First-round picks are given all the attention. Their names are announced by the Commissioner, their pictures are taken with the team’s Number 1 jersey, and the hopes of the franchise are unrealistically pinned on their young shoulders. In return, they are given a hefty contract and celebrity status.
In reality, however, it is success in the late rounds of the Draft that help to build a successful franchise. Life is very different for these low-risk/high-reward gambles: little attention, minimal salary, and a tough training camp with the Sword of Damocles constantly hanging over your future prospects. Whether you are Special Teams fodder or busting your back to move up the depth chart, you are grateful just for the opportunity of getting paid for what you enjoy doing. But when the team strikes it lucky and finds a starter – or maybe even a Pro Bowler – in the rough, it allows the franchise to increasingly draft according to value rather than need, placing them in a position to make a serious run at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Significant late-round finds in recent times include Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall, Jared Allen, and, perhaps most famously, Tom Brady.
Over the past decade, the Rams have notoriously whiffed on their first-round drafts. Jason Smith and Tye Hill were complete busts, while Adam Carriker and Alex Barron made little impact in teams that badly needed to find success in the first day of the Draft. Even when the front office have made better selections – Chris Long, Sam Bradford, Michael Brockers – these have produced good starters rather than the stellar players the Rams have so desperately sought. The run of futility ended with Robert Quinn – the franchise’s first first-round Pro Bowler since Steven Jackson – while Tavon Austin and Alec Ogletree have shown significant potential in their first year. However, many second and third rounders (Jerome Murphy, John Greco, Donnie Avery, Brian Leonard) have carved out careers mostly as backups (where we should be drafting starters) and, in some frustrating cases, enjoyed their better years out of St Louis, while for every James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold and Lance Kendricks drafted, there have been Jonathan Wade, Jon Alston and Dominique Byrd. Small wonder the Rams have not had a winning season since 2003.
But it is in the late rounds where the Rams’ inability to score when taking a punt becomes apparent. Some of these experiments proved to be shockingly awful: Aaron Brown, Mikail Baker and Brooks Foster never even took a snap out of training apparel. Many – Clifton Ryan, Derek Stanley, Keenan Burton, Roy Schuening, Keith Null, Fendi Onobun – made fleeting appearances before being heard of no more. The fact that these players could not even crack the weak rosters of the Rams’ nadir years is a testament to the dreadful nature of the period’s late-round drafting. In fact, out of the thirty-five players drafted in Rounds 4-7 between 2007 and 2012, only five players remain on the team, four of these drafted in 2012. Out of the remaining players, six continue in the league, and twenty-four are what are euphemistically referred to as free-agents.
And it is this poor record in late-round drafting that has condemned the Rams to the NFL’s basement over the past decade. Naturally, the high-profile busts and the, at times, illogical free agency moves have not helped, but it is no coincidence that when the Rams have shown more astuteness in the later rounds – Chris Givens, Greg Zeurlein, Zac Stacy – the regular season records have improved.