Rams' calculated risk-taking on prospects working wonders so far
Janoris Jenkins? Alec Ogletree? Risky. But amid Aaron Hernandez fears, the Rams are scoring with 'problem' prospects. Jason La Canfora explains how.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Shortly after the Rams drafted talented but troubled corner Janoris Jenkins in the second round in 2012, Rams coach Jeff Fisher had a few surprises for the rookie. He showed Jenkins a photo of the prospect's boyhood home, in rural Pahokee, Fla. (pop: 6,500), and had a detailed dossier of information on the youngster; who he hangs out with, what makes him tick.
Jenkins unquestionably possessed the skills to be a top-10 pick, but concerns about his off-field pursuits and maturity led to him slipping all the way to the Rams at No. 39, a point where the potential value in landing a shutdown corner outweighed the risks, at least as best the Rams could determine having invested countless man-hours investigating Jenkins. Fisher has long had a reputation for being willing to gamble in these cases -- whether it be guys like Adam "Pacman" Jones in Tennessee or his two drafts in St. Louis, which included taking another character risk this year at 30th overall in linebacker Alec Ogletree.
In the post-Aaron Hernandez NFL, these calculated decisions come with even greater scrutiny; the Patriots tight end faces allegations of playing a role in multiple murders. And while those shocking developments reverberated with all 32 franchises, including in St. Louis, it won't change Fisher's approach to securing young talent. The Rams believed they were already at the vanguard of the player-development movement in the NFL, and so there was no great pause or navel-gazing going on in their organization this offseason, just an affirmation that abundant resources must remain available in this charged personnel landscape.
"It hasn't changed anything, because we're always doing more and more every year, and we're able to do more and more every year," Fisher said. "I know what people say about us, but we take guys off the board every year, and so there were a lot of names that weren't on our board when we were drafting. But as the case was last year, you've got a talent value up there, and there may have been some issues that lead you to say maybe we'll put a guy here and if he's there you go get him.
"We do the research like everybody is talking about now. We did our research on Janoris, and we went down to Pahokee and we sent people down there and we did everything we could. And at the end of the day as was the case, every single person we talked to said, 'Draft him, he's a great kid.' We're going to do our homework and our interviews like everybody else and we'll make decisions like we did with Tree. Alec is a really good football player and he's going to be a good pro."
The Rams rely on certain hallmarks as they navigate these murky scenarios. They thoroughly investigate the friends of the player, to see how much they will hold him back. Are the people back home rooting for him? Or do they just want him out of their backyards and to be someone else's problem? Does he truly love football, or does he just happen to be really good at it? Is he open to mentoring and assistance, or too withdrawn or far gone to reach?
Player development was vital to the overall organization paradigm established when this regime took over the Rams in 2012, with new general manager Les Snead believing it was just as important as coaching and personnel in terms of the pillars of turning the franchise around. Snead, previously an exec in Atlanta, watched firsthand as the Falcons splintered after quarterback Michael Vick's incarceration for dog-fighting crimes.
Team COO Kevin Demoff, owner Stan Kroenke's right-hand man in terms of budgets and spending, is equally devoted to creating any advantage possible for the Rams in terms of player development. Along with the coaches, they continue individualized mentoring, training and assistance with their young players, focused primarily on their first three to four years in the league, when the Rams' research indicated things have greatest odds of going sideways.
Fisher has been blown away by the degree to which Kroenke is willing to spend to fly club officials and security officials around the country spending days, if not weeks, checking out the backgrounds of certain draft prospects, according to those who know him well. It's unlike anything that was available to him during his 16 years with the Oilers/Titans, they say. That won't be changing, especially in this climate with Hernandez now the most glaring example of the damage possible from a misguided character evaluation on a player. The Rams will do exhaustive work on their own, trying to avoid what Demoff dubbed the "lazy narratives" that sweep the NFL from the combine through the draft in which young men are stuck with dubious labels that aren't always grounded in fact.
