Brandon Lloyd was the biggest trade deadline acquisition of the 2011 NFL season, stepping in and immediately becoming the primary target of the St Louis Rams' passing game. In eleven games, Lloyd became as prolific a pass-catcher as any player since Torry Holt was patrolling the sidelines.
Just six months later, though, the Rams are curiously cool toward the prospect of resigning Lloyd. Why is this? And is it justified?
The Chemistry Question
Despite Brandon Lloyd's incredible circus catches, his overall catch rate in St Louis was an abysmal 45.5%, bringing in only 51 of 112 passes. This had me questioning the chemistry between Bradford and Lloyd.
The two had only five starts together, thanks to the pounding that Bradford took behind his patchwork (read: inexcusably awful) offensive line. In those five games, Bradford threw at Lloyd 56 times. Over a season, that would amount to 179 targets, eclipsing Roddy White for most in the league. But Lloyd only brought in 24 of those passes, a 42.8% catch rate that was somehow worse than his season average overall.
This would suggest that, despite his catch volume and occasional acrobatics, Lloyd is actually among the least productive receivers in the game per pass. But we have to factor in the quarterback here as well. Digging deeper into stats provided by Pro Football Focus, only 58 of the 112 passes thrown at Lloyd were deemed "catchable." That is a staggeringly low percentage, lowest in the league.
Just behind Lloyd on that list: Larry Fitzgerald, who benefited from only 83 catchable balls among the 151 thrown in his general direction. Fitzgerald came down with 80 of those, giving him a raw catch rate of 52.9%. Clearly, "raw catch rate" is a stat that has to come with a massive asterisk.
The Houston Texans surprised many by cutting Eric Winston. The Rams are among three teams immediately in the hunt.
Free agency is off to a very fast start across the NFL, with skill players Vincent Jackson, Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon all finding new homes and Reggie Wayne returning to his old one. So far the Rams are following a familiar pattern, though, locking down a key cog in the secondary and now chasing after a premier player on the right side of the offensive line in Eric Winston.
That is, if the Rams want Winston to play on the right side. He could play left just as well, potentially.
The Rams have obvious needs on both sides. On the right, Jason Smith is bombing out of his draft slot and potentially out of football, thanks to incessant injuries and poor technique/coaching. On the left, Rodger Saffold regressed badly as "the book" on the formerly promising rookie spread around the NFL - rush him inside. Rinse. Repeat. Of course, Jacob Bell was little help, and again we have to cast a withering eye to the departed offensive line coach, who failed to develop either player into the franchise rocks they were drafted to be.
Winston has been more than capable on the right side, rating consistently well in pass- and run-blocking over the past three years by Pro Football Focus. However, he played left tackle in college, and was well regarded in what turned out to be a very strong year for offensive tackles in the draft. The top ten tackles selected in 2006 are all still active in the league, with six of those ten starting 90 games or more.
I played Left Tackle all through college and then switched when I got to the Texans. I was switched because my arm length is not considered prototypical for a left tackle. I have normal length human arms, the NFL doesn't want normal length, they want extra long. Long arms allows the tackle to hit the defender in pass protection before they can hit you. If you are wondering, I understand what they are saying, but I never have had a problem getting my hands on defenders.
Editor's note: Winston's arms measured 34" in length at the 2006 combine, about average. Jake Long's arms are slightly shorter, just for comparison.
On the hardest blocks to make:
To me, one of the hardest blocks to make is when you are to the open side (no TE next to you) and the play-action fake is coming your way. Think about selling out at a defensive end on a play-action pass hoping that he reads it as run and doesn’t blow by you up the field. It is a block that takes a ton of practice and self confidence. An old vet used to tell me, “if you believe, he’ll believe” and he was exactly right. (Thanks Ephraim.)
Editor's note: considering Jeff Fisher's commitment to the run and Sam Bradford's play-fake ability, this is a critical skill to have.
The St Louis Rams moved quickly and aggressively on the first day of free agency for the second year in a row, reportedly signing Cortland Finnegan to a five year deal worth roughly $50 million.
His contract appears to be a deal similar in length and average value to the deal signed by Jonathan Joseph last offseason by the Houston Texans, a good sign. Even though Finnegan is perhaps the top free agent cornerback on the market, he is not in the same class of player as a Nnamdi Asomugha or Darrelle Revis. Used correctly, as he was last year, he should be a very effective addition to the Rams.
