Making Rams roster an open proposition

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In retrospect, it’s easy for St. Louis Rams linebacker Daren Bates to call the chance he got from the team the perfect situation.

Little did Bates know that when the Rams were the only team to call and express interest in him after he went undrafted in April’s NFL draft that he was walking into a place that actually was the exact fit he’d need to make the team.

“My agent told me this is where I would be at,” Bates said. “So I that’s all I had and that’s what I took. It worked out perfectly.”

In St. Louis, your pedigree doesn’t matter as much as what happens when you step on the field. To borrow a phrase from Twitter follower @3k_, if you can play, you can stay.

So it is that the current 53-man roster has 18 players that were originally undrafted, 15 of whom were signed by the Rams coming out of college, given an opportunity and earned their way on to the roster.

In this year’s undrafted rookie class alone, the Rams kept five players -- linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong, Jonathan Stewart and Bates, defensive end Gerald Rivers and running back Benny Cunningham -- who did not hear their names called in April’s draft.

If the draft is the lifeblood of a franchise, undrafted free agency serves as the blood bank. That’s why, in the Rams’ philosophy, it’s not just general manager Les Snead and his group working hard to unearth hidden gems.

“It’s something that everybody works at, the coaches. It’s a collective effort and it starts well before the draft,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “It’s basically one of those deals where you get a sense for guys on the board and if they’re still left on the board when the draft’s over, you basically express interest and show a need and fortunately we got some quality players.”

It hasn’t always been that way around Rams Park, though. In fact, before the arrival of Fisher, Snead and vice president of football operations Kevin Demoff, the undrafted rookies were generally an afterthought.

Not that the Rams didn’t pursue them but they usually didn’t even make competitive bonus offers to go after the best options available. That has changed plenty in the past two years, and it’s a good reason why the Rams now figure to have undrafted players making major contributions for the first time since London Fletcher in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Safety Rodney McLeod went unselected in 2012, made the team and led it in special teams tackles as a rookie. Most undrafted players get their start on special teams but work their way up after. McLeod is a good example and likely to start on defense against Arizona on Sunday.

“There are Pro Bowlers that were undrafted college free agents,” Fisher said. “So, yeah, basically everybody’s doing it. You spend a lot of time on the bottom of those lists. You spend a lot of time in it, so it’s worked out good for us so far.”

The roster scouring isn’t limited to undrafted free agents, either. Offensive lineman Brandon Washington was a sixth-round pick by Philadelphia last year, didn’t make the roster and spent the 2012 season on the Rams' practice squad.

Washington proved a valuable scout team member. He clearly understood his role and the old idea that the more you can do, the more valuable you become.

“It was definitely one of those things,” Washington said. “I learned that last year on the practice squad. I kind of bumped around on practice squad and then coach Bones (special teams coach John Fassel) would come pick me up and say ‘Be my gunner or cover this guy on punt return.’ I was like, ‘What in the world?’ Me a gunner?’ But I heard that a lot, the more you could do, the better. I just looked at everything as an opportunity.”

Washington arrived in this year's training camp hoping to earn a spot at guard but plans changed when injuries hit the Rams at tackle. Without hesitation, Washington returned to his Miami (Ohio) roots and played tackle, again showing the versatility and attitude the Rams seek in young players.

After watching the Rams keep young players around him last year, Washington knew when he was told he’d have a shot to make the roster, it wasn’t just lip service.

“All the hard work you put into this thing, you try to come out here and earn a roster spot,” Washington said. “That was my No. 1 goal coming in. You can be on practice squad and then get a chance for this.”

The amount of players making the roster after going undrafted also can’t hurt the Rams in their pursuits of future player in similar predicaments.

Yes, the Rams have been a team reshaping a roster and naturally have more job openings than teams with deeper rosters, but it’s been made clear that the philosophy of keeping the best players regardless of resume isn’t going to change anytime soon.

“Beforehand, I had no idea,” Rivers said. “I just came in hoping for the best and going out there and playing hard. Coach was saying he doesn’t care who you are, (if you are) making plays, production, that is all on the field. Production equals power.”