Rams face tough, Long decision

PALM BEACH, Fla. – Thinking aloud, Scott Linehan traces the edges of a picture in his mind. Marc Bulger, Torry Holt and Steven Jackson are huddling around Orlando Pace. Pace’s shoulder is blown, and faces are hanging. It’s Sept. 9 – the first game of the 2007 season, and as symbolism goes, the last, too.

“We can’t have three of our star players sitting over one of their fallen comrades – who just went in the tank – in the first game,” Linehan says now, recalling Pace’s season ending-ending torn labrum. “We had guys that were absolutely devastated when Orlando went down in the opener. We were playing good football, and that was a changing point maybe in our season.”

It’s a lasting image. Not just because it may have put a promising 2007 season on the skids, but because it could easily shape the outcome of the NFL draft later this month. With Linehan still qualifying his optimism about Pace’s return in 2008 – “Still a question mark,” the coach says – it’s a very real possibility the Rams shake up the draft and select Michigan’s Jake Long No. 2 overall as the heir-apparent at left tackle.

Of course, Linehan is doing the shuffle-the-deck routine every time he breathes a word about the upcoming draft, saying the Rams haven’t set their draft board, and that talking about the selection pool would be “educated speculation” at best. But with last season’s searing snapshot of futility in his head, Linehan and the Rams are facing a daunting reality. With Pace turning 33 this November and coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries, St. Louis’ franchise left tackle appears to be declining. And with contract extensions robbing free agency of quality tackles, the Rams could be looking at their first best chance to groom a cornerstone to replace one that appears to be crumbling.

Long is regarded as a franchise tackle. (Getty)

“With free agency and the cap, you’ve got to be smart with your chances to get the great offensive tackles,” said Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards, whose franchise still hasn’t found an adequate replacement for Willie Roaf, who retired after the 2005 season. “You ask yourself, do I think I have a good team? If I do, then I don’t think I’m going to be at the top of the draft often. And if I’m not at the top of the draft, I’m not going to get a shot at many of those 10-year starter, multiple All-Pro kind of guys. The top of the draft is where you have to get them now. You’re not getting them in free agency anymore. You’re not trading for them. You either draft them high, or you hope you get really lucky and one falls into your lap. And if that happens, you should play the lottery.”

In a nutshell, Edwards was describing the Rams. A team that has many needs, but also feels that if not for injuries last season, it would have competed for the NFC West crown. Certainly the Rams have the offensive pieces to play with anyone, trotting out talents like Jackson, Bulger and Holt – who are all near the top of their positions when healthy. That the Rams fell apart mentally when Pace went down might showcase his overriding value, and quantify just how important it is to replace a player of his caliber in a marketplace that has sucked dry the tackle position.

This time next season, St. Louis could be entering the first phases of what the Baltimore Ravens have gone through the last two years with Jonathan Ogden. While the Ravens have had time to anticipate Ogden’s departure, the best opportunities they’ve had to groom a replacement have been Adam Terry (already labeled by some in the organization as soft) and the raw-but-talented Jared Gaither. As it stands, both are worlds away from being on Ogden’s level.

Meanwhile, the Rams’ massive run of injuries last season will likely deliver them to a rare opportunity this month. Undoubtedly, the Rams could fill a pass rushing need with a player like Virginia’s Chris Long or Ohio State’s Vernon Gholston. Or they could go with the best player available and revamp the entire offensive line, plucking Jake Long and pairing him opposite Pace. That would allow the Rams to move athletic but enigmatic tackle Alex Barron to the bench (or as a last resort, try him at guard opposite free agent pickup Jacob Bell).

“If you’re going to take a tackle (at No. 2 overall), you’ve got to figure out a way to get him on the field,” Linehan said of Jake Long, who he also called “one of the best tackles I’ve ever seen.

“If that was who we picked, we would have to look at (playing him opposite Pace). That’s assuming Orlando’s ready to go (next season). That’s still a question mark, although we’re very encouraged about where Orlando’s going to be for the next year or two. … There’s no question in my mind (Long) can play either tackle spot. In fact he looks better to me – more comfortable – in his left-hand stance. He played right for two, and left for two in college.”

Interestingly, Linehan attended two pro days – seeing Long at the University of Michigan’s workouts, and then Chris Long at the University of Virginia. Clearly the organization is high on both players. But while Virginia’s Long could help fill a pass rushing need for a team that had only 4½ sacks at defensive end, newly hired director of player personnel Billy Devaney tabbed Chris Long as a more natural defender against the run.

“I don’t think (pass rushing) is his forte,” Devaney said. “He’s a tremendous rundown player. He’s an effort pass rusher. Every play, you have to block him to death and if you let up, that’s where he’s going to get his sacks from. &helip; I don’t know if there are complete guys (against the run and pass) or if there’s an every-down player who’s a top pass rusher. There are pass rush specialists and those guys will get elevated.”

Two of them – Gholston and Virginia’s Long – are expected to shape the top of the draft. But ultimately, it may be what the Rams do at No. 2 that creates the biggest ripples. Should the Miami Dolphins bypass Jake Long, St. Louis will be left with the classic need versus best player available scenario. And how that scenario shakes out will have everything to do with what Linehan remembers about that picture in his head – with his stars all gathering around an injured Pace, watching the 2007 season go south.

As Linehan said of the experience, “I think we learned a valuable lesson.”

Now the first chance to apply that lesson may be only weeks away.

Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Apr 8, 2008