However, while the front office has changed entirely, similarities in their approach are eerily similar. Last year, Billy Devaney made a lightning-fast strike in the secondary, grabbing a player considered one of the very best at his position by Pro Football Focus in safety Quintin Mikell. This year, they made a lightning-fast strike in the secondary, grabbing a player considered one of the very best (top three in 2011) at his position by Pro Football Focus in Finnegan.
Mikell turned into a useful player, if not an impactful one on a woefully undermanned defense last season. He was adjusting to a coaching staff that had no familiarity with him as a player, and taken away from the role he plays best - that of the roaming free safety.
Finnegan arrives into a coaching staff that knows him very well, and if given rein to play the position he's best at - slot cornerback and defending the right side of the field - he could excel here. Though he gives up a relatively generous catch rate (between 60-65% over the past four seasons), no cornerback in football allowed fewer yards per catch (8.8) than Finnegan last year. This speaks to his pesky and physical play, but it also speaks to his lack of elite talent. He isn't a ball hawk, isn't a guy who can create "an island" like Revis. And he may not be the guy to automatically match up against Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, or Greg Jennings, all of whom the Rams will face next season.
"He’s a tough physical kid, doesn’t mind running the football, getting down and dirty, and he works hard,” Finnegan said. “Hard work beats talent. Hands down, man down. That’s something he’s done consistently. The thing I’ve seen thus far is that he’s worked hard, and I can go to battle for someone like that."
He lands on a team with another hard worker who has absorbed - and gotten up from - more punishment in two seasons than he should in Sam Bradford. Having Finnegan in the trenches, going to battle for the Rams, can only be a good thing.
However, as the Rams very busy front office knows, it can't be the only thing. With Jason Jones on the horizon and other signings potentially in the wind, this is just the beginning of a rebuild in Fisher's image.
The St Louis Rams prepared for free agency by cutting ties with cap-heavy veterans, including long-time warriors Ron Bartell and James Hall. These are bittersweet times for Rams fans, knowing that these moves are necessary for the process of rebuilding. But as Brennan put it earlier tonight:
@BrennanJSmith Happy to see the Rams get draft picks and free up cap room, but hoping this is the last beginning of a rebuilding phase we see for a while
Ron Bartell was one of the longest-tenured Rams on the roster, one of the few Jay Zygmunt era draft picks to survive the last talent purge, and one of the defense's veteran leaders. While he was never considered one of the elite corners, he played with smarts and a a physical edge to his game. Larry Fitzgerald once called Bartell "the toughest cornerback I've played against."
Bartell had a strategy of attacking his opponent's hands, playing through the hands and into the head, disrupting the final split seconds of a would-be catch by any means necessary. But this physical mindset got the better of him last year, as he fractured his neck in Week 1 while putting his hat into a pile. It was a crushing blow to the St Louis secondary, both from a talent and leadership perspective, and the beginning of a snowball effect that wiped out nearly our entire defensive backfield.
James Hall, who just turned 35 last month, had a rebirth here in St Louis after being lost in the shuffle as a Detroit Lion. He benefited particularly from playing under Steve Spagnuolo, who moved him from the left DT/DE to an edge-rushing DE on the right side, a move that cleared room for Chris Long on the strong side. Hall and Long combined for nineteen sacks in each of the past two seasons, with the elder player passing the torch to the younger in 2011.
@sj39 I've been busy today but I hate to see guys get released. Especially James Hall, it was a honor and a pleasure to call you a teammate.
Neither of these players were elite, blue-chip talent. But both were workers, guys whose effort and drive was never questioned, on or off the field.
Also joining the veteran cuts were a trio of Devaney signings, Jason Brown, Fred Robbins, and one-year-rental Justin Bannan. Of the three, Bannan had perhaps the best year, but was part of a defensive middle that was gashed against the run all season long. Robbins and Brown, formerly useful players, simply fell apart last season.
Jason Brown was Devaney's first free agent splash signing, the feisty and funny former Raven who was going to anchor the last great rebuilding process. But he never seemed to find his groove here, failing to put together anywhere near as complete a season in St Louis as any of the ones he had in Baltimore. The coaching staff's midseason decision to bench Brown – even as they were struggling to find five guys healthy enough to play – was a precursor to the changes to come.
The moves help clear significant cap space for the advent of free agency, but it will be interesting to watch and see whether Rams GM Les Snead jumps out with quick signings, or prefers to lay back and wait for the right guys to come to him. Billy Devaney was a big believer in the "splash" signing in the team's core positions, making obvious overtures about his seriousness by handing out high-dollar contracts early in free agency to Jacob Bell, Jason Brown and Harvey Dahl. Of those three moves, only Dahl has earned his paycheck, and only Dahl is expected to move forward with the Rams in the Jeff Fisher era.