During Snead's first interview with Demoff for the vacant GM position, he shared a vision that went beyond X's and O's and scouting. He told Demoff they can build a great coaching staff, led by Fisher (and they certainly have one of the best staffs in the league) and they would work hard to find players. "But where we really have to get a cutting edge is in player development," Snead implored.
NCAA restrictions limit the time coaches spend with these kids at that level, and that additional time on their own can lead to bad habits forming. Snead realizes that some of the very same characteristics that make someone a dominant defensive end, for instance -- a ferocity, an edge, a mean streak, a focus on developing superior strength and speed -- could create problems away from the gridiron.
"There may be some life issues we have to be committed to helping them deal with," Snead said. Demoff agreed as they sought a Moneyball-esque approach to find efficiencies in player development.
"When I watch Jeff and Les together in the draft process, where they both share a fascination is in player development, and off-field character development," Demoff said. "And I've always thought that if we could develop a core competency in that area better than other teams, then maybe we'd have a strategic advantage. Because maybe you would know the kinds of guys you could take a chance on -- who is going to thrive vs. one who will not.
"I know people think this is Boys Town and we'll just take anybody, but there are lots of people we take off our board and don't even look at, because we don't think that they can succeed here; we can't come up with a plan to make them successful."
The Rams start out with player development primers as soon as they can get the prospects in their facility. There is a broader component of general life skills, fiscal responsibility, decision making. Certain lessons will be provided across the board.
Last year Fisher had armored guards bring a Brinks truck to the team's facility and put $1 million in cash on a table in front of his young players. Then he cut the pile in half -- "$1 million isn't as large a pile as you would think," Fisher said -- which goes to the IRS, then he took another large chunk out for a house for mom, a new car, living expenses in the NFL.
"This is about all that's left," Fisher said, making a square with his hands around the corner of his desk. "We tell them, if you're smart about your money and save this much, then we'll help you build it back up to here," Fisher said, moving his arms out to mimic the original pile of money. "But if you don't save this much," he said, moving his hands back to the smaller imaginary pile, "then you're left with nothing."
All rookie contracts are structured so that signing bonus payments are deferred until players report for training camp, which should limit their ability to blow through cash and get into trouble in their first offseason in the league. The Rams also got this entire draft class signed at the same time, in one fell swoop, wanting the seventh-round pick to feel as included as their first-rounders, tweeting out a photo of all of them signing and not just the first pick.
"It has to be an organization-wide approach," Demoff said. "It can't just be piecemeal. It has to be an organizational philosophy from the top to the bottom, and you do it with your 'perceived trouble children,' and you also do it with your 'non-trouble children.' If you treat everybody the same, that's important when building a locker room."
While the macro-level involves across-the-board initiatives, the rest of the approach is much more stylized to the attributes and needs of the individual player. At what Snead considers the "101 Level" you deal with basic life skills and global issues. But by the second year, or "102 level," things must be much more streamlined. "OK, we know he's good here and here," Snead said, "but this is where he's struggling. And by then the player has felt it and he's generally ready to raise his hand and say I need help." By Year 3, the 103 curriculum should be completely catered to any lingering issues.
There is an ongoing dialogue maintained with the family and folks back home. That initial series of interviews determining if the player is worthy of a draft pick does not end the conversation with those who know the prospect best. And, at the team facility, player development is looked at as the domain of all those who might regularly come into contact with the youngsters, be it equipment personnel, cafeteria staff, whoever is in position to speak to and see them on a daily basis.
"It can't be cookie cutter," Snead said. "Each person has got to have a different plan. One guy maybe can't cope with pressure, one guy it's too many people trying to get at his money. One guy it's problems with some of his friends from back home."
Fisher structures his roster in a way that there are stable, solid veterans at every position group who are willing and able to help serve as mentors. That is something corner Cortland Finnegan, who spent five years with Fisher in Tennessee, said empowers the locker room.
