COLUMBIA, Mo. – A year ago at this time, the Rams would have been all over a pro day like the one that took place here at Mizzou on Thursday morning.
That is to say a pro day in which a top quarterback prospect was going to throw to receivers for the first time all offseason.
In fact, it was almost exactly a year ago where the Rams sent a large contingent including head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney to Norman, Okla. to see top signal caller
When that vetting process was through, Devaney and the Rams made the relatively easy choice to take Bradford with the first overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Today, though, it was Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s turn in the spotlight as quarterback needy teams from all over the league sent huge groups of personnel experts and coaches to see Gabbert go through a 49-throw workout.
Teams in need of a quarterback like Cincinnati, Minnesota and Tennessee sent their head coaches among others. Denver went so far as to send a group including its head coach, quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and Vice President of Football Operations John Elway.
For the Rams and Director of College Scouting John Mancini, Thursday’s pro day was an opportunity to reflect on the value of having a franchise quarterback in place without the fear of drafting a quarterback in the first round apparent.
“You don’t have that paranoia in there of what is going to happen with this guy,” Mancini said. “Is he good enough? Is he not good enough? We answered all those questions when we went through it all last year. Nobody could jump over us last year because we had the first pick. But you have got to be sure of the player. Now you have to sit back and watch and just take what falls to you know. Evaluate the guys properly and then take the best player as he comes along.”
It’s a fortunate position that seemingly few teams are privileged enough to have going into the 2011 NFL Draft. It’s also a position that opens things up for Mancini and his staff to really dig into this year’s draft knowing that the need to find a stabilizing force at the game’s most important position isn’t much of a need.
A lot can change in a year and few know that more than Mancini. A football lifer whose passion for his job and football comes through in any conversation you have with him, Mancini was promoted from area scout to Director of College Scouting in June of last year, not long after the Rams completed the 2010 NFL Draft.
That came on the heels of a solid decade working in the Rams scouting department and covering the Midwest region. In fact, Mancini has been with the team since it moved to St. Louis in 1995.
After earning his promotion last summer, Mancini has taken on the more all encompassing role of director where he cross checks the work done by the area scouts and manages the team’s draft preparation and evaluations of NFL draft eligible prospects.
So it was that Mancini arrived in Columbia on Thursday with one of the smallest contingents of all the teams as he was joined only by Midwest scout Luke Driscoll.
While the NFL scouting world turned its collectively discerning eye toward Gabbert, Mancini and Driscoll came to Mizzou with a much different agenda.
In addition to Gabbert, the Tigers boast another first-round prospect in the form of defensive end Aldon Smith. By this point, the Rams have done more than enough diligence on players like Smith, making the pro days less of an opportunity for players to prove themselves and more of one final chance for the scouts to turn over any remaining stones that have yet to be turned.
“At this point, we have treated everybody the same whether it was the first pick or the 14th pick or the fifth round type of guy,” Mancini said. “We want to know everything we can about the kid, what his ability is, what he’s like as a person, what his work ethic is. We come to these and watch him move around a little bit live and fill in some blanks but it’s basically to try to get to know the kids as best we can, watch them compete and talk to all of the sources we can so we can make sure of what we are getting, what we’re bringing to St. Louis and to our organization.”
Some of that stone turning can come down to finding out a little more about guys that might be more unknown than high profile prospects like Gabbert and Smith.
Of the 19 players working out at Mizzou’s pro day, only Gabbert, Smith and cornerback Kevin Rutland were invited to the scouting combine.
That left 16 players hoping to catch the eye of the 125 NFL personnel people in town to watch the festivities. While it’s not out of the question for one of those players to do enough to get at least a closer look, they likely won’t be able to do enough to boost their stock too much.
For instance, only three players were able to catch passes from Gabbert, including Lindenwood receiver Jamere Holland. Holland started his career at Southern California before transferring to Oregon and again to Lindenwood after being dismissed from the team.
Holland put up an impressive sub 4.4 40-yard dash and – because Missouri has no draft-eligible wideouts – was able to catch passes from Gabbert with all of the NFL world watching.
For the next few weeks leading up to the draft, those are the kinds of players, those uninvited to the combine and those that could be undrafted, that the Rams and the rest of the league will be examining a little further.
Those are also the kinds of players that can become depth and developmental prospects that somewhere down the line can become major contributors, guys like Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams.
With the direction of the franchise clear and cornerstone pieces in place in a variety of spots, the key now for the Rams is to keep building in the right direction. That means hitting on those early picks for starters but also finding the right type of developmental players who can one day step in and not miss a beat.
While about a dozen teams around the league continue the search for a quarterback after Gabbert’s strong performance Thursday, the Rams take solace in knowing that’s one area that doesn’t need addressing.
“The quarterback is the key position so now it’s all build around the QB time,” Mancini said. “It’s outstanding. It gives us an opportunity to open up the entire draft board and build around him. That’s what you want.”