Rams coach Jeff Fisher speaks at the Scouting Combine on Friday afternoon. (Photo courtesy of AP Images)
INDIANAPOLIS – In Jeff Fisher’s 17 seasons as the head coach of the Houston/Tennessee franchise, his team never once spent a first-round draft pick on an offensive lineman.
The Oilers/Titans took their share of big uglies in the second round and on down the list but never did they call a lineman’s name in the opening stanza. Part of that was the product of having franchise tackles on either end of the line and part was a result of striking gold in rounds beyond the top 32.
But if you believe that Fisher has some hard and fast rule about not drafting offensive linemen, or just about any position in the first round, you’d be mistaken.
“Yeah, I’d draft just about anything in the first round except maybe a kicker or a punter,” Fisher said. “We don’t need those.”
After having stalwart Brad Hopkins start 188 games over 13 seasons, the Titans replenished the tackle position by taking Michael Roos (second round) and David Stewart (fourth round) in the 2005 NFL Draft.
That duo turned into an excellent combination that remains in place in Tennessee today.
“We feel like we got first-round value out of some of the players we drafted, specifically the two tackles,” Fisher said. “They played really well for us down there.”
If given the chance, Fisher and Snead would surely jump at the chance to fill the Rams’ needs at left guard and right tackle with a similar strategy in similar rounds but with nothing guaranteed, they’ll be open to any and all possibilities in this year’s draft.
While conventional wisdom says you don’t take a guard or a right tackle in the first round, exceptions can most certainly be made according to general manager Les Snead.
“Here's what we need: We need the best players,” Snead said. “Traditionally, guard-right tackle maybe they're not valued for some reason. But at the end of the day, I always look at it this way. You should never draft a position.
“If you've got this player vs. this (guard-tackle) player. But this guy's (guard-right tackle) gonna actually dominate, help us really become a dominant team, draft that.”
Considering the team’s needs at both positions, combined with the talent in this year’s draft, it would seem if ever there’s a chance for that streak of not taking linemen to be broken, it would be this year.
Alabama’s Chance Warmack and North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper are widely regarded as elite prospects that could go as high as the top 10 in this year’s draft. Should that happen, they wouldn’t be available to the Rams, who draft at 16 and 22 in the first round this year.
If one or both of those prospects does make it to the Rams, though, Snead acknowledged the chance to create a healthier pocket for quarterback
“If you look at the guard market over the last few years in free agency, it's gone up for a reason,” Snead said. “As you see the way teams play on defense, if your quarterback can step up in the pocket it's easier to step up and throw than run around. Sometimes when you run around, you've got to stop and figure it out. You look at the Saints, I think the Saints have invested well in guard and Drew Brees was one that would step and has had a lot of success.”
In addition to the guards, it’s often been viewed as taboo to spend serious draft currency on right tackles out of the belief they can be found later in the draft. But this year, players such as Florida State’s Menelik Watson and D.J. Fluker (both of whom could theoretically move to the left side) provide enticing options and figure to go to somebody in the first round.
As further proof that he and the Rams are serious about finding the best players possible, Snead didn’t even rule out the possibility of drafting a player who might play a position where the Rams don’t seemingly have a pressing need.
While it’s commonly a highly coveted position, the Rams appear well equipped at defensive tackle. Considering the talent at that position in this draft combined with the importance of that spot, Snead said he’d consider it if one of the top guys – Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson and Florida’s Sharif Floyd are regarded as two of the best defensive tackles in the draft – was to slip to the Rams’ spot at No. 16.
“You can probably never have enough defensive tackles because if you're gonna chase a QB around all day, the 300-plus pounders tend to get tired,” Snead said. “So it wouldn't be inconceivable to (pick one).”
None of that is to say the Rams are going to tie themselves into drafting or not drafting any position this year aside from kicker and punter. Snead said the best way to find value is to find the guys who might not have the hype of the top players at a spot but are close in talent but can be had later in the draft.
“What happens in a draft is you usually get a couple of rock stars,” Snead said. “If those two players are the rock star guards, you need to be able to then go, OK who are the dancers in this concert? Are they similar to the rock stars? Maybe not as good but relatively close who can help us a little later.”
NEW NO. 2?: When asked about the backup situation for Bradford heading into next season, both Snead and Fisher have made it clear they have little intent to find another signal caller this year.
Earlier this week, Snead said he’d put about “0 percent” of his time into the position. On Friday, Fisher took it a step further by offering a huge vote of confidence for second-year quarterback
“We are happy with his progress,” Fisher said. “Still there is a possibility we will bring Kellen back. Kellen is an outstanding locker room guy and very competitive. If that were the case we’d probably flip them where Austin would be 2 and Kellen would be 3. We got a chance to see Austin in the preseason and he’s got some ability.”
HAVING HAYES: While players like running back
Hayes burst on the scene last year as one of the team’s most versatile and valuable pieces. He posted 7 sacks while playing inside and out and was a strong force against the run. It was a breakout year for the former Titan.
“Will works real hard,” Fisher said. “We have an outstanding defensive line coach in Mike Waufle. Will got real close with the other three ends in Eugene (Sims) and Robert (Quinn) and he got real close with Chris (Long) and just loved playing. He was a 60 snap a game guy but when he was on the field he was productive. He finished with 6.5 sacks and a lot of tackles for loss.”
Hayes could command a big payday after a solid season but assuming the market doesn’t take his potential earnings to a different galaxy, the two sides would like to make a deal to keep him in St. Louis.
“Yes, we have a great deal of interest in bringing him back as he does in remaining with us,” Fisher said.
O-LINE GETTING HEALTHY: Entering the offseason, the Rams had very little in the way of injuries to deal with. In fact, they were getting healthy “at the wrong time” according to Fisher, who lamented the fact that they were getting key pieces back just as the season ended.
But one position that has a few ailments in question going into the winter months was on the offensive line. Guard
Fisher said both players are making progress.
“Scott is doing fine,” Fisher said. “Harvey is doing fine as well. Harvey and his wife just had a baby out on the West Coast so he’s been kind of back and forth but his rehab is going well. “
One other player who might have been forgotten in the grand scheme is guard
Fisher is pleased with how Watkins has recovered, though.
“We encouraged him to take some time off,” Fisher said. “He did. He came back. His rehab's just about complete. His weight is significantly down and he made a commitment to a program early in the offseason to get himself in a position where he can really compete. So I'm pleased with his progress thus far.”
KEEPING TABS: One concern Fisher voiced early in the offseason was the lack of opportunity to work with the players for such a long period between the end of the season and the start of the offseason conditioning program in April.
With so many young players, it opened some worries that the players have more opportunities to make bad decisions. Fisher said the Rams have taken some extra precautions with all of their young players and not just cornerback
“We are in touch with him,” Fisher said. “We are in touch with all of our players but we have gone out of our way to stay in touch with the younger players and keep them involved in different things but Jenks is doing fine so far. They were threatened. The guy in the team meeting before they left. It was about making the right decisions and taking care of yourself and coming back and get in the program and be in shape when you come back.”
Fisher offered a solution that he’d like to see the players and the league come to an agreement on to help limit some of the potential pitfalls that go with the offseason.
“I’ve always thought that at some point, we could get together with the players association and work something out to where we can have our young players, our first and second year players back in the building somewhere in the middle of the offseason before the program starts not for football but for life skills, for reminders and the things we do during the fall,” Fisher said. “Hopefully at some point we will be able to accomplish that. I think it’s necessary. I think this is the time of year where those types of things come up.”