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Rams Lay Foundation in the Trenches With Robinson & Donald

Posted Aug 18, 2014

Les Snead and the St. Louis Rams spent the offseason working hard to establish a foundation for future success in the trenches starting with first-round picks Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald.

The following piece was initially published in the first edition of the 2014 Rams Insider Magazine. For more stories like this, purchase a copy of the Rams Insider Magazine during any and all Rams home games at the Edward Jones Dome.

Rams General Manager Les Snead is a big fan of crafty analogies and weighty quotes.

His office is decorated in them. They are mounted in frames on his walls.

Several are scribbled in Snead’s handwriting on a grease board behind his desk, including Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “Well done is better than well said,” and another from author Steven Covey, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Snead’s mantra, “Wake up sprinting and don’t be scared,” is one that is often repeated by Rams staffers throughout the building.

So it came as no surprise that shortly after executing the team’s two first-round picks in May’s NFL Draft, the head man of the team’s personnel department developed the perfect metaphor to describe the team’s approach to the picks, ones that yielded massive offensive lineman Greg Robinson and penetrating, disruptive defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“When you lay your foundation for your skyscraper, it’s probably the least exciting thing that you do,” Snead said. “But that’s the thing that holds that skyscraper up for a lot of years.”

In the Rams’ case, the foundation is literally the front and center portion of their team on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Snead and Head Coach Jeff Fisher chose grit over glitz, and while Snead understands that the selection of big two men in the first round might not draw the same buzz that other position potentially could bring, he has strong convictions about the approach.

“We’re in an age where skill people are sexy,” Snead said. “Fantasy football is hot. Those guys are some of the nice ornaments on the building. It may not be the sexiest thing in the world, but we’re building the foundation of our building, and that foundation is what’s going to hold it up for years to come. The lines are the closest thing to the ball. Our approach to the draft was definitely a strategy that we’re going to get our foundation stronger, and I think that’s going to help us.”

As Snead, Fisher and their staffs work to build a roster that they hope will return them to the top of the NFC West and ultimately the NFL, they do so with a specific philosophy in mind. Fisher has always been point blank about what he hopes to develop in the personality of his teams. He laid it out in plain terms when he took his current job in January of 2012.

“We’re going to have a disciplined, tough, physical football team that’s going to first and foremost matchup and be able to win games in the division,” Fisher said. “It’s a team that’s going to run the football, protect the quarterback, play good defense and get the ball back.”

The formula is one that has yielded plenty of success in in the NFL in recent years. It’s the one Seattle used to win its first Super Bowl a year ago. It’s the one San Francisco has ridden to three-consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances and a narrow defeat in a Super Bowl. It’s the personality other recent champions such as Pittsburgh and the New York Giants have used to win multiple titles.

That’s why Snead pauses a little when he hears that the NFL has become a “passing league.”

“I think it’s correct to say the passing game has gotten more sophisticated,” Snead said. “We may be throwing the ball more. I think if you just throw that out as a blanket statement, it’s low-hanging fruit. When you run the ball well, it can get you in the 2nd-and-6s, the 2nd-and-4s, and at that point it’s a harder guess for the defensive coordinator. When teams find balance offensively, it seems like the defense is always playing on their heels. Coordinators and players are guessing, not sure what’s going to happen. It’s correct to say passing has gotten better, but it’s not a passing league.”

That’s why both Robinson and Donald were such good fits with St. Louis. Their strengths were exactly what Snead and Fisher look for in players at their positions, ones that are keys to being the type of team they want St. Louis to be. 

“On the offensive side of the ball, we’re going to run the ball and we’re going to run it well,” Snead said. “Any time you can get physical up front and be able to run the ball when you want to, you can close out games and open up your passing game. I think pass protection speaks for itself, not only the tackles, but with a pocket passer being able to stand up. Greg’s going to help us there.”

The Rams see Donald as a disruptive player against both the run and the pass, one that can join an already strong front that will allow St. Louis to set the tone defensively. 

“We’re going to be an aggressive defense,” Snead said. “There are a lot of ways you can disrupt rhythm and timing. We think one of the best ways to do it is with the guys that are closest to the ball. If you can disrupt rhythm and timing and cause an offense that goes down the field to shorten up their passing game, they’re not playing to their strengths. Same thing in the running game. If you’re strong up front, you can get tackles for loss. You can get into some long distance downs where you can let your pass rushers go.

A Mountain of a Man

At 6-5, 332 pounds, Robinson already looks the part. He comes with the credentials as well. In 14 games last season, Auburn coaches credited Robinson with 130 “knockdown” blocks, an average of more than nine per game as the Tigers sparred with some of the best defenses in the country. As a team, Auburn averaged an NCAA-best 328.3 yards per game on the ground, and their massive left tackle had a lot to do with that success. Robinson was named First-Team All-SEC and was a Second-Team All-American by The Associated Press.

Shortly after the Rams made Robinson the second overall pick, Fisher gushed about his massive new offensive lineman.

“You talk about an athlete,” Fisher said. “Powerful with great quickness and strength. He’s got a chance to be a dominant player inside initially.”

When a player is drafted as high as Robinson, it goes without saying that the team believes the sky is the limit, and that’s certainly the case with the Thibodaux, La. native. Robinson’s expectations are equally as high for himself, but he realizes he’s responsible for extracting the massive potential he possesses.

“I control that ceiling,” Robinson said. “It’s just how much I want to learn. It’s just as far as going into it with a positive attitude and trusting the coaches. I believe (Offensive Line) Coach Paul Boudreau has a great plan for the O-Line. It’s up to me to work hard and be the best player I can be.”

Recently, a reporter recited to Robinson a quote that former Redskins guard Russ Grimm used during his Hall of Fame induction speech. Grimm said that there was “no greater feeling in the world than moving a man from point A to point B against his will.”

