NFC West Round-Up: Rams the Team to Beat?

We take a new name to reflect an evolving column. The fun and facts you've come to know and love in "East Coast Thoughts" remain, but the new title better reflects the content.

An off-season of roster shake-ups spares St. Louis. The defending NFC West champs are poised to dominate once again as the team returns 21 starters from 2003. As usual, team officials are dodging questions about the teams quarterback position. Marc Bulger, a restricted free agent, received the highest tender available causing teams to shy away due to the cost of having to relinquish a first and third round pick. With the signing deadline now passed, Bulger is assured of being a Ram through 2004.

Rumors out of Ramland have the team negotiating a long-term deal in the neighborhood of 5 to 6 years. Bulger's Pro Bowl year should guarantee the young QB a contract in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 million and a signing bonus anywhere from 10 to 15 million. With Bulger a lock to return, and the club's signing of Chris Chandler from the Bears, Kurt Warner should be preparing for a not-so-fond farewell come June 1st.

The Rams have two glaring needs heading into the weekends draft starting with the tight end position. 2003 veteran Cam Cleeland hasn't made it official but word out of team headquarters is that the free agent could hang it up before training camp. Cleeland's failure to sign St. Louis's 1-year offer only strengthens the notion that he's had enough.

The Rams tried unsuccessfully to stabilize the TE position in the 2003 draft in selecting Eastern Washington University stand out Dan Curley in the 5th round and Richard Angulo in the 7th. Curley was cut after Training camp last year, and the team lost Angulo to Minnesota after trying to slip the prospect through waivers. That leaves last year's starter Brandon Manumaleuna and Spencer Nead as the clubs only Tight Ends. Nead struggled to make the roster last year, as the third TE, and Manumaleuna would work better as the second TE in the two TE set.

Two names that the team could be eyeing with the 26th pick include Florida's Ben Troupe and Georgia's Ben Watson. Troupe finished 2003 with 39 catches for 638 yards and 5 touchdowns for the Gators. In Contrast Watson 23 grabs for 324 yards and only 2 touchdowns. But Watson only appeared in 8 games in 2003 for Georgia.

The other big need for the defending champs falls at the running back position. Former league MVP Marshall Faulk has been slowed the last two years by injuries. At 31 and with10 NFL seasons to his credit, it's fair to say Faulk is wearing down. While he remains better than three quarters of the backs starting in the NFL, the Rams must consider getting a young stud to come in and take over the load, if not in 2004 then to groom for 2005. The team remains hopeful that 3rd year back Lamar Gordon could continue to develop, but the knock on him is his ability to stay healthy. Gordon spent much of 2003 watching from the sideline with a high ankle sprain, leaving the team to rely on undrafted rookie Arlen Harris to carry the load in the playoffs.

Regardless of Gordon's potential the club has to think about taking one of the rawer backs in the middle rounds to develop just in case. An interesting possibility could be the controversial Maurice Clarett. Clarett now two years removed from a stellar rookie season at Ohio State could develop well with a year under Faulk to learn how to play the pro game. Clarett has shown the ability to be a bruising back between the tackles and possesses the soft hands out of the back field that would allow the team to continue to utilize the HB as a 5th receiver after Faulk steps off of the field.

Sitting a year would also put Clarett in a solid position in 2005 to break out. 2005 is the year Clarett would have come out had he not won his case to enter this year's draft. 

Another area of concern for the Rams is the aging offensive line. The Rams will be returning their starting 5 intact for 2004. But age is a concern along the interior three. All three are in 32 to 34 year age range meaning that the Rams have to use at least one pick to develop a young lineman. Depth is also an issue at guard where Scott Terceo is the only true guard behind Adam Timmerman and Andy McCullom.

On defense the team is in relatively good shape despite losing Grant Wistrom to Seattle and Brian Young to the Saints. Last years opening day starter Damione Lewis reclaims the starting job. Tackle is deep for the Ram's with last years first round pick Jimmy Kennedy working into the rotation with former number 1 Ryan Pickett.

