessity.

-Throughout the offseason, the expectation has been that, at some point, something would happen with Rams tackle Jason Smith's contract.

It finally did Tuesday (April 17), the day the Rams' first minicamp under coach Jeff Fisher opened. Smith participated at the minicamp, taking the reps at right tackle, and it was clear Fisher was subtly revealing more about Smith than initially realized when the coach said after being asked about him, "Yeah, he's good. He's been here, he's been working. He's been working very well inside and his condition level is excellent. We're excited about a new start for him, if you will."

Fisher acknowledged that Smith and Rodger Saffold (on the left side) are the team's tackles, saying, "That's the way we're going to line up and play. That's the way I think they're better suited right now. They're both excited about working with 'Boo' (line coach Paul Boudreau) and vice versa. He's a very, very good coach and he's going to get the most out them."

If Boudreau does, especially with Smith, there could be another contract renegotiation next March. If not, Smith will depart and the Rams will absorb a relatively minimal cap hit of $3,267,500.

Mac's Football Blog broke the story late Saturday afternoon, and the numbers have been confirmed.

Prior to the restructuring, Smith was scheduled to be paid $10 million for 2012 with $1 million of that guaranteed. His salary-cap charge was $13,267,500, including $3,267,500 as proration from an option bonus of $16,337,500 paid in 2010, his second season. For this year, his salary was reduced to $4 million plus a $500,000 roster bonus.

In 2013 and 2014, his salary was to be $12 million and $3.325 million, respectively.

The restructured deal eliminates 2014 from the contract and slashes his base salary to $750,000 in 2013. However, there is an $11.25 million roster bonus due, likely early in the 2013 league year. If paid as a roster bonus, which won't happen, his cap hit next year would be $15,267,500.

The cap charge for this year, despite the $5.5 million less in cash being paid, was only reduced $2,232,500 because the prorated bonus from the eliminated 2014 year accelerated into this year.

If Smith can step up his game and stay healthy during the 2012 season, another restructuring with an extension beyond 2013 would eliminate the roster bonus and significantly reduce the 2013 cap charge.

Of course, Smith won't be forced to sign a new deal. He would know that if his game is rehabilitated, he will become a free agent after the non-payment of the roster bonus.

Still, Smith has to be thankful the Rams recognize his ability by agreeing to guarantee all of his $4 million salary. One story about the Smith signing said he showed off his character by signing off on the new contract.

What he showed off was common sense because he knew he was unlikely to receive $4 million guaranteed from any other team this year.

Had the Rams simply released him now, they would have saved $10 million in cash and $3.465 million against the cap. But they also wouldn't have a viable option at right tackle for the 2012 season.

After the team's first minicamp practice, Smith told reporters, including the Post-Dispatch, "I have a new outlook on life by faith. Write that. I'm so happy. It's hard to explain ... I'm happy they decided to keep me around. So I'm a new face. I'm a new type of guy here. I expect a change in my performance."

Boudreau told the Post-Dispatch why he likes Smith on the right side. He said, "Jason is a powerful guy. You put him next to Harvey (Dahl) and you get the double-team combinations in your runs. A little more physical there. We're trying to put the guys in the best position for them to succeed."

-This is what Jeff Fisher has been waiting for, ever since he walked away from the Tennessee Titans after the 2010 season.

He knew he would be back. He knew he would be coaching on a football field again. He just didn't know where.

Fisher obviously knows now. There he was Tuesday along with 59 players and numerous coaches on a sun-splashed day at Rams Park as the team held the first of two days of practices in an extra minicamp allowed because he is a new coach with the Rams. To be sure, it felt good.

"This is what's fun," Fisher said. "This is what I missed and this is where we all belong is out here getting better."

This is the third week of the offseason program, but the first time that coaches were allowed to coach players on the field. Fisher said he was "very very pleased with the work that we got done today" and "pleased with what's been going on the last couple weeks. The attendance has been near perfect and the commitment to getting better and the work and everything that's taken place has been special.

"The guys are excited to get on the field. Coaches are excited to get on the field with the players because we did not get that opportunity the first two weeks."

The only negative is that the minicamp comes during the heart of draft meetings. Most minicamps in the NFL have five practices spread over three days. The Rams have just one practice on each of two days.

