By Rams Nation's Barry Waller
The best linebackers in the draft usually are three or four year starters, so there is plenty of tape to use for grading them. Then the small college guys get their chance to zoom up draft boards with great All-Star games, followed by impressive numbers at the combine and individual workouts.
This year, however, after only a cursory examination of the linebacker position, that position goes to the bottom of the pile when grading and ranking players. In February, it was hard to even imagine any linebacker in the draft as better than a very late first rounder, which seemed to eliminate the possibility of the Rams filling their big need at that position at pick 12.
The Rams brain trust probably saw it that way as well, which is why they said a bunch of good things about their optimism that Jamie Duncan would be a better player in his second year. It’s also why they worked diligently to sign a free agent linebacker, only to see one after another sign elsewhere for what Rams President of Football Operations Jay Zygmunt felt was far too much money.
Jay is not alone in the belief that overpaying linebackers other than the very elite ones is not good fiscal policy. Most of the teams who let linebackers walk, rather than pay exorbitant long-term deals, were proven to have made shrewd decisions. The Steelers, Eagles, Cowboys, Packers, Buccaneers, and others all have let solid starting linebackers leave via free agency. Seldom does one ever see a linebacker carry a franchise tag.
The Rams stayed out of the Junior Seau market, so barring a trade for a veteran starter or a post June 1 signing, the help the Rams need at linebacker has got to come next weekend. That’s what makes that first impression of the rookie crop somewhat disturbing to Rams fans. When a position that normally excites amateur scouts, ends up in the pile with the fullbacks, it shows that this crop of fruit has lots of worms in it.
There is always hope that Charley Armey has another London Fletcher hidden away in a bunker somewhere, safe from the prying eyes and stopwatches of other NFL teams. Barring another diamond-in-the-rough find by Armey, something Rams fans now expect to see when they head to Macomb every summer to catch a look at the newest Rams, the Rams will need to catch some breaks to get linebacker help in a very thin crop..
There have been a few athletic linebackers emerge over the past three months who have the tools to be Pro Bowl caliber one day; even some who performed in relatively obscure venues in college. A handful of players who could possibly make the switch from college defensive end to NFL linebacker also have padded the draft list at the position.
The Rams have been more about turning college linebackers INTO other position players than vice versa however, having seen Grant Wistrom and Leonard Little morphed into defensive ends, and Adam Archuleta moved a bit further off the line to safety; though he still kept his hand in the linebacker action last season in the Rams dime package.
The 2002 college defensive ends projected to fit better at linebackers in the pros are probably better suited to be situational rushers, or outside backers in a 3-4 scheme, so the Rams would not be in the market for one with a top two pick.
That leaves them with only the true college linebacker crop from which to try harvesting a prize-winning peach on draft day. There is a chance that they could find their guy in round two, like they did with Tommy Polley in 2001, maybe even round three, which is why they can jump all over cornerback Marcus Trufant with their first pick if he falls to them after failing to work a deal to move up for him.
If Trufant is gone, and the Rams hold at pick 12, and they want a linebacker,
as they say in Lord of the Rings, “There is only one.”
Maybe it’s a good omen that the only linebacker worthy of that lofty a selection is from the “Peach State”, as well as from a school known for very good, often underrated linebackers, such as recent draftees Will Witherspoon (2002), Kendrell Bell (2001) and Randall Godfrey (1996). None were round one picks, but all three have played as if they were.
Even the school mascot looks to have evolved to play that position, with short legs making for a low center of gravity and a thick neck.
The thing is, Georgia outside linebacker Rodney “Boss” Bailey, who goes strictly by his nickname, just as his older brother, Washington Redskins Pro-Bowl cornerback Roland “Champ” Bailey does, looks nothing like a bulldog in stature. At 6-3, and 233 pounds, Bailey is built more like a Airedale, but he runs like a greyhound and jumps like a kangaroo.
It’s his sick bag of athletic gifts, as well as his solid pedigree, that makes this jet propelled Bulldog the pick of the linebacker litter in New York, coincidently the home state of the prestigious Westchester Dog Show, next weekend.
Champ Bailey came into the NFL as a super blue chipper, who many thought the Rams would jump on in the 1999 draft. They passed on Champ to take Torry Holt, which wasn’t a bad move at all, but Champ has become one of the best at his position in the NFL, known as a player with great work ethic and character. The Rams will get a second chance to draft a Bulldog Bailey on Saturday. This draft also has a Holt brother, North Carolina State safety Terry, but he is not the top prospect his brother was, or Champs brother is.
Far less risk in the intangibles that usually make the difference between boom and bust on draft day, added to things like 4.35 speed, a measured 44 1/2 inch leap and nearly an 11 foot standing broad jump in his recent workout, have to make Armey and Martz start to salivate like another famous dog that belonged to a scientist named Pavlov at the mention of Boss Bailey as a possible Ram.
The best of the rest in the linebacker group this year can jump like few humans, but their best effort would fall nearly 10 inches under the altitude Bailey can reach. With such skywalking ability and 6’3 plus height, not to mention long arms, is it any wonder one of his specialties as a player is blocking kicks?
Boss holds the Georgia school record with a 46-inch vertical leap last August, which broke the previous record held by his brother. It appears that the Bailey family of Folkston Georgia is full of lords-a-leaping. Oldest brother Ronald was also a starter at cornerback as a Bulldog, graduating in 1998, and his cousin Kenny is going to be a senior running back at Georgia in 2003.
The only risk in bringing Bailey’s enormous talents to the Rams squad with the top pick comes via his medical record. It shows the two major knee surgeries Boss has had, one on each knee; the left as a high school senior, after setting school career passing records as their quarterback, the right on the opening kickoff of the 2000 Bulldog season. He also had a minor scope of the right knee after the 2001 season. It appears that his Superman body and nitro filled muscles came with Lois Lane ACLs. There are a number of reasons why those scouting Bailey for an NFL job should ignore these injury concerns.
