ST. LOUIS – With two minutes, twenty-two seconds left before the Arizona Cardinals' deadline to make the 13th overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher had a lump in his throat and a sinking feeling in his gut.
Fisher, flanked by chief operating officer Kevin Demoff to his left and rookie general manager Les Snead to his right while sitting at a table in the Rams' war room Thursday night, was riding an emotional roller coaster in his first draft with the franchise. Earlier, he'd hopefully embraced scenarios that would have allowed the team to select Alabama halfback Trent Richardson (a home run) or Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon (the next-best thing) with the sixth overall pick, only to lose out on both.
In response, Fisher, Snead and Demoff had engineered a dramatic, on-the-clock trade with the Dallas Cowboys which landed the Rams a third pick in Friday's second round. Now, with the 14th pick that once belonged to the Cowboys, Fisher desperately wanted to draft the man he'd happily have selected eight picks earlier had there been no trade option: LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers.
Only the Cardinals, the Rams' NFC West rivals, stood in St. Louis' way. Would Arizona take Brockers? Would another suitor swing a trade with the Cards to nab the interior lineman, as the Jacksonville Jaguars had in landing Blackmon with the fifth pick?
Snead, relentlessly working his mental Rolodex of NFL front-office contacts, was chatting up one team's GM on the land line in front of him while reading text messages on his mobile phone. Finally, with the clock ticking, Snead got the information he'd been seeking.
"They're going offense," Snead said of Arizona. "We're good."
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Snead and Fisher bumped fists and exhaled in unison. Demoff, sipping from one of the three Diet Mountain Dew cans in his vicinity, let out a small grin.
Fisher stood up and turned to face three dozen people behind him, a collection of scouts, assistant coaches and other team employees. For a few seconds, the room was hushed.
"It's fourth-and-10," the coach finally said, "and we just got a first down, baby!"
The war room erupted. There were high-fives all around.
"Any questions, concerns about this pick?" Fisher asked.
A few people said, "No," while others shook their heads side-to-side.
"That was sweet," Fisher said. "Let's turn in the card."
More than two hours later, Fisher and Snead were still celebrating the outcome of their first draft together – and looking ahead excitedly to Friday night. With the Rams back on the clock as owners of the first pick of the second round, and owners of four of Friday's first 33 selections (33rd, 39th, 45th and 65th overall), the coach and GM believe they can come away with a slew of reinforcements for their talent-deficient roster – and, perhaps, deal down for additional picks from teams seeking to move up to the top of the second round.
Given that the Rams made the draft's biggest blockbuster deal more than a month ago, trading the No. 2 overall selection – which the Redskins used to select quarterback Robert Griffin III Thursday night – for Washington's first-round picks in 2012, '13 and '14 and its second-round selection this year, there might as well be an "Open For Business" sign outside the war room.
Inside, there's a detailed draft board that, near its upper portions, still has some enticing players available for Friday. Given that Fisher and Snead went into Thursday's first round high on the potential of numerous players they felt were likely to be available in the first half of the second round – and with clear needs at, among other positions, receiver, running back, linebacker and cornerback – picking up an additional second-round selection was a clear goal.
Yet the Rams would have been far less motivated to trade that sixth overall pick had Richardson or Blackmon been available. Despite the presence of three-time Pro Bowl halfback Steven Jackson on the roster, Fisher and Snead viewed Richardson as a potential star with rare talent and would have celebrated had he slipped to six.
At one point Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the draft began, Fisher emerged from his office at Rams Park thinking such a scenario might play out. Following the inevitable selections of Andrew Luck (Colts) and Griffin (Redskins), he believed after talking to various league sources that the Vikings would take LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne with the third pick, and the Browns would follow by selecting Blackmon. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he felt, would trade out of the fifth pick for a team seeking USC tackle Matt Kalil, leaving Richardson for the Rams.
That blew up when it was reported the Browns had traded up to swap picks with the Vikings – with the intention of taking Richardson. Blackmon, one of numerous receivers for whom the Rams staged private workouts the previous weekend, was now the best hope at No. 6.
After Cleveland took Richardson off the board, the Vikings followed by selecting Kalil, and there were fist pumps in the war room. The Rams had no interest in Kalil and were now one pick away from landing Blackmon, who'd immediately have become the most potent weapon for third-year quarterback Sam Bradford.
The Bucs, Fisher and Snead believed, weren't likely to select Blackmon. When the Rams' IT director, Bill Consoli, announced that the Jags had traded up for the fifth pick (information that was revealed in the war room minutes before television viewers received the news, as Consoli was communicating with counterparts from the league's 31 other franchises), Fisher slammed his eyeglasses onto the table and uttered a one-syllable expletive.
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It didn't take long before he rebounded emotionally, conferring with Snead and Demoff about the team's options.
That morning, the coach and general manager had pulled out game tapes on the three men they were considering selecting with the sixth pick if Richardson and Blackmon were off the board: Brockers, Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and Claiborne.