At DE the club elevates Sean Moran to replace Wistrom and Leonard Little returns at LDE to dominate with his quick burst and pass rushing skills. Bryce Fisher, Nick Burley, and Tyroka Jackson bring depth to the position.

Despite a few kinks in the armor, an aging offense, and a slight drop in defensive depth the greatest show on turf is poised to keep gunning it through the air in its effort to defend the NFC West title from a young, hungry,  up and coming Seattle team. The x-factor will be how the defense responds down the stretch after the loss of Lovie Smith who is responsible for the defensive turn-around over the last 5 seasons.

Hawks Won't Tip Their Hand

Every media source from here to Sydney, Australia has Seattle taking a linebacker at #23. Truth be told…don't believe a word of it. In his 5 previous drafts with Seattle, Coach Holmgren hasn't taken a single person rumored to be eyed by the team. In fact Coach Holmgren says Seattle often isn't sure what they'll do until it's done.

In his first draft Holmgren took the big DE that his then-Defensive Coordinator Fritz Shurmur coveted in the 290-pound Lamar King. It was a move that hasn't paid off for Seattle, as King has struggled to stay healthy and display a consistent burst off the end.

Holmgren then burned himself two years ago by selecting the lackluster Jeremy Stephens after trading down in round 1 to fill a need at TE. Stevens has struggled to keep himself out of trouble off the field, and has failed to make much of an impact on the field. Seattle has since relied on veteran Itula Mili to become the TE needed to make the West Coast Offense hum.

The Seahawks have found a world of success in taking the best player available striking gold with Shaun Alexander, Steve Hutchinson, Marcus Trufant, and Ken Hamlin. The only pick of need that Seattle has taken in the first round that has paid off was in 2001 when the Hawks Traded down from 7th to 9 and selected Koren Robinson at wide receiver. Robinson is still growing into his role with the offense but shows the potential to be an all pro at his position.

Conventional wisdom says the Hawks will pass on any need pick if someone else on their board is rated higher. Utilizing the best player philosophy opens up the possibility that Seattle could wind up with either a RB or WR if one of the top prospects manages to slip.

49ers Likely to Trade Down

Things have worked out nicely in the draft for the 49ers under Bill Walsh's plan. Since his return to the team as a consultant in 2000 the 49ers have rediscovered a draft policy that brought the team so much success during the 80's when the team won several Super Bowls. Not only have the 49ers returned to the land of wheeling and dealing, but the input of Terry Donahue has helped this team bring in quality players in later rounds. Between 2000 and 2001, nine players selected on day two of the draft have stepped into starting positions.

While the 49ers have clear needs at WR, RB, CB, and along the defensive line, expect Walsh and company to employ a scheme to hoard more picks to plug more holes. The WR position is extremely deep in this year's draft and the team can afford to drop seven to 10 spots in the first round and still come out with a quality prospect.

Cardinals Want Fitzgerald

Cardinals Coach Dennis Green doesn't mess around when it comes to getting his guy in the draft. In 2000 Green was clear that his Vikings would go quarterback and went so far as to say Dante Culpepper was his man. Turns out, Culpepper was Green's man after all. Suffice to say Green has been clear that he wants more athleticism on offense and Fitzgerald is the perfect complement to 2003 rookie sensation Anquan Boldin. 

With the Cardinals picking at #3, it's good bet that Fitzgerald will be suiting up in red and white for 2004. The Chargers will likely trade out of the first pick for a team hot on Eli Manning. Oakland should follow with either OT Robert Gallery or QB Ben Roethlisberger. That would leave Arizona the option to grab Fitzgerald or pull a Walsh by trading down to compile more picks.


In the April 13th Column "East Coast Thoughts:  Fading 49ers No Threat To Hawks", in the Third Paragraph outlining Dennis Erickson's coaching history I originally wrote that Erickson spent time with the Oregon Ducks. This is an error. Dennis Erickson never spent time with the Ducks he actually coached cross-state rival the Oregon State Beavers. Thank you to all of you who wrote in regarding this error.

Next Week: Grading out the NFC West after the Draft.

Phillip Ohnemus is a staff writer for