First of all, the fact that he had one cut on each knee rather than several on the same side is good news, because it means he has no chronic problem. It just looks like the ACL that humans are born with isn’t sufficient to hold when attached on a body that can elevate to nearly four feet off the ground. Modern medical techniques have made newly installed ACLs that surgeons harvest from cadaver tendons far stronger that the original.
It appears Bailey had no other damage from his injuries, such as to cartilage that keeps the knee from becoming an ongoing and degenerating problem, or nerve damage that leads to atrophy of the muscles very quickly, and often permanently. He is now six years removed from the prep injury with no further problems on the left side in over 40 games in college, and three years from his right knee injury, incurred on the opening kickoff of the 2000 season. In 2001-2002 he missed just one game for the Bulldogs through two stellar seasons in the tough SEC.
If any other proof is necessary, all one needs do is look again at those all world workout numbers, where Bailey ran over a tenth of a second faster forty than any other linebacker, and for that matter faster than most of the cornerbacks and receivers in the draft. If there were lingering effects of his past medical procedures, would he be able to destroy the measurables of all his peers, even the ones who had never been under the knife?
If anything, Bailey’s 2000 surgery helps to answer some questions about Boss Bailey, instead of creating them about him. Figuring that his junior season had to be hindered by the injury 12 months earlier, it means that his on-field performance should really be judged solely on his All-American senior season. If you look at the numbers when he was two years removed from surgery, the questions about his productivity vanish.
In his first year as the starter on the strong side in 1999, Bailey totaled 66 tackles, five for loss and ½ sack, pretty impressive for a sophomore, and indicative of a huge future. When he finally was 100% in 2002, Bailey’s experience had caught up with his athletic gifts, which resulted in a 114 tackle, six sack, four interception campaign. I can’t see how anyone can call that impressive slate a lack of production. Like Torry Holt at NC State in 1998, Bailey had his best games for the 4th ranked Bulldogs against the best teams, including sacks against Arkansas in the SEC Championship game and in the Sugar Bowl against Florida State.
Bailey finished his college career in fine fashion, with four sacks the last four games. In the last three contests, the Bulldog defense, led by Bailey, allowed a total of only 16 points, and after they hammered Arkansas 30-3, to win the SEC, they cleaned up on the Seminoles in New Orleans 26-13. Since the 2002 Razorbacks had averaged about 32 points a game last season, and the always-explosive Seminoles 38, those defensive gems cannot be overrated.
Another tremendous positive about Bailey is that he could also project to become a scary proposition for opposing offenses as a free safety if the Rams make an Archuleta type move sometime after drafting Boss. Bailey’s size and supposed weakness at getting off blocks mean nothing when he plays OLB in a defense like Rams defensive coordinator Smith employs in St. Louis, but he could be an all time monster as a safety too.
Like Tommy Polley, who would welcome a move to his preferred weak side should Bailey become a Ram, Bailey should flourish in a defense that keeps the big blockers off him, and allows him to run to the ball. His coverage skills will also be a huge positive in a system where safeties and outside linebackers can be nearly identical in size.
Derrick Brooks supposed lack of size allowed him to be available to the Bucs with the 28th pick in 1995, and he seems to have done OK as a pro. Bailey is actually two inches taller than Brooks, and his athletic abilities exceed even those of Brooks, the real key to that great Tampa Bay defense. Brooks carried the same reported negatives as a player that one hears about Bailey now, except for the injury concerns.
Once one overcomes the idea that no linebacker would be worthy of the 12th overall pick, and takes a hard look at Boss Bailey’s resume, and triangle numbers beyond compare, it becomes obvious that the Rams don’t have to totally bum out if Trufant is taken before they get a shot at him. In fact, if he does fall, the decision to pass on an athlete like Bailey won’t be any slam-dunk for Armey and Martz.
The reality is that when it comes to bracketing the available players on the draft board, Bailey truly belongs on a level with Trufant, maybe higher if that possibly misleading health record is thrown out. As far as the bracket within their position rankings, the drop to the second best OLB after Bailey is the Grand Canyon compared to the difference between Trufant and the next best corner, or even the one the Rams could surely still get in round two.
The Rams found Travis Fisher last season, and they probably could find a similar player to play nickel or dime corner in 2003, the spots where help is truly needed, though I still like what I have seen of James Whitley, who really played well when called upon in 2002.
This draftnik’s favorite sleeper in this draft, Tulane underclassman Lynaris Elpheage, is a cornerback, one thought too small to be a starting corner, despite smashing college stats and reviews. There are others who fit the bill of promising corners who could be had even on day two of this draft.
The linebacker crop, however, especially the guys fast enough to play well in the Rams defensive scheme, is as shallow as a death valley puddle, with maybe two or three players who look to fit what the Rams would love to add to their linebacker depth chart, guys who can run under 4.5 in the forty. One, Chaun Thompson, is a quick riser from the combine on, who is out of obscure West Texas A&M and could now be a late second round pick, the other a local kid to St. Louis, Purdue’s Joe Odom, who ran a 4.49 for Rams linebacker coach Bob Babich last month after he too had an impressive combine.
Both Odom and Thompson played a considerable amount in the middle in college,
but are strong side candidates in the NFL. Odom looks now to be a third round
pick in a weak year at his position, and a guy the Rams really loved at his
workout. If Odom somehow makes it to early round four, which is possible, the
Rams could grab him even if they do take Bailey #1, which would really complete
their depth chart at linebacker with needed speed.