When the St. Louis Rams decided to cut ties with their long time left tackle Orlando Pace this offseason, it was almost a certainty that they were going to use the second pick in the draft to select a young tackle that they could build their line around for the next 10 – 12 years. And the player they targeted after his tremendous performance at the Scouting Combine and during pre-draft workouts was Baylor’s Jason Smith. At 6-foot-5, 309 pounds, Smith is an athletic tackle who possesses great intangibles and upside and immediately becomes the top prospect in the Rams organization. He has a great frame and still has room to grow physically and technically, but has the potential to be dominant. He moves well laterally and gets to the second level with ease. He’s aware of his surroundings, works well with others and is quick picking up blitzes. He plays with a high motor and a great passion for the game. There are high expectations for Smith in his first year, and it’s still unknown if he will begin the year as a starter on the right or left side. The Rams may decide to start Alex Barron at left tackle and Adam Goldberg at right tackle and have Smith back them up for the first few weeks, but it’s only a matter of time until he assumes a starting role.
Ironically or unfortunately, depending on how you view it, the Rams have had back-to-back years where they’ve held the No. 2 overall selection. But unlike this year, the 2008 No. 2 overall pick, defensive end Chris Long, didn’t have to wait very long to break into the starting lineup. Long was named a starter from Day One after he enjoyed a successful four-year career at Virginia that was highlighted by a senior year where he recorded 79 tackles, 19 for a loss, 14 sacks and an interception. The Rams were hoping that Long, the No. 2 rated prospect in the organization, could add another dimension to the defensive line in his first year and give them a much needed pass rush. But just like a lot of first year players experience in the NFL; success is earned, not awarded. A starter in all 16 games, Long had a good, but not a spectacular first year. He started the year off slow and initially had a tough time making the transition, but as the season progressed, he made the proper adjustments - Long finished the year with 40 tackles and four sacks. Going through the ups-and-downs as a rookie starter will only benefit Long moving forward. He’s a high energy player who possesses a great work ethic, and expect Long to be ready for anything the opposition throws his way this season. Beware of No. 72.
Not only did Long make a great first impression last year, but the Rams second round pick and the first wide receiver selected in the ’08 draft, Donnie Avery, also put together a solid rookie campaign. A big play threat during his college days at Houston, Avery immediately showcased his ability as a game breaker and became the go-to-guy on offense. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, the No. 3 rated prospect in the organization played in 15 games as a rookie, starting 12, and caught 53 passes for 674 yards and three touchdowns. One of the fastest players in the ’08 draft class, Avery’s 4.28 (in the 40) speed fits perfectly in St. Louis and the way that they run their offense. Avery’s size has always been a concern, even though he’s been quite durable throughout his career, but in training camp this year he suffered a left foot stress fracture and was expected to miss the first two weeks of the 2009 season. He’s since returned to practice just a few weeks after the injury and is expected to return in time for the season opener. There will be a lot of pressure on Avery this season to perform, as he enters the year as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Avery’s game is similar to that of former Rams receiver Torry Holt; the only difference being that Avery is much faster. The numbers that Holt posted during his rookie year and the output that Avery managed in his first season are very similar, and if Avery is able to stay healthy this year, he will approach the production that Holt achieved in his second year in the league, 93 catches for 1,189 yards and seven touchdowns.
Over the last two years, the Rams have done a nice job in the first and second rounds, especially the second round where last year they selected Avery, and this year they stole former Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis. Since his sophomore year at Ohio State, Laurinaitis was touted as the next big thing at the linebacker position, and if he decided to enter the draft after his junior year instead of fulfilling his four-year commitment with the Buckeyes he would have been a top-20 selection. Even though he fell in the draft and missed out on first round guaranteed money, in the end it will all work out for Laurinaitis, who as a rookie is penciled in as the Rams starting middle linebacker and is deserving of being the Rams fourth rated prospect. At 6-foot-1, 244 pounds, Laurinaitis is an outstanding instinctive player who has the unique ability to be a playmaker and a ferocious tackler on defense. He brings the complete package to the field and is a true competitor. He's an aggressive force who can shed blocks, and he has a nose for the ball. He's an excellent tackler who displays great technique. He anticipates the action extremely well and seems to always be in position to make a play. He excels in coverage and can turn defense into offense at any moment. With former New York Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo now running the show in St. Louis, expect him to put Laurinaitis in many favorable situations to achieve ultimate success, and that will allow Laurinaitis to be in the running for the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Entering his third year in the league after being the Rams 2007 first round pick (18th overall), defensive tackle Adam Carriker hasn’t exactly lived up to his potential just yet, mainly because of injuries. As a rookie, Carriker started all 16 games and recorded 30 tackles and two sacks. But last season, he played in 15 games, starting only nine, as he dealt with some nagging injuries. He finished the ’08 season with a disappointing 23 tackles. The lack of impact that Carriker has shown in the trenches thus far is discouraging, but with a new direction in place, continuity building on the defense and a couple of valuable pieces added, the 6-foot-6, 296-pound Carriker can finally show the front office that he was worthy of such a high selection and worthy of being one of the franchises top prospects.Rounding out the top 10 is wide receiver Laurent Robinson at No. 6, cornerback Justin King at No. 7, wide receiver Keenan Burton at No. 8, offensive lineman John Greco at No. 9 and cornerback Bradley Fletcher at No. 10. Just missing the cut were defensive tackle Clifton Ryan, running back Kenneth Darby, cornerback Jonathan Wade and wide receiver Brooks Foster.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.