By Howard Balzer
When Jeff Fisher was hired as head coach and Les Snead as general manager of the Rams two years ago, they owned the second overall pick in the draft and had a roster that needed a major overhaul after the team won just 15 of 80 games the previous five seasons.
Now, the Rams have won seven games in each of the last two years and enter the beginning of the draft Thursday with the final payment from the blockbuster trade they made with Washington that enabled the Redskins to move up to No. 2 overall and select quarterback Robert Griffin III. Thanks to the Redskins' 3-13 finish in 2013, the Rams again have the second pick in the first round to go with their own choice at No. 13.
Fisher and Snead have been able to build a young roster that has been competitive, but also resides in a division with three teams - Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona - that won a combined total of 35 games last season. Upward mobility doesn't come easily, and can only be achieved by hitting with their selections and then having those young players continue to improve. The team's roster has just one player, defensive end Chris Long, that came to the organization straight from college prior to 2009.
Currently, there are 24 players on the roster from the two drafts led by Snead, a total that includes nine undrafted free agents. Of that total, eight were starters last season. The 13 players that came to the team in 2012 accounted for 171 games played and 91 starts last season, while the 11 from last year totaled 145 games and 43 starts.
The extra picks enabled the Rams to take a chance on cornerback Janoris Jenkins in the second round of the 2012 draft, trade up for wide receiver Tavon Austin in the first round last year and then trade down later in the first round while still adding linebacker Alec Ogletree.
Yes, it's paramount the Rams continue hitting on their choices this week, but even more important is that a large majority of those 24 players continue to improve.
Meanwhile, as Thursday approaches, there remains the distinct possibility there will be more wheeling and dealing this year. While the first two picks overall aren't as clearly defined as they were two years ago when quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Griffin were the headliners (which is why the Rams were able to make the trade with Washington on March 12), there is still expected to be significant interest in the draft's best talent from the teams selecting after the Rams.
Once the first player is selected, whether it's by the Houston Texans or a team trading up to No. 1, the Rams' pick will be officially in play to a team yearning for a quarterback, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, wide receiver Sammy Watkins, linebacker Kahlil Mack or perhaps tackle Greg Robinson.
In a relatively quiet two months after the March 11 beginning of the league year, the Rams improved their roster with the re-signing of guard Rodger Saffold and the additions of wide receiver Kenny Britt, defensive tackle Alex Carrington and backup quarterback Shaun Hill. Britt could be the wild card. If his head is on straight and he has matured as those around him claim, Britt has the ability to make potentially more immediate impact than any receiver in the draft. That doesn't guarantee the Rams won't select one, but it could make them think twice.
Still, that leaves work to be done at tackle, where Jake Long is returning from a torn ACL, safety, where depth as well as a potential starter would be welcome, as well as cornerback. With quarterback Sam Bradford recovering from a torn ACL and with two years remaining on his contract, the Rams are also expected to add another young arm behind Bradford and Hill either in the third or fourth round, or possibly in the second if an extra No. 2 choice could be acquired as part of a trade down.
However, it's unrealistic to actually believe the Rams are targeting a quarterback with their choice at 13 despite the thick smoke being blown concerning Johnny Manziel. There's no reason to think anyone they draft will be better than Bradford.
His 90.9 passer rating last season (albeit in just seven games) was better than Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, Carson Palmer, Griffin, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco.
Additionally, a top half of the first round quarterback is expected to come in and play, not sit, considering that player will have a cap charge approaching $1.9 million, which will make that No. 13 pick ironically the 13th-highest cap number on the roster. The general consensus is that there isn't significant separation between the perceived top quarterbacks in this draft and the next tier of passers.
It wouldn't be surprising if the Rams also look to trade down from that 13th spot, especially if quarterbacks like Manziel begin sliding through the first round and teams want to move up for one.
However it plays out, the Rams should emerge from the draft fortified with another strong group of talent that will help them compete in what has developed into the toughest division in the NFL.
Howard Balzer hosts "H and Friends" Monday-Friday from 9-11 on Fox Sports 1490 The Champ. He is also a host on SiriusXM NFL Radio and one of 44 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.