First, they'd made the philosophical decision to go with a defensive tackle over the draft's top-rated cornerback. Then, impressed by Brockers' power and relentlessness, they had reversed their earlier thought process and elevated him over Cox.
Now, they had a decision to make: Brockers, Fisher and Snead believed, might stay on the board for the next several picks, perhaps even longer. The decision was made to seek a trade, and the coach and GM each picked up the phone and tried to make it happen.
Seconds later, Demoff fielded a call from Cowboys general manager Stephen Jones, who wanted to trade up to draft Claiborne. "How are you, Stephen," Demoff said. "We're interested in doing something."
Demoff had laid the groundwork for such a discussion six hours earlier, dialing Jones and telling him, "If you want to trade up to 6, consider us. We'll be reasonable. We already got such a great deal from the Redskins [in the Griffin trade] that we won't try to screw you guys."
Now, with the Rams on the clock, Jones told Demoff he'd make the deal for Dallas' first- and second-round selections: 14th and 45th overall. The Rams' COO hung up and briefly discussed the trade with Fisher and Snead, reviewing a value chart assigning points to specific picks. Then he called Jones back and said, "Stephen, it's Kevin. Would you throw in your five? … Come on. … What will you throw in as a cherry on top?"
Um … nothing.
Demoff laughed. "Alright," he said, "we'll call you right back."
Demoff redialed Jones a minute later and told him he had a deal, making a joke about how, by trading away their second-rounder, the Cowboys were mitigating the pain of the $10 million salary-cap penalty imposed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The Rams were halfway through their allotted 10 minutes and, after Demoff called in the trade to an NFL official in New York City, Fisher pumped both fists.
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Before the trade was announced on ESPN or the NFL Network, Demoff had already fielded a congratulatory call from Eagles general manager Howie Roseman.
To make the deal a true success, Brockers had to stay on the board – and, thus, the sweating commenced. The Chiefs' selection of Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe (who the Rams had rated below Brockers and Cox) with the 11th pick didn't contribute to the stress, but when the Eagles selected Cox one pick later, the war room got very quiet.
Had Brockers come off the board next, the Rams would have tried to trade down further in the first round or, failing that, chosen between Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, Iowa offensive tackle Riley Reiff or Stanford guard David DeCastro.
Instead, they got their man, setting off a celebration that intensified when defensive line coach Mike Waufle exultantly entered the room and gained energy after Fisher dialed up Brockers to give him the news, saying, "Michael, how's it going? Here we go. You ready to rock? Coach Waufle's jumping up and down right now …"
Waufle, who spent the 2010 and '11 seasons as the Raiders' defensive line coach, had fought hard for Brockers, who he viewed as an interior pass rusher with skills similar to those of Oakland defensive tackle Tommy Kelly.
"He's a mean [expletive]," Waufle announced shortly after entering the war room, drawing laughs from everyone. "That's a good thing. That's a good thing!"
Waufle then spied the lone woman in the room, scouting assistant Debbie Pollom, and said, "Oh, hey Debbie. I'm sorry. I speak Italian."
Pollom laughed, and Waufle kept right on talking up his new tackle.
"We just got better," Waufle said. "And we just got a lot bigger. He's 21, and he looks 32. You think he's gonna be intimidated walking into the Edward Jones Dome, after playing at LSU? No chance.
"They say he's not much of a pass rusher, but we'll teach him to pass rush. Tommy Kelly wasn't either, at one time, and we taught him how to power rush. The last two years he's had more sacks [14 ½] than any defensive tackle in the league, and this kid will do the same. Tommy's tough, but this guy's nasty."
On the big-screen televisions behind Waufle, Brockers strode to the podium. When NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said to former 49ers and Lions coach Steve Mariucci, "Mooch, he's not much of a pass rusher," Waufle sneered, "Yeah – we'll see."
After Fisher back-slapped Waufle, telling him, "Merry Christmas," the head coach headed downstairs to address the media gathered in the team's press room. Demoff, who'd consume five Diet Mountain Dews by round's end ["That's nothing," he said. "Last year I went through 36 over the three days … I'm getting better …"), reviewed the events of the past several hours and said, "Sometimes things just work out."
For Fisher, who spent 16 seasons with the Tennessee Titans' organization before sitting out the 2011 campaign, and Snead, the general manager he handpicked after an exhaustive search that ended shortly after Super Bowl XLVI in February, Thursday was a successful beginning to what they believe will be a fabulous partnership.
"That's a solid start," Snead told the coach as they shook hands following Brockers' selection, and the two men were still revved up and going strong long after midnight as they reviewed the various scenarios for what should be a highly eventful Friday.
As he prepared to leave the office to catch a few hours of sleep, Fisher sat back in his chair, sipped an ice water and told Demoff, "I don't know how these things went before I got here, but that was really good."
Demoff nodded. "Very calm," he said. "Very smooth. And very cool."
Fisher smiled. "Just the way we like it," he said. "And tomorrow's gonna be a whole lot of fun."
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