The Rams' selection of Greg Robinson at No. 2 overall this past draft put the finishing touches on that blockbuster RGIII-centric trade with Washington. The final scorecard: St. Louis added Robinson, Michael Brockers, Janoris Jenkins, Isaiah Pead, Rokevious Watkins, Alec Ogletree, Stedman Bailey and Zac Stacy via the selections that came over from Washington, either by staying put in the new spots or trading again to keep adding pieces.
There are at least five 2014 starters among that group, counting the newcomer Robinson. That trade alone did not rebuild the Rams, but it expedited the process.
“It’s always interesting in the draft, and I know Jeff [Fisher] will tell you, football teams, you build from the inside-out," GM Les Snead said after the Rams' draft selections of Robinson and DT Aaron Donald in Round 1. "And I always say that’s when you’re building your foundation ... when you lay your foundation for your skyscraper, it’s probably the least exciting thing that you do but that’s the thing that holds that skyscraper up for a lot of years."
The depth chart in St. Louis features some recognizable veterans — OT Jake Long, TE Jared Cook, DE Chris Long, LB James Laurinaitis. But of the team's 22 projected starters on offense and defense, around 15 have entered the league in the past four years.
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The first of those recent bricks added to the foundation was QB Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. Snead and Fisher may not be ready to replace him in the plans, but they are at least beginning to chisel away at his spot. Coming off a devastating knee injury, Bradford could be the difference between another last-place finish in the NFC West and a legitimate charge at a playoff berth.
St. Louis' division will not do it any favors. Seattle won the Super Bowl last year, going through San Francisco in the NFC title game; Arizona, with a 10-6 record, was the best team to miss out on the postseason. To even begin dreaming about a playoff push, St. Louis has to climb over at least one and probably two of those squads. Eventually, should Snead keep this franchise on its current heading, that goal will be accomplished. Quite simply, there is too much emerging talent here for the Rams to stay a division doormat for long.
Will that ascension happen in 2014? Well, it could, if Bradford picks up where he left off last season pre-injury and all that youth matures.
Even if the process takes another year, though, this is all headed in the right direction. This current offseason only tossed more coal into the fire.
Best acquisition: Aaron Donald, DT.
Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had his first real close-up look at Donald during the recent bout of OTAs, as Donald lined up against Schottenheimer's O during drills. His early analysis?
"Aaron Donald has my vote for Rookie of the Year already," Schottenheimer told the Rams' website.
A new legend seemingly is born by the hour during the league's OTA sessions, so effusive praise like that heaped on Donald by Schottenheimer often requires a grain of salt. Here, however, we may offer reasons to buy in, first and foremost among them that Donald drew the same type of respect from his college coaches at Pittsburgh. He was a first-one-in, last-one-out type of performer, a studious learner in the film room and constant hustler on the field.
The Rams will reap the benefits of that attitude, assuming Donald can maintain it after making the move to the NFL ranks. Though off the DT prototype at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds, Donald was a menace for Pitt, playing everywhere from DE to nose tackle. St. Louis is all set on the outside thanks to players like Robert Quinn, Chris Long and William Hayes. They have to feel fine and dandy about their interior presence now, too, with Donald joining Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers to create a versatile three-man rotation.
Donald likely will not rack up the snap count of St. Louis' first Round 1 pick, Greg Robinson, who's currently penciled in as a starting guard en route to an eventual OT job. He may deliver a more noticeable impact, to the point where it should not surprise anyone if Donald challenges for Defensive Rookie of the Year. And we know he's already got Schottenheimer in his corner.
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Biggest loss: Darian Stewart, S.
Stewart may wind up starting in the Baltimore secondary, but his selection as the Rams' biggest loss of this offseason is proof that nothing too painful occurred. The 25-year-old Stewart probably had the highest upside of anyone who departed, a list that includes fellow safety Matt Giordano, guards Shelley Smith and Chris Williams, and LB Will Witherspoon.
St. Louis mostly kept the band together. Under normal circumstances, when a team was coming off a sub-.500 season and ninth straight year without a playoff berth, that would be a mistake. The Rams, however, were a very competitive 7-9 in 2013 despite losing their starting QB for more than half the year. They are also headed into Year Three of the Jeff Fisher regime, so he is closer now than ever to having the pieces he wants in place.
The Stewart departure could sting a bit if Rodney McLeod remains a starter with rookie Lamarcus Joyner sliding up to a slot cornerback role. Joyner may just wind up ripping McLeod's role away from him before long. Regardless, Stewart bolting for Baltimore hardly sounds a death knell on this season.
Underrated draft pick: E.J. Gaines, CB.
The guidelines for our "underrated draft pick" topic are not exactly rigid, which is why I considered giving the nod to either Joyner (Round 2) or Tre Mason (Round 3). Either guy could have been selected earlier than he was without much counter-argument, and both should find their way onto the field as rookies.
Gaines has a little steeper climb ahead of him, one that likely will begin on special teams and could last into his second season. Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins form a young, improving 1-2 punch at corner, where they potentially will be joined by Joyner early in '14. Brandon McGee returns as well after seeing action in 15 games as a rookie.
Don't count out Gaines. He's not a huge CB, standing 5-foot-10 and just shy of 200 pounds, but he plays with a chip on his shoulder. With speed somewhere in the 4.4-4.5 range, he can stay with receivers deep and close in a hurry.
"He’s a good zone player, a good effort player, a solid tackler," Fisher said after the draft. "He shows man-to-man skills and he’s a good athlete. We had some spots available at the position, so we feel like he’s got a chance to come in and not only compete, but also do some things on special teams for us.”
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Looming question for training camp: Whither Sam Bradford?
St. Louis' $78 million quarterback was on the field for minicamp, mere months after his 2013 season ended on a torn ACL. Kellen Clemens did an admirable job holding down the fort in Bradford's absence and GM Les Snead added a very capable backup this year in Shaun Hill, but the current iteration of the Rams will go as Bradford goes.
Of course, more than a few folks have argued that Bradford should go elsewhere, as in to another team. Bradford carries a cap hit of almost $18 million this season and $17 million next season. (St. Louis could dodge the majority of those dues by releasing or trading Bradford). Thus far, his career has been a string of letdowns — an 18-30-1 record as the starter, six games out of the lineup in 2011, nine more in '13. A light at the end of the tunnel presented itself early last year, as Bradford's QB rating rose to a career-best 90.6 and he tossed 14 touchdowns to just four INTs. The injury stunted that momentum.
So he now finds himself in a make-or-break year. A full season's worth of the improvement he displayed last season might push the front office to consider offering Bradford a contract extension, something to limit his cap hit for 2015 while locking him up long-term. Any regression and it would be time to look elsewhere for a franchise quarterback.
Training camp and the preseason will serve as ongoing baby steps for Bradford as he comes back from that injury. The Rams need him ready at 100 percent by Week 1, though.
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