Even with William Hayes, Eugene Sims back, Rams must plan for future on D-line

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In locking down defensive ends William Hayes and Eugene Sims in the opening days of free agency, the Los Angeles Rams alleviated some concerns about their once-vaunted depth in the front four.

With Hayes and Sims in the fold, Robert Quinn returning from injury, and Ethan Westbrooks and Matt Longacre coming along as developmental talents, the Rams are pretty well set at end for 2016. Inside, they have Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers with youngster Louis Trinca-Pasat still getting started. But just because the Rams have that group in place and more pressing needs at other positions -- especially on offense -- doesn't mean they shouldn't start planning for the future.

The Rams hold the No. 15 pick in this year's draft, a spot that doesn't look like it will come with a sure thing at positions like quarterback or wide receiver, where they must find ways to improve. Still, now that the first wave of free agency is over, it appears the Rams won't be adding any surefire offensive upgrades.

Sure, they might find a solid complementary piece or two during the second surge, but the type of offensive difference makers the Rams need were mostly never available on the open market (and even ones that aren't got paid like they are).

Which means the Rams might find themselves in position where, for example, they have to overdraft a quarterback in hopes they can strike early gold. Offense has to be the priority. But even if the Rams don't do it in the first round, they'd be well-served to address the defensive line with at least one of their six draft choices.

Why? Because this is a draft that looks to be loaded along the defensive line.

"That is a position where there is tremendous depth and tremendous talent," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "This is probably the best defensive line group I've ever seen in my nearly 40 years of doing this."

That might leave you thinking to yourself, 'Well, if that's the case, why not let other teams draft those guys and the Rams can get better players for positions of need?' The answer can be found in the 2014 NFL draft. It's a draft that, after one season, became known as one of the deepest and most prolific wide-receiver groups in any draft in league history.

While most of the league was finding pass catchers ranging from superstars to super productive, the Rams sat it out. They didn't draft a single wideout after taking two in each of the previous years. Here we are in 2016 and the Rams again need help at receiver.

Although that guarantees nothing about how this year's defensive line class will play, it's worth considering when looking ahead. The Rams have drafted their two best players (Donald and running back Todd Gurley) in the past two drafts at positions that weren't obvious needs. Since we're talking about defensive linemen, it's not like the Rams need their arm twisted to go after one. Last season, the Rams had five former first-round defensive linemen on their roster, four of whom they drafted themselves.

Meanwhile, Hayes will be 31 and Sims 30 when the season starts, with Quinn coming off back surgery. With Nick Fairley still exploring the free-agent market and Brockers headed for unrestricted free agency after the year, it might not be a bad idea for the Rams to get ahead of the curve at defensive tackle, either.

This year's class comes with top-end talents like Ohio State's Joey Bosa, Oregon's DeForest Buckner and Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence. There's also strong depth all the way down the board, as ESPN's Scouts Inc. has 16 defensive linemen in its top 50.

Make no mistake, the Rams have to prioritize improving their offense, but if they can find the right time and the right fit in this draft, finding the next piece (or two) in their defensive-line puzzle would go a long way toward ensuring their greatest strength remains one.