Heading to last year’s annual NFL Scouting Combine, the Rams were working quickly to try to pull all of their many moving parts together.
Les Snead had just been hired as general manager and coach Jeff Fisher hadn’t even quite put the finishing touches on his coaching staff yet. For the scouting staff, it meant trying to learn a new language and for Snead it meant trying to get everyone on the same page so the week in Indianapolis would be productive.
Much has changed in the past year. The Rams were able to pull it together enough to collect one of the most productive draft classes in franchise history, finish with a 7-8-1 record and lay the foundation to be seen around the league as a team on the rise.
Upon last week’s official hiring of Tim Walton as defensive coordinator, the Rams completed any non-roster related retooling they had left to do. In other words, they find themselves in a much more advantageous position as they head to the Circle City this year.
“It’s hard to imagine where we were a year ago,” Fisher said. “I think we had just hired Les and brought the scouts in and took off and went to the Combine. So, we’re way ahead. Les has done a great job with the department, preparing not only his staff but the coaching staff for the Combine, for free agency. I think we’re way ahead of where we were last year.”
That’s good news for a team that heads to Indianapolis with quite a few pressing roster questions that will ultimately shape how their offseason plays out.
While the new league year won’t begin until March 12, teams are free to sign their own free agents now or even use the franchise or transition tag should they so choose. The Rams are not flush with space under the salary cap and will have a few moves to make to put themselves in position to make moves.
“Oh yes, we’ve got a number of unrestricted free agents on our roster that we want back and Danny would be one of them,” Fisher said. “‘Jack’ would be another. We’ve got plenty of time. The process is ongoing. We’re communicating with their agents and so on and so forth.”
Jackson has an option to return to the Rams for one more year at a rate of $7 million but it seems all but certain he will decline that and survey his choices on the open market. If and when that happens, the Rams would then likely look to retain Jackson under a more cap friendly and, perhaps, longer term deal.
Discussions with Jackson and his agent, Eugene Parker, have not taken place yet but it seems this week could be a prime opportunity for that to happen.
“I think we’re right in the middle of February right now, so we’ve got plenty of time,” Fisher said. “There will be discussions. The Combine’s coming up next week, so we have plenty of time.”
The other pressing issue that needs resolution is Amendola’s status. Scheduled for unrestricted free agency, Amendola could be a much-sought commodity should he hit the open market.
Clearly, Amendola has been the team’s most consistent performer at a position of perennial need but he’s been unable to stay healthy for long stretches as he’s played in just 12 games over the past two seasons.
When healthy, Amendola is quarterback
Fisher made it clear that the lack of concrete choices for the position isn’t something he’s allowing to bother him heading into the next phase of the evaluation period for the draft and closing in on the start of free agency.
“Not a concern whatsoever,” Fisher said. “There’s options out there. The free agent market, there’s options out there and it’s a great draft for a receiver this year.”
Naturally, much of that free agent business in Indianapolis will fall on the plate of Kevin Demoff, the team’s chief operating officer and executive vice president of football operations.
Snead and the scouting staff and Fisher and the coaching staff will have their focus turned to the more than 330 college prospects attending the Combine. As always, the combine will feature the usual array of workouts but the teams are looking for much more than 40 times and bench press numbers.
In fact, most teams have already done the bulk of their scouting work by this time and use the combine for two major purposes: player interviews and medical information.
Each team gets a chance to poke and prod each prospect and develop medical opinions of their own rather than just going off what a piece of paper might say. That is critically important as some players might be taken off the board entirely for medical issues.
Beyond that, teams also get the chance to talk to 60 players in 15-minute formal interview sessions. They also will do informal interviews with essentially every player there in a less formal setting where position coaches can speak to players that might not make the 60-player list.
“The interview process with the players is probably the most important,” Fisher said. “We’re pleased at this point with the participation over the last couple of years with the drills. The medical information is extremely important, but I’m looking forward to going down there and interviewing a number of the players. I personally have a week’s worth of meetings with the competition committee before the actual Combine starts.”
Each year, the NFL Draft has a personality unto itself, one that is commonly quite different than the previous year. This year is no exception. Whereas last year it seemed there were six players who stood above the rest, this year’s crop doesn’t have any players standing above the rest, at least in the public perception.
That means the combine could take on added meaning assuming players are more clumped together. In essence, the combine this year could serve as something of a tiebreaker for prospects at all different positions.
“I think we probably have better depth than we've had in the last ten years,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. “I'm really impressed with our depth. Now the top end of the draft, the top 10 picks, I don't see the difference makers like we've had the last several years. You can go back and see those impact players each year where, before the draft, you knew who they were, [you knew] that guy's a difference maker.
“So I think the quick snapshot of this draft is more depth. Not quite the difference makers at the top end and a whole lot of holes in the quarterbacking class.”
Theoretically, that could turn into a major positive for a team like the Rams that heads to Indianapolis armed with two first round picks. Mayock views positions such as offensive line, safety, tight end and linebacker as some of this year’s strongest groups.
Those positions, particularly along the offensive line and at safety also happen to match up with the Rams’ needs as we head toward free agency and the draft.
“I think St. Louis is in a really good position,” Mayock said. “I don't like being in the Top 10 this year, I'd rather be at 16‑22, and I think I can get, of those four positions, I can get two really good football players.
“So I think it's wide open, and I think their needs kind of match‑up with some of the strengths of this year's draft.”