Meanwhile, last year's biggest winner in free agency was a team that out-waited everyone: the division-stealing San Francisco 49ers. Their big impact signing was the hiring of Jim Harbaugh. The Rams are hoping their big impact signing, Fisher, has a similarly catalytic effect. But without the same stable of home-grown talent that the 49ers have, we may have to dip deeper into the free agent pool just to fill out a roster that matches Fisher's vision.
By chance, we came to an agreement that a trade between the Washington Redskins and St Louis Rams appeared to be the most likely deal when setting the table for the ThisGivenSunday Writers mock draft. This gave me, acting as the GM of the Rams, a difficult choice at the sixth pick of the draft.
Luck, Griffin, and Kalil were gone. No surprise there. Justin Blackmon and Morris Claiborne went with the next two picks, taking two favorites off our draft board. This left a difficult decision, in which any pick that filled a need seemed like a reach. In the end, I chose Memphis DT Dontari Poe, with the following logic:
I fully expect Fisher to go with a physical, 'big off the bus' player to help toughen the identity of this team. Poe has the dimensions and freakish strength/speed combination to do just that.
Presumably, though, Alabama RB Trent Richardson or Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd would have had the same effect. Both are physical marvels, ready to step in and make their presence known from day one. This is a decision that I still wrestle with. Faithful reader @ILookLikeCP3 adds an interesting wrinkle into the equation as well, suggesting that Tampa (picking at #5) might be the front-runner for the combo of Cortland Finnegan and Vincent Jackson.
If that were the case, there is a possibility that Tampa would pass on Claiborne, letting one of the draft's best talents fall to the Rams at six. Then what do you do?
Now that the question of whether we had the ability to pull off the big deal, this becomes the question that will occupy Rams fans for the next month.
Congratulations to Les Snead and the St Louis Rams. They have just won the Robert Griffin III sweepstakes. The loser? Robert Griffin III.
No matter how the deal worked out, Griffin was going to be drafted by a team that didn't need him (the Rams), or a team that wouldn't know how to use him or have weapons to support him (the Browns or Redskins). The best possible scenario, if you were Griffin, would be to somehow land in Miami, where you have a fan base starving for star power, a franchise left tackle blocking your blind side, and a ready-made superstar in Brandon Marshall to throw to. But that just wasn't going to happen, with the Dolphins fixated on Peyton Manning.
But enough weeping for Griffin, we Rams fans have a party to attend to. Quite simply, we made out like bandits.
The options available to the St Louis Rams in the 2012 draft, if they traded out of the #2 pick, were good or gooder. Take picks 6 and 39 from Washington, or 4, 22 and 37 from Cleveland? When Washington upped the ante by tossing in their 2013 and 2014 first rounders, though, that was when Cleveland backed away from the table. And when Jay Glazer spring the deal onto Twitter tonight, all hell broke loose.
Rams fans, frame this tweet. This may be a franchise-changing moment in time.
Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead was our 3rd round pick for the Rams in the NFLDW Experts Mock.
The third round of the NFL Draft Wizard experts mock opened up with a run on running backs, as these mocks often do. The third and fourth rounds of the draft have been a gold mine for NFL teams looking to bolster their backfield rotation, producing DeMarco Murray, Roy Helu Jr, Jamaal Charles, Kevin Smith, Shonn Greene, Michael Bush and Le'Ron McClain just in the last five years. Going back further, Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs and Darren Sproles were all bargain backs drafted in this pack of the draft.
As gold mines go, though, the Rams have never struck pay dirt in this one. They're rarely even dug in that direction. In fact, the team has only drafted four runners from these middle rounds in the last 30 years. The last? The eminently forgettable Lamar Gordon in 2002.
Billy Devaney was just as guilty as Jay Zygmunt and the like for ignoring this fertile ground in search of a backup or even a complement to Steven Jackson, making do with seventh round picks and undrafted players before turning to free agency. Maybe now we can fix that.
Holding the second pick of the third round, the Rams would be in a perfect position to start a run on this year's crop of runners. In this mock draft, we landed Senior Bowl MVP Isaiah Pead as a runner that can bang between the tackles and catch passes, providing a younger and healthier (but less pass-block-worthy) version of Cadillac Williams. But the group of available runners that can make an impact hardly ends with Pead.