"It's not the best time in the world to have this type of session, but we have to get the work done," Fisher said after Tuesday's practice. "Players are done for the day and we're (coaches) going to go back upstairs."

Fisher, who can be as intense as any coach, also knows the world can't be conquered in two days, so he was cautionary in easing his team into its work.

Noting the passion he has sensed with the team, Fisher said, "You see it through the commitment that they've made to the offseason program, the energy that's in the building. Now, keep in mind, this is the third week of the offseason program. We have to be very mindful of pulls because they're not in playing shape right now. That was the emphasis this morning in the meeting was protect each other, No. 1. I don't want anybody diving for balls or grabbing jerseys or really opening up if you don't feel good. They have to be smart about it and we have to learn how to practice, but at this time in the offseason, you have to be very careful and mindful. We just don't want to lose anybody."

NOTES, QUOTES

-Rams coach Jeff Fisher went a little Bill Belichick on the media Tuesday when he was asked after practice if any players were held out totally because they were returning from surgery.

Fisher laughed and said, "You know, I'll have an injury report for you on September 5."

However, Fisher did reveal that defensive end William Hayes, recently signed as a free agent, had an offseason shoulder "procedure" and added, "He's not quite 100 percent, but he will be there very quickly." Hayes said he had issues with his labrum and rotator cuff but claimed not to be limited at all.

The Rams list 61 players on the minicamp roster, and 13 (including free-agent wide receiver Steve Smith who was with the Eagles) ended the 2011 season on injured reserve. Wide receiver Austin Pettis, who ended the 2011 season on the suspended list for violating the league policy on performance enhancing drugs, practiced. Pettis still has two games to serve of that suspension at the beginning of the season.

Some of the injured players didn't do significant work in the two days of practices, but all were there: wide receivers Danny Amendola and Greg Salas, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, tackles Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold, fullback Brit Miller, cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher, Jerome Murphy, Brian Jackson and Marquis Johnson, defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo and linebacker Josh Hull.

-Quarterback Sam Bradford said he totally rested his injured ankle for two months after the 2011 season ended.

Said Bradford, "I went to a doctor literally two days after the season ended and he told me not to do anything really until March 1. That's when I got back here, so I kind of shut it down for six or more weeks after the season and then got back in the training room with (trainer) Reggie (Scott), and I would say it felt 10 times better then and it's only gotten stronger since I've been here working with Reg."

One of the things that excites Bradford the most is having a quarterbacks coach again this season. In his rookie year, Dick Curl was the quarterbacks coach, but he retired when Josh McDaniels was hired as the offensive coordinator. McDaniels doubled as the quarterbacks coach. Fisher has hired Frank Cignetti to fill that role this year.

"I like that," Bradford said. "I'm glad that we have a quarterbacks coach now. Obviously with Josh trying to do both last year, I think it was just a lot for him to handle. I think sometimes some of the little things such as drops, footwork, throwing mechanics kind of got put aside as opposed to putting reads and everything in front.

"I'm really happy that we hired a quarterback coach this year. I think it's going to be great for my development. I think coach Cignetti is a great guy, too, and can't wait to work with him."

While Bradford is learning his third offense in as many NFL seasons, he said there is some similarity to the offense Pat Shurmur coached in Bradford's rookie year.

"I like the offense that we're running this year," Bradford said. "It's more similar to two years ago than to last year. There is some carry-over, so I am somewhat familiar with it, trying to learn it again."

-Safety Darian Stewart was the only player not practicing because he was taking an exam at school. Stewart is an unsigned exclusive-rights free agent (ERFA) that hasn't signed his tender yet.

Players tendered and unsigned are permitted to participate in offseason workouts but usually sign injury waivers. Amendola is an unsigned restricted free agent, while wide receiver Dominique Curry, guard Bryan Mattison and defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo have yet to sign their ERFA tenders.

-Last year, the Rams didn't play their first division game until a brutal stretch of seven games had been played. This year's schedule, announced Tuesday by the NFL, is different.

After opening the season with two of their first three games on the road against NFC North teams Detroit and Chicago with Washington sandwiched in between, the Rams will then play two division rivals with both at home.

The Seattle Seahawks visit St. Louis Sept. 30 and four days later in their only prime-time game of the season, the opponent will be the Arizona Cardinals on NFL Network Thursday night.

