NEW YORK -- The St. Louis Rams are a force to be reckoned with. Their time is coming, and sooner than many expected.
They were better than many realized last season. The combination of Les Snead and Kevin Demoff in the front office and Jeff Fisher's coaching staff has already transformed the defense into one of the toughest groups in the league, and they continue to add more punch and fight.
This franchise was about as down as it could be before this regime stepped in after the 2011 season, so it was going to take some time to address issues on both sides of the ball. The offense should make leaps in 2013 after another aggressive draft and a strong run in free agency.
The problem, of course, is everyone in the new-look NFC West also is making power moves, and Fisher isn't the only coach in the division willing to take on talented but wayward souls, with Seattle coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider continuing to do the same, and possibly hitting a few more home runs along the way. I love it.
As I size up the draft -- in so much as we can take a snapshot of a draft class yet to play a snap of pro football -- the entire NFC West appears to have greatly improved what was already becoming perhaps the NFL's best division. The balance of power is swinging to the left coast, and I bet the day will come when three NFC West teams are in the postseason.
The Rams have made protecting potential star quarterback Sam Bradford and finding him someone who can catch the ball huge priorities. West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin was by consensus the most explosive offensive player in this draft. The Rams made no secret they coveted him and, loaded with a bounty of picks from the RG3 trade a year ago, they made a great move to climb eight spots and to get him.
Mission accomplished. Their offense just got an identity.
Alec Ogletree has top-10 talent, another explosive linebacker to add to the defense. There are some big red flags off the field, but that has never scared Fisher; he has been taking those kinds of gambles, with a good deal of success, for years, including in last year's draft. It makes sense. He knows how to handle this kind of stuff and if it works out, this would be a major steal at the 30th pick. If it's anything like a year ago with cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who in my mind was the defensive rookie of the year, look out.
Third-round pick T.J. McDonald fits the hard-nosed mentality of a safety -- he's a thumper. Receiver Steadman Bailey was rising -- I talked to people last week who thought he would get into the second round -- and the Rams got him at the end of the third. Great complement to Austin.
This is a year when NFL groupthink has it that Alabama players are too beat up from their pro-style regimen and thus many of them are dropping. Still, the Rams need to rebuild the offensive line, and picking up Crimson Tide guard Barrett Jones in the fourth round again looks like a great fit.
When you combine the draft with what the Rams have already done in free agency -– landing left tackle Jake Long without having to break the bank, adding a tight end with a special skill set in Jared Cook (and someone Fisher knows well from their days together with the Titans) -- and figure this team has most players just on the cusp of entering their prime years and still improving, it's hard not to be excited about them.
The Rams are built to compete in this bare-knuckle division. (Who could imagine saying that about this division just a few years ago?) Everyone will be watching their film against San Francisco for some kind of blueprint for playing the 49ers.
Only problem is, everyone else in the division is also rapidly rising. Even the Seahawks managed to pull off some potential steals despite being short on picks after the sublime trade for do-everything spark plug Percy Harvin (who has clashed with a coach or two in his time). Of course, the risk was rewarded with the Marshawn Lynch trade, and with the selection of budding pass-rushing force Bruce Irvin (another character risk) in the first round last year, showing the track record in Seattle since Schneider and Carroll came to town is pretty pristine.
The first pick this year is in that mold -- running back Christine Michael. He has suffered injuries and his attitude has been questioned, but he also may be the most physical runner in the draft. It fits perfectly with the Seattle style of play, and the Seahawks deserve the right to have their talent evaluation trusted. They found guys who can fit into their strong rotations at defensive tackle and receiver in the third and fourth round, and in the fifth round grabbed a nose tackle who has first-round talent in Alabama's Jesse Williams.
Williams was off some teams' draft boards due to his knees -- including Dallas, which was looking hard at this position -- but others weren't nearly as concerned about his health. Even if his career isn't as long and robust as it might be without the medical red flag, in the fifth round, on a roster already worthy of a Super Bowl, it's a mitigated risk. One pick later the Seahawks took Tharold Simon, who some teams dinged for his arrest Thursday night (Simon vigorously disputes the police report account of the incident), but Seattle isn't scared off. The kid had never been in trouble before, and the Seahawks added to what is already the best secondary in the NFL.
Seattle is already young and loaded, added defensive linemen like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett at a bargain price in free agency, and acquired Harvin. Also, Russell Wilson will have a full offseason as the No. 1 quarterback heading into his second season. Consider me among those who have this team as a favorite to grab a Lombardi.
Oh, yeah, but they still have to get past San Francisco, which came one play from winning the Super Bowl. And the 49ers do the draft about as well as anyone else, moving up and down the board via trades. They lost some talent in free agency, sure, but re-signed Anthony Davis to a team-friendly extension, got a bounty for QB Alex Smith, who had no future there, and added Nnamdi Asomugha without having to guarantee him a penny.
And the Niners prospered further this weekend.
Loaded with more picks than anyone in the draft, the 49ers let it be known they would package picks to move up from 31 to get someone they deemed an impact player. Safety Eric Reid was the target with the 18th pick, and Dallas was so desperate to trade down and gave up only a third-round pick to do so. Yes, you read that correctly.
The 49ers believe Reid is the guy to replace departed star safety Dashon Goldson, and recent history would say that will probably work out pretty well for them.
Pass rusher Tank Carradine from FSU would have been drafted in the top half of the first round before his knee injury, and the 49ers got him at the 40th pick and then added another value edge player by getting Corey Lemonier in the third round. And, with a deep backfield already, they grabbed running back Marcus Lattimore, a first-round talent trying to come back from major knee surgery in the fourth round. They have the luxury of letting Lattimore rehab all of 2013, which could provide the perfect scenario to eventually have Gore's replacement ready.
As usual, the Cardinals bring up the rear in this division, but they, too could be much improved. If Carson Palmer has much left -- a big if -- they could be massively improved at quarterback.
Signing Rashard Mendenhall to a one-year deal was a nice move at running back, and the Cardinals are trying to rework the offensive line -- it has been beyond awful in recent years -- and the defense is already stout.
Jonathan Cooper was seen as one of the safest, cleanest players in the draft, and they got him at 7. He immediately improves the interior and his presence has to elevate the run game. Linebacker Kevin Minter will help the run defense and provides cover with stud linebacker Daryl Washington suspended the first four games.
Arizona followed the Fisher-Carroll approach and took Tyrann Mathieu in the third round, one of the ultimate boom-or-bust propositions, and the Cards smartly continued to address the run game and offensive line as the third day progressed.
Good thing. They'll need it.
Rookie GM Steve Keim is up against some great ones in this division, but is navigating more than capably so far. Better times are likely ahead for the Cardinals, though surpassing any of the other three teams out west is going to be beyond difficult.