A quick glance at the St Louis Rams roster would reveal a surprisingly high amount of players selected among the top end of their respective drafts. A combination of poor records and savvy dealing (we are still very grateful, Washington) has meant that the Rams have found themselves drafting early on a number of occasions, and next month’s draft will represent the fifth time the franchise has picked no lower than second since 2008. In addition, the Rams have made recent free agent pickups who were themselves high draft picks for their original teams. As a result, the Rams can count with two number one picks (quarterback Sam Bradford and offensive tackle Jake Long – one of two franchises with two first picks on their roster, the other being Kansas City), a second pick (defensive end Chris Long, selected straight after his namesake on the o-line), five other first rounders (Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and Alec Ogletree) and three others drafted among the first forty (James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold and Janoris Jenkins). In theory, this should suggest that, armed with so many of college football’s top prospects, the Rams should be a dominant force in the NFL. Sadly, as Rams fans know, this has not been the case for a long time.
The infamous draft value chart gives analysts an opportunity to ascertain the full value of all NFL rosters in terms of draft picks. With each pick assigned a specific value, one can obtain an understanding of the draft capital that has been invested in any team. This required determining the Rams’ starting roster as it might currently stand, in itself not an easy task. However, I eventually settled on a three-receiver set consisting of Austin, Britt and Chris Givens, and, in the absence of better options, placed Barrett Jones at guard (and Scott Wells at center). The total draft value for the starting unit came to a staggering 16,330.4 points – an average of 742.3 points per player, the equivalent of a 24th pick. In other words: on average, each Rams starter should be a Dez Bryant, drafted by Dallas at 24 in 2010. When one considers that, assuming no trades take place, the franchise will be adding 3,750 points to the roster in the first round of the next draft alone, it shows precisely how high this investment has been.
These figures, however, can be meaningless if we have nothing to which we can compare. I, therefore, made the same calculations for the 2013 starting rosters of the four teams with the most similar records to the Rams’ over the last five years: the Browns, the Jaguars, the Bills and the Redskins (and what great company to be in!). Incredibly, the Rams still had the highest draft value, the closest being Buffalo with 14,887.8 points, or the equivalent of a 27th pick per player. Jacksonville drops down to the second round with an average equivalent to the value of a 44th pick, while Washington and Cleveland have the equivalent of a 45th and 47th pick respectively. Thus, the Rams have invested significantly more in terms of draft picks than their closest rivals, and, yet, do not have that much more to show for it.
So, what about at the other end of the scale? I decided to look at the most successful franchise over the last decade – New England – and the current Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, to ascertain the draft capital in their starting rosters. Coincidentally, they both had the same average pick, though New England had a lower total value, but, in essence, their average starter is a 54th pick. That is an incredible thirty picks – almost an entire round – below the Rams’ average for two of the strongest teams in the NFL. In fact, Seattle have only five first rounders on their starting roster, with the highest being Russell Okung, drafted at number six in 2010.
Apart from the difficulties with accurately determining starting rosters, many might argue that this analysis is flawed. The draft value chart, for example, is considered by many to be not much more than an arbitrary scale that does not truly reflect the value of draft picks. Also, as free agents drafted by other teams, neither Britt nor Jake Long represent investments made by the Rams via that process. However, the same conditions have been applied to all the other teams I have analysed, and what cannot be doubted is that the results are a statistical representation of what we perhaps knew all along: that, as it currently stands, success in the NFL comes not through high draft picks but through intelligent decisions made in the lower rounds, and the development of undrafted free agents. Two areas in which the Rams have not excelled much of late.