Draft, not free agency, key for Rams

ST. LOUIS -- For the next month, 32 NFL general managers and head coaches will refer to the draft as the lifeblood of any successful franchise.

They’ll step to the microphone at this month’s NFL scouting combine and espouse the need to draft and develop talent, along with many more team-building clichés. Plenty of personnel types will talk the talk. Far fewer will walk the walk.

There’s no definitive blueprint on how to build a consistently successful NFL franchise, but if there’s one trait commonly held by Super Bowl winners, it’s the ability to identify talent, procure it, coach it up and spend the money to retain it.

Upon his arrival in St. Louis two years ago, Rams general manager Les Snead and coach Jeff Fisher immediately fell in line with their NFL brethren. They’ve fielded the league’s youngest team two years in a row and allowed rookies and second-year players to take on prominent roles.

They’ve also spent some big money in free agency trying to supplement that talent. In order to be competitive, chasing those free agents was necessary. But those days should be over.

There’s nothing wrong with continuing to look for reinforcements in free agency, but the Rams’ big-spending days on any free agents but their own should be behind them. If the franchise is as close to competing as Snead, Fisher and Co. insist, the Rams shouldn’t be looking to drop major coin on any veterans.

“When I say experience, it's this group, our core, continuing to evolve,” Snead said. “Not saying we won't add any veterans, but hey, we've got a nice draft class. The way we've done this and the way our plan is, we want to take this group and let it grow together and kind of ascend that way, both big picture and experience-wise.”

Deviating from that plan is a sure way to land on the unemployment line. Previous regimes can attest to that.

After going 7-9 and coming up a game short of an NFC West title in 2010, the Rams ignored their draft-and-develop ethos and went heavy on the veterans. In a span of 10 days following the 2011 lockout, the team signed 11 free agents.

Many were aging veterans signed to one-year deals. Nearly all of them kept the Rams from retaining a younger player with more upside and kept some of the important youngsters on the roster from getting much-needed game experience.

Only guard Harvey Dahl remains on the roster, and he could become a cap casualty in the coming weeks. The Rams played a tougher schedule in 2011 and dropped to 2-14.

General manager Billy Devaney and coach Steve Spagnuolo were fired, leaving behind a roster with few usable pieces. Of course, the Rams haven’t exactly been flush with talented young players worth re-signing in the past decade, either.

As the draft misses piled up, the Rams have had only a handful of players, guys like end Chris Long and linebacker James Laurinaitis, who were even deserving of rich contract extensions.

Fisher and Snead brought with them the same draft and develop ideals Spagnuolo and Devaney had preached, and so far they have stuck to that plan.

They quickly made the bold trade with Washington that landed them additional premium draft picks, including the piece de resistance in this year’s No. 2 overall pick.

The Rams have mostly made good on those extra picks, putting in place some valuable franchise pieces such as defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, linebacker Alec Ogletree, running back Zac Stacy and receiver Tavon Austin, among others.

Two years into the rebuilding project, the draft part seems to be on course, though the development side remains to be seen. How the Rams consider that development is going might best be viewed through the lens of how they approach the upcoming free-agent period.

In 2012, the Rams doled out $106.2 million, fourth-most in the league, on 10 free agents, including $49 million in guarantees. That spree yielded high-priced additions such as cornerback Cortland Finnegan, defensive tackle Kendall Langford and center Scott Wells. It helped the Rams improve from 2-14 to 7-8-1, but that wasn’t enough to get them back to the postseason.

Last year, the Rams signed two marquee free agents -- left tackle Jake Long and tight end Jared Cook -- but forked over nearly $70 million on the two contracts, with more than $26 million guaranteed. Those additions didn’t yield any more wins, though, as the Rams went 7-9.

With the mixed results, it’s possible the Rams will create salary-cap space by cutting ties or restructuring the likes of Finnegan and Wells.

So far, the two best moves the Rams have made in free agency the past two years were signing low-cost, low-risk, high-reward defensive end William Hayes to a one-year deal in 2012, and subsequently re-signing him for three years last year.

That type of move falls in line with the successful draft-and-develop franchises around the league. Identify a young, underutilized player with upside, help him reach his potential and then sign him to a relatively cap-friendly deal.

Big free-agent spending yielding mediocre or worse results is not exclusive to the Rams. In 2011, none of the top four free-agent spenders had a winning record the following season. Last year, Miami dropped $146.1 million on free agents and improved one game from its 7-9 mark in 2012.

If the Rams truly believe in the young talent they have, they’ll begin saving their money to keep players such as defensive end Robert Quinn, Brockers, Jenkins and others around.

“Some of the strong teams, the 49ers and Seattle, were doing some of the same things we're doing here,” Snead said. “They were building that thing and they were getting a lot of good, young players and now all of a sudden over a couple three years we went from the worst division to one of the best.”

With so many high-priced players already on the roster, the margin for error in free agency and the draft is minuscule in the league’s best division. If the Rams want to keep up, the time has come to stop spending big money on outside help and start investing in themselves.