All due credit to Indianapolis Colts head coach Bruce Arians and Jim Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers, but no one did a better job of turning around a franchise in 2012 than Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.
The Rams were coming off of a 2-14 season that cost head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney their jobs. Aided considerably by several standout rookies drafted by new top scout Les Snead, Fisher led the Rams to a 7-8-1 record in his first season at the helm, including a sparkling 4-1-1 record in the division -- better than the 49ers (3-2-1) or the Seattle Seahawks (3-3).
|More 2013 NFL Draft coverage|
This wasn't a case of a new head coach with a good motivational speech. The Rams boasted a legitimate workhorse back in Steven Jackson, the best traditional pocket-passing quarterback in the division in former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford and a fearsome front four, including defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn. By convincing veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan to reunite with him in St. Louis, Fisher knew from his days coaching the feisty, physical defender in Tennessee that one side of the Rams' secondary was now vastly improved. With the Rams already possessing their own franchise quarterback, they were able to auction off the No. 2 overall to the Washington Redskins. Robert Griffin III certainly demonstrated his worth but, make no mistake, the Rams got a haul trading out, potentially setting this team up for huge success if they continue to draft as well in 2013 and 2014 as they did last year.
"When we made the trade to get two No. 1s this year, really we made the trade we were thinking '12, '13 and '14," Snead explained at the combine. "And if you want to know what keeps me up at night and wakes me up in the middle of the night or wakes me up early with a smile, it's the fact that in those two years - most people think in those years we have five first rounders and five second rounders - I like to say we have got six first rounders and four second rounders because when we decided to take Janoris we considered him a first round talent.
"So I like to say in these three years we have got six first rounders, four second rounders, which puts a smile on your face as you build this team. Teams win games, teams win championships and the thing is as you make that team, the more talented individuals you can bring to your team the better chance your team has to win."
The Rams love the upside shown from their first two picks, former LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers (No. 14 overall) and Appalachian State wideout Brian Quick (No. 33 overall) and appear to have won big by gambling on the talented, if troubled, Janoris Jenkins in the second round. Trumaine Johnson, 6-foot-2 and 204 pounds, drafted in the third round, also has starting ability and gives the Rams a lengthy corner to match up one on one with the bigger receivers in the division.
With so many success stories from their 2012 draft, it is easy to overlook sixth-round "star" kicker Greg Zuerlein, whose incredible leg strength proved critical in wins over the 49ers and Seahawks and allowed the team to attempt an NFL-high 13 field goals from more than 50 yards.
St. Louis Rams' 2013 draft picks: 16, 22, 46, 78, 113, 149, 184, 222
Primary needs: WR, S, RB, OG, DT
General manager: Les Snead, second year
Five draft picks that clicked:
-- CB Janoris Jenkins, 39th overall, 2012
-- DE Robert Quinn, 14th overall, 2011
-- QB Sam Bradford, 1st overall, 2010
-- OT Rodger Saffold, 33rd overall, 2010
-- ILB James Laurinaitis, 35th overall, 2009
Five players who should be on the St. Louis Rams' draft radar:
Player, school (overall rating, position rating)
WR Tavon Austin, West Virginia (15, 2): Fisher has only drafted a wide receiver twice with 16 previous first-round selections. But with the NFL increasingly turning to a pass-happy league, his philosophy might be evolving, as well. The Rams have both size and speed at receiver, but the loss of free-agent Danny Amendola to the New England Patriots is significant. He was Bradford's most trusted playmaker. There is no getting around the fact that Austin is 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds. However, the most difficult matchups for long, lanky press-corners like the ones the 49ers and Seahawks boast are shorter, quicker pass-catchers. As such, the playmaking Austin (who also doubles as a punt returner) could make more sense in St. Louis than for most teams.
FS Kenny Vaccaro, Texas (20, 1): While the Rams boasted spectacular play at cornerback a season ago, the same cannot be said at safety. The team expressed some interest in re-signing veteran Quintin Mikell but could, instead, elect to find a more athletic replacement via the draft. Fisher struck gold with former Texas safety Michael Griffin while coaching the Titans and could envision similar success with Vaccaro, a highly instinctive defender whose anticipation makes him a much more effective defender than his rather pedestrian time in the 40-yard dash (4.59) might indicate.
RB Eddie Lacy, Alabama (28, 1): Since taking over for future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as the lead back in St. Louis, Steven Jackson became not only the face of the franchise but the heartbeat, as well. Replacing him might not prove as easy as simply plugging in a pick. What Jackson might have lacked in breakaway speed, he more than made up for in terms of toughness, power and determination as runner, receiver and pass blocker. Lacy offers a similar combination of traits. After a less-than-ideal workout on April 11, he could still be on the board midway through the second round.
OT Kyle Long, Oregon, (59, 8): The free-agent signing of former No. 1 overall pick Jake Long (no relation) means that offensive line isn't nearly the area of concern for the Rams that it has been in recent years, but scouts are intrigued by the upside that Long presents. The son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long and brother of Rams star Chris, Kyle initially parlayed his unique combination of size (6-6, 313) and explosiveness as a highly regarded pitching prospect who played at Florida State. Struggles on and off the diamond pushed him away from baseball, and he wound up playing football at Saddleback Community College before signing with Oregon. He has only a handful of career starts (and those were inside at guard) but possesses unique athleticisim. The Rams might feel he'd be most likely to continue his steep ascent as a football player while competing for the same team as his brother.
WR Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee Tech (84, 11): If the Rams successfully add a playmaker like Austin in the first round, they won't necessarily need to add more help here, especially if the club is satisfied with the improvement shown during the offseason from last year's talented rookies, Quick and fourth-rounder Chris Givens. For a club willing to forgive some off-field mistakes, however, Rogers might simply present too much upside to ignore in the third round. Rogers led the SEC in receiving yardage in 2011 as a member of the Tennessee Volunteers but was kicked off the team by then-head coach Derek Dooley and spent his junior season at Tennessee Tech. Even his greatest critics recognize that Rogers possesses first-round talent. He also plays the game with the toughness that Fisher requires from his receivers.