The second half of the schedule will be particularly challenging. An Oct. 21 game against Green Bay at home is the last game in the Edward Jones Dome for a month because of the Oct. 28 game in London against the New England Patriots.

In fact, after that game against the Packers, the Rams will play in the Dome only three times in the final 10 games of the season. Their bye is after the London game, and starting with the Nov. 11 trip to San Francisco, five of the last eight, four of the last six and three of the last four games of the season are on the road.

However, only one of the final four games of the season is against a division team as the Rams finish the season as they did in 2010 in Seattle. The three games prior to that are at Buffalo on Dec. 9, home against Minnesota on Dec. 16 and at Tampa Bay on Dec. 23.

Aside from their road division games that are all late games and the Thursday night game against Arizona, the only other game that isn't played at noon Central time is the Sept. 16 home game against the Redskins. This is the fifth consecutive season the Rams will play the Redskins, and all have been within the first five games of the season: fifth game in 2008, second in 2009 and 2012, third in 2010 and fourth in 2011.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "That is now. That's the new thing on my target. Not so much individual things - of course, I set my sights out to accomplish a lot of great things - but nearing the age of 29, you do hear the echoes and the whispers. Very few people have had the success when being over 30, but I think about guys like Emmitt Smith that played a long time, Marcus Allen, even Thomas Jones recently. Before he got traded, he had a 1,400-yard season over the age of 30. So, it's doable. I've just got to make sure that I continue to take care of myself the way I have and continue to believe in myself. When people fall is when they start letting the outside inflict their mentality and their confidence." - Running back Steven Jackson on wanting to show he still has a lot left.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Quarterback Kellen Clemens was on the practice field for the Rams Wednesday on the second day of the team's two-day minicamp and was glad for the opportunity.

Because of Clemens' experience with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer when they were both with the Jets, Clemens is familiar with the offense being installed. Clemens admitted it was difficult during the last month as he saw the Rams considering other quarterbacks, but he said, "You have to try not to think about that and hope you get the chance."

So it was that Clemens signed a one-year contract Tuesday worth $710,000 that includes a $10,000 signing bonus. However, because it qualifies as a minimum salary benefit, he will count only $550,000 against the salary cap.

Coach Jeff Fisher was also glad to have Clemens on board.

"He's a really talented quarterback," Fisher said. "And with all the work that we're going to be doing throughout the offseason, we need the help, we need the arm. And he's played and he understands the offense, so it just gives us a chance to rotate three through it right now. You want to be careful with the number of throws at this point in the year, especially with your starter."

Amplifying on Clemens' knowledge of the offense, Fisher concluded, "He's familiar with the system. Obviously, if anybody's got a question and there's not a coach standing around, they can ask him."

MEDICAL WATCH

-OT Rodger Saffold said he is about 80 to 85 percent recovered from the torn pectoral muscle he suffered during the 2011 season. He was in good enough shape to participate in the two days of minicamp, which were low-key in their intensity.

-DE William Hayes, recently signed as a free agent, had an offseason shoulder "procedure," according to coach Jeff Fisher, who added, "He's not quite 100 percent, but he will be there very quickly." Hayes said he had issues with his labrum and rotator cuff but claimed not to be limited at all.

-CB Bradley Fletcher, who suffered a torn ACL in a 20011 bye-week practice, said he is ahead of schedule in his rehab and will be ready for the start of training camp. Fletcher, who suffered an ACL injury in 2009, said this injury wasn't as bad and that his previous experience has made this rehab easier.

-WR Danny Amendola, who suffered a dislocated elbow and torn triceps in the opening game of the 2011 season, participated in the team's two-day minicamp and said missing virtually all of the season was "the hardest thing I've ever had to do so far in my career, or in my life, really."

FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.

TRANSITION PLAYER: None.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

-TE Billy Bajema has been a solid blocker in the past, but his play fell off in 2011. The addition of Mike Mulligan means he probably won't be re-signed.

-S James Butler was one of former coach Steve Spagnuolo's first signings in 2009, but he never played to the level expected. He can be a role player, but it will be somewhere else in 2012.

-WR Mark Clayton wasn't able to come back in 2012 from a serious knee injury the season before and ended up on IR again after playing sparingly. His career might be over.