Robinson wasn’t familiar with the quote, but he nodded his head in agreement. A quick YouTube search can yield plenty of evidence of Robinson enjoying Grimm’s favorite activity. Robinson is glad to play for a team that has the offensive mentality that the Rams possess.

“I love to run block because of the way it can wear down a defense,” Robinson said. “When you run the ball well, you can impose your will. This offense (with the Rams) is a lot different than what we did at Auburn but I’m excited about it.” 

After playing his collegiate career at left tackle, it’s likely that Robinson will likely begin his NFL days as a guard. The challenges of transitioning to a new position while adjusting to a completely new level of competition are ones that have tested Robinson, but he’s confident that he’ll grow into the role this summer.

"I can get my hands on them faster, so it's something that I think I can grow to like,” Robinson said. “I'm a little rusty. It's been a while since I played guard, but I’m certainly up for the challenge. I’ll do whatever it takes to help my team.”

In practice, one of Robinson’s biggest challenges may be dealing with his new teammates. When Fisher was asked on draft night if Robinson could play guard, the coach responded in the affirmative but jokingly tempered his expectations for Robinson in practice.

“He may initially have a little trouble blocking Aaron (Donald),” Fisher said.

Quick to the Punch

If Robinson does have a hard time trying to block his fellow first round pick, he’ll hardly be the only player who has experienced such troubles. You’d be hard pressed to find a guard in the Atlantic Coast Conference who did so a year ago as Donald led the nation with 28.5 tackles for loss.

If he can continue that productivity at the NFL level, Donald will fit in perfectly with his new teammates. The Rams finished third in the league in sacks last season after finishing atop the NFL standings in the category in 2012. With the addition of Donald, the Rams now have four first-round picks on the defensive line. They also have a position coach in Mike Waufle who is widely considered one of the best in the business at his craft.

With the experience and talent surrounding him at his position group, Donald knows he’ll be in a great position to succeed. Not only will he benefit from teams having to choose wisely when trying to figure out whom to double team up front due to the Rams’ depth of talent, Donald will also have a wealth of knowledge in his meeting room from which he can draw. 

“I’m real excited just to have those veteran guys like that around me,” Donald said. “I can learn from them and if I need something, anything answered that I feel like I’m struggling with, I can ask those guys and they can push me and help me to take my game to another level, so I’m real excited about it.”

Donald stands 6-1 and weighs 285 pounds, which makes him physically different from fellow Rams defensive tackles Michael Brockers (6-5, 326) and Kendall Langford (6-6, 313). Speed, quickness and technique are Donald’s tools to success, and they had Fisher raving on draft night.

“He’s way ahead in hand use on the line of scrimmage,” Fisher said. “He does an outstanding job with his hands.”

Snead even sees Donald’s physique as a benefit.

“His game is not size,” Snead said. “I think his game is speed, quickness, so I think getting bigger really doesn’t help him. One of the reasons we were fine with the pick is he’s short so he always has leverage and he’s just a strong kid.”

Donald has received strong reviews in training camp for his ability to quickly get off the ball and disrupt plays in the backfield. Donald knows he must improve daily, and the excitement of those around him is tempered by the knowledge that the Pittsburgh native has yet to take a snap in an NFL game. However, the Rams believe they have good reason to feel positive about Donald’s future. Simply put, he fits the mold and looks the part. 

“It just seems like his body mechanics, the way he bends and moves and takes steps, it’s perfectly in symmetry in what you want the ideal defensive lineman to do,” Snead said. “Make this step, take this angle, dip this shoulder, use this hand. You see some great Olympic swimmers and their lungs are in this shape, their torsos are longer, their wingspans are wider. They’re just made to swim. This guy was made to play defensive tackle."

Great Expectations

If you look at the Rams’ first-round picks over the last five years, the precedent has been set. In 2010, Sam Bradford was the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. A year later, the team’s top pick was Robert Quinn, who led the NFC with 19.0 sacks last season and is considered among the elite in the NFL at his position. The 2012 Draft yielded Michael Brockers, whom has started 28 games in two seasons and helped transform the Rams’ defensive fronts into one of the league’s best. Last year, Tavon Austin gave the Rams explosive plays and scored six touchdowns, while Alec Ogletree was a 16-game starter and the team’s leading tackler.

The bar has been set high. Robinson is expected to start from Day 1. With Langford coming off a career year in 2013, Donald may not be on the field for the first snap of every game, but he’ll see his share of action in the rotation.

Both players have extremely high expectations, but they’re realistic about what they’ll have to do to meet them.

“I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected,” Robinson said.  “I feel like you’ve just got to go along with it and you fall in place wherever you land. It’s just all about your work ethic and how hard you work.”

For Donald, it’s a simple approach. He tries to block out distractions so he can focus on his job.

“All I can do is play ball,” Donald said. “When my name is called, I’ve got to try to be productive. I’m part of a great defensive line. I’ve got great coaches. I just have to work hard and do my part when my name is call.”

Although it’s early in their rookie years, Snead likes what he sees from his “foundation pieces.” When asked about the development of Robinson and Donald, the Rams’ GM hedged his answer a bit. He referred to recent comments made by Chip Kelly in which the Eagles’ coach said he believes the NFL Draft is extremely overhyped.

Snead understands the hype and knows it’s part of what makes his job what it is. He knows the Rams must be patient, but he also knows he has reason to be excited. 

“We’re never going to take the hype of the draft away,” Snead said. “This is not a cookie cutter league. These are human beings. Each one is at different stages of their career. They don’t just come in and they’re King Kong. Every practice, they’re getting better. We’re jacked about it, but they’re not finished products yet. When they are, I think there are going to be a lot of fruits.”