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Rams Stick to the Plan

Posted Mar 8, 2011

From the moment he was named general manager on Christmas Eve 2008, Billy Devaney made it clear how he intended to rebuild the Rams.

One of the reasons he hired Steve Spagnuolo as head coach was he and Spagnuolo were on the same page as it pertains to building a team the right way.

The goal? Long term, sustainable success. In other words, no quick fixes, no selling your soul (or draft picks) in an effort to get some veteran pieces that might win you a game or two in the following season but cost you 20 somewhere down the line.

That’s why Devaney has always believed that the NFL Draft is the lifeblood of building any team. It’s a philosophy he shares with Spagnuolo. And it’s one that the pair has implemented in their two seasons working together in St. Louis.

As they took over the Rams, Devaney and Spagnuolo got to see up close what bad drafting can do to a team’s record.

“You know what, you have no prayer,” Devaney said. “Then you are trying to survive. You are signing aging veterans, paying them more than what they are really worth because you’ve got to line up with somebody. Then it starts snow balling. Fortunately, when we hired Spags we kind of said we are starting over and we are going to do it the right way, we are not going to go quick fix. But that was easy because we were so down. It wasn’t like we had to get rid of a lot of good players because there weren’t that many around. We didn’t get some veterans that may have had a year or so that may have been able to help in the short term. But we said we are starting from scratch.”

Starting from scratch meant making plenty of sacrifices in the short term with long term hopes that the strategy would pay off. It also meant going through every draft prospect with a fine tooth comb, ensuring that every player could fill a certain role, contribute and be a high character player who is a good fit in the locker room.

Devaney cultivated his draft first mentality in his formative years working with Bobby Beathard in San Diego and Washington. Through the years, he’s seen plenty of teams with the same model – Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New England and Green Bay to name a few – have a lot of success over a long period of time.

In this year’s Super Bowl alone, the Packers and Steelers both fielded starting lineups made almost exclusively from players they had drafted, developed and retained.

“Well, I think you needn’t look any further than the two Super Bowl teams – Green Bay and Pittsburgh,” Devaney said. “I think between both teams they may have four free agents on their roster. They have done a great job of drafting over the years. What that does, it creates staying power. What we want to do is build a nucleus where we become successful but it can sustain. You get young guys that can be here seven, eight, nine, 10 years and keep adding on to that nucleus rather than go quick fix and buy your way in with free agents and aging veterans. We said from the get go when Spags and I started putting this thing together that we want to do it the right way. What we meant by that is where there is staying power. We want to do this where we have successful drafts year after year after year and we get this thing up and running and it can sustain.”

Devaney remembers working with Beathard and getting a feel for how stability and sticking to a philosophy and a system can make things work. In Washington, it was Beathard with coach Joe Gibbs and owner Jack Kent Cooke.

That group kept a set system in place that revolved around putting an emphasis on the draft and sticking to what works. It resulted in a lot of wins and a pair of Super Bowl titles.

“It seemed there was a lot more stability back then, certainly with players and within organizations,” Devaney said.  “That more than anything helps an organization. If you are constantly changing coaches, changing schemes and the scouts aren’t sure from year to year what type of player to get or what system is going to be used, it’s hard to get everybody on the same page. That more than anything, if you can find the right people and stay with a system for years and years, you look at the good teams – New England, Indianapolis – there hasn’t been a lot of change there. They draft well year after year and everybody there is on the same page.”

As part of that philosophy it can mean putting a premium on draft picks, being more willing to move back to acquire those picks as opposed to surrendering them to move up a few spots to get a different player.

Because of the state of the Rams when he and Spagnuolo began putting it together, Devaney has put a premium on draft picks. That means he did what he could to accrue selections and has been reluctant to give up extra picks to move up in the draft.

“I’m philosophically not opposed to that if your team is in the right place,” Devaney said. “If you are a team starting over – picks are valuable to begin with – but especially in the situation we have the past few years, we weren’t in a position to give up picks. We were looking to hit on every one we had.”

Indeed, the Rams have not parted with picks at all in the past two years. All told, they’ve used 18 picks in that span. In the process, they haven’t made many moves in terms of moving up or down the draft order though they have swapped spots in the mid to late rounds in acquiring receivers Laurent Robinson and Mark Clayton.

That’s why, despite rumors of big draft day deals the past two years, the Rams have stood pat in trying to get impact rookies but also players with long term ability.

“If you are like we were, we were putting this thing together and one player wasn’t going to make that big of a difference for us,” Devaney said. “We are rapidly getting to the point where there might come a time where rather than signing three or four players this one guy is such an impact guy that he can make the difference for us. That’s just our philosophy.”

That thinking has led to the Rams adding some cornerstone pieces in recent years with guys like middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, quarterback Sam Bradford, a pair of talented tackles in Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold among the prized possessions to come from the past two drafts.

The draft-first philosophy also has a direct impact on the approach to free agency. It might mean making tough decisions on players who might be popular but don’t necessarily have a lot of good football left in order to make space for a young player who can develop.

And it certainly means passing on some of those high prices free agents that might cost a lot of money but not give you much on your investment. In Devaney’s time in St. Louis, any free agent additions have generally been younger players going onto their second contracts like center Jason Brown and guard Jacob Bell.

With some of the younger priority pieces in place, the Rams have been more able to supplement with veteran talent like defensive tackle Fred Robbins and linebacker Na’il Diggs last year.

Although the progress of last year’s 7-9 outing was positive to be sure, Devaney and Spagnuolo are well aware of the needs that still exist on the roster. But they remain committed to their beliefs.

“No, (I’m) not tempted,” Devaney said. “We are in this for the long haul. We want it to sustain. It’s not going to be a quick fix where maybe we make some splashy signings and it helps us win a game or two but that sets us back years two, three, four. We want this thing to keep going up every year and thriving. I think we have it going in the right direction and we have to just keep building on it.”