-QB A.J. Feeley injured his thumb after taking over for an injured Sam Bradford last season and wasn't able to play again. It is unlikely that he will be re-signed after the Rams re-signed Kellen Clemens.

-DT Gary Gibson has been a solid producer inside in the rotation, but his future with the Rams is in doubt with the change in the coaching staff.

-OL Adam Goldberg has filled in at four positions on the line in recent seasons and has contributed needed depth. With the addition of other backup linemen, Goldberg won't return.

-CB Rod Hood was signed when injuries hit the cornerback position and was solid by the end of the season. There appears to be no interest in re-signing him.

-CB Justin King played through injuries last season, but is nothing more than a nickel back. He was pressed into a starter's role because of injuries.

-T Mark LeVoir is still looking for a team, and the Rams have shown little interest.

-RB Jerious Norwood was never able to show the speed he has and didn't contribute much to the running game or special teams. It seems unlikely he will be re-signed.

-LB Brady Poppinga started on the strong side, and improved as he became comfortable with the defense. However, the odds are long that he will be re-signed.

-TE Stephen Spach is a blocking tight end that didn't play much during the 2012 season after being signed following his release by Arizona in the cutdown to 53 players.

-WR Cadillac Williams had some productive moments, but not many. Although the Rams have little depth at the position, Williams isn't likely in their plans.

-C Tony Wragge replaced Jason Brown during the season and was solid. The addition of Scott Wells and Robert Turner makes his return unlikely.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)

-DE C.J. Ah You (not tendered as RFA) was a favorite of the previous coaching staff, and he remains unsigned.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

-WR Danny Amendola (tendered at $1.927M with second-round pick as compensation) was injured in the first game of the 2011 season and didn't play again. He will be back to compete for a spot as the slot receiver and kick returner.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

-DT Jermelle Cudjo (tendered at $465,000) showed some promise as a rookie in 2010, but injured his back in training camp last summer and missed the entire season on injured reserve.

-WR Dominique Curry (tendered at $465,000) has been a standout on special teams, but was never given much of a chance as a receiver despite showing in camp he might be a prospect.

-G Bryan Mattison (tendered at $465,000) started at the end of the season at right guard, and appeared to have promise.

-S Darian Stewart (tendered at $540,000) has come a long way since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010. Likes to mix it up, but has to improve on taking better angles in run support.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

-QB Tom Brandstater: Not tendered as ERFA; $540,000/1 yr.

-QB Kellen Clemens: UFA; $710,000/1 yr, $10,000 SB.

-FB Brit Miller: Not tendered as ERFA; $615,000/1 yr.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

-LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar: UFA Saints; $3.05M/2 yrs, $1M SB.

-CB Cortland Finnegan: UFA Titans; $50M/5 yrs, $5M SB/$24M guaranteed.

-DE William Hayes: UFA Titans; $900,000/1 yr, $100,000 SB.

-DT Kendall Langford: UFA Dolphins; $22M/4 yrs, $4M SB/$6M fully guaranteed/$5M '13 base guaranteed against injury.

-DT Trevor Laws: UFA Eagles: $700,000/1 yr.

-TE Matthew Mulligan: Not tendered as RFA by Jets; $1.6M/2 yrs, $200,000 SB.

-T/G Quinn Ojinnaka: UFA Colts; $700,000/1 yr.

-WR Steve Smith: UFA Eagles; $2.5M/1 yr, $625,000 base guarantee/$1.5M RB.

-C/G Robert Turner: UFA Jets; $700,000/1 yr.

-C Scott Wells: UFA Packers; $24M/4 yrs, $4M SB/$13M guaranteed.

PLAYERS LOST

-DT Justin Bannan (released).

-CB Ron Bartell (released).

-OG Jacob Bell: UFA Bengals; 1 yr, terms unknown.

-C Jason Brown (released).

-LB Chris Chamberlain: UFA Saints; $4.05M/3 yrs, $1.2M SB.

-DE James Hall (released).

-CB Al Harris (UFA; retired).

-P Donnie Jones: UFA Texans; $890,000/1 yr, $65,000 SB.

-LB Bryan Kehl: UFA Redskins; terms unknown.

-WR Brandon Lloyd: UFA Patriots; $12M/3 yrs, $3M SB.

-WR Nick Miller (released).

-LB David Nixon (released).

-DT Fred Robbins (released).

USA TODAY

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