Rams' margin for error in NFL draft? Zero

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Publicly, privately and every way in between, the St. Louis Rams have long targeted the 2014 season as their breakthrough year.

Since the arrival of coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead in 2012, there might as well have been an “under construction” sign hanging from the facade of Rams Park.

The first step was to rise from the dregs of the NFL and elevate from awful to mediocre, a big step around these parts. It happened right away as the Rams won 14 games the past two seasons, one shy of the 15 they won in the previous five seasons before the Fisher era began.

A jump to mediocrity isn’t the end game and it probably won’t satiate playoff-hungry fans any longer. For their part, the Rams haven’t backed down from the idea that this year is the year they grow up as evidenced by a letter from chief operating officer Kevin Demoff to season-ticket holders in their renewal packets.

"Anything short of a playoff berth in 2014 will be a disappointment, and the work towards a home playoff game in the Edward Jones Dome is well under way," Demoff wrote.

Based on what we’ve seen so far this offseason, if 2014 is indeed supposed to be the year the Rams make their leap, they have a margin for error next to zero in the NFL draft.

True to their word at the time of year when misdirection is the rule, the Rams were not active in free agency. The Rams’ only moves in the opening week of free agency were centered on retention but didn’t offer any obvious signs of improvement. They opted to re-sign linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar and benefited from the luck that allowed them to bring back offensive lineman Rodger Saffold after a bizarre turn of events in Oakland.

Aside from that, the first, most expensive wave of free agency and the second, mid-level wave came and went with barely a peep from the Rams. As those waves crashed ashore, the Rams appeared content to shop for bargains in hopes that the next Michael Bennett or Cliff Avril might fall in their lap.

Passing on the top-of-the-line, big-money free agents was the right move, especially considering the Rams’ recent history with those types. But it’s also fair to wonder why the Rams haven’t shown any interest in adding a veteran piece or two in areas of need such as the secondary.

Safety Chris Clemons, who remains on the market, or cornerback Tarell Brown, who signed a reasonable one-year deal in Oakland, looked like logical fits at manageable prices.

Instead, the Rams have spent their time hosting a variety of players with an eye toward adding depth at quarterback, on the offensive line and at defensive tackle. Those are areas of need, but it’s legitimate to ask how those moves will help close the gap with the powerhouses in the NFC West.

The answer to that question apparently comes in two forms: the Rams’ belief another year of experience for the league’s youngest team will be enough to elevate them to the next level and the opportunity to add elite talent in one of the deepest drafts in years.

“Obviously, we’re going to address it as best we can in the draft as well,” Fisher said. “You can’t overlook the fact that we’ve got some young players on this roster that are going to get opportunities to play and compete as well. ... We feel good about it. Much better than we did a few days ago, but we feel really good about it.”

The first option is pinned on Fisher and the team’s faith in its ability to develop players. On the offensive line, for example, Fisher points to the time and effort put into guys like Brandon Washington and Barrett Jones when considering how other holes, such as left guard, might be filled.

The second is far more tangible and, given the Rams’ draft capital (namely two picks in the top 13), more realistic.

The Rams have apparently embraced that idea. Even if they add a few reinforcements in free agency, and they will, the mission in the draft will be finding difference-makers who can help them close the gap on Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona now and into the future.

Despite their insistence to the contrary, the Rams do have needs, needs that can be filled in the draft, but they can’t afford to miss and move on if 2014 remains the goal.

Even if the Rams would like to trade down for more picks, the need for impact players might make it more prudent to sit at No. 2 and add the best player available.

Solidifying the offensive line with a tackle such as Auburn’s Greg Robinson or Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews would seem a priority, especially if the goal is to catch up in the NFC West. Save for the first meeting against Seattle, the most glaring difference between the Rams and their NFC West foes last year was how overmatched they were on the offensive line.

The Rams could gain picks by trading down, but every spot they move decreases the chance they land the player they value most and increases the chances of a draft whiff. At some point quality has to take precedence over quantity.

And if this is truly the year the Rams hope to take the next step, that some point should be now.