"When he puts the veterans in those key roles," Finnegan said, "he expects and demands a lot out of them, and that's part of coming to work. And doing that, it's also like a little brother/big brother thing, and in every realm and in every position group he has those relationships that he wants to see guys build. And that helps build a good team."
Finnegan was one of those to help guide and watch over Jenkins, and stalwart linebacker James Laurinaitis has gladly taken on those responsibilities with Ogletree now in his position meetings. That's simply part of being a Ram.
"Coach Fisher trusts the other players in the locker room that if something needs to be handled, it will be," Laurinaitis said.
Laurinaitis said Jenkins, whose problems led him to transfer from Florida to North Alabama, has not been a problem in St. Louis, and Ogletree, whose issues at Georgia were heightened by a DUI arrest, has been quiet and thoughtful in meetings and above all else loves football.
"We've all done things when we were young and dumb," Laurainitis said. "It could have been a lot of us back in the day, so if you make a mistake, hey, don't make it again or else we're going to have a problem. Coach is very loose and he gives you a lot of slack, but when we come out here it's time to work, it's all about football. And I think he picks guys that way."
Being calculated about the right prospect, at the right spot in the draft, serves as a motivation of its own. When a kid who, on football prowess alone, ends up being picked a round or more below where he would have if not for his other flaws, well, that tends to resonate.
"Ogletree is probably a top-10 or top-15 pick, on talent alone, and we got him in the bottom of the first round," Demoff said. "Janoris is a top-10 talent and we got him in the top part of the second round. That's a start for some of these guys because if they're never going to change then they'll never change. All you can bank on is your locker room and your coaches and your personnel staff -- everyone who touches the players, whether it be equipment staff, training room, your communications department. If we all help nurture these players along, you hope you can get it right."
Snead's moment of clarity about player development came not with Hernandez this summer, but in the unraveling of the Falcons organization following Vick's role in a dog fighting operation. It crumbled all aspects of the franchise and from then on Snead vowed if he ever had a chance to run his own team he would prize development and trying to provide a bridge for players in need as much as he did finding the talent itself.
"I was a part of some things in Atlanta that caused you to pause and say, 'OK, we better get this right and we better get that right,'" Snead said.
Snead worked under Atlanta's new general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, who took over the Falcons in 2008, and Dimitroff shared a vision born of his time with Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli in New England -- the same Patriots organization now coping with the Hernandez fallout. Dimitroff's vision is generally more risk-averse to gambling on character flaws, a direct nod to his New England roots, he says.
"I was schooled extremely well by two of the best team builders in the league in Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli," Demitroff said, "and I want to go on record saying I don't think there are two gentlemen in the league more focused on team chemistry and the character that was right for that team. That's Bill and Scott. And I'm very proud to have carried that background with me to Atlanta and to combine that very adept training I had in New England to a place that was coming off a very tumultuous 2007 season."
Owner Arthur Blank made it explicitly clear to Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith he wanted them to "clean up" the organization and to ensure "the character was right" and the locker room was rooted in a solid culture. Dimitroff scoffs at the notion he has set on "bringing in a bunch of angelic souls who are soft and evasive," but he admits he has little tolerance for guys who don't have a team-centric focus.
In the end, this is clearly the most inexact art and philosophies will vary. But the Rams will continue spending energy, resources and time trying to cultivate the science behind it. They'll think and rethink how high to take a player, and in how prominent a role, assessing where the costs in terms of salary and potential dysfunction that could result in the worst-case scenario. And it's quite likely Jenkins and Ogletree won't be the last youngsters they gamble on.
"When you take a chance, it's an educated risk," Demoff said. "But it's still a risk, and I'll be the first to say that one of these is going to blow up on us. You just kind of know it. That's just the odds, that one of them we're going to have a plan for and it's not going to work. The question is, can you spot that in advance and do it before it really drags your whole team down? And how much effort does it take, and what's the opportunity cost?"
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